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TNGA 2021 – plus year-to-year comparison

This was my fourth year completing the TNGA. The first two years were part of the grand depart, and the second two years were as ITTs either earlier in the summer (2020) or a few days after the grand depart (2021). I’ve made a few tables below to compare the TNGAs and will build upon this data for future TNGAs. I included this data first because it is very interesting to me, but if you want to read my write-up all about the race, click this link to jump past all the data to the race write-up!

2018Trek Fuel Dual Suspension2d,8hr,36min6hr,52min7.3mphYes2nd
2019Trek Fuel Dual Suspension2d,5hr,5min7hr,33min7.9mphNo2nd
2020Salsa Cutthroat (Front Suspension)2d,5hr,53min8hr,29min8.3mphYes3rd
2021Salsa Cutthroat (Front Suspension)2d,18hr,44min19hr,8min7.8mphYes5th
TNGA year-by-year overall stats
Wildcat to Addis Gap, 8.45mi, 1402ft, dirt climb along wildcat creek
Hickory Nut downhill AT to campground, 7.24mi, -2116ft, rocky 4WD descent, followed by singletrack tree and rock strewn fast descent
Hogpen Gap from 75, 6.96mi, 1820ft, road climb
Wolf Pen east: all the way up, 4.19mi, 1454ft, road climb for the first 2/3rd and gravel for the last 1/3rd
Stanley Gap N-S segment, 4.57mi, 1152ft, includes the climb and descent, lots of hike-a-bike. NOTE the huge difference in time between the first year (I couldn’t even find the trailhead entrance for about 20 minutes) and subsequent years. Also, note the difference between daytime and nighttime. It’s soooo much easier to ride more of the climb during the day so that you can pick out a good line whereas at night you can’t see far enough ahead to determine a line that can take you up/over/around the roots.
Hwy 2 Climb With Bonus, 3.23mi, 1152ft, steep gravel climb.
Bear / P1 / P2 (better starting point), 11.92mi, -1115ft, lots of steep short climbs on long downhill. Note the huge difference for the one time I did this one at night. This year was during the day, but tons of mud, and also I spent 15 minutes filtering water and cleaning mud off shoes and bike in the last creek after riding barefoot sandals not clipped in for the entire P2 climb and it was still 7 minutes faster than riding it at night without stopping.
P3(MG)>P4>P5>P6 Dennis, 18.21mi, about 1000ft climbing before -1865ft descent to pavement, my favorite part of the Pinhotti other than the super fun Cave Spring flume section.
Backwards Snake, 28.2mi, tons of short steep climbs while losing -1021ft over entire segment, rocky technical sections scattered throughout but especially at the beginning.
Pinhoti Mack White to High Point, 8.36mi, -741ft, despite the segment name, this includes all of Taylor Ridge from the singletrack entrance under the towers all the way down to the exit onto GA100 pavement
Essom Hill to TNGA Finish, 8.47mi, 254ft, gradual climb over dirt roads, chip seal roads, and pavement all the way to the finish on the Silver Comet at the Alabama state line.

TNGA 2021 Race Writeup

At the finish with Julian Daza who had finished about 30 minutes ahead of me.

It starts a couple weeks earlier the first week in August when we picked up my daughter from a summer theater camp she had been at up in Virginia. The camp was awesome, and they put on an amazing production of Henry V. But since we were picking her up and taking a friend to see the show, we didn’t really have enough room in the car … so I volunteered to ride back home from Staunton to Hoover. I picked out an 1100 mile route that would have me end with the TNGA race plus the 110 mile ride home from the end.

Well it was hot … and wet … and by the time I finished the first 650 miles to make it to Clayton, I was not in good shape. Plus, I missed my window for doing laundry so I had to wait until they opened the next morning since everything I had was wet and dirty. So while I was waiting for the laundromat to open and then for my laundry to finish, it was already getting hot and I just couldn’t reconcile starting TNGA in so much heat in the middle of the day. I wasn’t familiar at all with the timing of that kind of start in the middle of the day or where it would put me at various times when the few supply spots may or may not be open.

So by the time my clothes were done, I decided I was done too and going to bail on TNGA and just knock out the 280 miles to get back to my house in one straight shot with no sleep. I did end up doing that and was very proud of that ride coming right after 650 grueling miles in the heat and humidity. Although I was also crushed at the thought of a failed TNGA even before starting!

So when the opportunity came up a couple weeks later to try again, I jumped at the chance. I knew that with everything going on in the lead-up to school that I didn’t have time to ride all the way from my house to the start, do the race, and then ride home. So instead, I drove to the finish of the race and then rode the 187 miles from there to Clayton… but even the logistics of that were tricky.

I left my house in Birmingham at 10pm to make it to the Essom Hill trailhead to be on my way by midnight my time (1am eastern), which I calculated would get me to the start in Clayton early enough to do laundry and still get to bed plenty early enough to be up early enough that same night to ride from Clayton to the start to set off on TNGA by about 1am.

Well, a heavily loaded bike and 2.3″ trail knobby tires (which were absolutely perfect for the course) doesn’t roll very well on pavement and no matter how much I tried I couldn’t get my average speed to budge much above 12mph.

Especially since I had to stop at Habersham Bicycles in Gainesville to deal with a very creaky bottom bracket from the amazing amount of dirt and mud and water that had accumulated on the Silver Comet because apparently it had just finished raining for nearly the whole trail before I started. It was very, very wet. I was soaked by the time I made it to Habersham and my bike was a filthy mess.

As it turns out, the lock ring on my bottom bracket left crank arm had come loose (again) and had let stuff in and was the source of the creaking.


June 14-24: 2100 miles riding from Hoover, AL to Durango, CO
July 31: 229 mile adventure riding to Hot Hundred and back
Aug 9-13: 925 miles riding from Staunton, VA to Hoover, AL

That last trip Aug 9-13 was supposed to include the TNGA on the last leg, but by the time I made it to Clayton, GA to spend the night and do laundry, I was too heat exhausted to remotely have a chance at finishing TNGA successfully so I opted to ride the 279 miles straight home instead.

