Trans North Georgia 2013 Race Report
As I sit here on my couch resting my weary legs and attempting to gain back the 5 pounds that I lost after this year’s Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Race (TNGA), I felt it would be good to capture my thoughts so that I could recollect this experience in my older days. Despite giving the race a shot back in 2010, I still considered myself a “TNGA Rookie” since I had to bail at Moccasin Creek that year, due to a nasty cold that I started the race with. The race eluded me for the next two years, and I had planned to give it another go in 2011, but the timing was such that we were hosting a big race event of our own just days after the finish. I made the smart decision and did not ride, so I could focus on my business. I did not even consider racing in 2012, however there was a yearning to be out there as I watched the little blue dots make their way across the GPS track of the route. Back in January of 2013, I saw a Facebook post about the 2013 TNGA filling up (at that time only 35 riders were allowed), so I immediately emailed my waiver without really giving any thought to training, preparation or my desire to really WANT to do the race…I just wanted the option to do it.
So there I sat on the start list, and while I had been doing more riding than usual to keep up with Ms. Lowery on our Pisgah adventures, I did not feel that I was well prepared for TNGA. My business and daughter were keeping me preoccupied, so I did not start getting my gear together until about 4 days before the race. Those who know me would say that procrastination is completely opposite of my usual heavy Type A tendencies. My longest ride of 2013 had been PMBAR at 9.5 hours, and I had not attempted a 24+ hour adventure race since the North GA Adventure Race of 2010. Was I really ready?
In the days leading up to the race, I gathered up my gear and mounted my frame bags on my bike. My weapon would be my Niner Air 9 RDO. My only concern was that the bike was brand new, and had less than 4 hours of ride time on it going into TNGA. Was my saddle and fit dialed in? Would I experience knee pain after 12 hours? Those were the types of questions that rested in the back of my mind as I tried to wrap my head around the adventure I was about to embark on.
Chris and I drove to Clayton on Friday night, taking advantage of a hotel room there to avoid the 4 am wakeup call on Saturday morning. When I arrived at the start location, I was checking out everyone else’s setup, and was torn between “I have way too much gear” and “these people are crazy going out with so little gear”. I had my weight split up between my frame bags and a pack, with the pack really only containing 80 ounces of Accelerade, a bivy sack, and rain gear. I kept it to what I felt was minimal gear for completion, but being one of the few female riders, also had some additional weight in “personal protection” in case I ran into trouble alone in the backwoods at night. Chris’s “gear” consisted of his golf clubs, as his plan was to play 18 holes and drink $6 beers at the Sky Valley clubhouse all afternoon.
The race started about 8:15 on Saturday morning and we pedaled off into the cool morning air towards Sky Valley, a re-route from previous years due to a trail closure. I played leap frog with a group of 3-4 guys for the first few hours, and was glad to have them nearby once we hit the rather confusing Sky Valley reroute. I only had maps and the cue sheets for the unfamiliar sections, and did not have a GPS device. Maybe I’m just an old school curmudgeon (GPS was never allowed in adventure racing) but I felt I could get along fine with what I had, and worst case could use the GPS in my iPhone to navigate back on course if I really had trouble. I’m pretty sure I was the only one who took this minimalist approach. As we approached the Sky Valley golf course, my turn-by-turn directions matched up with existing conditions, but those who I was riding with said we were pulling away from the GPS track, which seemed to follow a cart path. We climbed up a large hill, then swung back around and rejoined the GPS track. Once we neared the clubhouse, it was apparent that the road network shown on Google Maps did not match what was currently out there, which did not match the cue sheet, which did not match the GPS track. Bikers were seen scurrying everywhere…on roads and cart paths. I learned afterwards that Chris was on the first tee watching the whole fiasco, and hoped he could do any damage control with the locals before they called to cops and had us all arrested for trespassing. Over the fairways and through the woods, we managed to stay on the GPS track and made our way down to Kellys Creek Road. Familiar territory at last! I was with 3 others and rode with them through Dillard as we made our way over to Patterson Gap. Our small group split apart on the Patterson Gap climb, and I would ride alone for most of the remainder of the race.
