It's time for a confession. And it's a doozy. A spicy, sumptuous confession that comes right after Valentine's Day. Ok, you ready?
I LOVE CHEAHA. I love all things Cheaha. My love affair started a few years ago when I took on the Cheaha Ultra as a naive, non-climber on a tri-bike. Many things have changed since then, but my love for what I refer to as "The best ride I've ever found" remains.
So, it's time for me to give something back to the race that I've taken so much from. My gift comes in the form of a training blog that I'll be posting periodically in the lead up to Cheaha. I hope to cover topics that will make your Cheaha race day as enjoyable as possible!
My first blog is going to cover training tips. After training at Cheaha on Saturday and Sunday, I wanted to quickly jot down some pointers. Here goes...
1. Get Familiar
If you’re a believer that familiarity breeds contempt, then maybe this tip isn’t for you. But I’m a big believer in as closely simulating what I’m going to experience on race day as possible. Lucky for me (and other subscribers to my theory), there’s a training group that meets up approximately every three weeks to ride Cheaha. Having ridden with this group for the first time this weekend, I strongly recommend it! (I meant to take photos of what was a very fun group, but the weather didn't quite make for photo-friendly conditions; good thing I scheduled a photo shoot for my new fundraising campaign).
But whether you’re going to ride with the training group or not, it is important that you get familiar with Cheaha before race day. Why?
With all that said, is it possible to succeed on race day without training in Cheaha? Absolutely. Is it recommended? Not exactly.
But for those of you that can’t make it to Cheaha before race day, I will be posting a full course preview in the coming months.
2. Make the Best of What You’ve Got
As a Floridian, I don’t exactly have the privilege of majestic, mountainous topography in my backyard. While I won’t call myself a flatlander, I also won’t dispute the fact that there’s not a hill that climbs more than 300 feet anywhere nearby. I do have some decent rolling hills and I’ve found a road that stacks them in pretty rapid succession. So I train on this road a ton. It’s the best that I’ve got…without driving up to Cheaha that is. If you’ve got rolling hills like I do, really focus on pushing to your limit. We want to increase our power before race day. A good way to do so is slamming the rolling hills in your big ring and an aggressive gear.
The one thing we’ve got no shortage of in Florida is sunshine and warm temperatures. That’s obviously not the case everywhere (hello Northerners). When it’s too cold to ride and given that it’s very hard to simulate mountain climbing on an indoor trainer*, what can you do? Cross train! Get in the pool to strengthen that core. While in the pool, grab a kickboard and knock out some meters where you’re only using your legs to power you through the water. It makes a difference.
The lap pool not your thing? Run! Either outdoors or on a treadmill. Knock out a hill repeat workout 1-2 times every week and you’ll be amazed at how strong those quads and calves feel when it comes time to point your bike towards the mountains.
* Note: I don’t mean to discount the value of indoor trainer rides. In fact, I’ve got a trainer workout below that works great for Cheaha training.
3. Prepare for Punchy and Gradual
For me, the thing that makes Cheaha so challenging is that it’s got a very difficult blend of short, punchy climbs and long, gradual climbs. And on the Ultra route, they always seem to come at the most inopportune times. You can thank your sadistic race organizers for that. I digress.
If you want to have a good day in Cheaha, you’ve got to be able to power through the short, steep climbs and also grind out the long, gradual ones. I tend to believe that if you have the right wattage to manage the punchy ones, then you’ve got all you need to get through the gradual ones. With the power as your base, all you need to thrive on the long climbs is the right rhythm and the right mentality.
But the key is that base. So how can we build up our power base in between now and Cheaha? In addition to tips one and two, I’ve got a couple workouts that I really like for increasing my wattage:
Workout 1: HIIT on the Trainer
If this sounds like about the most awful thing imaginable…it is. I already despise the thought of a trainer when I’ve got all this beautiful scenery around. And I super despise the thought of high intensity interval workouts. But it’s a damn effective workout. So I do it. These are a couple HIIT trainer workouts that I’ve found to be especially beneficial.
For my money, the Interval Training Set workout is just a tad better than the Descending Interval Set workout. Both great though.
Workout 2: One On, Two Off
This ride works best on flat land where you have limited interruptions (turns, stop signs, etc.). I happen to have a perfectly flat, 32 mile bike trail 0.7 miles from my office. Perfect. By the 10 millionth time I had ridden this bike trail I started to think “Hey, maybe this could be less boring somehow”. And so I came up with a way to make it suck more. Winner, winner.
For this workout, we’re going to pick a pace that would be aggressive but very sustainable. That’s going to be your base pace for this workout. Think of it as the pace that you could comfortably ride a metric century at. For two-mile increments, you’re going to ride at this pace. Every third mile, you’re going to pick this effort up by 20%. Return to your base pace and repeat. So…you ride two miles at base, one mile at 20% above base, and so on. Repeat until you’ve completed 30 miles.
To further clarify – I generally ride this one at a little over 20mph for my base, and crank up to 24-25mph for my 20% pickup. I ride two miles at 20mph and one mile at 24ish. Repeat until my brain is fuzzy and my legs feel like concrete.
You can modify this workout to fit your current level of fitness. For example, early in the season I’ll do one on, three off. Or I’ll do one on, two off but reduce my total ride distance from 30 miles to 20 miles.
Of course, these are the workouts that I find work best for me. You may find that they don't work well for you. That doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong or that my methods are wrong, it just means that we're different people with different body types. Oh, right...we already knew that.
Anyway, I've got a couple more tips (plyo workouts & strength training) for increasing the wattage that I'll share in another post, but that'll do it for this post. If you liked it, drop me a line and let me know. If you have suggestions for future posts, let me know. If you hated it, well, you're just the worst.
Overcome. The word that I got permanently inked on my body. How I felt at many times throughout my recovery thanks to the outpouring of love and support from friends and family. How I felt when I lined up at the start line of a bike race for the first time since my injury. How I felt when I made it up the first ascent. Down the first descent. How I felt when I saw the finish line. Overcome.
