I recently found out about a handful of extreme distance mountain bike races across the country and decided that I had to give one a try. I am always looking for opportunities to test the limits of my endurance and willingness to suffer. I had thought 24 hour solo races would do this, but they have already become quite routine. So when I heard about the TNGA, a 350 mile nonstop ride with 55,000ft of elevation gain across the Appalachian Mountains, I knew I had to attempt it. I began reading up on the race and managed to rationalize it my head. I knew it would be really hard, but I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. The race really did end up testing my endurance and resolve.
I was among the 52 racers who actually started the 2014 TNGA. 75 racers were set to start, but didn’t show up to the start line, likely because the forecast called for the hottest weekend in Georgia in two years! Or it could have been because a tornado swept through the Cohutta Wilderness, downing thousands of trees in the area the course would pass through around the 200 mile mark. Or perhaps it was the forecast for heavy thunderstorms and flooding rains on Sunday night. Whatever the case, those were likely the smartest of the bunch. The rest of us gluttons for punishment decided to give it a go, despite less than favorable conditions.
On Friday afternoon, my parents and I drove down through the N. Carolina Appalachians and stayed the night in Clayton GA. I was impressed by the relief of the mountains in the area. Though not very high, they shoot straight up 3000-4000 ft. from the valleys. It was a bit daunting knowing that I would have to cross the entire range! On Saturday morning we had a massive country fried steak and biscuits breakfast at Huddle House then proceeded over to the S. Carolina border for the 8:00 am start. By 7am, the temps were already in the 80s and the humidity was high too. At this point I still couldn’t imagine how hot it would get later that day.
After a brief pre-race meeting, we started the race with little fanfare and began our initial climb for several hours up to our first ridgeline. I was immediately impressed, and a bit apprehensive at how steep and long the climbs were and especially about the heat. It was so oppressively hot by 10am that I was sweating more than I thought humanly possible. In fact, I was sweating so profusely that every inch of my body was soaking wet. Little did I know that I would continue to be soaking wet whether from sweat, creek crossings, or thunderstorms for the next 2 days 16hrs! Even the native Georgians were whining about the heat. It was a complete shock to my system since we’ve had such a cool summer in NY. I had been wearing a sweater in the middle of the day the previous week!
After the first few mountains, I settled into a better rhythm and tried to wrap my brain around the heat and difficulty of the terrain. I also began chatting with other “veteran” racers to gather information about the rest of the course. Apparently, this first section was the “easy” part. It was fun at this point to ride with other racers from all over the country and swap stories about our backgrounds and riding experience. I was interested to know that many of these racers had already competed in the Tour Divide, a 2700 mile race from Canada to Mexico across the Continental Divide. They told me that this race would be even harder than that because the pace was much faster and terrain much more difficult, though obviously this race was much shorter. Many of these Tour Divide finishers would end up dropping out of this race! I am now feeling confident that I’m ready for the Tour Divide next year (if I have the $ and can get time off of work to do it-hint hint Cliff J).
I settled in with a group of riders, J.P from Dallas, Mike from Southern PA, and Jim Rivers from Knoxville! I also rode occasionally with two [beastly] guys on singlespeeds from W. Virginia, Andy and Matt. We kept struggling up each mountain, then enjoying our descent down the other side for the rest of the day. The worst part about this section was the literally hundreds of stream crossings-some that were thigh deep! Along the way we passed campgrounds where we could fill up our water bottles and local mountain hostel even set up a table and gave us all PBJ’s and water as we rode by. I was very impressed with the support from the Georgia bike and outdoor community throughout the race. They showed true Southern Hospitality…
Even with a GPS, it was very easy to over shoot your turn, then you’d have to backtrack to get back on course. According to my Garmin, I rode about 360 miles, so I added at least 10 miles over duration of the race by getting off course. This happened to us several times, even though half the group had done the race before! This part was somewhat uneventful, until we got hit by a nasty thunderstorm and flooding rains at around 3pm. Normally this would be considered a bad thing, but the cold rain felt great and the temps dropped about 20 degrees-temporarily. As the day wore on, our group began splitting up as some riders took shelter during the rain, others raced ahead, and some fell back.
