The Cherohala Challenge is one of my favorite organized rides each year and until Thursday night, I was not sure I would be able to make it. The course finds its way through what I consider one of the most scenic parts of the South-East US, travelling the Tail of the Dragon, which claims to 318 curves in 11 miles, Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest and the Cherohala Skyway.
I enjoy riding in the area and was really looking forward to this years ride. I have been training hard this year with this ride and 6-Gap in mind, concentrating on the hills. It turns out my oldest son, Michael, who was in remission from leukemia (AML) came out of remission in March. We have been in Chapel Hill, NC, for a bone marrow transplant, for the three weeks prior to the ride. This place has to be one of the flattest places on earth! My mileage was way down and I had no hills during that time, plus, I was not sure what was going to be going on with Michael. I had pretty much decided against riding this years challenge. As it turns out, Michael is doing extremely well; even the doctors have commented they are surprised by his progress. Bone marrow transplant three weeks ago Tuesday and, so far, all adverse conditions have been handled quickly with medications. He is feeling well and pretty much told me I should ride, so I did.
I did not sleep well the night prior to the ride; I felt strange being away from Michael, plus I was worried about my mileage and my lack of hill work. I woke up with a terrible headache, made the 2 hour drive in 1:35, took care of all pre-ride business as wished, and then just chilled out a bit watching other folks getting ready for the ride; it is quite the spectacle.
We set off pretty much at the designated 8 AM start time. I managed to stay with the first big pack for a couple of hours; we were absolutely hauling a$$ at many points. This machine was moving so fast I considered dropping off of the back a couple times and finding my way into the next group. Then I hear, "GO, PUGH!" or something to that effect, and I suspect it was J's H or god himself. . . so I stuck with it. Thanks, Js, I really was just hanging on with one tooth stuck in the jersey of the guy in front of me at that point. Rain started falling at some point around the Tail of the Dragon. This cooled things off a bit but worried me because I've been on the skyway in the rain before and it was painfully cold then. The downhill sections of the Dragon were wet but not slick at all, which surprised me. I took it kind of easy anyhow.
Between the hills of the Dragon and the rain, the pack exploded. I came off the SAG at the end of the Dragon on my own and managed to catch two others. We rode together to Joyce Kilmer, where the real hill started and the rain stopped. I was ok at this point but made the mistake of eating some solid food at one of the SAGs on the skyway. The Cherohala Skyway is a long hill, and at some points it is steep, but the views are unmatched in the SE. By the time I made it over the top my head was about to split open from my headache. And on top that off, the little PB&Js had decided to do a number on my stomach and all the water I was drinking just piled up behind the dam. So the last 30 miles or so I was in agony. My legs were fine but my brain hurt; I just wanted to barf and go to sleep. I even stopped at one point, deciding I would feel better if I just got it over with. But I figured someone might think something was wrong if they saw me sleeping next to a pile of puke on the side of the road; and besides that, some bugs would have crawled into my nose. I got back on my bike and rode on. I thought of the pain others would be feeling at this point in the ride. I thought of the pain my oldest son was going through; he has a black cloud floating over him and he is still going. My pain didn't diminish or anything but I realized I would finish and I was not really going to die. I felt foolish and ashamed for feeling like I was going to die if I didn't just toss my cookies and lay down in the grass and sleep, giving up.
Sorry this has become so long. The SAGs were fairly well stocked but there were no oatmeal cream pies and there were less people working the SAGs; the last two years I was not off my bike before someone was filling my water bottles.
In the end, I finished in 6:49 by the ride clock; an entire two minutes better than last year (7:40 on the bike). I was expecting to make it in 7:15 or so. I got sick as soon as I got off my bike, took a shower, napped for over an hour, said hello to J's H, (sorry I was not very sociable but I really was in another world). Hey, sorry about the mechanical problems. I ate some pretty good pasta and cookies, then drove home, drank some beer, and went to sleep.
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