Overcome was my mantra throughout my recovery, and it encompassed all things physical, emotional, and, not least of all, mental. I was determined to recover as quickly and fully as possible. To not only come back to 100% health, but to actually come back stronger. Stronger mentally. Stronger physically.
So when I was back on the bike a little over a month after what was a devastating injury, I focused on building upon the mental tenacity that has made me into the endurance athlete that I am. I tried my best to navigate the mental hurdles – of which there were many.
Getting back on the bike for the first time. Trusting that I was capable of even keeping the bike on both wheels. Using my brakes for the first time. Trusting my body and my bike to stand up and climb for the first time. Getting used to what felt like was going to be my new norm – slower, less power, less stamina. Knowing that severe accidents are very much within the realm of possible outcomes. Trying my best to not be angry or frustrated at how much I had lost, and instead celebrate how much I had already regained. But it was hard. There were days I didn’t enjoy cycling. Days that I wondered if it was worth it. Days where I so badly wished I could just flip a switch and go back to where I was before the injury.
But I stuck with it and tried to stack together good ride after good ride. Some felt better than others. Most didn’t. But I was back on the bike. And I was building each ride.
I was also building in the gym, where I was putting in two-hour sessions of strength training mixed with physical therapy. Five days a week. 5am every single morning. No damn excuses.
By week six of my recovery, I had built up to 50 miles on the bike. It was one of the least fun rides of my life. I questioned a lot of things in the wake of that ride.
By week seven, I had built up to 85 miles. Not only had I knocked out 85 miles, I actually had done so at a pace that was within 10% of what I was capable of pre-injury. This also presented lots of questions…
Chief among them – am I back? Because if I’m back, I can race again, right? And if I can race again, then I should probably fix up my wrecked bike, right? And if I get my wrecked bike fixed in time, and if I really can race again, there’s this race that I was planning on doing. I can do it, right? Hardest ride in the South. 104 miles. 11,385 feet of climbing. Physically, can I do it?
Same mountains I crashed in. Can I handle that? And there’s the hard one. The question that raises a million other questions. Can I really trust myself to descend? Can I trust my bike? What happens when I squeeze the brakes for the first time? Second time? Third? Every time? How will I feel when I ride past the place I crashed? Can I handle seeing the road sign for the hospital that I spent time at, with the mountains that I’m climbing in the background? Can I do it?
I delayed registering for as long as possible…literally until the last day that online registration was an option. I couldn’t answer those questions. Primarily the mental ones. However, I also was having a tough week physically leading up to the race. My legs felt dead from all the work to re-build and my two rides on my newly fixed up bike felt terrible. I struggled my way through 30 and 40 mile rides on mostly flat terrain. And I was also having what I’ll call compensation issues – knees hurting due to unfamiliar usage or movement to compensate for the injury.
This all weighed on me as I contemplated registering. I wish I could say that clarity came to me and that my mind settled down. That I had one ah-hah moment that made me see what I needed to see to know that I could sign up for and complete the race. But I didn’t. Ultimately, I just kind of said “F it”.
It was almost an indignant “F it”. F this injury that has defined me for the last couple months. F the impact that it’s had on my mental state – my ability to enjoy riding a bike. F being scared. F being limited. F the doctor that told me I’d never ride again. F the sadness that I would get seeing social media posts from those competing in 6 Gap. F it all.
And that’s how I ended up registered for the 6 Gap Century.
If that process sounds like madness, it’ll sound even madder when you hear a little more about the race. 6 Gap is appropriately named for six mountain passes – also known as gaps – in the Appalachian Mountains that cyclists must successfully navigate. The gaps range in length and steepness, with 2 miles being the shortest gap and with a vicious, steep 7-mile climb being the longest. At 104 miles, and with practically no flat land at any point along the course, 6 Gap isn’t just a casual ride around the block. Cyclists will have to climb for nearly an hour each time they hit one of the 7-mile gaps (there are two of them), and will have to navigate screaming descents where speeds can hit 60 mph+. Oh…and you’re going to be on your bike for anywhere between 6 and 7.5 hours.
Simply put…it’s no joke.
6 Gap is hard enough as is. It’s infinitely harder two months removed from a major injury, a major surgery, and major mental roadblocks.
I was very aware of these factors when I toed the start line. I was most aware of my own fear. I was terrified of the descents. I knew that I could will my way through the race. That I could squeeze out every last bit of energy to make sure that, physically, I was able. I was confident in that. I wasn’t confident that I would actually make it through the race though. I was just so fearful that I would wreck again.
Many times once a race starts the fears or doubts dissipate. They’re replaced by any number of things – whether it’s intense focus, eagerness, adrenaline, or even intense suffering. Unfortunately, my fears never dissipated. It was an eerie feeling. About the only way that I can describe it is the feeling that you get when you get on a roller coaster. You slowly inch your way up. Anticipation building. Fear building. You can see the top of the climb, but you can’t see where the track goes. All you know is that you’re most certainly going over the edge. That’s how I felt all day. This acute awareness that I was slowly, surely inching closer and closer to going over the edge. That every pedal stroke brought me nearer and nearer to catastrophe.
Yet, I was enjoying myself. The weather was brilliant. The feeling of being in a race again was joyous. It was the realization of the hard work and a light at the end of the dark days of rehab. The pride of knowing that my experience today was likely going to be much different, and likely much more difficult than most cyclists was a constant buoy. It was all great…minus the whole being scared for my life bit.
The first 10 miles passed with nothing of real significance happening. I was very cognizant of my pacing and really wanted to not expend too much energy too early. So my girlfriend’s final words to me before I headed off to the start line kept ringing in my head “It’s your race”.
Shortly before mile 20 we hit our first gap of the day. And I learned that 6 Gap isn’t much for wining and dining. We got right down to business. Neel’s Gap – a nearly seven-mile slog. I didn’t know how long Neel’s Gap was, or even that I was on Neel’s Gap, but I did the one thing that I always do when I climb…settle in. Get into a rhythm. High cadence. Soft and quick on the pedals. Easier said than done when you’re climbing a mountain.
