Tag Archives: marion

Assault on Mount Mitchell, 2012, Spartanburg, SC

The Assault on Mount Mitchell is hard. Insanely hard. I had forgotten how hard it was. If you want evidence, just check the results. Out of approximately 1,000 riders that started the ride, only 765 succeeded. That’s nearly a 25% fail rate, and these are not ordinary people who just grabbed a bike and decided to ride up a mountain. These are people that trained for months, focused on this one goal.

I bumped into a first-time rider at the hotel and he asked me for any tips. I said that you shouldn’t think of it as impossible. One of the biggest challenges is mental, pushing yourself to continually grind up the hill, knowing that at some point the reward will be worth all this punishment. That was good advice, but I reflected on it as those last miles slowly ticked by, as I noticed every passing tenth of a mile, reassuring myself that the end was getting closer. Hopefully I didn’t tell this guy the ride was easy, because it definitely is not. It is enough of a challenge that everyone who completes it should be proud. This is something that not everyone can do.

I was confident for this year’s Assault. I had my plan. I had put in the work. This would be my day.

The most stressful part of the ride is in the first 20 miles. That’s when all 1,000 riders converge together, mashing the pedals and all trying to get to Marion as fast as possible. Mistakes are made. People get sloppy. There will be plenty of ‘jerks,’ as Paul puts it. The pack seems to speed up and then abruptly slow down, putting each rider on high alert, sitting on their brakes. “SLOWING” is heard every minute or so. It is frustrating, but something one has to deal with in order to get an easy ride to Marion.

At mile 10, I fell victim to someone’s poor preparation. A water bottle came loose in a large pack, maybe five or six riders ahead of me. Everyone immediately slowed, swerved, and did everything possible to keep their bikes upright. The guy immediately in front of me swerved to the left of me, and then onto me. THWACK! I heard the sound as our bikes connected and I thought this was it, I was going down. Miraculously I stayed on the bike. All of us did and the pack kept going.

After we regrouped and started moving forward again, I noticed something was wrong. My left handlebar was crooked, pointing to the right and sitting a little lower. At first it seemed awkward and difficult to ride. The steering was fine. The brakes and shifters worked. I just had to keep my hand crooked to the right and lean a little differently to keep it balanced. I was able to ride through it with only minor discomfort. I chugged along.

I was feeling great early. I had missed the lead pack, but settled into one that was keeping a good enough pace. We were at 22 mph when we reached Bill’s Hill. This would be the first big challenge. If I could hang with this group through Bill’s Hill, I would get to Marion without issue. To my surprise, it didn’t seem too difficult this time. I climbed up comfortably either with or ahead of most of my pack.

I arrived in Marion at around 3:35. That was perfect, right where I wanted to be. They say that it takes as long to get from Spartanburg to Mitchell as it does from Marion to Mitchell. Last year I had made up time on the climbs, so at this point it looked like a good bet for me to break seven hours.

Unfortunately I made a crucial error at Marion. I had left some Gatorade with my wife and forgot to refill my bottles. All they had at the rest stop was water. I filled part of a bottle, figuring that would be enough to get me up Highway 80 to the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Highway 80 starts out flat with some easy rollers. It’s a gorgeous ride along Lake Tahoma, but seems like forever until the climb begins. I was still feeling fine and skipped the rest stop just before the climb. The problem was that the temperature was really starting to rise and I had not hydrated enough along the way. I was getting thirsty. Soon enough, that meant I was getting tired.

I tried to conserve water, knowing it probably wouldn’t be enough to take me through the climb. I got slower and slower. The riders that I had been with before all passed me. People behind them passed me. I was bonking. The road has markings for every half a mile remaining. At 2 miles, I began to wonder if I could continue. I had nothing. An eternity later it said 1.5 miles to go. Are you kidding me? I ran out of water with a mile to go. It was a long mile. Finally I reached the top and guzzled as much water, Gatorade and Coke as I could, while filling both bottles all the way.

The elevation on the Parkway didn’t help the temperature much. It was still warm and sunny. I could feel the heat intensely. I tried to push at a good pace and simply couldn’t keep it. More people passed me. Around midway through the parkway, after having sufficiently hydrated and fueled myself, I started to get the magic back. My pace picked up and I started passing people again.

I was thrilled to find the short, 2-mile descent. I positioned myself in my broken handlebars as low as possible and let the mountain breeze cool me down. I felt amazing when I started climbing again, like a new man. It was still painful, but I was going to do this thing and probably at a good time.

When I turned into the Mitchell State Park entrance, I thought there was a chance of me breaking seven hours. Reality struck as I noticed my speed during the steeper sections. It was in the 4-5 mph range, not fast. I grunted my way up, slowly and surely to the finish line.

I looked down to find myself covered in bugs. It looked like I was wearing black arm warmers. They were everywhere. I continued to climb, going by the restaurant and then to the final summit, just a few hundred feet.

Mitchell accomplished, again! My final time was 7:07. While I didn’t break my goal of seven hours, I beat last year’s time by nearly an hour. I’ll take that. And I’ll wait awhile before I start thinking about next year. Who am I kidding? I’m going for 6:30 next year.

Strava GPS Link


The Mitchell Plan

Last year my plan was just to complete the Assault on Mount Mitchell. This time I plan to do it faster. I finished in 8:05 last year and my first ambition was to beat that time by a mere thirty minutes. That seemed reasonable. I have since set the bar higher and am now shooting for a time somewhere around seven hours. That’s a much higher challenge and will require a plan.

I have done all of the work and all of the training. Now the outcome depends on the choices I make before and during the ride.