I made a quick stop at the Talullah River campground to fill my camelback with water I didn’t have to treat. The one advantage of carrying a pack versus bottles was that I could ride 5-6 hours between water stops, which seemed to work out well for the first half of the race. My nutrition consisted of Larabars and an occasional gel. I tried to keep sugar down to minimum for the first 12 hours and made sure I was eating once an hour. My stomach felt good and energy levels were consistent. The weather was perfect, I was happy to be alive and really enjoying riding my bike.
The next section on into Helen had quite a few large climbs through Blue Ridge Gap, Addis Gap, and finally Trey Gap. Of all the climbs that comprise the 56,000 ft of ascent along the TNGA route, Trey Mountain takes the award for the “most interminable climb”. While not brutally steep, it just seemed to keep going and going and going….every time the terrain leveled out and I looked around the next bend for the summit, I was greeted with more climbing. When I finally reached Trey Gap, I had a quick bite to eat and began the descent towards Highway 356. This section was rerouted off of the Hickory Nut Trail, which meant that I didn’t have to experience death by a thousand briar slashings, so I was thrilled about that. The jeep road descent is rough and fun on a short ride, but beat me up pretty good with a heavier than usual pack and loaded down bike. I made my way into Helen on fast gravel and (whoo hoo!) paved roads and hit the convenience store at the intersection of Highway 356 and 75. At this point nothing was hurting too bad and my legs still had plenty of giddy-up.
This store was my only stop between Helen and Mulberry Gap – approximately 140 miles, most of which I’d be travelling through during the night. Knowing I’d need a lot of calories for the next 16 hours, I ended up spending $27 on food just in this one stop…2 tins of sardines, Fig Newtons, Junior Mints, honey roasted peanuts, water, Gatorade, Coke, peanut butter cookies, Clif bars, Cheetos, etc.. I sat down in the parking lot and had a make-shift dinner of sardines and Cheetos. It was amazing. Chris was there and snapped some photos of me feasting on my convenience store vittles. It was just after 6 pm – I was two hours ahead of schedule and only four of us had made it to Helen thus far. I was actually looking forward to the next section, despite the climbing. Lots of pavement and generally east-to-west travel meant I would be covering some miles quickly.
The Hogpen and Wolfpen climbs were quite pleasant due to the presence of asphalt versus gravel, and I didn’t need to break out the lights until I began the Wolfpen Climb. I was using a Lupine Head Light, which was perfect with its super bright beam only on medium power and long battery life. Duncan Ridge was fast and rolling and I made a quick stop at Mulkey Campground to fill up on water. The next miles towards Shallowford Bridge were uneventful with the exception of three rowdy Jeeps burning rubber past me on Highway 60. Can I get a Yee-haw?
I had initially been worried about the solo night time travel which was pretty irrational considering the only creatures I saw (other than the Hwy 60 rednecks) were a group of raccoons along the Stanley Gap Trail. After a couple hours of riding in the dark, combined with the “artificial sun” that I donned on my helmet, these fears quickly went away as I made my way through the night. After crossing Shallowford Bridge, I encountered the Green Mountain and Stanley Gap singletrack. Both trails are tough on a short, daytime ride. I made the decision ahead of time to just hike the steep parts, and it actually worked out really well. Not only did it save me energy, but it allowed me to get off the saddle and give my sit bones some reprieve.
It was along Stanley Gap that I had my first and only wildlife encounter – a pack of ornery looking raccoons that looked pissed off that I was shining my bright light on them. They all started scurrying around climbing up trees and jumping across the trail from tree to tree. I had this vision that one would jump on my back and gnaw through my headlamp cable as I pushed by, but thankfully I was spared. Not shortly after, I had the misfortune of my only crash, on an uphill section of all places. I hit a rock unexpectedly and came to an abrupt stop, lost balance and toppled over to the downhill side of the trail. I reached out, trying to grab anything to stop my fall, managing to grasp a 1” sapling that easily bent over as I landed on a large rotten log, still clipped into my bike. So there I was, in one of those tangled up heaps where you hope you can pull it together before someone else comes along and sees you lying there looking ridiculous. I managed to unclip and untangle without cramping up, which was definitely a plus. After a little bit more riding and a bit more pushing, I was finally at the top of the Stanley Gap trail. At this point it was around 2 am.