I was shocked to find that I was ticking off cyclists by the dozens on Neel’s Gap. It was rare that I went more than 15 seconds without cruising by a fellow competitor. Remember: it’s your race, Jason. I kept reminding myself of that. It was very helpful for a couple reasons. First, I didn’t really care that I was passing other cyclists. In some races, I’d be very competitive and I’d make it a point to pick up places. Not this race. Second, I felt myself getting concerned by the fact that I was passing so many cyclists. The first thought was “Maybe I’m working too hard”. But I really felt strong and I felt like I was in a great rhythm so I just rolled with it. Who cares if I’m passing or being passed? I’m riding my race.
With a few miles to go in the climb a fellow cyclist that I had met at the Shelby County Grand Prix pulled up behind me. His voice boomed. “Jason! You’re hanging strong!”. He and I had connected on Facebook following the SCGP and it was nice to see someone out there that knew a little more about what I was facing. We chatted for maybe a mile, but he was climbing really well and I knew that as much as I enjoyed the company, that I would not be enjoying the back half of the race if I tried to keep up with him.
After 50 minutes of climbing, Neel’s Gap was in the books…kind of. There’s still that whole descent thing. I was dreading it. I couldn’t shake the feeling of impending doom. I tried. I called on all the mental training that I’ve done over the years. But I couldn’t shake it. As I started off on the descent, the only thing that kept me in the race was knowing that I have no other option. Knowing that the entire day was about redefining what it is that I can do. Taking back control. I had to do this.
It didn’t take long for the bike to pick up speed. After maybe a quarter of a mile I was traveling over 35 miles per hour. And I knew that I was only going to pick up more and more speed. I wanted to slow down. But I didn’t trust my brakes. I’m stuck. I finally worked up the nerve to squeeze my rear brake – the very same brake that locked up two short months ago. It was less about working up the nerve to grab the brake though, and more about losing the nerve to go careening down a mountain at 50 mph.
Ok. Brake applied. Bike slowed a little. I’m still on it. Good deal.
And this is where I thought I would clear the hurdle. I thought it would be like a football player that just needs to get hit one time before they feel like they’re in the game. Or a basketball player that makes a layup and suddenly they can’t miss from anywhere on the court. That’s not what happened though.
Towards the bottom of the descent I found myself almost pleading with the universe. “I really don’t want to do this”. I said that as I cleared a sweeping corner and saw nothing but more downhill in front of me. Just get through it, Jason. Overcome.
I reached the bottom of the descent and my confidence was at an all time low. All the questions and fears that were stirring before the race had come to life. But they’re even worse than I thought.
The doubts regarding my fitness may have been a bit exaggerated though. I crushed Neel’s Gap and I felt great [physically] by the time I hit the bottom. I didn’t know it at the time, but I averaged a wattage of 251 for Neel’s Gap. Not world class by any means, but that’s pretty damn close to the wattage that I would have pushed pre-injury.
Next up was 3-4 miles of gradual downhill with some mixed rollers before we reached Jack’s Gap. I’ve ridden Jack’s Gap more than a handful of times. Jack’s Gap actually connects to Brasstown Bald – the mountain that sent me to the hospital. Talk about eerie…riding practically right by the scene of the crime. Jack’s Gap on its own isn’t a bad climb at all. 4.2 miles with a very manageable gradient. I again rode past and away from many cyclists on this climb, en route to a solid 211 wattage.
Time to descend again. Like many climbs, the last part is the steepest. Which means that the start to the descent is the steepest. Which means uber speed. Within seconds I was ripping down the mountain at 40 miles per hour. There’s a sweeping right hand turn coming. I’m scared to touch my brakes. I’m scared to make this turn. I apply the rear brake, and it doesn’t seem to do too much. This part is in my head I think. I hear the same sound as I hear when my brakes locked up, and I feel the bike wiggle just a little. Here it comes. It’s happening again.
I let go of the brake and I hit the turn way faster than I’m comfortable with at this point. Leaning into the turn I feel the speed and the struggle to stay on my line and make it around the turn safely. My heart rate spikes. Adrenaline pumping. I feel that deep sense of fear that you’d get if you thought you were home alone and something startled you. Fear in its purest form.
I make it around the turn and use a long, straight portion of the descent to gradually bring my bike to a speed that I’m more comfortable with. Many of the cyclists that I had passed on the way up come ripping by me at 50+ mph. It’s your race, Jason.
Ok, two gaps down. Body feeling good. Mind? Eh. It’s hard to describe having this odd blend of confidence and a complete and utter lack of confidence at the same time. By the time I cleared Jack’s Gap, I knew that I was physically capable of completing this race. I’m smoking these climbs. I’ve got to be in the top 30% of cyclists competing. I’m performing well. But I’m also so incredibly unsure of myself on these descents. I’m convinced that I’m going to wreck again. That’s a hard spot to be in mentally.
As I’m trying to go through the mental manipulations, I barely even notice that we’ve now reached Unicoi Gap. I’m delighted to be climbing again. I love this. I get into my rhythm for the next 2.8 miles and crank out an average of 238 watts. After 45 miles, I’m not fading. In fact, I rode this climb better than the one previous (Jack’s Gap). I’m almost sad when Unicoi Gap comes to an end.
I’m not sad to see the descent. Once again, I’m horrified. But I hang on and make it through it.
At mile 55 we’ve made it to the proving grounds. Hogpen Gap. Equally revered and feared by many a cyclist. Seven miles of climbing with gradients that exceed 15% in some sections. That’s steep for those of you that don’t speak gradient. Like real steep.
After about a mile, I’m starting to feel the effort. I’m not spinning the pedals with quite the same ease. I’m not in my rhythm. Wait…that’s it. I’m not in my rhythm. I’m not fading, I’m just not in my rhythm. So I whip up my cadence and I settle in. I come out of the saddle at the steep parts, but I’m pleasantly surprised that they don’t feel all that steep. They look steep, but I feel powerful. I attribute it to all the strength training that I’ve done every damn day, and I give myself a pat on the back.
