It’s 11:30ish, I’m laying on the ground taking in the stars as tears stream down my face. This is what it feels like for me to feel fully alive. For the last 63 hrs I have pushed my mind and body to its limits. It's amazing how much pain the human body can endure and still keep going. I have just finished the Trans North Georgia Mountain Bike Race(TNGA) from the South Carolina/Georgia border to the Georgia/Alabama border. Riding 360 miles ascending 40,000 feet of elevation as the route winds through the mountains of Northern Georgia.
My friend Dale and I have arrived at the starting line at 7:30am where there were over 75 riders had come together to head out on this wild race. This style race is a self supported race meaning that there are no checkpoints, aid stations, or any coordinated outside support. We will all be carrying whatever shelter, food and water that we need to safely get us to Alabama. One of the only requirements is that every racer carries a Spot Tracker which is basically an S.O.S beacon and tracking device. The race can be tracked on www.trackleaders.com/tnga17 so that spectators can follow the racers progress.
The pre-race scene was a mob of riders, all there to take on the adventure in their own way. Some of the riders are there to go hard and race, some are there to party, and the rest are there just to see if they can make it all the way to Alabama. Dale and I got offered beers when we got out of the van by one of the racers peddling towards us with a box of can PBR. I was there to give it my all so I declined so that I could keep hydrated before the day warmed up to the low 90’s. One of the biggest fears with pushing hard in such long races is the evil “C” word(cramps). As Honcho and Koz the race directors gave their pre-race talk reiterating the rules of the race I kept getting distracted by a strange hum noise that took me way too long to realized it was coming from a drone overhead. This year is the biggest turnout for the race so the directors have decided to hire a documentary film company to make a documentary of this years race. I began to see the crew making their way through the crowd with cameras and microphones.
Being new to the mountain bike racing I still get nervous and a little intimidated. I tend to underestimate where i’ll be in the pack once the race starts but I made my way to the front of the pack at the starting line. This is the moment that it gets really exciting. The energy is high, then we take off cranking along forest service roads into the mountains. It didn’t take long before the first 10 riders had broken off from the rest of the pack. The roads were dry and loose which had me getting a little loose at high speeds. John, a fellow racer and I got caught up in conversation about riding bikes that we missed the first turn off, this would be one of many missed turns of my race. I had dropped off the lead group now by a few miles but I was able to get back in the top 10 shortly after.
My legs were feeling fresh and the climbs felt good the first 50ish miles but as the day got hot and humid my energy began to drop. First place to stop to replenish supplies was Top of Georgia Hostel. They had PB&J’s, sodas, bananas, and a assortment of candy for sell. I ate one PB&J’ & banana and bought one of each to go. During this break I got to say hey to the Singletrack Samurai who was on the route at a fast touring pace. I ate quick as there began to be a gathering of racers who had caught up. After dropping from the gap I road a section of ATV roads that set the tone of what most of the route would be like. Georgia has a really awesome remote series of ATV roads and trails that snake through the valleys and over ridgelines. This section hugged the Tallulah River which had some amazing waterfalls and swimming holes. The road climbed high into the mountains to descend a very wild, rocky overgrown ridgeline that I had trouble holding back and not sending it too hard.