One of my strengths is that I am a horrible sleeper, requiring complete silence and absolute darkness to fall asleep at night. This translates well into over-night racing, as it allows me to stay awake while others tend to nod off. The downside is that our natural reaction to sleep deprivation is to put the body on “emergency back-up power” which means certain functions will get sacrificed in order to keep the rest of the body moving. On this night, it was balance that was sacrificed, and as such, I had a hard time making my way down the moderate Stanley Gap singletrack. When I hit the parking lot I was elated to be in once piece. Chris had parked there and was sleeping in the car. After a quick tap on the window to let him know I was still alive, I sat down and feasted on my second tin of sardines, Coke and the rest of the Cheetos. After about 10 minutes, a fellow racer named Barnabas came down from Stanley Gap. He stopped for a minute to chat, then headed off in search of water. I still had half a camelback from my last fill, so I figured I’d be good until the Jacks River/South Fork area. In hindsight, I should have identified a church or fire station along the way through Cherry Log where I could have filled up with untreated water from a hose spigot. I started to get a little drowsy after my meal, so that meant I needed to get rolling.
I made my way through the roads of Cherry Log – another uneventful section, but some nice fast paved miles and one evil Brushy Head Gap. My legs were still working reasonably well, so the climbing was not as arduous as I envisioned it being. Seemed after a while my body was on auto-pilot…eat, drink, and pedal. Watson Gap was a nice little grunt followed by a fast descent to Jacks River. Next up was South Fork and what I’ll refer to as Pinhoti Zero. South Fork/Pinhoti Zero also gets an award – this time for being the downright shittiest section of trail along the entire route. It was terribly torn up and muddy from horses and added nothing but a few extra miles and loads of aggravation to the route. This trail was so bad, they may as well give it exclusively to the horse folks or let the forest reclaim it. The only upside was a large creek crossing, which made for an easy water fill, despite it probably being loaded with horse poop.
I was thankful to be done with this section – an hour and a half of my life wasted that I won’t ever get back. I was so thankful to be out of the mud and back on FS roads, that the Three Forks and Betty Gap climbs didn’t bother me. I had the bonus of being greeted with a sunrise over Potato Patch Mountain, which was very pretty and lifted my spirits. By this time my sit bones were starting to get pretty sore, wet feet for almost 24 hours had blessed me with some nice trench-foot, and my back was starting to tire from the added weight of the pack. My balance was still pretty off, so the Bear Creek, Pinhoti 1 and Pinhoti 2 singletrack sections were more challenging and much slower than usual. As I hit Mulberry Gap Road, I could smell the barn, but why the hell does it have to be at the top of such a steep hill? The grunty climb up to the barn at Mulberry Gap was a kick in the sore ass. Next year they need to offer a shuttle service up that darn hill!
Once there I feasted on waffles, eggs, sweet tea, coke and Ibuprofen. I took off my wet socks and chamois and laid them in the sun to dry. Thankfully the fine folks at Mulberry Gap found me a towel so I didn’t have to walk around naked from the waist down. ..but I most certainly would have, just to get some air flowing in the very abused nether regions. I plugged my light batteries in to charge, bought some to-go food from Mulberry Gap, and took advantage of the comfort of a toilet that flushed AND had toilet paper. I learned I was the second rider to arrive, with Barnabas rolling in about 15 minutes after me. Crazy that I hadn't seen him since Stanley Gap. I had a dry pair of socks that I had packed and I put them on, and re-applied Corona ointment to my chamois. The combination of full belly and semi-dry gear helped lift my spirits as I set off towards Dalton after about an hour stop.
