I raised my head after having hunched my way through a series of leafy bows arched over faint trail. My light illuminated yet another massive spider web right at face level. A fat, 3-inch-long orb-weaver sat motionless in the center. I grabbed my brakes, but I was already well into the sticky strands, some so thick they made an audible snap as they broke across my head and chest. Sliding to a stop, I looked down to flick off the golden spider, now somewhat tangled in its own web. I wiped my gloved hand across my face and continued on. It was nearing three in the morning, and this had been the theme of the night thus far. Deep in Appalachia's Blue Ridge Mountains competing in the 360-mile Trans North Georgia Adventure (TNGA), I found myself far out of my element amid the dense forest, damp air and countless plump spiders. But despite all this, TNGA ended up being one of the most enjoyable race experiences I've had.
I'm a creature of the West and a lover of its wide-open spaces, parched deserts, imposing mountains and exposed bedrock. I ride in search of the sensation of freedom associated with pedaling over one mountain range and seeing the crest of the next, tens of miles distant across a sparsely populated valley. And I love the relief and gratitude that accompanies finally arriving at a water source having religiously rationed the last couple bottles filled up the prior evening. These landscapes, whether majestic or desolate, sliced up by canyons or climbing into sky, are where I feel most at ease.
For a decade now, my competitive desires have driven me to race my bike through these places, whether that's been across Arizona or Colorado, down the spine of the Rocky Mountains, or circumnavigating rugged loops hundreds of miles in length. I've experienced the highest highs and most dreadful lows in these self-supported bikepacking races, and they've resulted in some of my most memorable hours in the saddle. After so many years of racing in the West, I finally felt drawn to challenge myself by racing somewhere entirely unfamiliar and in a landscape within which I feel far less comfortable. For years, I’ve had my eye on the longest-running mountain bike ultra in the East, dubbed the Trans North Georgia Adventure. With 360 miles of backroads, 4×4 tracks and trail coupled with a whopping 46,000 feet of climbing, this seemed like my style of event. But in my head, it seemed utterly impossible for the southern terminus of the ancient and highly eroded Appalachian Mountains to provide a comparable amount of climbing, mile per mile, as found in the beastly Colorado Trail Race. As soon as that thought went through my head, I knew that I was doomed to underestimate what I was going to be up against.
I flew from Idaho to Georgia three days ahead of the race, a trip so filled with delays that it took twice as long and required twice as many flights as planned. But after a restless night in empty airports and aluminum tubes, I emerged into the shockingly steamy morning air of Atlanta. The South's heat and humidity had me more intimidated than any other element of the race. I hitched a ride north with another racer to the Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Get-a-way, an idyllic cluster of cabins and communal buildings nestled in northern Georgia's rugged mountains. As we neared our destination, the van pitched sharply up and and then abruptly down as we pressed farther into the mountains. The narrow highways were steep. And the smaller roads heading off into the dark, dense forest on either side were even steeper. In the distance, a series of long ridges towered high above where we were. Northern Georgia, as it turns out, is legitimately mountainous.
The dedicated crew at Mulberry Gap, which is situated just a half mile off the TNGA route, provides accommodations and shuttle services to the start and back from the finish for racers. Nearly 50 excited and nervous bikepackers crowded together a day before the start. Milling about, folks were sharing exaggerated stories from past years of racing, laughing about how steep the Hog Pen climb is, worrying over the especially rainy weather forecast, and warning me to be careful to not slice my tires on a particularly rough section of trail called ‘The Snake.’ Dozens of bikes awaited loading into a convoy of trailers. Some were drop-bar mountain bikes, a few wore plus-sized tires, several full suspensions dotted the lineup, a handful of singlespeeds peppered the scene, but most were conventional hardtails. And just as variable was the equipment carried--some laden with as much as could be strapped, a few bore little more than a day ride’s necessities and most rigs fell somewhere in between. My bike fell on the lightly loaded end of the spectrum, sporting just a few small pouches, a seat bag and three water bottles. My plan didn't really involve any sleeping if my body kept running well, and the weather forecast was warm by my standards, so I packed rather minimally.
Amid a fog-filled forest on Saturday morning, nearly 90 riders spread out across the narrow highway bridge above the Chattooga River. A few dozen family members and spectators lined the road as it climbed away from South Carolina and into Georgia. This would be the highest concentration of spectators anywhere along the course. I stood in the front row, flanked by veterans of the event. Apprehension hung thick in the humid air, and words among the waiting crowd were few. The sky looked as if it could let out a downpour at any moment, but for now, the rain held off.
Derek ‘Koz’ Kozlowski, one of the event's organizers, stood at the end of the bridge grinning proudly. This field was nearly double the size of the prior year's. When the time came, Koz boomed, "Have a safe journey, enjoy the adventure and we'll see you in Alabama!" And with that, the clock started, and it wouldn't stop until reaching the Alabama state line. In this self-supported race there is but a single stage, and simple rules apply--use only commercial services available to all racers, follow the exact route on your GPS, and look out for fellow racers if you see them in need.