The first major stop on the route where you can resupply with food and other necessities is Helen, GA-about 100 miles in. Unfortunately, just before you get there, you have to complete a brutal 15 mile climb in the hot sun with little shade, followed by a particularly nasty, overgrown singletrack descent called the Hickory Nut Trail. During this climb, I caught back up with JP and Andy. Andy had been unable to eat most of the day because of the heat, and looked like a ghost he was so pale. He couldn’t even ride his bike at this point. I thought he was done for sure. JP and I battled up the climb and made the descent down Hickory Nut, cursing the overgrown vegetation, loose rock, and downed logs the whole way. It got dark midway through the descent so we had to pull out our headlamps, making it even more difficult. I had not been eating enough since I was expecting to make it to Helen sooner, so I began to “bonk” around this point and lost some mental resolve. Luckily, in Helen, Woody’s Bike shop set up a party like atmosphere complete with a bike wash station, sodas and bbq, and even small paninis wrapped in foil that we could take on our ride, all for free! Amazing hospitality! I quickly ate my body weight in food, lubed my bike chain, and set off at about 9:30 pm since I wanted to tackle the Hogpen Gap climb before taking a long break.
Hogpen Gap was one of the few paved sections of the race, but it wasn’t easy. There are some parts of it that have grades over 20%!! With all of the extra weight on my bike, I had to walk a lot of it. Sometime around midnight I crested the pass and began a long fast descent to Vogel State Park. I had always intended to sleep a few hrs. each night, and figured this would be a great place to do it since I could get clean water and charge my headlight while I rested. At 1am or so I pulled out my emergency bivy sack (which is basically a fancy garbage bag long enough to stretch out in) and crawled in. It was still hot out so the bivy sack quickly turned into a sauna but I had to stay inside it to keep some of the incessant bugs at bay. Despite the incredibly uncomfortable conditions, I was so tired I was able to sleep for about two hours. At 3:15am my alarm went off, and I struggled out of the bivy, packed up, ate some paninis and rolled out of the park at around 4am.
The next 7 miles were similar to Hogpen Gap, with a paved climb to the top of Wolfpen Gap. It was even steeper and more sustained though. At the top, I turned off into the woods and negotiated some nasty, steep double track down the mountain in the dark. I was getting low on food at this point, and was worried there would be nowhere to resupply until Mulberry Gap, about 100 miles away! Luckily, I passed by a small café that catered to river rafters and fisherman. I have no idea where this was, but it was a heavenly sight. I ordered the “Big Breakfast” which I basically inhaled, then bought a huge cookie, some bags of chips, and sodas for the road.
The next major obstacle was Stanley Gap. This section involved a long, technical singletrack climb with several hike a bike sections. Parts of the trail were so steep that I had to climb up first then reach down and pull my bike up. It was around this point that Joey Partner caught up to me. He had been ahead of me all day on Saturday, but he had slept longer at Vogel so I got ahead. Joey is a sponsored adventure mountain biker who rides for a small bike manufacturer called “Chumba.” He had just returned from a 15 day, self-supported mountain bike expedition across Iceland! We would ride together for the next 35 hours or so and cross the Alabama border at the same time. The descent down from Stanley Gap was the best singletrack of the course up to that point-probably the only part that would be considered “fun” rather than torturous!
At the bottom of the trail, the Pro Gold Bike Products rep was handing out free bike lube and towlettes along with Little Debbie treats and water. He actually sponsors Giant Northeast Off Road team, so he knew Abbey! Small world. The next 40 or so miles were reasonably pleasant with mostly gravel climbs and some easy paved sections. If we could have kept the pace of this section, we would have been at Mulberry Gap, 220 miles in, by 4pm. Unfortunately, the character of the course changes markedly once you hit the Cohutta Wilderness.
