When you were a kid, there was definitely an urban myth or legend which brought absolute dread anytime it was mentioned between your friends and you. The kind of story that, if it crossed your mind late at night, made you clench into a ball of fear as you retreated deeper and deeper under your covers. The Babadook. Slenderman. Candyman.
That last one has been haunting me for years. I first heard of MoM when I was a cheerfully plump bike commuter, clad in screaming yellow, carefully steering my Trek Hybrid down the SUPER SAFE multi-use trails of Northern Virginia. It was probably around 2013 and the only accidents I experienced were when I ventured out of The Safe Zone and went riding around on my new road bike. In the span of a year, I broke 6 bones and lacerated my kidney during three separate accidents. All on flat ground. Needless to say, the concept of doing a ride up and down mountains was utterly terrifying.
As time rolled by and I became more integrated into the local cycling scene, the ride still seemed elusive. A few friends did it and I would grill them for details. The conversations were usually extremely specific.
Me (dying for details): Soooo, what is Mountains of Misery like?
Friend: It is hard as fuck.
(Three minutes of silence)
Me: Okay thanks!
The other detail that sticks out is hearing that a friend of a friend and his buddies rode it every year and they prepared for it by training on Skyline Drive. This seemed like a BIG DEAL to me, because I had actually driven my car on Skyline and the only thing I could think of was that there was NO FREAKING WAY I would ever ride a bike there. Ever. Too steep. Too scary. Nope!
Then, fortunately, that version of me eventually melted away. More rides, longer rides, DUMBER rides. More confidence. I could look in a mirror and repeat “Mountains of Misery” five times without wetting my bibs. Climbing? I can do that! Long rides? I do them all the time! 2017 rolled around and as soon as I had a chance, I signed up for the MoM double metric option and gabbed incessantly about it. Even as Michele and BeeBee and I were driving down to Blacksburg on the eve of the race, I wasn’t really nervous. It was just a ride. I am a climber. I will knock it out.
This is, of course, exactly how Mountains of Misery wants you. Overconfident.
We arrived in Blacksburg in the late afternoon, and after I picked up my race packet from the local bike shop, we checked into our hotel and then went looking for dinner. Thank god for Yelp, because for the thousandth time, it served up a winner in an unfamiliar town. Lefty’s Main Street Grille even housed a brewery, so I knew that I would be able to lock down my standard pre-ride bacon cheeseburger, fries, and beer. It was just too easy. THE COURSE DIDN’T STAND A CHANCE.After dinner I hit the grocery store and loaded up on some emergency ride food that I probably wouldn’t need, headed back to the hotel, got everything ready, and went to sleep. The next morning I was up before my alarm, dressed, and out with plenty of time to spare. My wife dropped my bike and me at the Newport Recreation center and I hung out and waited for stuff to get started. It was weird. It was boring.
Like this story.
All I had to do was ride seven timed climbs really fast and hold on until the finish. I could climb, that wasn’t an issue. I saw my friend Pablo at the start, resplendent in a super cool kit, looking fit and ready as always. He had done the ride a number of times, and even though I knew I was going to CRUSH THE LIFE out of this course, I politely asked for some advice.
“Don’t go out too fast…save it for the climbs…pace yourself.”
Thanks, I said out loud. HAHAHA WHAT?!?!?! is what I said in my head. Me? Go out too fast? NONSENSE! Besides, I AM CLIMBER. I CLIMBS. CLIIIIIIMBBBBBBUH.
Then the gun or horn or banjo sounded and the 80 or so double metric riders were off.The pace was pretty solid for the first 10 miles, but we were in a bunched up peloton and if there is anything I hate more than being bunched up, it’s a peloton. Don’t ask me why. It’s definitely a personality flaw, because the amount of efficiency you give up by going LONE WOLF is immense. Whatever. Fuck this, we have 118 miles to go, I’m going off the front.
So I took advantage of a short climb where everyone was going SO ANNOYINGLY SLOW and pulled ahead. I could see another dude in the distance who I assumed was the leader, so I set my sights on him and just started pedaling.
That power move lasted for about five miles until I was swallowed up again. Weird, but we hadn’t really hit any climbs so I just got in line and went with the flow. For the next 15 miles we rolled along, skipping the first rest station (I wasn’t really planning on stopping for the first 100 miles guys, take notes).
Then we came to the first climb, Little Walker. Despite there being no timing mat, I was sure this was the first of the seven climbs. I mean, we were 30 miles in. Plus one of the peloton dudes put his hand on my back to move me out of the way because I kept fucking up their rotation because have I mentioned that I hate
suck at pelotons riding with others?