I knew I wanted to reschedule and try again at TNGA but I didn’t have time to ride from home to the start, do the race, and ride back home. Instead, I opted to drive the 110 miles to the finish and leave my car there … thus saving me 220 total miles of riding (basically an entire 24 hours).

Still, I had to ride the 187 miles from the finish as direct as possible over to Clayton before napping at the Days Inn for a few hours before riding from there the additional 16 miles to the start. Then I did the whole race but didn’t have to ride all the way home because my car was waiting for me there at the finish.

Sooo, grand total for the summer ended up being four big rides totaling 3826.3 miles in 11+4+1+3 = 18 days spread out over June, July, and August with this TNGA adventure being the last 572 miles.

Needless to say, I was not going to be particularly fast in this year’s TNGA with a lot of miles in my legs and a lot of time spent out there day after day in a very hot summer. In fact, I was not feeling very confident at all after yet another hot day of riding to get to Clayton. So I had thoughts again about turning around just riding straight home the next day instead of doing TNGA.

But I felt like I would be crushed by the inability to even start TNGA twice. So I knew that wasn’t an option. And I figured that my best chance of finishing the race was to take it pretty easy, which included a very long stay (10 hours) in Dalton. Also, I stopped to filter water numerous times wanting to have cold water (those mountain creeks are cold 365 days a year) instead of carrying a ton of water weight with me between the isolated refueling spots.

So this ended up being my slowest TNGA by over 12 hours, but it certainly was the most enjoyable from start to finish. I saw so much wildlife, whereas in the past I’ve always been puzzled by the relative lack of wildlife on the course. I’m guessing I just haven’t noticed the wildlife before locked into tunnel vision on the course, or maybe when you are moving fast on that course you make enough noise to scare everything away before you even get close.

I was moving slow on my ride over to Clayton so I was already way behind schedule which ended up pushing my start back by almost an hour so that I started at 1:50AM on Tuesday morning. I ended up finishing shortly after sunset at 8:34PM on Thursday evening for a total elapsed time of 2 days, 18 hours, 44 minutes which I believe puts me at the fourth fastest time out of the group starts and fifth fastest of the year accounting for James Dunaway’s record breaking 40 hours flat ITT this year – almost exactly 24 hours faster than me and 18 hours faster than the second fastest time of the year, Jason Foster, who took the grand depart win.

Back to the start though, it was foggy and wet on my ride to the start. It actually dried out a bit on the climb up to the Darnell Creek singletrack, and the few muddy sections along the way seemed about the same as previous years – or maybe my expectations were for so much mud that I was surprised enough by what was actually there to take it back down to normal.

But Darnell Creek was flowing quite loudly … way louder than previous years … and as expected on the tributary creek descent, everything was soaked. I endo-ed hard on the first rock stair stepper down but thankfully the rocks are in the middle and it was relatively soft pinestraw on the sides so no injuries. After that, i walked a good chunk of the rest of the creek singletrack.

The whole time the actual creek to the right was so loud. It definitely led to this build-up of “oh my goodness, how deep is the actual crossing going to be”. It was definitely the deepest I’ve ever crossed it with water coming up over my knees, but the course crosses at a gentler spot so there was no danger from the current. All of this was in the dark.

I was delighted to have made it past the first obstacle of the adventure race, so I took off again and made it all the way across the road and gravel roads to the next big obstacle – the Patterson Gap climb – followed by the Tallulah River crossing and the subsequent climb all the way up to the Appalachian Trail. I opted to ride barefoot (in sandals) from the top of the Darnell singletrack all the way up the Tallulah River road because it’s just creek crossing after crossing and my quite successful battle against trench foot was to basically never have socks on when crossing a creek or river and then put my wool socks back on after my feet and sandals had had a good long time to dry while riding.

I had my first sense of how slow I was going relative to previous years by how late in the morning it was by the time I made it to the climb up Hwy 76 past the Around the Bend hostel. It was HOT back out there on the pavement and I remembered to my midnight start last year that it was still early morning when I did this climb last year.

Back into the woods, though, I hit the quite muddy (much muddier than previous years) descent back down to Moccasin Creek. I had thought about stopping at the campground to refill on water, but I knew I still had lots of places to filter even climbing back up Wildcat so that it just didn’t make sense to carry all that extra weight while I still had a full bottle of gatorade left from the start.

It was really hot though and I ended up stopping to filter water on the climb up Corbin Creek as I was completely out by that point. The descent down to Hickory Nut was awful this year … it’s always rough with large rocks and drops everywhere on a steep descent … but this year seemed worse than normal. Hickory Nut itself was fine with fewer trees to cross. It was fun to remember back to my first year and see the remnants of all the tree crossings we had to do. Tree puzzles, really, because you had to figure out how to get across, under, or through them or sometimes all three.

I made it to Helen in the late afternoon, and it was quite hot. I refueled there not knowing if I would make it to Cooper’s Creek before they closed because I was so far behind schedule. So after getting enough food to last until Dalton (I hoped) I took off and called Cooper’s Creek to verify what time they closed (5pm) and told them I wouldn’t be getting there until 7pm (it ended up being closer to 8pm) and asked if they could leave something out for me and I would stash some money somewhere.

The guy I talked to (one of the Coopers?) was awesome and said he’d leave stuff in an ice chest and it was on him – not to worry about leaving any cash. They are awesome! When I finally did get there and was looking around in the ice chest for what I needed (there was so much stuff in there), a very kind lady came out and asked if I needed anything else and she let me grab a bag of chips out of the store and she opened up the bathroom for me.

This was hugely important because I would find out when I went to open my frame bag to get out my dry clothes, one of my pickle juice pouches had opened and dumped its entire contents onto my down vest. She had shown me where the hose was, so I hosed off my bike and then hung my vest up and hosed it off too trying to get as much pickle juice off as possible and hoping it would dry fast. It not only didn’t dry particularly fast, the pickle juice was basically all soaked up on the inside of the vest.