First, I am going to eat well. Tomorrow we’re having a Mediterranean dinner because most of those carbs are high glycemic and should be ready to burn on Monday morning. The next day we’ll be having a pasta dinner somewhere in Spartanburg. To be on the safe side, I’m going to have some ice cream on Sunday evening. Yep, I’ll be living it up this weekend.

The next decision is where to line up on Monday morning. Last year I was hesitant to jump into too fast of a pack, so I hung back a ways. That meant I was in a slower group to Marion. This year I am going to scoot my bike up a lot closer to the front and try to hang with the big dogs for awhile. There will be some separation when the hills hit, especially Bill’s Mountain, but there will be groups forming the entire way. I’ll try to hang on to whomever I can and will shamelessly try not to pull.

In total, I stopped around 20 minutes last year. It sure felt like more, but that was it. I need to cut that down drastically this year. I am hoping to only need to stop once along the way to Marion. Hopefully I can manage the way up to Mitchell with just one or two stops as well. Fortunately I have learned how to pace myself on climbs and let my heart rate go down. Rather than stop, I’ll just slow down until my mojo returns.

The problem with not stopping is I won’t be able to eat the delicious rest stop food. I learned a good bit about that from last week. I will pack some mobile food to carry with me, most of which will be Clif Mini Bars and my Hammer Gel squeezer. I’ll also carry a third water bottle in my jersey. If I have to stop along the way to Marion, it should be only to refill bottles and nothing else.

This year I have the support of my lovely wife. She’ll be waiting for me at Marion with half a Subway sandwich and a Coke. That will probably be my longest stop. There I will scarf down the sandwich and guzzle the Coke before hitting the road again.

I will carry only one full bottle up to Mitchell. Why carry extra weight when there are rest stops every few miles? If I need to top it off, I’ll stop for a refill without lingering. I remember that most of the volunteers are helpful and will refill bottles for the riders.

So far the weather looks to be gorgeous, with a low in the 60s and high in the 80s and little chance of rain. Sounds like a perfect day to ride. Hopefully I’ll make it a good one.

Tour de Lure, 2012, Marion, NC


Of all the Spring events in which I have participated, Tour de Lure may be the best measure of how one will do on Mount Mitchell. For that, I consider it an essential training ride and I’m glad to decided to give it a try.

The ride starts out of the YMCA in hilly Marion, NC, sitting at the base of the Black Mountains that shadow the town from above. For this venture we would stay away from the large mountains and instead ride around the rolling terrain of the foothills. The long route of 70 miles is difficult and has plenty of climbing, but only one real climb of length.

The rolling hills of Marion were easily the toughest. I had forgotten my Garmin (oops), but am guessing that many of the grades reached the teens. We navigated the grunt hills and steep descents out of the city and then made our way towards the western bank of the lake.

Once out of Marion, the difficult hills subsided and we were able to maintain a decent pace. I found a pack of around 15 riders to work with. There would be a little bit of separation on the hills, but for the most part we were able to stay together until the first climb.

The big climb is called Stone Mountain for unknown reasons. The Stone Mountain in NC that I am familiar with is far away. Many of the mountains in this area have cliff-like, rocky summits (most notably Chimney Rock), which may be how it earned this name.

The climb started out at a gradual grade. Someone asked me near the beginning whether we were on the climb. I was lost without my Garmin and said I wasn’t sure, but believed it was somewhere around this mileage. The road pitched up and the climb became a little more difficult. A few miles later I joked with him by saying that “I guess this is the climb!” For a category three climb, this one was mild. It reminded me a lot of Schull’s Mill Road near Boone in difficulty if not scenery. There wasn’t much to look at other than trees and there wasn’t a view at the summit. It was just a slow ride to the top and then a fast descent.

Nature called and I had to stop at the rest stop after the climb, which meant I lost my group. That turned out to be a blessing in disguise. After riding solo for awhile, I turned a corner and found myself in a mountain paradise. The route took us through the heart of the scenic towns of Bat Cave, Chimney Rock and Lake Lure. We traveled through the lake valley surrounded by these stony monoliths on all sides, with mountain-blue Lake Lure on the left side of the road and Broad River flowing over rocks on the right side. The Chimney Rock structure was the most notable and imposing of the mountain stuctures, but they were all beautiful. I found myself transfixed by the sights and almost forgot to watch the road. From here I took a couple breaks for photo ops (most of which didn’t come out well) and took my time. I was a tourist and in no hurry whatsoever.

The route circumnavigated the lake’s south shore to the glorious western shore. From here we followed Buffalo Shoals Road, a windy labyrinth that hugged the edge of the lake. There were easy rolling hills here, nothing too strenuous. The one obstacle here was gravel, lots of it. I had to be careful to ignore the lake and focus on the road to avoid the gravel, especially during the windy and downhill sections.

Next came the return route to Marion, which happened to mimic much of the Assault on Mount Mitchell route. We turned onto Bill’s Creek Road. I kept expecting to encounter Bill’s Hill, but apparently we started just north of it. That wasn’t much of a break, as there were plenty of other hills to deal with. After Bill’s area, the big hills stopped for awhile until we came within reach of Marion, when they returned tougher than ever. I remember from last year that some of them reached the 10% range. When we turned from the Mitchell route and headed back towards the YMCA, they became even steeper. The last few I just barely grunted through, and frankly, I was relieved to finally turn into the YMCA.

My finishing time was around 4:15, which is not bad considering I was nursing an injury and did not approach this one aggressively. This bodes well for my Mitchell performance, which I will talk about more in another post.

Strava GPS Link