Further boosting my confidence is the fact that I’m riding the hardest freakin’ climb on the day better than anyone else around me. Many times when I make a pass the passee looks over with this look of bewilderment. Almost like “What the hell are you doing, dude?”. I get a lot of satisfaction out of this, even more so knowing what I’ve gone through. I let it bolster my confidence but not alter my approach. I stick to my rhythm and keep on grinding through the 45-minute long climb.
After a little over seven miles of climbing and 2,000 feet of elevation gain, I’ve made it to the top of Hogpen. It’s mile 62 of the race and I’m still feeling remarkably well. To quantify that statement, I rode Hogpen at an average wattage of 214. Again, I’m not fading.
Unfortunately, every mountain climb is accompanied by a mountain descent. I get off my bike before this descent at a rest stop. I take a few minutes to fill up my bottles, use the restroom, and get some food down, but realistically I’m doing my best to delay the inevitable. I’ve got to descend. F it. Let’s go.
I get back on the bike and I gear up for the screaming descent. I’m battling major mental demons. With about 300 feet before the descent begins I see the worst possible sign that I could imagine. It’s the road sign that shows a truck bombing down a descent with the words “Caution steep gradient”. It’s incredibly unsettling.
I can’t bring myself to actually descend. So for the first mile or so I just hug my brakes, which I know is the worst thing to do. Overheated brakes are most likely why I crashed in the first place. But I can’t bring myself to let go of the brakes. I realize that I can’t descend like this.
I bring the bike to a stop as I stare at a steep, sharp right-hand bend. I rationalize the stop by saying that I need to let my brakes cool down – which is somewhat legitimate because my rims are hot to the touch. But realistically, I stop to try to get my mind under control. Bikes go ripping by me one after another. I’m embarrassed. And envious. Why can’t I just descend like that? I start stretching almost to signify to other riders that I’ve stopped due to a cramp. I’m ashamed.
I don’t know how long I sat there. 3 minutes. 5 minutes. And despite a lot of searching, I never got what I wanted out of that pit stop. I wanted the confidence to get off this damn mountain. I didn’t get it. In fact, I may have been in an even worse mental space after the stop than before it.
Making matters worse is the fact that I know this descent. In fact, it was the last descent that I navigated successfully on my fateful ride a couple months ago. I know that there are two steep curves. I know that the road often has condensation on it. I know that keeping the bike under 50 miles per hour is difficult. I know what can happen if I crash.
Finally I get back on the bike. Because I have to do this. Overcome.
I navigate the first sweeping right-hander with little difficulty. I do a good job at keeping the bike at a manageable speed, but of course, the risk in this is that the braking that I’m doing will again cause the brakes to overheat. What other choice do I have? After about five heart pumping minutes, it’s over.
A cyclist rides by me at the bottom portion of the descent. He says “The worst of it is behind us”. I know that he’s referring to the brutal climb of Hogpen Gap, but I eagerly agree with him. Because that descent…that was the worst of it.
I’m still shocked by how well I’m performing. It’s mile 65 or so by the time we reach the bottom of Hogpen and my legs actually feel like they’ve got some life left in them. I don’t get over-exuberant though because I know that in 6-7 short miles we’ll be climbing once again.
We’re pointed at Wolf Pen Gap now – the fifth of the six gaps. Wolf Pen is another climb that I had done a couple times in training rides this summer. I remember the last time that I took on Wolf Pen. It was after two of the hardest climbs that you’ll find in the Blue Ridge Mountains – Brasstown Bald and Hogpen in the opposite direction as we climbed it in the race. I had climbed really well on that day and so I decided I was going to unleash on Wolf Pen to finish out my training ride.
The tricky thing about Wolf Pen is that there’s about a 2 mile false flat leading up to the climb, where you’re going ever so slightly uphill even though it appears to be flat. When you get to the 3.2 mile climb, you’re treated to relatively moderate gradients at the bottom. The gradients get progressively harsher though. If you go too hard on the “easy” section of the climb, you’re going to get your lunch handed to you the last third of the climb. I got my lunch handed to me on the last third of the climb during my training ride.
So when I hit Wolf Pen I remind myself to get into a rhythm that’s sustainable from bottom to top. At the same time, I’m climbing really, really well. I’m feeling the typical pains associated with climbing – burning quads, gassed calves, lungs burning – and I’m just kind of mocking them. This isn’t pain. I know pain.
I remember lying in the hospital bed post-op and trying to find a way to manage the pain. I was most successful when I visualized. I visualized a large glass jar sitting directly underneath my leg. And I imagined the pain exiting my body and entering the jar. Each time the leg would spasm or pulse and the pain became even more intense, the jar would fill up a little more quickly. I often had rehab sessions that were multi-jar sessions. Every single day, for weeks, I filled up jars. I bottled the jars and I vowed that they would become fuel for me. I was re-purposing my pain.
And I needed that fuel for Wolf Pen. We were 70 miles into the race. Over 20 miles of it were pure climbing. I needed every bit of fuel I could get.
After 24 minutes of climbing, Wolf Pen was done and dusted. 3.2 miles at an average wattage of 219. Not fading.
I again hopped off the bike to refill my bottles. Climbing heats your body temperature up substantially and I was going through fluids like crazy. Whether by consuming them or dumping them all over my head and legs. At the rest stop I overheard some cyclists talking about the last gap of the day – Woody’s Gap. I hung around for a moment thinking “Ok, cool…but tell me about this descent down Wolf Pen”.
I was somewhat confident that neither descent – Wolf Pen or Woody’s – was going to be too severe. Maybe that’s how I coped with my fear at that time. Either way, I wasn’t quite as full of dread as I was at the top of Hogpen. I knew that nothing could be worse than the Hogpen descent.
So off I went.
It didn’t take long for that sense of doom to re-emerge. And it lasted a while. Wolf Pen was a surprisingly long descent. Thankfully, the gradients were never too harsh, so I never really felt out of control or like I couldn’t bring the bike to a stop if I needed to. But I was still very, very fearful. Adding to that fear were crosses with pictures along the side of the road. I passed at least two of them on this descent. Each picture showing a man holding a bicycle. As if I wasn’t already acutely aware of my mortality.