This would factor in to how cold I was just a couple hours later after being so hot for so long. Basically as the night dragged on and I started riding slower with my heartrate dropping down into the 70s, 80s, and 90s for extended period (averaged 93bpm for 8.5 hours), I was getting cold. Everything I had was still soaking wet from the day with so much humidity and even fog that nothing was drying while riding, I was so cold … and I couldn’t put that awesome vest on I had brought specifically in case I got cold because it was still soaking wet with pickle juice. This was my situation by the time I made it up and over Stanley Gap pouring sweat with all the effort and then the start of the 8.5 hour stretch from the descent down past Cherry Log all the way to where I couldn’t take it any more and had to figure out something because of how sleepy and cold I was … my solution: lay down on a concrete slab with my dry non-riding shorts on and no shirt but covered with the vest lightly resting on top of me just barely touching me but b/c of the way that down vest is designed – blocking as much heat as possible from leaving. I’m guessing that concrete was still a little bit warm from the daytime heating maybe it was in the sun for the last hour or two of the day. I don’t know … or maybe because I was so cold from everything being wet that being on something dry just felt warm.

As I wrote on one of my captions, it felt like I was asleep for at least an hour, but as it turns out I was only stopped at that church for 32 minutes. So I definitely fell asleep hard at some point to have lost my sense of time by that much. I did wake up with a start, though, so that really helped me wake up. I had faith in the vest by this point, so I put my wet jersey back on … can you say cold??? … and put my vest on top. I do want to note that if I hadn’t spilt that pickle juice, there would have been no problem at all. I would have been toasty warm in that dry vest. I would have been riding with it on and no jersey and been quite warm.

Instead, I was freezing but I also knew that the Cohutta climb was coming and even climbing as ridiculously slow as I was (averaged 3.8mph up the main Cohutta gravel climb) I started to warm up quite a bit with that vest on. So I took it off and stuffed it into my outer backpack pocket … which I discovered had been ripped open from when I caught it roughly on a tree trying to ride under the tree without stopping… and I knew at the speeds I was going that I would be climbing for a while and that sunrise was likely to happen before I really got into cold descending again. And that’s exactly what happened, it was well after sunrise by the time I started the main descent down from the Cohuttas on Bear Creek and it was quite toasty mid morning by the time I made it Pinhoti 0 and all the climbing there.

Through this whole section I was debating about stopping at Mulberry to hose off my bike because of what happened on the last muddy horse trail creek crossing before the main climb up Pinhoti 0. There was no way to cross it and the mud and water looked so deep and I was so tired that I made a really stupid decision. I tried to walk across it while pushing my bike. I mean, really, can you do anything more dumb than that? Sure, at least try to ride it, or walk it, but NOT BOTH! The mud was so thick that both my bike and my shoes got stuck in the mud. I had to pull so hard to get the bike up out of the mud because I decided immediately when I stepped down in and got both sandals stuck way down that I absolutely did not want to roll my bike through it. So I tried to pull the bike up to get it from making a complete tire revolution and the suction on that mud was strong (plus the weight of the bike). I got through it but there was mud everywhere. So much mud on my shoes and ironically there wasn’t much of a puddle there at all to wash my feet off and get the mud off … the deeper “puddle” part was behind a ton of mud so there was no way to get to it without having to backtrack through the mud once I used the water from the puddle to clean things off as much as possible I would just get everything dunked up with mud again trying to get back away from the watery part.

At the time I didn’t realize that this was it … the last water before the lonnnggg climb up Pinhoti 1 – so I rode for something like 8ish miles with my barefoot covered in mud NOT CLIPPED IN because the bottom was so full of mud I didn’t want to get all that dirt and crap in the cleat and have difficulty clipping in/out. Uggh. This was easily the worst part of the race for me. Eventually though I did make it to the official bear creek descent (I think … it’s hard for me to keep them straight) and finally made it to that first creek crossing where I was able to get everything cleaned up. Interestingly almost all the mud was gone from the bottom of my sandals and of course it was long gone from the tires (having flung off). So I just spent a few minutes cleaning up what mud was left carefully dipping my pedals down into the water, filtered a bit of water, too, and started off to tackle the Pinhoti 2 section.

It took forever and I ended up running out of water again, so I was still debating about heading up and over to Mulberry to resupply, but the dilemma with that was knowing that I was pretty much committed to full night’s sleep in Dalton … or alternatively I would need to sleep at Mulberry and take care of laundry and everything there and then just do quick resupply in Dalton. But it wasn’t raining yet and I knew there were afternoon storms on the way. So that made my decision. I was out of water, though, so I crawled down into that one creek you cross right before getting to the Pinhoti 3 climb up Fort Mountain and was able to filter there, which meant I had plenty of water left by the time I made it to Dalton.

Especially since I got walloped by a thunderstorm with lots of rain and lightning coming across those last high points of Pinhoti 5 before the freefall down to the valley. It was sketchy for sure. The lightning was right there. Like basically instantaneous thunder with each lightning flash. It always felt like it was a little behind me though (maybe a mile or so) which made me feel bad for Julie Goforth, who was the first grand depart rider that I caught back up to having started a few days after everyone from the grand depart. She would have been back in the real thick of the storm. In any case, it rained hard from near the very end of Pinhoti 5 all the way across to the outskirts of Dalton where the sun came out again.