The first 150 miles of TNGA were some of the more demanding miles of any ultra I've raced--charging through the steep and deep of southern Appalachia, I accumulated more than 20,000 feet of climbing before midnight. Forest roads and decommissioned logging tracks rarely use switchbacks in these parts, instead tilting upward at obscenely steep grades. Occasional sections of slimy singletrack pushed through the mountains even more abruptly. These climbs would give way to equally tortuous, rutted descents, and after just a few miles of calmer valley-bottom riding through pasturelands, the next ascent would begin.
My lungs felt stifled by the thick, saturated forest air. Passing storms drenched me with warm rain repeatedly throughout the day, ensuring that I never dried out at all. As the route climbed back and forth across the Blue Ridge Divide, I was treated to occasional views through gaps in the canopy of the corrugated countryside. But most of the time I found myself in a tunnel of green, unable to see through the dense foliage. I worked hard to not overcook my legs on the climbs, and I took more care than usual on the descents as I'm far more accustomed to loose rocky trails than slippery wet ones.
By Saturday evening, the riders at the front of affairs were separated by only tens of minutes. I had spent the day trading leads with singlespeeder Jason Murrell of Tennessee. Trailing by just a few minutes was David Chen, a Georgian and veteran of TNGA, and shortly behind him was Brian Toone, a well-known RAAM solo racer from Alabama. Brian had ridden 200 miles to the race just a couple days before and was racing with one clipless pedal and one flat pedal to accommodate a sandal-like medical boot resulting from an encounter with a car earlier in the year. A few hours back, Eleanor Joice from Tennessee was leading the women's field with Chicagoan singlespeeder Sam Scipio just a bit farther back in second.
I resupplied at a gas station after 10 hours of riding, buying 6,000 calories of candy bars, crackers, nuts, meat sticks, and cookies to fuel me until the next afternoon. I was consuming nearly 350 calories per hour to keep my legs going, and so far, my stomach was cooperating fully. While packing this fuel on my bike and downing a Mountain Dew, I chatted briefly with Murell. His stomach was turning on him, and he seemed concerned. My legs felt worked at this point from the incessant climbing, but I knew that they'd come around again after dark if I kept eating.
A couple hours later, I passed Murell and launched into the coming darkness alone. My body and mind tend to thrive in the early overnight hours, and I was feeling renewed energy and excitement. I shoved a few cookies in my mouth as soon as the rough 4×4 road I was on smoothed out, and for the next hour, I hammered across the first flattish section of the route. Bursts of heavy rain ensured that I remained wet throughout the night, but it was warm enough that I never pulled on anything over my T-shirt. Around midnight I followed the red line on my GPS into a network of singletrack, and my slightly groggy mind was brought back to full alertness as slippery roots demanded full attention. The technical trail climbed over Stanley Gap--in the day to come, riders suffered numerous crashes, broken wheels and broken ribs on this section. To me, the trail was reminiscent of some of the treacherous trails I love back home in Arizona, and for a few minutes, I almost felt in my element.
My plans to ride straight through the night usually get derailed by an episode of deep drowsiness, often coinciding with my brain disengaging on smooth terrain after a section of tough trail. Following Stanley Gap this sleepiness hit me hard, but I didn't want to lay down on the wet ground or take the time to pull out my emergency bivy. My mind sluggishly tried to come up with alternate ideas, and as it did, my light briefly illuminated the roof of a structure adjacent to the road. I stopped pedaling and looked more carefully, now seeing rows of wooden benches beneath roof, all surrounded by gravestones. I turned into this small cemetery, relieved to find the benches completely dry. I set an alarm for 10 minutes, and without even removing my helmet, laid down in my wet clothes and was promptly asleep.
My eyes opened nine minutes later. Relieved to find my mind feeling alert, I popped upright, turned on my lights, and was back to pedaling moments later. As I rolled back onto the gravel road, I chuckled at having fallen asleep in a cemetery and having thought absolutely nothing of it. Before regaining my rhythm, I paused briefly to dunk a bottle in a creek and add some drops of Aqua Mira. And then I was back to cranking.
The first light of the coming day filtered through the thick tree cover as I began the Pinhoti Trail. The Pinhoti is a long-distance trail that extends from southern Florida into Alabama, and TNGA follows it for much of the final 150 miles of the route. Even though I didn't really know what to expect, I was excited to be on some moderately technical trail. I felt energized by the coming day, but after nearly 24 hours of riding my legs were feeling some deep fatigue, and so much time in wet shoes and shorts had led to very uncomfortable feet and some chafing where the sun doesn't shine. My progress slowed during the early morning hours as I tended to those discomforts, but the singletrack kept me entertained, and I resisted the draw of Mulberry Gap just off route.
Eventually, the swoopy, well-ridden feel of the Pinhoti gave way to a rougher, more overgrown backcountry nature. Climbs steepened, and I found myself off the bike more regularly. My legs were losing power, and for the first time, my head had lost its enthusiasm. A few spectators along the trail earlier informed my that I had a lead of about 90 minutes over Brian Toone, and now I was concerned that I may be losing that lead. As the cool morning gave way to temperatures in the low 90s in the early afternoon, my body felt even worse.