Pinhoti 3 and 4 went better than expected, and I was able to ride most of it. Pinhoti 5 felt inordinately rough, but I later realized it was because my shock was locked out. There were several water crossings at the end of Pinhoti 5, and despite my best efforts to keep my fresh socks dry, they got wet. The Peeples Lake area was one steep roller after another. I was relieved when I finally hit the downhill and could cruise easily into Ramhurst. The next road section was hot and exposed, and my sore feet felt like they were on fire in my shoes. A few miles along the road I saw Chris parked with his camera out as I rode by. I didn’t expect to see him again until our “yes-I’m-still-alive check” at Snake Creek Gap but I was sure glad he was there. The last 5 miles into Dalton were horrific due to the high volume of Sunday afternoon traffic. I was alone and felt extremely vulnerable and at the mercy of those whizzing by me on what was a six-lane section of highway. I generally won’t ride in heavy traffic conditions because I don’t trust motorists to pay attention, and my general faith in humanity is not very high. I was a bundle of nerves and I think Chris sensed it too, as he tailed me through this section, providing a two-ton barrier between me and the other motorists on the road. I stopped at Wendys as I rode through Dalton, ordering a frosty and 4 Jr. Cheeseburgers - one that I ate there and three for the road. I applied more Corona ointment to my chamois and also to my burning feet, and it seemed to take the edge off and bring the suffering down to a tolerable level. I packed up and headed out for the dreaded Snake…
Oddly enough, I felt safe again once I reached the Pinhoti Trail at the top of the mountain. No more cars flying by at 55+ mph – I’d rather take my chances on the Snake. Bonus was that I still had plenty of daylight left. The first 4 rocky miles were extremely overgrown to the point that I couldn’t see the rocks. This made for a lot of hike-a-bike, but it was a welcome relief since it gave the sit bones a rest and meant I wasn’t likely to have a race-ending crash. I’m a self-proclaimed hike-a-bike ninja, so I figured I wasn’t losing too much time. The upside was that this entire section was nice and dry…downside was that the creeks I intended to use as a water source were really low and difficult to scoop water from. The next miles to Snake Creek Gap were more rideable and I made decent time for someone who had been on the bike for 30+ hours – 3 hours for the first 16 mile section. It was 6:30 pm when I arrived at Hwy 136, and time to quickly devour one of my cheeseburgers. I was able to make it through most of the next section before dark and made it up the gravel road climb before needing my light. The following descent was pretty fun, thanks to the brightness of my light. At this point, any time I could get my sore butt off the saddle was a relief. The only problem was that my legs would tire pretty quickly on the rough descents, leaving me begging to sit down, only to repeat the cycle over and over. I topped off water at Dry Creek (oddly, the only creek that wasn’t dry) and managed to ride through keeping my feet mostly dry. I made it to East Armurchee Road by 9:40 pm.
This was where I had my low point of the race. I was worried about this final 40 miles, due to the fact that I was alone, it would be dark, and it was unfamiliar territory. I had expected to see Chris at East Armurchee Road for another safety check, but when I arrived, he was not there. I called his cell – no response. I called Mulberry Gap and they confirmed that he had left and should have been there by now. I sent him emails and text messages. I was going into my second night of sleep deprivation, and was feeling scared about what lay ahead. I was worried Chris had an accident on the way over to see me and I did not want to set off on the next section without knowing he was ok and him knowing that I was ok. My spot was tracking only intermittently, so I think my last known location was in Dalton. I was on the side of a dark road, in the middle of nowhere, and was an emotional rollercoaster. I felt vulnerable and exposed, and was wary of those who stopped to ask if I was ok. I know I should not stereotype, but seeing two shirtless guys in a pickup truck on the back roads of Villanow at 10 pm wasn’t giving me the warm fuzzies. I didn’t know what else to do other than wait, eat another cheeseburger and call my mom, looking for some reassurance and strength. I even posted on Facebook looking for someone local who wanted to just tail me through the last three ridgelines for safety. I was feeling desperate. Where was Barnabas? Was he still close behind? I had hoped to hear the familiar roar of my car engine as I would see headlights approaching from down the road. That car never came, but I did finally get a call from Chris telling me he was at West Armurchee Road. Relieved to hear from him, but still an emotional rollercoaster, I struggled with the decision to keep moving…not due to fatigue, but my own irrational fear that had taken ahold of me.