Then I had to figure out the logistics of hotel and laundry since I and everything I had was just completely soaked by this point. I passed by that Sonic on the wrong side of town (not realizing there is a Sonic almost literally right in front of the hotel I stayed at) and bought stuff I was craving and ended up carrying it with me for 4.5 miles (no room for it anywhere in my bags). I also needed to buy a t-shirt b/c I needed to wash both my jersey AND my vest, so I would either be doing laundry while wrapped in a towel or I needed the cheapest t-shirt I could find. I found a place with a sign in the window that said T-Shirt $1 and I though oh man this is perfect, but unfortunately they were out of those and only had $4 t-shirts. It was actually a really nice fluorescent green t-shirt with no markings or decorations at all, but it was a bit too heavy for me to carry with me, so I basically used it while I did my laundry and then used it to clean off my bike in the hotel room (carefully) and then threw it away. I hate the disposable mentality, but I just didn’t think I had the room or desire to carry an extra 1/4 pound with me taking up so much space when I knew I would need to load up with a lot of food since I was really hoping to make it all the way to Coosa without any food resupply which is exactly what I did!

By the time I finished laundry and everything it was getting close to 8:45pm, so I set my alarm for six hours 2:45pm, hoping to be out the door by 3am but realizing it was going to take way longer to get everything together than 15 minutes. I woke up before the alarm even went off at about 2:30 but I was really, really out of it (no idea why I woke up). I turned off my alarm and almost went back to sleep thinking “screw it, I will just deal with the heat on the snake”. But I’m so glad I decided to just go ahead and get up. I made coffee in the room and then started putting everything back together (I basically taken everything out of all my bags to let things dry and recharge). By the time I cleaned my bike and got everything together and got dressed and ready to head out the door it was almost 3:45am.

I made a quick stop at the Race Trac to do my big food resupply and met this cool guy who was hanging out at the gas station from Columbia who was talking to me about all the riders from down there racing the Tour de France and how he used to ride bikes down there. It was great chatting with him, but by this point I really was kinda in a hurry. So without making it seem like I was in a hurry I listened and talked while I was doing all the food packing / bottle filling AND taking the huge cup of ice I had bought and filling up my camelbak pretty much completely with ice (I only had a 2L camelbak and I think it was a 48oz cup and I had filled my bottles inside with ice and dumped one of those in there). It was awesome to have cold ice water 3 hours later burning up on the snake with all the effort at 7am.

I said good-bye and took off the freshest I have ever been to climb up to the snake. I actually made it all the way up to the towers without dabbing and missed the turn onto the Snake for fourth year in a row but at least I knew pretty much right away that I had missed the turn this year. I think it’s because the first time I rode that climb was on my road bike and I rode it all the way up the gravel under the towers and so I get into this mode of thinking to make it to the towers.

I turned around and rode the short 50 feet or so back to the weird entrance that is right next to that one fenced off tower/building area. I was cautious about the snake because in previous years I’ve spent a bit more time riding rocky technical things getting ready for TNGA, but this year I only had one ride with my son on West Ridge at Oak Mountain (the most Snake-like trail we have in Alabama) and that ride did not go well for me although he blew through it so fast. I can see him riding TNGA some day. That would be amazing.

In any case, I kept waiting to not be able to clear something and trying to prepare myself mentally for the disappointing frustration of “this is going to take forever” but I ended up clearing the first technical section and that gave me confidence to try riding some things that I was thinking I would be walking in the dark. I didn’t end up clearing everything and specifically there were some sections I know I’ve cleared in the past that I got stuck on and had to walk, but I wasn’t getting frustrated like that first year where I basically walked everything technical in the first few miles of the snake.

The reason why the Snake is called the Snake (as far as I can tell) is based on how the course zig-zags along the ridges. You go south for a long ways on the first technical section (5-7 miles) and then you make a 180 descend a bit and climb back up north for about half as long before making a 180 again heading south again for about the same distance before 180ing again and heading north for almost as long as that first section. I’m just now realizing why I was so confused about directions. I knew that I had made the 180 and was heading back north (this is where the snake gets quite a bit easier) but the whole entire time I kept thinking I was still heading south because the sun was on my right. This makes sense because I’ve only ever hit the snake either at night (first year) or at sunset every other year. So this was the first time I was riding the snake at sunrise … so the sun being off to my right meant that I kept thinking I was heading south because that’s where the sun would be if it was sunset. But at sunrise it makes sense that I would be heading north on the easier section with the sun to my right. I just couldn’t convince myself that I had made the turn to the easier section.

All of this led to my next major wipeout in the race (I had done the probably somewhat typical Darnell Creek endo flipping over the handlebars unscathed about 24 hours earlier). But as I was coming down into the lower part of the snake where it rolls a bunch dipping down into muddy bottoms and even a short creek crossing or two, I came down into one of the steeper sections with a gentle turn that was apparently coated in mud that was as slick as ice. My rear wheel slid out from under me and I was falling before I knew what was happening. I was almost excited though after a few seconds to take a picture of my slide out because with the speed I was going it seemed like it would be a long slide mark, but it wasn’t anything special like I’ve seen in actual snow (that’s what it felt like). I’m curious if anyone else wiped out there … or at least fish tailed. That mud was like ice. Muddy, but unharmed, I got up and was a little more cautious on the next dips.

It wasn’t too long after that I caught a fun group of three riders who had camped on the snake and only started riding again a little before I caught up to them (Davis Wade, Dennis Nicholson, and Matt Goforth). I chatted with them for a bit before taking off again. They asked about the German shepherd and I tried to explain where it was … hopefully he was MIA for them as he was for me, Clint, and Nani when we rode by together about 12 hours later.

Between passing this group and catching up to Clint and Nani was a lot of stuff. First, the wildlife. I should mention that early in the race climbing up before the Darnell Creek single track, I had had a standoff with a wild boar that I first mistook for a small bear. I was really panicked because I thought mama bear might be nearby before realizing that it was actually a huge wild boar. I startled it and it was running up the trail in same direction I was going and turned left and then changed its mind and turned right and then it just stopped and turned to face me. This is when I realized it was a boar and panicked a bit for different reason thinking it was going to charge. So I got off my bike and prepared to use it to shield me from it, when it took off again crashing down the mountain (it was steep downhill to the left and impossibly steep uphill to the right). I’m very glad that for whatever reason it decided it could handle the super steep slope to the left instead of deciding to take an offensive tactic charging me. It was so loud crashing through the woods.