I make it through the Wolf Pen Gap descent with no incident. One more gap to go. The legs are definitely feeling a little more worn and I’m feeling the effects of over 5 ½ hours of effort. Passing the 80-mile marker, I’m a little discouraged knowing that I’ve still got 24 miles remaining. But the distance really felt insignificant compared to what I had been through mentally. If I could have, I would have ridden 50 more miles if it meant no more descents.
But we’ve got one more climb. Thus, we’ve got one more descent. Woody’s Gap is the least significant climb of the day. Coming in at just under 2 miles and with a very friendly gradient, on paper Woody’s Gap should be easy by comparison. Granted, every climb feels much, much harder at mile 85 and after 10,000 feet of climbing.
As I approach Woody’s Gap a cyclist that I’ve been jockeying back and forth with pulls up beside me and we chat a little about the approaching climb. I hear him say 3 miles. So I prepare myself mentally for roughly 20 minutes of climbing. I’m glad I did too.
I settled into my rhythm. Once again my rhythm has me going up the gap more rapidly than surrounding cyclists. And again, this feels good. Especially this late in a race. After about 8 minutes I see what looks to be the top of the climb. Can’t be. It has to be a small downhill section before the remainder of the climb.
Nope. That was it. Kind of anticlimactic. I’ve climbed all six gaps. I average 208 watts on Woody’s Gap. Not far off the 211 watts that I rode Jack’s Gap at nearly 4 full hours earlier. Not fading.
For the next three miles or so we descend from about 3500 feet to about 1500 feet. The descent isn’t terrible but I’m battling those same mental demons. If I can just get through this descent I’m home free. But how awful would it be to have something happen on the last descent of the day? That’s exactly what happened two months ago…
Thankfully nothing does happen. And now the only thing standing between the finish line and me is 10 miles of rolling hills.
At certain points throughout the race I felt waves of emotions coming over me. I thought of how sweet this moment would be. I thought of how hard I fought to get back on the bike. To get to this race. I thought of how impossible normal tasks – like putting on socks – felt just four or five weeks ago. I thought about how scared I was and how I was staring down my fears. I thought about a lot. I felt a lot.
Whenever I reached emotional points, I tried my best to acknowledge the emotions but to quickly re-focus. Wherever I was in the race, I kept telling myself that I’ve got enough to worry about. Enough distance. Enough climbing. Enough descending.
But in these last 10 miles, when I knew – like actually knew – that the finish line was assured, I didn’t want to hold back the emotions any more. I found myself fighting off tears as I continued to push towards the finish line.
The tears were a blend of so many things that I was feeling in that moment and so many things that had built up over the two months since my injury. I can’t even try to explain the emotions. Once again, the word overcome is very appropriate.
I was almost disappointed to see the finish line come into sight. This was truly a once in a lifetime experience, and at this point, I was enjoying it. I wasn’t disappointed to see my girlfriend cheering me on though. I wish I could say that I crossed the finish line and ran over and gave her a kiss. But I didn’t. I stopped my bike and I just cried.
I had done it. I had redefined. I had redeemed. I had overcome.
So...as you may know, I had a bit of a life changing experience on Saturday 7/28. Not life changing in the sense that my mobility has been temporarily impaired, or in the sense that I'm dealing with a short-term setback. Life changing in the sense that I appreciate the perspective that this accident has brought me. That's why the word accident is in quotes in the title. It wasn't an accident. It was the universe delivering exactly what I needed at exactly the right time. With that in mind, I don't want to spend a ton of time talking about the accident itself, but since you want to know...
I wrecked descending off of Brasstown Bald. I came into a corner at a high rate of speed, but allowed my self adequate time to brake and get around the corner safely. I had safely navigated that same corner twice within 12 hours of my accident, so I knew exactly what I needed to do to get around the bend. With about 75 meters until I needed to make the turn, I started applying the brakes hoping to slow the bike down from approximately 35 mph to 18-20 mph. That didn't happen. Instead, the brakes locked up almost instantly. The bike began fishtailing and I tried desperately to bring the bike back under control. I managed to ride out one fishtail at about 30 mph, and release the brakes to stop the bike from further fishtailing. The problem is that the bike and I were now right on top of the corner, and we were still traveling at a high rate of speed. So I grabbed the brakes again. They locked up again. And this time the fishtail was too violent to manage. The bike lurched sideways and I was thrown off the bike at approximately 20 mph. Luckily, I was deep enough into the turn that the upper part of my body was launched into the dirt. The lower part of my body landed on the road, with the brunt of the impact being directly on my hip.
When I wrecked, I flagged down the first person I saw. An older couple stopped their vehicle and offered to call an ambulance. In denial, I asked if there was anyway they could just drive me and my bike back to my car. Another group of people then stopped and offered water, and a physical therapist in the group tried to help diagnose what was going on. I was scared, in pain, in shock (not actual shock) but I wasn't alone. The comfort and care that they provided to an absolute stranger was amazing. After unsuccessfully trying to lift me into the SUV - the pain was too intense - they set me down, offered comfort in the form of water and a towel, and loaded my bicycle in the back of their car. Sweet, one less thing to worry about. We tried a different method to get into the SUV, and I slowly, painfully dragged my muddy self into these complete strangers' vehicle. They took care in coming off the mountain to not turn too quickly, or to hit any bumps, and they provided water and a couple Aleve. As we were driving to my car, I started to come to grips with the fact that something was really wrong. The couple suggested going to the hospital and I conceded. They didn't just call an ambulance or drop me off at the hospital though. Instead, they drove to my car, and drove my car to the hospital. They loaded my bike up on my car and everything, and waited to make sure that I was in good hands and able to contact my family before leaving. Complete strangers that leapt into action - didn't think once about stopping to help. They didn't think about the inconvenience or liabilities associated with loading a guy and his bike in their car, and then driving that guy's car to a hospital 30 miles away. They just did what the could. They were my heroes on that day.