I hammered up Little Walker. I could feel someone on my wheel the whole time but it just strengthened my resolve to stay in the big ring and crush it. I crushed it. I thought the whole peloton was steaming up the climb, drafting off of THE KING OF CLIMBING, but they were puny mortals and were way back. The next climb – Diva Camp Potts Mountain, was much more significant. Cat 2, with almost 1,900 feet of ascent over 5+ miles. I continued to hammer, even dumping the dude who had been on my wheel going up Little Walker.
Suddenly, I WAS LEADING MOUNTAINS OF MISERY.I looked back. I didn’t see A SINGLE CYCLIST. Holy shit! I was going to win this thing! But my wife wasn’t planning on getting to the finish line until 3pm! I would be finished by then! She wouldn’t see me win Mountains of Misery ON MY FIRST TRY! Not to mention the fact that I was going to win AND was about to win the second of the seven climbs! I wonder if I can do this whole thing without stopping? How epic would that be? OMFG the blog entry for this race would be…BEING FAKE HUMBLE IS HARD!
This climb was also getting annoyingly hard. I refused to drop out of my big ring (I’m a climber, yo!), and the ascent also refused to end. As I headed up the last stretch I looked behind me and out of nowhere the dude who had been on my wheel going up Little Walker was gaining. Fast. The rest of the peloton was nowhere to be seen, so I finally dropped down to my small chainring and watched helplessly as he effortlessly passed me. I hung on his wheel for the last 100 feet but decided to let him have this one. Magnanimously, I might add.
HOLY SHIT I WAS IN SECOND PLACE IN MOUNTAINS OF MISERY!
This kind of floated around in my mind as I enjoyed a screaming 7% descent down the backside of whatever we had just made it over. Little known fact: when you descend on a bike for 5 minutes at 40mph all of your irrational exuberance reserves are released into your bloodstream. Visions of shit you never thought you could accomplish – building a log cabin from scratch, making a killer chocolate souffle, breeding lions – suddenly become EXTREMELY doable.
That irrational exuberance took me right past the rest station at mile 45. I am pretty sure I mentioned I wasn’t stopping. Okay, I thought, don’t be ridiculous…you are going to stop but not until like mile 100 or whatever. At mile 50 I couldn’t see the dude ahead of me, but I still couldn’t see anyone behind me either. This was going great. I had no idea when the next climb was coming, but it had to be soon.
Then I took a right and turned around to look as I headed up a short climb and I saw them. Out of nowhere the peloton had appeared. It startled the hell out of me. I thought I had a huge lead. All of that hard climbing! None of the aid station stopping! How? Why? I pedaled a little harder but all of a sudden I was feeling fatigued. Right before mile 60, I was swallowed up.I was bummed but hey this wasn’t my first rodeo! I have foolishly gone off the front only to take a wrong turn or crash or drop my friends or get swallowed by the peloton a million times before. My friend Pablo, still in the hunt, still as strong as ever, just looked at me as if to say “WHAT IN THE ACTUAL F IS WRONG WITH YOU?” and maybe he didn’t say that aloud, but either way, message received. I was just going to hang with the group from now on. I mean, I wasn’t going to stop at every rest station or anything, like a goddamned amateur, but I’m not going to try to win every climb either.
When we hit the third big climb, Jameson Mountain via Rich Patch Road, our group had a police cruiser with its flashing lights following us. What a nice escort that was! That’s what happens when you are in the ELITE FRONT GROUP. I also noticed that this particular climb was much, much steeper than the previous two. I went to drop down into my lowest gear – 34/28. Except I was already in my lowest gear. All of a sudden, every ounce of strength I had seemed to evaporate from my body. I stood up to pedal and spun out on some gravel and was so exhausted I almost went over the handlebars. I was pedaling at maybe 4 mph. I hadn’t felt so slow and weak in years. Like 60 pounds ago weak and slow. I started falling further and further behind the lead group.
Eventually, the police cruiser passed me.
It’s hard to describe the thoughts that go through your head at your lowest point. On a lot of rides I am hyper aware and thinking, okay, this is your lowest point, you can bounce back from this. This was different. I was in such a dark place and it had come so suddenly that I didn’t realize where I was. All I could think of was a) stopping b) quitting c) shacking up at that nice mobile home right there. It is a sick, awful feeling but you are in so much pain and so destroyed that you can’t think straight. Then you remember you have 60 miles to go until you get to the 2,000+ foot, 6 mile category 1 finishing climb. Then you get REALLY depressed.
Now I just wanted to finish. Get to the top of this hill, for the love of god. END HILL, END. It finally ended and I rolled, slowly, down the other side. No one in sight. Chewed up and spit the fuck out. I did not, in all likelihood, win that climb. We were now entering the TEMPERING EXPECTATIONS segment of the race.