Speaking of boars, after the race, I learned why the next really interesting wildlife I saw (a rattlesnake) wasn’t rattling. As it turns out rattlesnakes are evolving not to rattle so that they don’t give their position away to boars which apparently eat them … and since I have now seen two wild boars within the span of 8 months I wonder if their population is increasing. So I had a standoff with the boar a day earlier. And then I had a standoff with a rattlesnake. It was perfectly stretched across the trail and not moving. I definitely didn’t want to go around on the head side, and was a little hesitant about riding behind it on the tail side too (not sure how fast they can turn and strike) so I threw some sticks at it and it wouldn’t move. Eventually after a minute or so, I said oh well and just rode around behind it as fast as I could. All good, it barely raised its head.

Just before the rattlesnake I had almost plowed into an Eastern Box Turtle, which was coming out of shrubbage right next to the trail onto the line I was taking pretty fast around a corner. I skidded and was able to sharpen my turn to miss him before stopping and turning around to take a pic. You can see in the pic the tire marks of all the riders (and mine too) as that is clearly the line to take.

Just to wrap up the wildlife, I saw the cutest, furriest skunk I’ve ever seen not too far after the spot where I wiped out on the lower part of the snake. It was hopping along the trail and quickly went off to the right as I approached. Prior to that I saw lots of skinks/salamanders through the whole Mulberry area, tons of those giant millipedes, a hawk after that before the storms hit, and an owl before that while it was just starting to get light. Also I remember at night riding up almost into the back of a possum running along the trail and somewhere along the course seeing an armadillo hustling across the trail. Lots of frogs … so many frogs … on the silver comet on my commute to the start because of the rain … it’s inevitable that I ran over several but I tried to miss them I really did. Only a few frogs this year during the race whereas last year they all came out during the rain on Pinhoti 3 climb up Fort Mountain.

Meanwhile, back to the lower parts of the snake, I was running low on water when Graham Skardon (via his Ridewithgps file – thanks Graham!) told me to start looking for water at the horse farm. I made my way to the fence and saw that a woman was leading one of the horses out to pasture so I called out to ask if I could climb the fence to get some water. She said I could just open it (it looked locked, but it wasn’t) and to be careful of the top wire which was HOT (electric). I thanked her profusely and then went around to the side of the barn which had the wobbly spicket she warned me to be very careful with as it was about ready to fall over and might start gushing water uncontrollably if it did.

So while I was being very careful refilling water, one of the horses she hadn’t taken to the barn yet started peeking its head out of the window right there by the spicket. It was fun to have it just checking me out with neighing or showing any kind of alarm. Unfortunately, my phone (camera) was still mounted on my bike so I wasn’t able to get a pic. But I was able to fill all 64 oz of my camelbak, hoping that since was the first time I had stopped for water there that this would be the year I could make it across Taylor’s Ridge without having to drop down off to the store way down in the valley which adds so much time/climbing/mental effort to the ride.

It was so hot middle of the afternoon by this point that I was going through all that water very quickly and thought for sure I would have to stop anyway when thankfully I crossed a creek on Narrows Picnic and there was a tree that was fallen down on the other side. See, the problem I usually run into is that I’m not out of water yet by the time I hit those creeks through there and I get focused on crossing the creek and remounting and riding up the other side that I forget that I can just totally filter any of that water. The same exact thing would have happened this year, except because there was a tree fallen across the trail just up from the last creek, I decided to walk up to it instead of ride up to it. And this gave me enough time to realize that I should just filter water right there!

I left my bike leaning up against the tree, walked all the way back down to the creek, filtered as much water as I could get into the camelbak. The problem with creeks that aren’t very full is that the bag squishes up so that you can only fit it halfway or less before water starts coming back out. The water was super shallow but moving fast and I eventually found just the right spot where I could push down on the back of the bag while lifting the front high enough for water to just barely make it over the lip into the camelbak. It took a minute or two but I was able to let it fill almost completely without any water coming back out.

This turned out to be quite important that I get it so full because I did indeed run out of water again a few miles before Coosa so if I had only filled it half full, I would have run out of water much sooner or been rationing water quite a bit in that afternoon heat.

Taylors’ Ridge was uneventful other than based on the timing, it was the hottest it’s ever been for me to have to cross it. Even that first year I did the race (2018) which was the other hot year in recent history I hit the Taylor’s Ridge climb a few hours earlier in late morning so it wasn’t quite as hot as hitting it this year in the afternoon. But I made it and was ecstatic to make it down off the last really technical bit of the race.

I was not looking forward to the tough unfinished rails-to-trail this year since I knew some of it would be exposed in the sun and with so much rain there were several sections that have deteriorated quite a bit with vegetation quite high too. It was during this section, though, that I caught up to Clint and Nani, and it was awesome to ride with them and exchange experiences with how the race had gone. They were a day behind because of scare with a yellow jacket sting on Stanley Gap. There were lots of yellow jackets this year. I only got stung by one on the leg and thankfully didn’t have a reaction to it … but Nani had a bad reaction to one and had to end up taking emergency Benadryl (I always carry some with me too for this exact reason) but that makes you sleepy for sure and they decided to just call it a night and camp earlier than they had intended while making sure the Benadryl kicked in.

They said they didn’t want to hold me up, but I was really happy to ride with them and figured we would have better luck with all the dogs if we just stayed together as a group. And that’s what happened, no dogs at all chased us, so once we were sure we were past the German shepherd, I was ready to get moving again so took off at about the spot where I ran out of water. I couldn’t remember how far it was to the gas station and that extra 16 miles of riding from Clayton to the start kinda throws off all the distances (who can do math this far into the race??) so I almost stopped to filter but decided to push on as long as I could and thankfully it’s a lot of downhill once you finally hit the pavement to get to the gas station.