The Cohutta is probably the most rugged, remote wilderness area in Georgia, if not the entire Southeast. The Pinhotti Wilderness Trail system begins here, and takes you all the way to the Alabama Border, so from this point on, we were on singletrack trail more than gravel roads or double track. The trails have a reputation for being hard and rugged even in good conditions, but a tornado had hit the area on Tuesday, downing thousands of trees across the Pinhotti trails. The local bike community had been working on clearing trees off a lot of the single track where possible, but were unable to clean up some of the most remote sections in time. Also, some of the trees downed in this area were so big that it will take a serious logging operation to clear the path. We would have to pass through these sections… The next 40 miles ended up taking us about 20 hours and nearly drove Joey and me to the breaking point on several occasions!!!
The Cohutta begins with a mix of gravel and rough double track climbs that made all the previous climbs of the route look flat. We had to walk our bikes up many sections. At the top of the first major ridge, you start on the first section of Pinhotti Singletrack. It was in terrible shape from both the tornado and the horse riders that are unfortunately allowed on the trail. A quick thunderstorm made the trails even muddier and nastier as we rode through. It took us over 5 hours to get through the next 20 miles. We were both low on food and began to bonk as we approached Mulberry Gap. By the time we reached the singletrack descent down off the mountain to the gap, I was at my low point of the race and began cursing the trail itself as if it were a person. When I later recovered a bit, I was kind of embarrassed that Joey was there to witness my little meltdown, but he was also pretty out of it at the time.
At Mulberry Gap is a mountain bike resort called Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Getaway that caters to mountain bikers enjoying the Pinhotti Trails. They will have a big job on their hands trying to get the trails back in shape after the tornado. Unfortunately, Joey and I didn’t know the getaway was off the route and were unable to find for about 30 minutes. We were starving, it was getting dark, and it was pouring rain. I began yelling out, hoping it was close enough for someone to hear us. Luckily a truck drove by and let us know that it was nearly a mile downhill off the route. When we arrived we told them how hard it was to find the place and they immediately ran out to put a sign up with an arrow pointing the way to the getaway. I was also informed at this point that my beacon had been off for 12 hours and that Abbey and my family was worried sick. I couldn’t believe they would be worried about me since they know I’m used to being in the wilderness for extended periods in much more dangerous conditions, so I thought they had the wrong guy. But there couldn’t be any other Alex Alexiades in the race so it had to be me. I quickly called Abbey and let her know I was ok and that my beacon got turned off while in my bike bag. This is the problem with Spot Beacons, they give people just enough information to make them worried. I felt terrible that I had stressed everyone out so much, but at least I learned to check my beacon periodically to make sure it was working properly.
At Mulberry Gap they were serving all you can eat burgers, dogs, and potato salad. I ate two huge burgers and big hotdogs and about a pound of potato salad. I also took 2 burgers for the trail later on. As I was paying my bill, they told me that my buddy Jim VanVleet had called in and offered to buy my dinner! Thanks Jim-that was huge!!! I was hoping to get of Cohutta before taking another rest, so we left the getaway as soon as possible at around 9pm. The next 25 miles ended up being the worst of the route. Some sections had so many downed trees that our pace slowed to a mile an hour! Around 1 am, we were so dispirited that we decided to rest for about 3 hours and finish the Cohutta before dawn. We had only made it 6 miles since leaving Mulberry.
We woke up just after 4am, feeling a bit better and ready to get out of the wilderness, but were immediately confronted with the thickest debris of the route. We would have traded our nice bikes for a nice machete at this point. We had to bushwhack through thorns, poison ivy, and thick undergrowth around each downed tree since they were too massive to go over or under. Nearly every time I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I was unpleasantly surprised that oh yes, it could! Once we accepted our fate, we just kept crawling through the debris until if finally opened up a bit and we eventually exited the Cohutta Wilderness around 8am.
The next 22 miles were on paved roads through Dalton GA and were mostly flat. This was the only flat section of the course and we thoroughly enjoyed the respite, despite getting chased by dogs at nearly every house! After passing through Dalton we stopped in at Bear Creek Bikes. These guys were awesome. They were giving out free Chik Fil-a chicken biscuits and completely cleaned and serviced my bike. It was barely running before due to all of the stream and tree crossings, but they got it back into perfect riding condition. Thanks guys!!! We only had 80 more miles to go and thought we were home free, but they informed us that the next 60 miles were the hardest of the course! I could have cried right then and there. I had assumed I would be finishing before dark on Monday so I had been running my headlamp on the high setting so it was nearly out of batteries, but now learned that this would be nearly impossible. I had a small backup light, but hoped I wouldn’t have to use it.