For the next 25 miles I just hung on, trying to pedal. I kept telling myself that I was on a bike ride, beautiful country, enjoy the view. I stopped at the first rest stop I came upon. Then the next one. Then the next. I ate so many vanilla creme sandwich cookies and drank so much coke. I tried like mad to replicate my shitty convenience store energy spark of rides past. I was a zombie rider. One dude tried to go two-man peloton with me and I apologized and told him I was too destroyed to even stay in his slipstream. So off he went, leaving the weak dude in his wake.Has anyone in history ever gone faster from “no stops” to I WILL HIT ALL OF THE STOPS? One of the main reasons I was stopping was the massive leg cramps with which I was dealing. The whole thing was so weird. I hadn’t had leg cramps like that in a long time. Like FATCHRIS LEVEL leg cramps. I had no idea what to do about it either. So I drank pickle juice at like three straight stops. It kind of a little not really helped? I don’t know. I’m not familiar with the SCIENCE of it. I had to get my shit together, though. I had two more climbs and I had some vague notion that I wanted to finish in 8 hours.
As I hit 100 miles and the next to last climb, the route continued to impress. I mean, it was mountain views on country roads on a beautiful day. It wasn’t even really that hot. Which made me feel like an even bigger tool because the conditions were ideal. The race was well run! The crazy nice volunteers got food for you or held your bike or both. The turns were all well marked. Hazards were spray painted bright orange. I had no excuses for being such a cramping, feeble doofus. None. GAHHHHH.
The penultimate climb in question, St. John’s Creek, was a category 2 of about 1,100 feet. It was hard and I was cramping but I was also getting a little endurance back. I even passed a few riders. Oddly, they still hadn’t marked any of the climbs and I couldn’t figure out how they were getting readings from the timing chips they had us zip tie to our helmets. No matter. I wasn’t all the way back, but for the first time in about 30+ miles I felt like I could finish. Nothing scared me more than having to stop on that last climb up to Mountain Lake and the finish line.All of the double metric riders were wearing red numbers and the century riders were wearing black numbers. I knew this because after our next to last climb, our routes joined up so that we could finish together. So all of a sudden I felt like I was wading through a sea of black numbers. That was good for my painfully fragile ego, as I liked to pretend that there were people with even WORSE judgement and MORE overconfidence than me who had also blown up. In reality they were probably just saving it for the last climb, which, looking back, is probably what I should have been doing from the start.
About that last climb. You basically ride down to the New River, skirting around Spruce Run Mountain. And then…you grind up a category 1 climb that just gets harder and harder and harder. Eventually it hits 14-16%. Cruelly, they put a pit stop 2 miles from the top.
I knew it was going to be hard. It is all anyone talks about when discussing this ride. Nothing prepares you for it. So many riders are walking their bikes up this stretch. I pedaled past the last rest stop and a little girl asked if she could spray me with her super soaker. For a split second I thought she might hit me hard enough to knock me over, but she got me in the butt and magically propelled me for 100 feet. That’s really all I needed. The failures of others, and cold water on the butt. It’s my sustenance.
I kept pedaling. With a mile to go, rain started falling. I passed a double metric rider that I had been chasing for 2 hours. I passed another walker. I saw orange cones! Delirious, I asked a volunteer how far I was from the finish. 600 feet she said! I turned a corner and saw the finish line. I saw my Michele and BeeBee! They made it just in time to see me roll across the finish line, completely exhausted. So happy.It was raining hard. It didn’t matter. It was over. I had done it, and people I love were there to witness it. All of my foolishness and idiocy suddenly took a backseat to the accomplishment of being at the top of that climb after 128 miles of riding and suffering.
How good did it feel to finish? The official finisher’s shirt, ONLY AVAILABLE to finishers (registering and starting? NOT ENOUGH), was maybe the ugliest shirt I had ever seen. I complained about how ugly it was prior to the race. Now? It was beautiful. And soft. And I am never ever taking it off (ed. note: Michele made me take it off, eventually).Speaking of idiocy. Just a day or so after the race was over and I was home and frantically searching through the results of the race (I was 27th out of 73 double metric finishers), I couldn’t for the life of me find the results of the seven climbs.
That’s because they didn’t exist.
Dumbass me had conflated another ride I am doing (Garret County Gran Fondo), a ride that DOES have timed climbs, with this one. So my strategy of going HARD AF on the climbs, not only didn’t pay off, it wasn’t even necessary. My friend Pablo, who finished 10th, said it best:
“You should be proud. First time doing MoM in under 8 hours is awesome. Now, what did I tell you about starting out too hard? What did you do on the first big climb? You went for it as if your pants were on fire. Love it!”
And now I am wondering if this was just the universe’s way of tricking me into doing the ride again. Something I swore up and down, during the ride, that I would never ever do again. Why would I put myself through that? I think it’s obvious.
I need to beat my time.