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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Assault on Mt Mitchell - 2018 edition

After "assaulting" North Carolina's Mt Mitchell a few times in the 90s (last event for me was in 2000), I thought I had put this annual challenge of the Spartanburg Freewheelers behind me.  However, a fellow cyclist from Raleigh dropped me an invitation, and it seemed like a good training opportunity for an upcoming tour in upstate NY.

Unlike 20 years ago, registration for the Assault on Mt Mitchell stayed open almost up to the day of the ride.  Interest remains strong, just not as intense as formerly, when there was about a 2 day window in January to reserve your spot before the rider limit of 1000 was reached.

My wife and I booked a room for Sunday night at one of the recommended motels in Spartanburg, and arrived in time to pick up the rider registration packet.  After checking in at the motel, assembling my bike and fastening on the usual rider number tags, I retired for what I hoped would be a restful night.  Wrong.  The fire alarm started going off about half an hour later, and those things are LOUD.  Turns out another rider two doors down had accidentally knocked something against the emergency sprinkler head in his room, and that triggered the alarm as well as unleashing a tremendous shower in his room.  The room was quickly flooded with inky, foul smelling water that began heading down the hallway.  We and other guests rounded up towels and bedding to try and dam up the water (meanwhile, it was continuing to pour out of the sprinkler head in the affected room, until it was finally shut off by the fire department crew).  We requested a new room (on the second floor; flooding was on the first), and moved all of our stuff up there before water got too far into our room.  What a way to start the Assault!

I headed out early the next morning for the 3 mile ride to the start in front of Memorial Auditorium.  It was already comfortably warm at 5:45, with promise of temperatures reaching into the 90s.  With the possibility of afternoon thunderstorms on Mt Mitchell, I carried a rain jacket and helmet cover, but all we had was a little thunder in the distance and some threatening clouds.

My preferred way to start these big events is at the back, or nearly at the back, to avoid the scrambling for position and increased risk of crashes near the front.  All intersections between Spartanburg and Marion were controlled by law enforcement, and the course was well marked, making navigation easy.

I had plans to skip all but two of the five rest stops on the way to Marion (74 miles), but necessity forced that optimistic idea to be revised.  As the day heated up, I used each rest stop as an opportunity to dump water from a full water bottle over my head.  It was a welcome, although brief respite from the heat.

The course to Marion had not changed, but it seemed like there was significantly more climbing than I remembered from 2000.  Selective memory?  Leaving Tom Johnson Camping Center for the final push to Mt Mitchell, the first 6 miles are pleasant as you roll along near Buck Creek and beside Lake Tahoma.  One might be tempted to think the worst was over.  However, upon leaving the rest stop at the Sunnyvale Baptist Church, climbing begins in earnest up Route 80 to the Blue Ridge Parkway.  Six miles of tough climbing in the heat.  Several of us played leapfrog as we alternated creeping up the hill and stopping to take breaks in some shade.  Eventually we reached the parkway and a welcome rest stop.  I knew I couldn't afford to stay long and still make the 5:30 cutoff to finish, so after the usual dousing of my head with water it was onto the Blue Ridge Parkway.  The grade is more moderate than Route 80, but it is hard to convince a tired body and mind, when all one sees are more curves and false summits.

A fast descent followed by a two mile climb to rest stop #9, and it was into Mt Mitchell State Park for the final 5 miles to the top.  Hints of leg cramps prompted me to get off and walk a few hundred feet at one point, but after a quick refreshment at the last rest stop, I was good to go for the remaining 2 miles, most of which are more gentle rolling than climbing.  The finish is always exciting, as you ride into a "chute" with a big timer on one side and a couple of professional photographers on the other.  Excellent post-ride support - changing stations, bike transport, and bus ride back to Marion along with food and drink.

I'm always impressed by the huge amount of logistics that go into making this event run smoothly.  Recommended for a real test of endurance and stamina.

Final results:
     Total Climbing: 10,357 feet
     Total Distance: 102.7 miles
     Starters: 866
     Finishers: 599
     My time: 10:39:41
     Placing: 577 overall
          32 out of 39 in 60-64 age group (60 started in this age group)