Joy, pain and the unknown was the order of business for me during this excursion. Jumping off at 5:15am on Friday morning, April 6th, with Cricket was to enter into the void for us both. We would be the first to ride this course as an ITT (Individual Time Trial) for time and the opportunity to make a little history. We did very minimal prep and research towards this venture. Being experienced riders and veterans of many races, we decided to take this on with an embracing of the unknown. In other words we didn’t want to know what lied ahead. There is something in today’s culture that we feel or desire to know all of the parameters and ins/outs of what is ahead of us or around us. I feel that waters down what a true sense of adventure has to offer. Other than having a gps with the route and a few laminated cut out maps, we had our bikes and an eagerness to welcome the remote and unpredictable form of nature. I offer this at the beginning of my thoughts on this course to encourage others to think about why you’re doing these types of things to begin with. Is it really to just get a time on some piece of paper that a few people might look at every now and then or is it to see if you can put yourself in the pain locker and navigate through the unknown coming out on the other side better for having tried, regardless of success or failure. As you’re looking for every coke machine and restaurant on route before you attempt this ITT, maybe you should just remember that usually a well laid plan never follows to the T and it is more than likely that you will not need it when you get to it. What you will need is a desire to finish and the ability to overcome and adapt to what nature has in store for you as Cricket and I both learned very well.
The A Loop as I like to refer to it can be broken down in to 2 distinctive parts/courses. 1) The first 200 and 2) the second 200. Lets start with the first 200 shall we.
I began rolling from the War Memorial at Virginia Tech on a cool crisp dark morning with a heading of north. One thing for sure around Blacksburg is that it is anything but flat. Rollers that spike abruptly awoke my blood flow charging my body for what was to be a lofty task. I set out with the intentions of no sleep or rest for the entire 400 mile course. I sat in to my saddle and began the never-ending pedal stroke. After departing the Blacksburg city limits and dropping down along the New River and waiting for a train to make its early morning crossing things seemed to be unfolding smoothly and I felt good. As daylight showed its big ball of fire ascending from the east, I was awake and made my left turn at Waiteville to begin the only big ascent of the day towards Gap Mills. Good climb and the legs feeling charged, I enjoyed the descent to Gap Mills. Cricket and I rode off an on together for the first 200 miles and it was a treat as we joked and laughed about all of our adventures and the current one we had set out on. As we continued forward there was a noticeable attention that we were drawing towards ourselves on these country roads. This attention came in the form of the 4 legged variety with gnashing teeth. The area between Gap Mills and the entrance to the Greenbrier River Trail is heavy with canine presence. After arriving and crossing I-64, I had lunch at a Subway and took a short break with Cricket. Feeling good and resupplied with the necessities and an extra sub, I set off on the Greenbrier River Trail. This trail is a converted railroad bed that is laid with fine gravel and runs along the beautiful Greenbrier River. Pedaling 80 miles on this trail will wear you as it is a constant pedal with no coasting or break of pedal stroke. It is like riding your trainer that takes a spot in your spare room or basement, so imagine riding your trainer for 6 hours nonstop. After 50 miles of this you will desire a climb just to get out of the saddle with the idea that if you climb there will be a downhill on the other side that will allow you to coast and give your legs an ever so slight break. The Greenbrier River Trail has multiple restrooms (outhouses) along it and that was handy. Water is also available at these locations. Marlinton was located 50 miles or so in along the trail, which prompted another stop for dinner. A bit early in the ride, but after Marlinton that is it folks in regards to resupply, significant resupply that is. After a good meal of bacon burgers and fries it was off to Cass where the trail ends. There is a small welcome center in Cass and a very nice gentleman let us sort ourselves out and get ready for the night push. Evening was descending as we entered Cass. Once all was sorted, we took out along country roads as an incredible orange moon began its rise. After 15 miles or so the West Fork Trail began. Making a spiraling turn down onto this trail put me down along a river. At this time the temperature began to drop and I started to feel its effect on my body. I had not prepared for this as I only had a wind jacket, sun sleeves and knee warmers. I would wish many times over the night from this point forward that I had more. I slogged and rolled along the West Fork Trail very slow and slightly in and out of alertness. Shivering on the bike and finally coming off the trail at Glady marked the halfway point. This gave me a bit of a re-energized vibe, but the cold was really etching itself into my bones. It felt like it was freezing, but I was like no way. April……….naaaaaa. I’m just dehydrated, tired and need to suck it up. I continued to prod along and began the second part of the course, which would be harsh, painful and beautiful. First, I had to get through the night. I had no sleeping equipment. Either freeze or continue moving. As you enter into the second portion of the course, you will know as it starts to go up,up, up, up and up.