I finally pulled it together and got moving again. I think this pity party cost me about an hour when all was said and done. I’m a little disappointed in how I reacted, but I’ll blame those weak moments on sleep deprivation and exhaustion. I started up the dreaded Strawberry Mountain section, which quickly turned into a hike-a-bike. I only vaguely remembered this section from one ride with Carey and Zeke, and what I remembered was jumbled and confusing. After crossing a paved road and ascending some rotten switchbacks, the Pinhoti blazes seemed to end abruptly. I saw a faint trail to the left that appeared overgrown, and a dozer line that went straight up the mountain. I began to push my bike up the dozer line since I knew the trail followed the ridge for the most part and was trying to remember what I did here when I rode with Carey. I couldn’t remember for the life of me and kept pushing upward. Just then I saw the light…not God shining down on me, but the light of Chris’s cell phone, which he had used to run the trail in reverse. Only someone crazier than I would run that trail in the dark with only a cellphone for light. He was standing on the Pinhoti Trail just above me and had just run over three miles uphill in the time I had gone about 2 miles. The remaining 3.5 miles of this section consisted of some rocky singletrack and mostly grass track. Thankfully someone had bushhogged the old roadbed this season, so there was a swath to ride in where the grass was only knee high, as opposed to shoulder high, which was what I had remembered. I was nearly eaten by a hidden mud hole once, but overall the descent was fairly forgiving and clear of briars. Crazy Chris made it back down while I was still fumbling with my cue sheets – and he was on foot!
I stood on the side of the road sizing up the next section that headed out of the Narrows Picnic area. The irrational fear of the dark and unknown was gone and now I was just focused on the reaching the end. I was not drowsy and had a git-R-done attitude. The section out of the Narrows started with another climb-turned-hike-a-bike, but again, I was glad to be off my saddle and still making forward progress. When I finally hit the top of the ridge, I was greeted with what felt like the most serpentine and never ending piece of singletrack/doubletrack/grasstrack that there ever was. A positive was that it was well marked with Pinhoti markers, and anytime I had doubts about being on the right trail, I usually saw a marker that reassured me. The descents were fun, but were riddled with spider webs and huge spiders. I had to duck and dodge as I made my way through. I kept moving forward, knowing that I’d get there eventually. My first light battery died and I needed to swap it out with the second one I had. Pitch. Black. Darkness. I had wished now that I had a GPS, if only to answer the “Are we there yet?” question. After countless ups and downs the trail finally popped out at US 27. One final ridgeline to go.
After the initial steep gravel road ascent, this final ridgeline was probably the best piece of riding along the entire course. Real. Pure. Singletrack. With spiders…lots and lots of crunchy spiders. Thankfully I was not suffering from the previous night’s lack of balance and was carving through the mostly smooth singletrack with relative grace, while dodging banana spiders left and right. My spirits were high, sensing the end being near, but my ass was killing me such that any extended climbing or seated periods on the bike were torture. Though about equal in length, this section seemed to go by much faster than the previous ridgeline. The final descent would have been pure bliss on any normal ride, but the steep sections coupled with death-fall potential near the top made me stop and walk a couple of sections. I would definitely go back to ride this section, but I’d make sure someone faster went with me to take care of all the spider webs. When I hit the High Point parking lot I thought I was home free. 13 miles to go. Road and rail trail. Less than an hour and it would be nighty-night time…or so I thought.