When I arrived at Union General Hospital in Blairsville, the severity of the accident still hadn't really set in. I attribute this largely to the level of care provided by my newfound heroes as well as the staff at the facility. Anita and Tiffiny became my new heroes. Anita took charge in managing my pain, my expectations, and was just a really steady, comforting force. Tiffiny on the other hand, initially came in to get me to fill out paperwork. Great. This is the last thing I want to deal with right now. She dropped the paperwork off, asked if I could fill it out at my convenience and left. When she came back some time later, I figured it was to hound me about the paperwork. Instead, she conveyed that she felt horrible about me being there alone, and asked what she could do to help. She made sure that I had a phone charger, she ran out to my car to get my laptop and iPad, she had security go out and ensure that my bike and car were secured, she brought me Chapstick, etc. All before I filled out a single form. It seemed like her job description shifted, and instead of being the paperwork person, she was the hospital mom. I can't express how grateful I am that she executed this job so well.
Anita and Tiffiny's care took my mind mostly off the injury. I wasn't thinking about the severity of the accident, or the long-term impact. I was comfortable that no matter what it was, that I would get the care I needed. It was only when a doctor came in post-X-rays that it started to really set in. To paraphrase, the message was: this is really bad, you're very lucky, but you may never ride again. And this is where I should have hit my low. But I didn't. I called my girlfriend, who had already developed a plan with my parents to get up to Georgia as quickly as possible, and she comforted me. Her words plus the outpouring of support from friends via text and Facebook never let me get down. Concerned? Maybe a little. But how can I fail with a support network like I have, and with strangers in this world that are heroes in hiding.
After the X-rays came back, a plan was devised. I'd be taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, GA for surgery on the hip and femur. Ok, now I'm scared. I've never had surgery and I've heard all the horror stories about surgeries gone wrong. This is bad. But this was the situation. And all I could do was attack the situation with the best mindset possible. So I tried to get myself to this space. They loaded me into the ambulance for a bumpy ride across the mountains, and Anita loaded me up with pain medicine for the journey. The EMT chatted with me in the ambulance, and I appreciated his demeanor. He wasn't talking to fill the time, or to take my mind off the pain. He was talking to me genuinely, and he became my pal for an hour. I appreciated his friendship so much in that moment. He paused our conversation when I was obviously struggling, he stopped to allow me to speak with my parents, and he just all-around cared. I was so thankful for his friendship.
I arrived at Northeast Georgia Medical Center at around 6pm. I was taken into the ER while they prepared a room, and I was struggling. I had become very nauseous from the pain medicine. I became very pale, light headed, and started to sweat profusely. The nurses calmly dialed up some anti-nausea medicine and walked through the gameplan with me. I was going to be transferred to a room when it was ready, I was going to meet with a surgeon and an anesthesiologist, and I was going into surgery as soon as possible - either tonight or tomorrow. By this point, my mom, dad, and girlfriend were only a couple hours away. Their arrival became the perfect landmark. Just keep it together until they show up, and everything will get better.
My recollection of my time in the ER room at Northeast Georgia Medical Center is quite foggy. I don't remember much from what I believe was a brief stay, but I do remember being rolled away down a bunch of hallways, an elevator, and what felt like an endless number of turns. I had made it to my hospital room. Another landmark. By this point, the anti-nausea medicine had started to kick in, and I had started to feel just a little bit more human. I was still overwhelmed by what felt like 10 people that descended on my room within minutes of my arrival. The nurse, the nurse tech, the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, etc.
Even in the moment, I found myself astounded by both how difficult these individuals' jobs are, and by how perfectly they perform their jobs. To offer someone care and comfort to the extent that they're not even worried about their pain, their injury, or their long-term status speaks to how well-suited the staff at NGMC is to offer primary care. Their ability to empathize, to be patient, to be consistent, to be caring, and to be really, really intelligent is an impressive combination. I found myself blown away by their excellence, as we talked through the next steps. I especially appreciated the surgeon's approach. Here's your situation. Here's what I'm going to do. Here's my goal - to get you back to doing what it is that you love. Here's the thing - it's going to be a long, hard road, but you're going to control your own recovery.
As the surgeon was talking to me, my family walked in. Another landmark. And man, what a major landmark. Despite all the care that the various individuals offered me throughout the day, there's nothing like a hug from mom and dad and a kiss from the girlfriend. They came at the perfect time too. The staff was gearing up to rush me into surgery, and everything felt very hectic. Add to the mix my own nervousness about surgery, and it was a very unsettling moment. It was nice having them there to talk to the surgeon with me, and to ask questions that I was either too doped up, or too dull to ask.
Everything was happening so quickly. It felt like every time a staff member left, they were replaced by a new staff member. I was trying to catch up with my family, but everything was moving quickly. They were intent on getting me into surgery as soon as possible. The surgeon felt as though it gave me the best shot at a successful surgery, and a full recovery. Before I knew it, we were on the move. I say "we", because mom, dad, and Yasmin were not going to leave my side until they had to. We got to the operating room and said our goodbyes. I was so, so thankful to have them there.
I talked very briefly with the anesthesiologist. He mentioned seeing a nasty wreck in the Tour de France due to a riders' brakes locking up. This guy understands. Comforting. He then says that he's going to hold my Adam's Apple to help put me under. I was out before he even touched me. I woke up gasping for air. I was drugged and had no idea where I was, but I remember almost yelling "Was it a successful surgery?". I asked a couple different times, as I darted my eyes around the room. I must have looked like a possessed man. I pretty quickly slumped back down into the bed and closed my eyes. I was so disoriented and so drugged. But I heard the doctors clear as day, when they said that the surgery was a success.
The next couple days were slightly less chaotic, but filled with more of the same - incredible care by the NGMC staff, heartwarming messages from friends and co-workers, unconditional love and support from mom, dad, and Yasmin, and just a general sense of comfort. Yes, there was a lot of pain, and there were some tough times, but the luxury of comfort - afforded to me by all the love and support - is so important at such a difficult time.