As I was shivering uncontrollably up the mountain out of Gladys towards 4000 feet elevation, I ran back into Cricket who had decided to sleep some. She was freezing and had decided she had to stop in order to warm up. I wouldn’t see Cricket again until Sunday afternoon when she finished. I told her I was continuing forward, like I had a choice. Remember, freeze or move on. It got so cold that I couldn’t descend without riding the brakes. Through the night I had controlled descents of 5mph that would normally be 30mph + descents. As it is in an ultra race, things don’t follow the normal pattern or path. Come to find out after having my water completely freeze, which left me with zero water intake from midnight to 7am, the temperature in that area dropped into the high teens that night. Oh well, one must continue on. Shaking uncontrollably I merged onto pavement and began the multiple ascents of the second portion. The first major one coming at 5-6am on Saturday morning was up US HWY 250 to the West Virginia/Virginia border. This is one of those corkscrew road ascents like you might see in one of those pro road races. I topped off to be welcomed by a pile of bones, still dark I felt how fitting this sight was as I could totally feel and relate to that poor creatures demise. Then reality hit me, I made it through the night and the sun is sure to be up soon. It is amazing how powerful the sight of the sun can be in regards to re-energizing you. Just a moment ago I was comparing myself to a pile of bones, now I was feeling like I was on top of the world. I charged off in a descent of madness, not feeling the cold air. I turned off onto a dirt road and began a country side valley roll that took me through some amazing farmland. Smoke erupted from the chimneys of these houses, I must admit was tempting, but I was chasing the sun now. Seeking its rays of warmth and energy. From this point on I would hammer those pedals up and down some amazing climbs throughout the day. Never relenting, breaks were short and I climbed everything nature threw in my path. I truly enjoyed the Ridge Alternate climb and the traverse along that ridge. The hardest climbs began after crossing I-64 on the return. These climbs are incredibly steep and unforgiving. You will see grades of up to 30% and this is after you have done 300 miles. Be ready as they will hit you all over like a heavyweight boxer hungry for a title shot. As night began to approach again for the second night, now I haven’t had any sleep not even a rest moment where I closed my eyes. I knew I still had a big climb up to Mountain Lake where Dirty Dancing was filmed. My strategy after doing 20,000 feet of climbing on day 2 was to be conservative and actually walk a bit. I did this even though I felt good in order to keep cramps from entering into the equation. I made my way up this steep climb and crossed over the Appalachian Trail and continued to go up. The temps were beginning to drop again, but I had adrenaline although running on reserves by this point keeping me in the game. I dropped through the Mountain Lake Resort that was lit up like a christmas tree and began an incredibly cold and beautiful descent. I could see what appeared to be some huge city off in the distance lit up drawing me down the mountain. I made my way down in a controlled fashion and began the final miles to the finish. Interesting enough as I made my way back to the New River, I had to wait for another train to cross and I took in the last bits of calories I needed as there would be no more stopping after this train. I took off and drilled it all the way back up and down those spiky hills into Blacksburg and made that turn into Virginia Tech with a frozen smile. The War Memorial was waiting for me all lit up. I walked up the memorial steps at 2:46 a.m. on Sunday morning. This gave me a total time of 45 hours and 31 minutes. The adrenaline reserves were drained out and the effect of no sleep the entire time set in as I pedaled back to the hotel in a state of mind that could be depicted as euphoric.
Cricket would come in Sunday afternoon with a total time of 56 hours and 45 minutes, well done lady. She is an amazing rider with GRIT. She can be on my team any day, any time. It was a treat to ride with her for the first 200 miles and share in this experience. We were the first 2 people to ride this course without any beta in the true sense or knowledge of other riders having done it. We set the records for male and female. It was really a treat to be able to do this course. It is incredibly beautiful and challenging. The A Loop is remote and one needs to be prepared. Phone signal is non-existent except for in a few towns. Tons of natural water on the course. The course is right at 400 miles and 27,000 feet of climbing. What you need to remember is that 22,000 feet of that climbing comes after you have done the first 200 miles. I would recommend that if you haven’t done an ultra that this not be your first one for many reasons as you might can decipher from the points in my story. This would be a great course to tour, but if you do it as an ITT be ready.