Once out of the woods there was a sign a few miles down the road for Woodies Bike Shop and something told me that I would regret not stopping by. I continued into Helen to the first gas station I came to. By now I had eaten all of my snacks and was starving. I quickly loaded up on potato chips, beef jerky, chocolate milk, cola, and arizona tea, this was dinner. As I’m finishing up dinner another rider rolled up. Chris tells me about what I missed out by skipping Woodys. Apparently there was bacon and eggs for riders while you got you chain cleaned and lubed. Next year i’ll be stopping for sure. Chris and I chatted for a few while I made my second purchase of various bars and snacks. We are loading up for the next 12 hours or so before we reach the next resupply. I rolled out before Chris but it wasn’t long before had had caught up with me. Chris was riding a rigid SS Surley Karate Monkey. We talked along the climb about the route, Chris was a veteran of the TNGA and was well versed with the water locations and possible places to take a short nap later. We rode together for a while until I had pulled a bit away on one of the steeper climbs(thanks to my gears!) but unfortunately I missed a turnoff at the top of Wolfpen Gap. After speeding down the mountain for about 15min I lit up the screen on my GPS as it was now dark and realized my mistake. I wasn’t stoked about having to climb back up what was a rad downhill was a shit climb back up that took me over an hour. I got back on route and climbed up and decided on the climb that I would take a short nap sooner than later. I road up on a small shelter to post up in for 2:30 in the bivy. It was hard to sleep during this time due to the local country boys out racing their pickup trucks.
After my nap another rider was rolling up as I was rolling out so Bobby and I chatted and road for a few hours through the darkness together. We bumped into Chris who was just packing up from his nap and Bobby not having slept yet decided this was the place for it. Chris and I headed out to take on the Aska Trails, a fun section of trail but I took two wrong turns adding to my milage and energy output. Every time I would separate and go ahead of Chris I seemed to take a wrong turn and we would link back up. Around 10am we rolled up to a convenience store that had started opening up on Sundays for the racers. John had arrived just before us and almost ready to head back out. This spot was so clutch! There were no more resources until Mulberry Gap. The climb to Potato Patch was long and grueling but there was the sweet reward of dropping Bear Creek to the Pinhoti Trails which we would be off and on for the next 100 miles. This section had a ton of fast buffed single track roller coaster rides that became exhausting but still a blast. By the time I made it to the Mulberry Gap Mountain Bike Retreat it felt heavy and hard to keep pushing up the climbs. I had to dismount and walk the driveway up to the dining hall at the retreat which even with fresh legs that hill is a grind. I arrived shortly after Chris and he was already tearing into his burrito. I walked in and immediately laid in the floor with my legs elevated on a picnic table. I placed an order for a sandwich to eat there and a burrito to go as I continued to lay there. I ate, took an hour nap then it was go time again. Chris and I took off towards Pinhoti 4 which would be our last big climb of the route. I loved this section flying down the mountain on ATV roads in the dark on super steep grades and fun berms to huck off of. Only negative part of this section was the giant bee that stung me while stopping for a snack. Once out of the woods we rolled over to a few gas stations that were all closed. Luckily there was a water spigot on the side of one of the buildings that was functional. The next 20 miles was almost all flat and paved which was a nice break on my saddle sores. Though this section was a nice break on the body the monotony of a flat paved road in the dark made Chris and I start to get drowsy. We agreed to take a 30min nap in Dalton then grab food before taking on The Snake. Unfortunately the dark side of a furniture building that we had chosen to take the nap was next to a house with a loud guard dog. The dog went nuts for the whole 30min we were resting. Next stop was Waffel House to put down some calories so I we ride through the night. This turned out to be an epic night down steep technical descents and exposed rock. I surfed Snake Creek as the sun came up. My legs were starting to feel the effects of the rugged single track so took a quick 30min nap on the side of the trail with my legs elevated up the bank. I figured that if I overslept i’d still get woken up by the next rider. The nap helped out and I was able to pick my pace back up on the climbs.
Coming out of the woods I stopped and talked to a few guys who had camped on the mountain the night before. They hooked me up with water while I explained to them what the crazy people on bikes were doing that had road past their campsite late the previous night. Like many people today these guys were headed to view the eclipse somewhere in Tennessee along it's path.
Back into the woods, flowing single track that I chose to start hiking anytime that it seemed too strenuous. At this point in the race I had decided that I would be walking anything steep or with technical climbing. I continued to flow along the trail when I came through a tight section that brought me to a slow stop. I began to fall down the hill so I stuck my right leg out to prevent rolling down an embankment. My knee twisted then buckled. Not knowing how bad my knee might be injured I took a few steps and it seemed to want to give out at times. There was still 100 miles to go in the race and I was in the middle of nowhere. My only option was to keep going and hope that things didn't get worse. The next +50 miles became just as much a mental battle as a physical one.