I struggled out onto the floor of a 20-mile-wide valley, glad to have the singletrack interrupted by some relatively flat pavement. Nearly 250 miles and 30,000 feet of climbing had taken their toll on my body. The hot sun, now poking out intermittently between clouds, baked me, and I was worried about the next section of trail, the apparently infamous Snake. I didn't know much about it other than that it was the slowest, most technical riding of TNGA and dished out another half dozen very steep and rocky climbs. I paused for a quick break to change into dry shorts and dry socks, hoping to alleviate some of my discomfort.
Midway across the valley, I stopped again at a gas station to pick up 5,000 calories of mostly salty, crunchy snacks for the last part of the race. I had eaten nearly everything purchased the prior evening, I was craving real food. I grabbed a couple 6-inch-diameter pizzas from a heated case and ate them both as I packed my bike, hoping that these would bring my body back to life. I know from experience that severe bonks like this always subside, but not without a substantial influx of food.
And by the time I reached the beginning of the Snake 10 miles later, the power had returned to my legs. Relieved, my enthusiasm returned with a vengeance, bolstered by being atop a narrow, remarkably dry, rocky ridgeline trail. Eager to get as far as possible through these next 60 tough miles before nightfall, I pushed steadily, resisting the urge to walk steeper sections in favor of riding them more quickly. Finishing the first of six ridges, I plummeted down a chundery descent before beginning the next taxing climb. These trails didn't seem to see much use, but I found delight in their challenge, even this late in the race, and for short sections, I felt as if I could have been back home in the West.
Around dusk the character of the trails changed dramatically, and I struggled to harness the night's energy as I usually can. Rocky and technical gave way to overgrown and tough to follow. The large orb-web spiders’ thick, viscous tendrils enveloped the trail, halting my progress every few hundred feet. My still-wet feet shoes held ghost gravel--when I went to dump it out, nothing more than a pair of uncomfortably wrinkled soles. The entirety of the second night became an exercise in dredging forward motivation, a test of efficiency and resolve. Brief vistas atop ridgelines demonstrated grandeur, but it was easily lost battling head-high overgrowth and webs. Another 10-minute nap in the witching hours brought renewed energy, and near dawn I reached the final descent out of the mountains. From the bottom, 60 miles of mostly rail trail and dirt road led to the Alabama border, and with nearly all climbing behind me, those 60 miles should go by quickly, or so I hoped.
Hammering out of the saddle down the first section of rail trail I kept looking back, wondering if I'd see lights of someone chasing me down. But the only thing to give chase were dogs excited by my mysterious lights. I continued standing and mashing pedals, resisting the urge to sit down, hovering to protect my chafed backside. Slowly, the morning light grew, but thick cloud cover held in the last of the night's darkness. Tired of eating, I struggled to get calories down, but fortunately my legs seemed to have ample fuel remaining.
Fifty miles remaining turned to 40, then 30, and quickly 20. Small towns, farmsteads and countless churches passed by. Twenty became 10, and a few miles of sticky mud and unexpected singletrack slowed progress. Exercising the last of my patience I forged on, and by just after 10 a.m., I turned onto a paved rail trail toward the Alabama border. A mile later, to the fanfare of just two spectators, I crossed into Alabama and coasted to a relieved stop after 50 straight hours of racing. This was the longest continuous push I've ever ridden. My feet ached, my chest burned with that completely-out-of-energy sensation and my tired head had just about run out of focus. In total I had pedaled 360 miles, climbed over 46,000 feet, consumed 17,000 calories and certainly had underestimated what TNGA would dish out.
Among the two spectators at the finish was Jeff ‘Honcho’ Williams, one of the TNGA organizers. He was quick to thank me for making the trip from out West to their race, and his first question was about how TNGA compares to the Arizona Trail or the Colorado Trail. With complete honesty, I was able to say that TNGA is just as difficult, but in unique ways--shorter but more frequent climbs, more miles of ungroomed trail and far more dampness. I was completely spent from the challenge, and few other descriptors came to mind in that moment. Brian Toone finished five hours later to take 2nd place; David Chen and Brian Murrell both dropped out. Eleanor Joice finished that night to take 3rd overall, and singlespeeder Sam Scipio was the second woman, taking 6th overall. Fifteen-year-old Joe Urbanowicz, displaying endurance and maturity far beyond his years, finished in 5th place.
Back at Mulberry Gap, I hobbled around for the next couple days, intermittently eating delicious prepared meals, drinking milkshakes and napping. Other finishers gradually returned, excited to see one another, filled with stories to eagerly share and walking around gingerly on uncomfortable feet, sore knees and drained legs. Riders still on route stopped by for meals, showers and rest, also with endless tales to share. Everyone was clearly giving it their all, pushing their bodies hard, dealing with the challenges of such a rugged route and drawing energy and inspiration from one another. The community atmosphere afforded by Mulberry Gap was truly amazing--no other ultra I've done has had anything approaching this. That, combined with the beautiful countryside and the taxing and diverse route that pushed me so far out of my element, made this one of the most memorable race experiences I've had.