I was just getting ready to pull out after loading EVERYTHING up with ice. It was so hot. I stuffed my ice filled camelbak straight down my jersey instead of in my backpack and took off with two full bottles of icy gatorade too. I wanted to make sure I could skip the slightly out-of-the-way Cave Spring store and make it all the way to the finish without stopping.

So that’s what I did. I’m already making plans to bring my son Josiah up to Cave Spring for fall break. That last section of the Pinhoti is so much fun and I just feel like there is a lot to explore in that area. We are definitely going to go find the cave … and who knows what else? Plus riding the sweet flowy pine straw covered (instead of rock-strewn) section of the Pinhoti is going to be a blast.

A couple last things to note. Essom Hill and Mckert dirt roads were both completely rideable which is interesting to me. I thought for sure there would be some huge muddy sections, but I think some of the most recent storms must have missed that road completely. Also, a local and his buddy stopped me in their truck to ask if I was with the race. They were really nice and wanted to chat for a bit to ask about the race. It’s cool that people all over that area are familiar with the TNGA … or as many of them probably know it as “that bike race”.

About a mile later, I ran into the herd of black labs, which were the only dogs that chased me the entire race. I think they may have been out because Jennifer Talley and Julian Daza had just ridden through there not too long before me. So they were all out in the front yard some of them even already on the road, so it was tricky getting through, but I maintained good eye contact and yelled no at the lead dog that came in first and when he backed off the others kinda followed suit and just ran alongside me as I picked up speed down the hill.

I didn’t know at the time that there were any riders in front of me, and I expected the finish line to be a lonely deserted finish line, but instead Jennifer and Julian were both their with the people who had come to pick them up too. It was awesome to chat with them for quite a while. I had been debating about how long I would wait there to make sure my Garmin Inreach pinged at the finish, so it was great to fill that time exchanging stories about the race. Eventually I said goodbye and headed back up to the Essom Trailhead where my car was waiting patiently for me (I had left it there about 90 hours earlier at 1am Monday morning).

Final stats according to Ridewithgps which I used to record the entire ride including the 16 miles from Clayton: 387 miles, 39,763 ft of climbing, 68:32:56 elapsed time with I believe about 1 hour 45 minutes of that being the initial 16 miles before the start of my ITT. Specifically, I started at 1:50am on Tuesday from the bridge and finished at the Alabama state line at 8:34pm on Thursday for an elapsed time of 48 hours to 1:50am Thursday morning plus another 12 hours to 1:50pm plus 16 minutes shy of 7 hours to 8:34pm, which if you add everything up: 48 + 12 + 7 – 16minutes = 66 hours, 44 minutes (or 2 days, 18 hours, 44 minutes) which I believe is the fifth fastest time this year with James Dunaway absolutely blowing the record out of the water with 40 hours flat. Jason Foster took the grand depart win at 2 days 10 hours (58 hours) or about 8 hours faster than me, followed by Jon Brown and Corey Kronsner who took a close 2nd and 3rd about 5 hours back, and then Alex Butler in 4th for the grand depart but about 30 minutes behind me making him the 6th fastest time of the year with both James and I doing our ITTs faster making me the fifth fastest time of the year.

Skyway Epic and Tour de Tuscaloosa Double Header

Skyway 2016 Men's 100 podium. Left-to-right: Jeff Clayton, Brian Toone, and Hefin JonesSkyway 2016 100 mile podium. Left-to-right: Jeff Clayton, Brian Toone, and Hefin Jones. I was freezing cold after the race so I donned a skull cap and my winter jacket thinking I’d take it off right before the podium but then my zipper was stuck and I couldn’t get the jacket off. Oh well!!! Shout out to my team Friends of the Great Smokies.

Skyway Epic 2016 100 miler
I’m happy to report a win – my first win in a long time – at the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile mtb race. Race director Brent Marshall introduced a new format this year where the 100 milers got a 2 hour headstart on the 60 milers so that we could all finish at the same time. This was super helpful to me as I caught 60 milers later in the race which gave me motivation to push it hard since I was no longer alone out there on the trail. Unusually cold weather saw us start with steam rising off Lake Howard and temps dipping all the way down to freezing at the start.

Chilly 32 degF at the start of the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile race.Chilly 32 degF at the start of the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile race.

At the start, I took off like a rabbit getting the holeshot with Jeff close on my wheel. I rode as fast as I could on the singletrack, but he wanted to go a bit faster so after the goat trail he came around and put a little bit of time into me on the remaining singletrack. I could see him up ahead any time the trail went uphill and I would close a bit by crushing the hill as hard as possible before he would put more time into me on the downhills and turns. I was still within shouting distance and quickly caught up on the doubletrack so that we entered the creek crossing together.

Behind us came the lead singlespeeder who went flying by us on the steep hill on the other side of the creek as we spun up it in easier gears. Jeff and I took turns rotating on the front as we flew up and down the hills of Wiregrass road eventually catching the singlespeeder near the start of the long cat 2 climb to the top of Bull’s Gap. I pushed the pace really hard through here hoping to get as much of a lead on the climb as possible to be able to hold onto it on some of the tricky descents across the top. Immediately after the 1830′ high point on the skyway is a short, fast steep descent with large rocks and ruts. You have to find a good line, and I did not. I just plowed over everything. I didn’t take this as a good sign, or perhaps it worked out to be a good wake-up call as I took really good lines the rest of the day.

Good Lines
This stood out to me as one of the best parts of the race — the tricky uphill climbs with rocks and ruts where you normally dread bouncing over the smaller rocks and losing momentum. Normally, I weave all over the place trying to find the perfect line. But this year I decided to take a more direct approach. Sometimes it was clear that the best line was on the side of the trail. But other places, the best line was right through the middle of the rocks where I discovered that many times there would be a small gap where you could ride between rocks or the rocks would be smooth enough that it was less energy to ride over them than to try to maneuver across to the other side of the trail.