I don't have any concerns about making a full recovery. I know that I have the support structure to help me through this process. I always knew this, but the love and support that I've received from friends, acquaintances, and co-workers has reminded me once again of this. I'm talking about friends from Ohio that I haven't spoken to in 20 years sending me stories of cyclists that have returned to form following hip injuries. My boss checking on me daily and encouraging me to take my time in my recovery. My girlfriend being a steady source of love, compassion, and day-to-day assistance - like discarding my pee when I peed in a urinal container because it was too painful to get out of bed. My mom and dad dropping everything and not ever letting it show that they were annoyed, or worried, or anything besides loving and supportive.
I also have the benefit of perspective - a renewed sense that people are inherently good. My experience could not suggest otherwise. But beyond that - there are heroes that walk amongst us every day. They could be a complete stranger, they could be caretakers, or they could be the people that are the closest to you. Don't ever take these heroes for granted. This accident gave me that perspective, and man, that's a whole heck of a lot more important than is riding a bicycle.
biking blue ridge (4/28 & 4/29)
It started as an innocuous conversation about my birthday...
[Amazing, lovely, awesome, etc.] Girlfriend: so what do you want to do for your birthday?
Me: I want to ride my bike in the mountains.
And the plan was hatched. Kind of. Initially I was thinking that I would ride Pine Mountain. Pine Mountain, located just outside of Columbus, GA, is a short 3 hour trip from Tallahassee and features a few moderate climbs. I discovered Pine Mountain during the now defunct Wheels O' Fire century. And I immediately fell in love. The climbs aren't particularly long or particularly challenging (with the longest topping out at approximately 1.5 miles and with a 5-7% gradient) but the ride itself is incredible. You ride for miles and miles along the spine of the mountain and are treated to amazing views, fun rollers, and ultimately a really peaceful experience.
On top of just loving the ride, Pine Mountain was appealing due to the distance from Tallahassee. My girlfriend and I could reasonably work full days on Friday, take our time getting out of town, and still make it to Pine Mountain relatively early in the evening. It was also appealing due to my familiarity with the bike rides in the area. I've ridden Pine Mountain enough that I know where I'm going and know that I won't get into too much trouble. Additionally, given my point in my training Pine Mountain made tons of sense. I've just started back on the bike and haven't hardly ridden at any distance or with any elevation. Easier climbs (that's an oxymoron if I've ever seen one) align perfectly with my fitness right now.
Perfect. Pine Mountain makes all the sense in the world.
Let's go to the Blue Ridge Mountains.
For years I had heard about how good the cycling was in North Georgia, and then I started researching. In my research, I stumbled upon this little fellow known as Brasstown Bald.
"7th hardest climb in the U.S."
"Highest point in Georgia"
"...a portion of the climb known as 'The Wall', with gradients exceeding 20%"
I must meet this fellow.
And this is one of my reasons for blogging about my journey - to encourage you to do something crazy, seemingly impossible, or incredibly challenging routinely. Riding on roads in North Georgia that I've never even seen is crazy. Driving 6 hours after work to do so is crazy. The climb itself is impossible given my level of fitness coming into the weekend. Screw it. What do I have to lose from trying?
So off we went. To the Appalachians.
So the plan for Saturday, my birthday, was to get a longer ride in with tons of climbing. Check and check. I pulled up a cue sheet titled "Ride Around Brasstown" put out by a local cycling group. I had no intentions of following the cue sheet except to get from where I parked my car to Brasstown Bald. I'll be damned if I'm riding around Brasstown Bald. Nah. I'm riding up Brasstown.
Brimming with exuberance and false confidence I point my bike in the direction of Brasstown Bald. I record a video highlighting the days plan and encouraging everyone to donate of course. Said video is having difficulty uploading to this site, but may go up on my Facebook page.
At the time that I record the video I believe that I'm already on the Brasstown Bald climb. Little did I know that I was actually on the climb leading up to the climb. Ummm. What? I'm from Florida. We don't have climbs leading up to climbs. Hell, we barely have climbs. What is this nonsense?
I know that Brasstown Bald is a 3ish mile climb, but outside of that I don't really know where it starts. So when I'm suffering and when I've been climbing for about 15 minutes I'm thinking that I'm in good shape. Working hard but I can hold this pace until the end of the climb.
No problem. I reach the visitor center thinking that I've maybe got another mile or so of climbing. Sweet. Then I see this...
Problem. Big freaking problem.
At this point I realize that I haven't even started Brasstown Bald yet. I've climbed about 2 miles to get to the start of Brasstown.
I unclip and take a quick rest because I've got the perfect combination of having worked too hard too early, complete frustration at myself, and being fearful of the remainder of this ride.
But I'm still having fun. Onward.
Ok. Not having as much fun anymore. Wow. Within feet of starting the climb, the gradient has pitched up to 13%. I'm huffing and puffing within seconds. Quad sucking. Soul sucking. Welcome to Brasstown.
I plug on for maybe half a mile, which translates to about 5 minutes of climbing, before I just can't do it anymore. Patience. Take a little break, slow the heartrate down, and keep ticking off the miles. I take a few photos on my breaks (posted under Day 2).
Onward part II. Ass kicking part II. Brutal. Brasstown Bald is unrelenting. When climbing, even the slightest little bit of flattening-out goes along way. Even 15 feet at 3-4% gradient would do the trick. Let me recover. Please.
Brasstown Bald ain't having that. Unrelenting. Every turn brings a seemingly more challenging section than the last. I grind through a couple more sections with 13 and 14% gradient. And I'm done...again. Another break.
Keep plugging along, Jason. Bit by bit. One pedal stroke at a time.
Onward 3.0. 13% gradient 3.0. I make it through another tough, tough section and I'm starting to feel really close to the top. The trees are thinning out. There aren't many more points in Georgia that are taller than me right now. I've got this.
Then...The Wall. Again, I still have no idea that this is actually The Wall or where The Wall was going to come in the climb. But it comes at about the 2 mile mark, after 20 minutes of climbing. Which, given my nice preamble to the actual climb, means that it comes after about 4 miles and 40 minutes of climbing.
I see The Wall and I know I can't make it up. I don't even know if I could walk up it at this point.
I waive the white flag. That's the end of Brasstown Bald for me. Time to get some mileage in.
