Appalachian Mountaineer Race Report
Hmm, not a good sign that I’m shivering while waiting to pick up my race bib. 28 degrees at the 8:30 a.m. start, and I was annoyed that I wasn’t prepared. I should be wearing my windproof gloves, pants, the Houdini shell that I forgot to pack, and the neoprene bike shoe booties I never bought. The bull horn rang through the valley and my teeth chattered as I struggled to clip into my pedals. 10 minutes into the race, and I couldn’t feel my fingers. Why didn’t I put Hot Hands in my gloves and shoes?
I rode in the morning shadows along route 615, wishing for anything windproof. I thought through my options. Maybe I could warm my hands in the rescue squad truck if I passed one? Despite my uncomfortableness, nostalgia washed over me as I rode past McCleary Elementary, where my mom ended her career as principal. The elementary, middle and high school are nestled all together and I have many memories there as a Craig County “Rocket”. I rode past the rickety swinging bridge, remembering all the cross-country practices that set me up for a love of running and endurance sports.
Signs for “Derail the trail” now dot the landscape. Do these landowners understand the potential benefits that the Craig-Botetourt Scenic Trail would bring to the community? It saddens me to see this opposition for something that could be an economic driver in a county that has so few resources. When I was growing up in Craig, downtown New Castle had more life than the current reality. We had two independent grocery stores - Mick or Mack and Lawrences, along with several other independently-owned businesses, but since 2000, the population has declined by 30%. Very few jobs exist today, with the Craig County Public Schools being the largest employer. The rail trail would bring more vitality and more jobs, to support the visitors that would use the trail. There is a railbed committee making progress and you can read the latest update here.
My wheels hit gravel on CC mountain road and I started the first climb of the morning. My toes and fingers started to thaw out as my heart pumped heat into my body. Last year, I remember this climb being a lot harder, but I guess that was due to being ~8 months pregnant. This year, it was so easy. Everything is easier when you’re not pregnant!
I descended on the smooth gravel, following a rider on a hot pink salsa warbird, one of the few ladies I hopscotched with throughout the ride. We turned left onto the pavement and I settled into a nice rhythm. I passed a goat perched on his little goat house, and lots of barking hunting dogs in their kennels. We passed the turn for Bald Mountain and made our way down the aptly named Peaceful Valley Road. I had no idea where the course was leading us since this was my first time doing the ~70 mile option, but was delighted when we turned onto Johns Creek Mountain Road.
Cyclists dotted the sweeping landscape and we absorbed them into our rag tag peloton. I took the lead as I turned right onto Dick’s Creek Road and then another right onto a fast forest service road. The sun felt so good! I rode by myself on this section, embracing the present and so happy to be out here. My stomach started to growl and I looked down at my watch. 2 hours and 28 miles later and my 2 egg breakfast bagel had worn off. I slurped down mashed sweet potato, but didn’t realize an aid station was just ahead with much better food options! I stuffed myself with a PB sandwich, gummy bears and oreos and spotted my husband, dog and baby across the road! Hayes and Huck both squealed in delight when they saw me!
I continued along familiar forest service road that I’ve been on many times. I knew it was ~8 miles of easy rolling along the contour lines, and I felt strong from all the snacks. Lots of hunters were out, but there is plenty of room for all of us outdoor enthusiasts in Craig County. Over 70% of the county is national forest! Craig County has something for all: fishing, kayaking, biking, hunting, jeeping, and more.
I was approaching ~40 miles and knew the dreaded Bald Mountain climb was next. I turned left onto Bald Mountain Road, mentally preparing myself for what was ahead. The ground beneath me immediately turned sketchy, and I picked my lines carefully through the ruts. I passed a guy pushing his bike and decided to do the same. The ground was so dusty with loose shale and difficult to get traction. This climb goes on forever, so I rode what I could, but was not ashamed to get off my bike and push. The ground was covered with loose shale rocks and was nearly impossible to ride through. I couldn’t decide what was worse – the super dry conditions that caused my tires to spin out or the wet conditions from last year that created huge mud pits and muck everywhere. I huffed, telling myself that this is all temporary and it would all be better once I made it off the mountain. I enjoyed rolling along the top of the mountain, appreciating the breaks from the climbs.
I made it to my favorite aid station because they had bacon, bourbon and pancakes! I ate plenty, and packed some skittles and gummies to go. l gazed ahead to the fork in the road: to the right was an option to bail early and I stared longingly at that road. Although appealing, that wasn’t an option for me. I knew I had to keep going and embrace the challenges of this mountain.
A rider exclaimed, “there’s only 1K left of climbing on this mountain!” Why did he tell me that? I sighed and continued up the mountain, knowing that things were about to get real sketchy. I alternated between pushing my bike and riding through the loose shale. Why couldn’t I get my left shoe clipped in? I tried for what seemed eternity and was convinced my bike shoe cleat had broken. I propped my foot up on my bike to inspect and found a rock embedded in the cleat. I pulled the rock out and laughed as I threw it. I spotted a sign ahead that said “Check me out!” and knew I was at the Bald Mountain overlook! I soaked in the expansive views and smiled so big. This moment right here is what fills my soul.
The double track opened up to a beautiful display of the Blue Ridge mountains. The fast descent began and memories flooded back of previous years. I chose my lines carefully and kept my fingers on the brakes for miles. Riders whizzed past me.. they either had no fear, or maybe they didn’t know any better. I passed a group of riders fixing a flat tire. My hands ached from holding the brakes and a friend’s advice ran through my head. “The descent off Bald Mountain is NOT a good time on a gravel bike.” She was right, and this is why some riders chose to ride mountain bikes. However, I knew I would be happy with my choice once I approached the end of the descent.
Ah, the last aid station was ahead at ~55 miles. Volunteers bustled around the weary riders and I grabbed 2 quesadillas and a rice krispy treat before continuing on to finish the last 15 miles.
I felt surprisingly strong as the remaining miles ticked by; I enjoyed the flattish terrain and rode fast through "Red Brush" and I was grateful to be on my gravel bike. I rode along the future Craig Botetourt Scenic Trail, excited about what the future could hold for this beautiful county. I heard bluegrass music echoing across Craigs Creek, and knew this wonderfully challenging ride was coming to an end.
I hoisted my bike on my shoulders, carefully wading through Craigs Creek. What a fun way to end the ride, and the cold water felt wonderful on my aching feet. I crossed the finish line, endorphins rushing over me, so proud of what I just accomplished.
Preparing for endurance events like the Appalachian Mountaineer are not easy as a new mom. I didn’t have the opportunity to dedicate myself to long training rides. In fact, what I just accomplished was the longest ride I've ever done on a gravel bike. I have a new perspective on what exercise and self-care looks like as a mom, and appreciate whatever I can manage to do each day, even if it’s just a 20 minute strength workout. Today was so incredibly special, and there is nothing I would rather do than spend 7 hours of “me” time on my bike in the mountains I grew up in. I don’t take any of this for granted, and my husband gets major kudos for supporting me and watching Hayes so I have the opportunity to push myself in ways that make me a better mom, wife and friend.