Also, I tried to make good use of the updrafts on some of the climbs. If the climb was smooth enough, I would lock out the fork, stand up, and do the top of the climb standing up to maximize surface area from the wind blowing up the climbs. Then as soon as I reached either a bumpier section of the climb or the top, I would unlock the fork so that I could have the security and efficiency of the front tire staying on the ground instead of bouncing up in the air. I was happy with a few of the descents, but it is tough with a hard tail to feel secure enough to rail the corners knowing that your wheels could bounce up and wash out.

USGS map (2014) showing the second section of the skyway up Talladega Mountain from the RR crossing in the bottom left to the Gunterstown Rd crossing at Clairmont Gap in the upper right of the map. Click to enlarge and find cemeteries on the map.USGS map (2014) showing the second section of the skyway up Talladega Mountain from the RR crossing in the bottom left to the Gunterstown Rd crossing at Clairmont Gap in the upper right of the map. Click to enlarge and find cemeteries on the map.

Talladega Mountain
Talladega Mountain is not in the USGS summit database (probably an accidental omission), but it is labeled on the USGS printed maps – both the old ones and the new ones. But because it isn’t in the USGS summit database, the label doesn’t show up on Google Maps terrain view, Openstreetmap terrain view, or my topocreator maps. But when Brent posted the map of the race course outlined on a scanned USGS printed map, I saw the name of it plastered right there on the map over the entire ridgeline making up the Skyway-2 section of the race. This entire stretch of the skyway is a 4 mile climb up Talladega Mountain followed by a shorter 1.5 mile descent down to Clairmont Gap. This section of the skyway is not quite as well maintained. Others may be able to speak to this better than I, but I imagine the reason why the first section is better maintained is that there is a lookout tower and abandoned picnic area at the top of Horn Mountain on the first section of the skyway. I imagine 20, 30, 40, or 50 years ago it was probably a popular outing from Talladega or Sylacauga or even Birmingham to drive down and then drive up the dirt road to the tower. Talladega Mountain, on the other hand, doesn’t have anything at the top. This section of the skyway simply serves as a rugged shortcut to get over to Gunterstown, but there is a paved road through the valley that is much faster so there is no real reason to maintain this section of the skyway other than as a fire road for the national forest and the Pinhotti trail, which crosses it a couple times.

The end result is these awesome, massive ruts right down the middle of the road. These are not ruts from vehicles, but rather a single rain channel rut. It is deep enough in places that if you get stuck on the wrong side of the rut, you have to climb off and hop over to the other side. This happened to David Potter and I last year during the race. This year I was able to guess the correct side and correct place to cross the ruts and didn’t have to hop off, although I think there was one place that was really tight that I squeezed through barely. Also, on the climb up Talladega Mountain, which starts immediately after the RR track crossing, I heard the train horn and was hoping that I was far enough ahead that everyone else would be caught behind it and have to wait. I think I had been on the climb for 5-10 minutes, though, so it’s likely that Jeff was already on the climb. It must have been a close call, though, as my gap was 6 minutes at the next aid station a few miles later at the Gunterstown crossing.

Skyway Section 3
The third section of the skyway is really well maintained as there is some private property in the middle of it not too far from Burgess Point. I imagine there was a clause written into the law which created the Cheaha Wilderness and Talladega National Forest that existing property owners could keep their land. There were “for sale” signs along the skyway. The entire section is road bikeable and makes for some great Rouge Roubaix training. On a mountain bike, you can absolutely fly through here although there is some loose gravel that is just deep enough to offer extra resistance but not enough to cause fishtailing on a mountain bike. On a road bike, be prepared to take good lines and avoid the deeper gravel or you are going down!

One of the ways that I trained for Race Across America was to ride out to Cheaha and back. Visible at several spots along my normal routes out to Cheaha is the skyway epic ridge line, which I would almost always cross at either Gunterstown or Adams Gap or both. The shortest possible distance for any of these rides from my house in Hoover is 180+ miles. Gunterstown and Adams Gap and the main Cheaha highway (AL-281) are all on those routes and also on the Skyway Epic race course, but sections 1 and 2 are not road bikeable so my only association with the first two sections of the skyway are with the race itself. This third section of the skyway and the Cheaha parkway are deeply ingrained with memories from super long road rides. This can be both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that it makes for some fun memories and distraction from the pain during the race. The curse is that I’ve been on those roads when I’ve been way past the point of exhaustion so during a race on the same roads you do have some negative reinforcement as you are trying to dig even deeper into the pain cave.

The turnaround and the way back
The turnaround was at the Pinhotti trail parking area near the turnipseed primitive campground entrance. This is where I parked my car when I everested Mount Cheaha from the west back in December 2014. At the turnaround aid station, I dumped my trash and ate my first powergel and hammer gel. I didn’t get any water as I still had a full bottle of gatorade. I figured I would drink this until Aid Station #3 on the way back up Horn Mountain. This was a bit of a mistake as it had gotten hotter and I ran out of gatorade before making it to the aid station. Still, it wasn’t long that I had to ration and I was able to refill at Aid #3. Altogether because of the cooler than normal temperatures, I only drank three bottles – 60 oz total – of fluid during the 7 hour 24 minute race.

At the turnaround, I hit my lap button so I could time how long it was back to Jeff. My timer hit 4’45” when I passed him heading the other way. I kid you not – I spent at least 20, maybe 30, minutes trying to figure out what that translated into in terms of an actual time gap based on the terrain he was traversing (mostly downhill) vs the terrain I was traversing (mostly uphill). My estimate of the time gap was 6-7 minutes, which I think was pretty close based on the splits Stewart Miller had written down at aid station #4. I was starting to feel more confident that I was pulling away, but there is no real way to know for sure so I just kept on it as hard as I could. I was encouraged every time I saw my heartrate make it back up into the 160s on a climb. Also, once I hit the 65 mile course turnaround I started seeing and passing racers again. This was encouraging and motivating as many of them shouted encouragement as I passed.