When I started the initial road section on Highway 100, I immediately was chilled but figured the cold would keep me awake and take my mind off how bad my butt was hurting. Then I hit the Pinhoti rail-trail off Starling Mill Road. NOT what I expected, in fact, at the time I was wishing a slow and painful death upon whomever devised this evil piece of trail when there was a perfectly suitable highway only 100 feet away. This section gets the award for “longest 7 miles”. Though it was flat, it was overgrown with wet, overhanging foliage and thorns, washed out in areas, bumpy gravel in areas, and I still had to dodge a fair amount of spiders. At times the cue sheet was confusing and my cognitive abilities were starting to really suffer. Though I couldn’t see it, I could hear the familiar rumble of my car engine as Chris made his way towards the Alabama State line. I saw him at one of the cross roads and he said I had about 1.5 miles of this horrid rail trail left. Bullshit I say!!! It felt more like 5 miles!! I was freezing from being soaked from all the wet brush along the trail, so had to stop and dig out my waterproof jacket. I knew I’d really suffer on the final 5 miles of road if I didn’t put it on. This simple task probably actually took me 10 minutes by the time all was said and done. After what seemed like an eternity, I finally popped out on Highway 100 and was ready to churn out the last 5 cold miles. I tried to pedal as fast as I could. I would stand and my legs would tire. I would sit and my ass would scream out in pain. I was just pretty much doomed to suffer at this point. As I approached Hwy 20, I was thinking that at least it was early enough that there wouldn’t be anyone on the road. Wrong again! What the hell were all these people doing up at this hour??? And 18 wheelers! Lots of them! 75 mph! Clearly these folks had somewhere to be and they weren’t slowing down for anything. Eventually I started jumping onto the gravel/grass shoulder when I saw headlights coming up behind me for fear of death. It was game on till the very end. Finally off in the distance I saw a green reflective sign with what looked like the State of Alabama on it. So. Close. And finally, at 6:08 am Georgia Time, I rolled across the Alabama border. Done. Battered but not beaten. Elated to have completed what was probably the most physically difficult endeavor I have undertaken. Proud that I was the second rider to reach the border. Astounded that I was able to complete it in just under 46 hours – which would have been a new record had Eddie O’Dea not completely knocked it out of the park with a very impressive sub-40 hour finish. Wow.
The first thing I did was get out of my wet shoes and chamois and plop down in the car. Barnabas rolled up 10-15 minutes later while I was still awake and chatted with Chris for a bit. Hard to believe he was so close to me on the route the entire way, yet we never ran into each other except at rest stops. He probably would have made a good companion and would have prevented me from having the emotional meltdown at East Armurchee. He had some interesting stories to tell, from being beer-canned by drunk girls on Fish Hathery Road to running into a naked chick on an ATV on the ridge past Narrows Picnic area. We loaded up and headed home, and I had the pleasure of sleeping the entire way.
In hindsight, and if I were to do this again (though I’m not committing just yet), there are definitely some things I’d do differently. My small frame size made it impossible to mount my frame bag and water bottle cage. I think bottles would have been a better way to go, just to get the weight off my back and butt, which was fine for 24 hours, but really took it’s toll as I rode into the second day. I definitely needed bigger shoes, and will be sacrificing one big toe nail due to the massive blister that formed underneath it. Assuming the weather was decent, I’d probably ditch the REI ultra-light bivy sack, as I carried a space bag as well, which would have been adequate if I HAD to sleep. Using a larger saddle bag would have fit the remainder of the stuff in my pack, as well as the tubes and tools I was carrying. Knowing the entire route now would also save time, and hopefully by next year’s event, someone will have worked out the kinks and vetted the Sky Valley portion so that we could stay off the golf course. This was an extremely difficult endeavor, and I would love to take what I have learned to help another rider complete the race. I won’t lie, it stopped being fun at about 24 hours and then just became work – but I wanted to see what I was capable of. Finishing this course was on my bucket list of personal accomplishments and I give full respect to those who have completed it, no matter what the finish time. It was great to have the support of so many friends and family, and to Chris for always making sure I came out of the woods at night. While this event can be considered a race in that you are competing against others, it truly becomes a test of will where you forget the other riders and focus only upon moving forward. Truly an experience I will never forget.