We set out from Bear Creek Bikes at about 10am with a 2000ft climb up to Dug Gap. The next 7 miles were supposed to be the nastiest, most technical of the course. They call it a 7 mile long rock garden! We found it to be hard and technical, but positively enjoyable compared with the tornado debris strewn trails of the Cohutta. It was slow going, but since it was technical, challenging riding, it took our minds off of the suffering and our spirits were lifted. The next 25 miles called the Snake Creek section are considered the hardest of the race due to the steep climbs and challenging descents, but like the 7 mile rock garden, we thoroughly enjoyed them-though it was slow going. At this point, Abbey was out riding the trails for training and ran into us. It was great to see her out on the trails and lifted my spirits even further. For a while it felt like I was just out for a fun recreational ride with Abbey and Joey, despite carrying an extra 20 lbs. of gear, water, and food on my bike and having biked 275 miles over the previous 40 hours. After riding together for about 7 miles, Abbey turned back because she was low on water.
At the end of the Snake Creek section we passed by an extreme horse riding training center and saw a bunch of girls standing each leg on a different horse and riding around. We thought we were hallucinating! They were very nice and thought we were as crazy as we though they were…They filled up our water bottles for us and we set again. The riding in this section was still mostly trail, but not as fun or in good shape as the previous area.
***Warning-this paragraph contains explicit material and is not suitable for younger readers***
As we were cruising down one of the few sections of gravel forest service road on this part of the course we entered into one of the most embarrassing situations imaginable. As we were speeding down the hill we saw a car up ahead and as we approached we witnessed a guy and drop pants and begin adult relations with a girl leaned over the trunk of the car-how romantic! We didn’t know what to do since they didn’t hear us, so Joey rang his bike bell. They turned around, pulled up their pants, and mortified woman jumped into the car. They guy had a mixed look of embarrassment and pride on his face as we profusely apologized and passed by. As if this wasn’t bad enough, we quickly realized that we went the wrong way and actually had to take the trail that was blocked by the couples’ car! We apologized again, and skirted around the car to get back on route. What a strange backwoods encounter!
Our spirits remained high and we made good progress until it got dark around 830pm. My headlight conked out around 9:30pm and I had to resort to using Joey’s extra back up headlight which gave off a little more light than mine. Joey’s Garmin GPS was also not working at this point so we were relying on mine. Luckily we had partnered up! The headlamp was so dim that we had to slow down to a crawl as we negotiated the final 30 miles of trail, some of which was quite technical, especially without a real bike light! To make things worse, we ran into huge spider webs and had gnarly looking spiders on our faces every few hundred meters! But we persevered and were encouraged by the fact that we only had a few miles to go.
We kept progressing, albeit slowly, and finally made it out to Highway 100 at midnight, which meant that we only had 10 easy miles of paved road to go, only we didn’t know this. My cue sheet must have been messed up because it said that we still had a 5 mile section of single track to negotiate. The road kept on going and my Garmin showed that we were supposed to stay on it. Finally, we pulled out Joey’s cuesheet which showed that we did indeed only have a few paved miles to go. I was nearly beside myself with joy-no more technical trail or spiders to the face in the dark-yeehaw! As we approached the Alabama, as corny as it was, the song Sweet Home Alabama entered my head and I hummed it silently all the way to Highway 20, the last segment of the course. To continue with the theme of the race, this section also proved to be worse than expected due to the logging trucks zipping by at 60mph with no shoulder-yikes!! This was probably the most dangerous part of the course. Luckily I had a super bright red flashing light on the back of my bike so they all saw us a mile away and gave us space. Naturally we were accosted by one final snarling dog just before cruising across the border at 12:55am on Tuesday morning, 2 days and 16 hours after starting. We were the first “rookies” to finish, tying for 6th place overall (though the two guys ahead of us also tied, so maybe we were 5th??). Either way, just finishing this year was an accomplishment. Of 52 starters, only 16 people have finished as I’m writing this, with only four more still on the race course. That’s quite an attrition rate.