I start exploring and stumble onto a climb that just doesn't seem to stop ever. It's at about 6% gradient for nearly 5 miles, so I'm loving it. I ride that climb very well and, feeling mostly proud of my day, start to head back to the car.
I hit the car at 61 miles for the day and over 6,000 feet of climbing. Solid day.
The plan for day two is to get about an hour of climbing in. As I said in one of the videos, simulating the topography of France is difficult, so I need to get climbing time in. That said, I know that I worked really hard yesterday and that I don't have a ton of juice left. Oh yeah...I also need to get back home at a reasonable hour so that I can study for my last MBA exam ever, and ya know, get ready for the work week.
As I'm loading up I'm feeling the effort of yesterday. But just being in the mountains is so fun and so energizing that I'm looking forward to my ride.
Today my girlfriend makes the trek over to Hiawassee with me. Because of its great view, and because I simply can't properly describe Brasstown Bald to her, we actually drive up Brasstown before starting my ride. I show her The Wall and explain how I don't even think I have the right climbing gears on my bike to make it up the climb.
I drop her off at a coffee shop and head towards the mountains again. I'm debating on whether or not I even want to try Brasstown Bald again, or to take on one of the longer, but less challenging climbs that I discovered yesterday.
How often will I get the chance to climb Brasstown Bald? Done. Bike pointed toward the highest point in Georgia for the second day in a row.
I set out towards Brasstown Bald and it only takes one hill to remind me that my legs are trashed. The combo of trashed legs, plus riding Brasstown the day before, plus driving it this morning add up perfectly though.
Being fatigued forces me to be extremely conscious of my energy expenditure. Unlike the day before, I don't let the exuberance get the best of me. Patience.
Being familiar with the climb allows me to set landmarks, to compare how I'm feeling on Day 2 to how I was feeling on Day 1 at the same point, and to generally understand how to attack the climb.
Being a psycho leads to me making the decision to tackle the climb before Brasstown Bald plus Brasstown. I take the climb from the opposite direction as yesterday, which makes the climb a little longer but also a little more gradual. I now know this climb as Jacks Gap - a 4 mile slog at an average gradient of just under 7%.
I take Jacks Gap at a reasonable pace, placing an emphasis on not ever working too hard. My legs feel like I'm working too hard, but my breathing isn't labored, so I know that I'm not making the same mistake I made the day before.
Jacks Gap takes a lot out of me though and as Brasstown Bald comes into sight again, with its "Steep Grades Next 3 Miles" sign taunting me, I have serious doubts about my ability to even make it up the first 13% section. I tell myself that I'll just go as far as I can and turn back around.
Something weird happens though. I start the climb and all of the sudden I'm feeling great. Within 10 pedal strokes I make the decision that I'm making it to the top of this damn mountain. Today.
As opposed to yesterday, my breathing is under control. My legs aren't screaming in quite the same way. Don't get me wrong - every pedal stroke is work, and every one hurts, but not the way it did yesterday. Weird. But awesome.
I realize that I'm ready to suffer today. I knew today was going to be a suffer fest from the first pedal stroke, just due to the level of fatigue. So I've settled into that mindset. And when you settle into that mindset, man, you can move mountains...or...climb them.
Instead of trying so hard to block out all the pain and the noise and the doubt, I embrace it. Ya this is hard. Really freaking hard. But guess what? I'm just a little bit harder.
That's my mindset as I slowly but surely snake my way up the mountain. As I reach the second 13% gradient section I'm feeling the effort but I'm also feeling like I've got just enough juice to reach the top. After about 5 more minutes of climbing I hit the third 13% gradient, which happens to be right before The Wall.
The Wall. Aka the end of my climb yesterday. I prepare myself for The Wall by talking through how much it's going to suck. I want to manage my expectations. It's going to suck and it's going to take everything you've got. You're going to have to work hard as hell to get up The Wall. Is that what you're prepared to do?
And I'm glad that I prepared myself in that manner. You've already been climbing for 50 minutes. Now, empty the tank.
I've been alternating between climbing in the seated position and getting out of the saddle for the really difficult parts. As I approach The Wall I preemptively get out of the saddle. Each pedal stroke becomes harder and harder as the gradient goes from 17% to 18%. 19%. I almost tip over.
Empty the tank. I try to speed up my cadence because not doing so means I'll be tipping over. Doing so means that I'll be working harder than I already am.
20%. My breathing has become so labored that it hurts my core. I feel this deep burning pain in my lungs, my core, and of course my legs. Sweat pours out of my helmet and down my glasses. I've been on The Wall for 60 seconds already. How much longer can this last?
21%. Every pedal stroke is happening in slow motion. Everything hurts. How much longer can I sustain this?
22%. I'm not even looking up at this point. Head down and try to keep the bike moving forward. So when I hit the 22% section of the climb, I don't even realize that I've only got maybe 50 more meters of The Wall. When I do glance up and see the end in sight I start to celebrate. The pain is still there but it's washed away. I'm freaking doing this.
After 1:40 on The Wall, the climb levels out. And levels out by Brasstown Bald standards means gradients at 10%. Still really, really hard. But at this point it doesn't matter. From driving the climb that morning, I know that I only have maybe a quarter of a mile before I've done it.
So I take the last quarter of a mile to reflect on the accomplishment, to take in the sights of the Appalachians, and to remind myself of the value of taking on something impossible routinely.
After 6 miles of climbing and just under an hour, I've freaking done it!
What a moment.
I'll be routinely blogging, vlogging, and otherwise talking about my preparations. Primarily, I'll be doing so to allow contributors to follow my progress.
I'll also be doing so because I hope that the transparency throughout the process encourages someone to try something that sounds crazy, impossible, or any combination of the two. The Haute Route sounds crazy...it is crazy. Perhaps a new level of crazy for me. But I firmly believe in tackling something that sounds impossible on a routine basis.
There will be challenges throughout. There will be times where I don't think I can do it. And I want to be transparent throughout that process.
Maybe doing so helps someone in some way.
Maybe it encourages someone to do something impossible.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.