Final singletrack and flat tire
My goal was to bury it as much as possible before the singletrack knowing that even if I was exhausted I would still be able to ride the singletrack at about the same speed because of all the turns. I also wanted to have as much of a gap as possible so I could take the singletrack at a safe speed and not crash and make things worse. I also wanted to pick good lines on the singletrack to avoid the sharp tire-slicing rocks. Still, I was coming around a corner and hit something, and I immediately I heard the “psffffft” of air leaking from my rear tire. Also, I felt tire sealant splashing on my back. I kept riding hoping that the tire would seal itself, and it did! I was low on air in the rear tire so I rode even slower on the singletrack to make sure that I didn’t get a second puncture or cut on the tire. Finally, after an hour of singletrack, I made it back to the start in first place!!!!!!!!!

I saw two different small herds of deer on the way out … one of them was in the trail when I was coming around a corner on a descent. I thought it was a 4wd vehicle, and since I was cutting the corner pretty bad I slammed on the brakes and nearly lost control as I tried to get back on the right side of the road before I realized it was deer jumping off the trail. I didn’t see any hunters this year, as I guess it’s not peak turkey season yet. I don’t remember any birds specifically, but I have a vague recollection of seeing a few. I also didn’t see any turtles unlike the year when there was a giant one in the middle of the singletrack at the start of the race … “turtle!”

Summary data 2012-2016
Click on past years to see the race report for that year. Also, last year’s temp swing is correct as measured by my Garmin in the full sun on the climb back up Horn Mountain since there is no shade. Actual air temp was probably in the 80s degF. Last year’s race was by far the hardest because of the heat and distance and having ridden to the start from Birmingham and then attempting to ride home afterwards for 185 miles on the bike that day!

Year Place Distance Climbing Avg/MaxHR Zone5 AvgSpd TempSwing Suffer
2016 1st !!! 100.4 mi 10,325 ft 154/177 00:04:13 13.5 mph 32-68degF 522
2015 2nd (David Potter) 107.6 mi 11,483 ft 151/179 00:04:56 13.1 mph 46-104degF 629
2014 Did not race – bad crash into side of car – week of race spent in hospital
2013 2nd (Kyle Taylor) 58.3 mi ~5,500 ft 167/189 01:19:17 14.0 mph 68-77degF 420
2012 2nd (Adam Gaubert) 59.4 mi ~5,500 ft 165/193 00:45:41 14.4 mph 64-86degF 218

One of the takeaways from this data is that I’m getting old, and ultra endurance riding has dramatically lowered my heartrate. Perhaps because ultra endurance riding changes your muscles so that it doesn’t have to beat as fast to pump out the same volume of blood? In any case, to think of spending nearly 1 hour 20 minutes in zone 5 is nuts right now. Here is my annotated heartrate data from this year’s race:

hrsummary-skyway2016Annotated heartrate zone summary from the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile mtb race. I hit my lap timer at the halfway point so I could time my gap to Jeff. The side effect of this is that I’ve got my exact outbound vs inbound times for the race – 3:46:58 (13.2 mph) on the way out and 3:37:38 (13.9 mph) on the way back in.

Annotated HR plot from the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile mtb race. Click to enlarge and see detail.Annotated HR plot from the 2016 Skyway Epic 100 mile mtb race. Click to enlarge and see detail.

Finally, here is an annotated topocreator map of the entire Skyway Epic ridge line up to Mount Cheaha. Click to enlarge and see detail.Finally, here is an annotated topocreator map of the entire Skyway Epic ridge line up to Mount Cheaha. Click to enlarge and see detail.

Tour de Tuscaloosa Double Header
Having gotten up early to get to the 7AM start on time, I went to bed pretty early Saturday night and set my alarm for 2:30AM so I could ride the 71 miles from Birmingham to Romulus (west of Tuscaloosa) for the Tour de Tuscaloosa road race. I was very slow getting everything ready and didn’t make it out the door until 3:48AM. I had to book it to make it there in time but fortunately there was a southeasterly wind blowing which was a crosswind at the beginning and cross-tailwind by the end. I averaged close to 17 mph on the way there and was going to be there in plenty of time, except I got confused about where the registration was. I thought it was at a church near the intersection of 5 mile Dirt Rd and Romulus Rd. So I panicked and eventually just started riding around like a chicken with its head cut off in all three possible directions from that intersection. With no cellphone coverage I couldn’t look anything up either so I gambled after briefly checking the two options I thought were least likely and committed to the third option which I knew took you into the main part of town. I made it to the registration desk by 8:16AM for the 8:30AM start. I was preregistered so all I had to do was pin two numbers onto my jersey. By the time I got my numbers on and took all my extra lights off my helmet and bike, I rode straight up to the start where Stuart Lamp helped me ziptie the timing chip to my seatpost immediately before another official gave us our final instructions and sent us on our way. Perfect timing!

I put in the first attack after the neutral zone hoping that people wouldn’t take it seriously and I would be long up the road by the time the real break went and caught up to me. Unfortunately, that didn’t work so well and I drifted to the back missing the real break when it eventually went. There was a great chance to bridge up on this hill near a church, but nobody attacked and I was blocked in. In fact, I almost had a clear shot at it but I would have had to cross the yellow line to clear one rider who was just a fraction too far to the left for me to squeeze between him and the yellow line. Ugh. Probably for the best, though, because I felt terrible later in the race and I think it would have been even more depressing to get dropped from the winning break rather than miss the break altogether. All-in-all, it was a fun race and really great to see racers I haven’t seen in a while. One really special reunion was chatting with Trey Pounds who I had met and stayed with on my ride back from Natchez, MS to Birmingham, AL as a test run to test the feasibility of me racing RAAM.

Annotated heartrate from the Tour de Tuscaloosa road race plus the ride there from Hoover.Annotated heartrate from the Tour de Tuscaloosa road race plus the ride there from Hoover.