I made it back out of the woods but the single track had me feeling the effects of all of the hike-a-bike sections that I had just completed. The saddle sores from the soggy shammie had gone from excruciating pain to me surrendering to the saddle, I no longer cared to stand up to avoid bouncing on the saddle. I had now started to curse the climbs and the route. I had been without water for about an hour when I came across a dribble of a creek at seemed more like a mosquito sanctuary than a suitable water supply source. I filled up and purified to my best ability. After all in this scenario a bad source was better than nothing. Then the trail gave me a curved ball. I had been closely watching my GPS to stay on route but the route seemed to disappear and the GPS was going up a ridge that I couldn't find any signs of a trail head. There was a big dirt embankment with trash strewn around it and high brush with no visible tracks. I sat down, rehydrated, had a snack before heading over the dirt mound and plowing through the brush. This was the route and it was more like bushwhacking than mountain biking. I was now stuck in the suck. It was time to embrace the suck and dig deep. The overgrown ridge might have been enjoyable with fresh legs but at this point I just wanted to get out of the woods. I remember being grumpy but still finding the vistas beautiful. As I went around a gate I felt several stings in my right wrist. The bees had gotten me again.
Coming out of the woods onto a US-27 I continued across the road back onto gravel heading towards another section of the Pinhoti. Just a little ways up the gravel road I leaned my bike against a tree and then I laid down on the ground with my water and snacks. I was almost completely out of both and after looking at the maps realized I was a ways from any water source or supplies. Part of me wanted to head back down to US-27 and take it to the nearest town and not finish. I had hit a big wall and my mind and body didn’t want to continue on. 300 miles down and only 60 miles to go yet I still had to keep on truckin and push up the mountain. The last ridge was several miles of rolling ridgeline before dropping back out of the forest for the last big descent.
For some reason I had made up a story in my head that once I was out of the woods that I only had 15-20 miles left but when I looked about my tracker it was real that I still had 40-50 miles left. I had been without water for over an hour and had started to get a little delusional. I lucked out and came by a church that had a spigot so I filled up my bottle once and immediately chugged it, filled up again and I was back on my mission to complete the route.
The sun was setting as I rolled down dirt paths roads, more dirt and then more roads taking me into the town of Cave Spring just before dark. I snagged a coke and two gatorades then continued. Just around the block there were two trail angels handing out more gatorade. As I started back out an older gentleman who looked to be in late 60’s or early 70’s pulled up next to me in his pickup truck. He seemed very excited to see meet a TNGA racer. He told me that he had been following us on the tracker and had came to take my picture. I took just a moment for the photo op and then I was back on my mission. My ride had once again faded back into darkness then one more unexpected section of the Pinhoti Trail took me into the woods where I got off trail and found myself lost and disoriented. My mind wanted to freak out but I kept my composure and followed my GPS back to the road. I took my time on my next attempt through this section of trail but it all seemed to be a blur in the darkness. Looking for small makers on the trees to stayed on the route until I was dumped back onto and dirt road. Just a few more miles and rolling hills and I would be at the Georgia/Alabama border. This section of hills would have been laughable with fresh legs but taking all of my remaining effort to climb them with some intensity. Now all that was left was a paved greenway that was part of the Trail of Tears to complete my journey. Just up ahead I could head see Dale and the mini van as he started cheering me on. One more mile and the adventure would be over. I cranked on with new energy and the excitement of completing the TNGA. After passing through the archway that marked the state line I laid down next to my bike and gazed at the stars. I took this time to talk to dad who was out there somewhere.
Tears streaming down my face as emotions took over from all that I had gone through in the last 63 hours, 360 miles and 40,000 feet of climbing. Northern Georgia you are beautiful and wild, thank you for making me feel so alive.