So why build up to a big event? The first-ever mountain hill climb race I ever entered was the granddaddy of them all — Newton’s Revenge up the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire. Then when it was canceled I rode up Mount Evans in Colorado, the highest paved road in the U.S. Now one month later, I found myself in my first ever registered century ride. This was not a flat 100 miles like the Sea Gull Century but the most physically demanding one I could find — the Blue Ridge Extreme Challenge, which featured 11,000 feet of vertical climbing.
Early yesterday I went for a short ride which turned into one much longer than I planned. Just a stroll around the neighborhood and up some steep, but short, climbs, ended up as a 32-mile ride in 95° heat and 95% humidity. I was absolutely drained after that ride. I could not hear myself talk and was seeing black spots — or were they white?
I drove down to Afton Mountain Saturday afternoon to be near the start since leaving the house at 4:00 a.m. would probably in itself, wipe me out. I checked into the hotel and started reading the road rules. Problem number one: There was a five-hour cutoff to be under at mile 56 or forced to take a shorter route home. I didn’t know how that would work out.
The race promised two 10 km climbs, the first being a 10 km Category 2 climb at mile 50 and the second about 15 km Category 1. Each climb featured a 2.3 mile (4 km) 11% grade of “tantalizing joy.” Or higher — 18% on Reed’s Gap
The race went off at 7:30, actually, it was 7:33 a.m. which would become important in my final time. It was overcast and 70° – perfect riding weather. Four hundred riders started with a police escort about four miles down the mountain into Waynesboro.
We were flying down the mountain which is important for calculating average speed. Nothing like a few miles at 30 mph. I looked down and noticed I was going zero. The magnet on the front spoke had slipped up and I was torn between stopping and fixing it or just letting it go. After all, we would have the official time at the end. But I eventually pulled over, did a quick fix, fell behind a hundred riders then jumped back in with the group.
The road was flat down in the valley and we kept a good pace and went flying by Rest Stop One at 17 miles. Here we formed a group of riders who would stay together much of the day. I met Ashley Hightower, a chef from Charlottesville. Eventually, we formed up with some others including Shana Garland, a triathlete from Virginia Beach.
When we arrived at the second rest stop (Mile 29) the one port-a-john had been tipped over. But that didn’t stop a number of the men from relieving themselves right beside where the port-a-john was. Even the Tour de France fines riders for public urination and these riders simply had no class or self-respect. There were women riders in our group as well as women volunteers at the tables that were set up offering food and water to the riders.
The ride was quite enjoyable until we reached Vesuvius. By then it was raining and we began the long climb each at our own pace. Ashley had an incredible spin and quickly was gone up the hill. I went at my own pace hoping to meet them at the top. Eventually, I looked up and to my surprise was Ashley, walking. This absolutely broke my spirit. She was the strongest climber and if she was walking I had no chance. I caught her and asked if we were going to ride or walk together. She choose walk which, truth be told, was fine with me.
I had never walked on a climb before but saw a number of riders had been beaten by the mountain. We stayed together for a while then decided to climb some more. She got into her rhythm and then I cramped (quadriceps). I was done. So I walked some more before resuming.
We reached rest area number four at the top of the climb. I kiddingly asked one of the volunteers if it was 12:30, the cutoff time not to be allowed to continue. He said, “sorry, you beat it by at least an hour.” We continued.
This time it was over the Blue Ridge Parkway and our “descent” started with another climb for another half mile or so. We sort of broke apart with me bringing up the rear but once we crested I eventually was able to make my way to the front. At one point I had a car in front of me keeping me from catching the other riders but was able to pass the car and still not cross the yellow line – a rules violation.
That left me wondering if I was that good at descending or just someone willing to take foolish risks to catch up? I’m not sure. But at one point I was so far ahead of our group that I pulled over and waited for them. My thrill for the day was bombing the descents and this was a ten-mile descent. Oh how I wished the ride ended at the bottom.
While enjoying every descent you know you will pay for them later. And I did. Our sixth rest stop, at Mile 80, was at a store at the base of the climb to Wintergreen. Of course, I didn’t know what was in store for me having never ridden this route. We began together but eventually broke apart. It was a gradual climb that kept getting steeper. I went as far as my legs would allow knowing that I had been foolish for riding so far in the heat on Saturday.
The temperature in the last 20 miles had risen 14°. It had gone from 70° and cloudy to 84° and sunny. I worried about the heat but was thankful it wasn’t with us most of the day. But the humidity was draining me.
I looked up the road and could see riders starting to “paperboy” the ride (ride back and forth across the road). They were struggling. I had no energy and I dismounted. I was pushing the bike at 3 mph and noticed that the riders in front were not gaining any distance on me. I continued for a while then mounted and rode some more.
About half a mile from the top was the seventh rest stop. Here were some volunteers from the Wintergreen Fire and Rescue. One said, “grab him and I’ll take the bike.” They met me and had me sit right away. Gave me some bottled water and put some cold towels on my neck. I removed my helmet and soaked down my head too. After the forced stop of about 8-10 minutes, they gave me a push to get going again.
Someone asked me if they pulled every rider off their bike on the ascent. “No,” I stated, “probably only those who looked ready to die.”
I reached the top which is the Blue Ridge Parkway. I expected 13 miles of downhill but to my surprise, was met with another four miles of climbing. Grrr. It wasn’t steep, just unrelenting. I simply kept my pace and started clock-watching, wanting to get in under eight hours. At first I thought I could do the final 13 miles in 26 minutes (30 mph) but faced with uphills, I knew I was toast if I was to finish in less than eight hours.
Still, I hit the downhill portions and was able to roll. But I knew the last 200 yards was a 20% grade up to the finish line. And I got there a couple of minutes too late. It was 3:30 p.m. I had caught a rider, Malcolm Lively, on his descent and didn’t want to pass. So I “sat on his wheel” the last half mile and followed him around the last turn.
“Those sadistic bastards!” he yelled out to no one as he started to climb. “They just had to put this climb at the end like we haven’t suffered enough.” I agreed quietly.
As I reached the top I heard “Here is number 427, Barry Sherry, of Woodbridge.” I had finished.
At the finish line, there was pizza. While my body needed food it struggled to get a piece of cheese pizza down. I was offered a Blue Ridge Extreme beer glass from the event but turned it down. I just wanted to get out of my soaking wet clothes and go home.
Photo Credits: (1) Scenery: Barry’s cell phone; (2) Ashley Hightower and (3) Barry Sherry — Erik Irtenkauf (http://www.flickr.com/photos/12449522@N04/collections/72157601778306959/)
Epilogue: More than anything my ride in the extreme heat and humidity the day before coupled with not knowing how to properly replenish left me woefully short of energy for this challenge. My time was 8:03 (remember those three minutes at the beginning?) but 45 minutes was spent at the various rest stops. One rider finished in less than five hours and 36 did it in less than six hours. They’re animals! By my account, I was number 160 and was still ahead of 19 other riders including more than one hour ahead of five riders and three who did not finish. Although I was disappointed virtually everyone comments how few people can attempt such a feat and accomplish it. Maybe. Still, I want to do better.
About this map — This was drawn from memory on RidewithGPS.com four years after the ride and does not reflect the actual route of the day. The ride to Waynesboro and from Vesuvius to Beech Grove back to the mountain is accurate. However, we went farther into the I81 valley and actually did 100 miles on the day.