Wild in the Woods – Klondike Park

In my previous four races I hadn’t finished lower than fourth place overall. The small Klondike Park 7 mile trail race two weeks ago seemed like a perfect fit for me so I went into it thinking I would probably win. That was my first mistake.

Wild in the woods klondike park
Photo from here.

I started out at what felt like comfortable pace. The first mile was on a paved path through the park. Four runners stayed together in the lead pack. I let the others set the pace. It felt slow. Just before the first mile marker we hit The First Big Steep Hill. Feeling great, and seeing the others seemingly struggle, I took the lead, thinking I would probably just finish the last six miles alone. Towards the top of the hill my watch beeped, indicating the first mile had passed. I for some reason chose not to look at my time, which I have since come to regret. I now know we ran the first mile in 6:07… including the big steep hill.


Much to my dismay the others stayed on my heels as we entered a section of very technical single-track trail. I pushed the pace, but they all were able to follow. It was sinking in that I did not have this thing in the bag. We exited the woods together onto a wide flat crushed gravel path. I started paying attention to my mile splits, a few 6:15-ish splits in a row, as two guys pulled away from me. I was slowly beginning to pay the price for starting too fast, a tale I’ve told many times before.

There was another big hill around mile 5, which completely destroyed me. I passed Melissa & Will shortly after that. She said I looked fine, but I was totally faking it. I then entered another section of very hilly technical single-track trail. In the span of one mile my splits ballooned by 3 minutes. It felt like a death march. Another runner caught up to me from behind, got lost, caught up to me again, then passed me… which didn’t do much for my confidence.

I finished in fourth place, extending my streak of top-four finishes to five consecutive races, though this was by far the ugliest of the bunch. At some point the following will sink in:

  • Don’t start too fast, stupid.
  • Don’t underestimate a trail you haven’t run before.
  • There’s a lot of good runners out there.

Where I come from we don’t forget about hills like that

So it’s no secret that our former hometown of Champaign-Urbana is the flattest place on Earth. For a long time I assumed most of the midwest was similar, but it most certainly isn’t. Last Sunday I did a 50 mile ride with my friends Nick & Mike, along with a new guy Kurt (or is it Curt?) who showed us a heck of a route about a half hour west of the city.

Screen shot 2010-11-03 at 10.08.14 PM.png

We started at Matson Hill Park (any hill with a name earns my immediate respect), near Defiance, MO. Traffic was relatively light, which was a welcome change from the city. There were 10 or so good hard climbs in the 200-400 foot range, many of which were extremely steep, a few were in excess of 20%. These suckers were tough.

Screen shot 2010-11-03 at 10.08.46 PM.png

Aside from the big hills the route had rolling hills that dwarf anything in Champaign County almost non-stop the entire way. As we approached one of the big hills Kurt turned to the rest of us (who had never seen this route before) and said:

Oh… I forgot about this hill.

He then beat me to the top rather handily. When I eventually caught back up with him the only response I could muster was:

Where I come from we don’t forget about hills like that.

Dehydration, part one

Saturday was my first bike race of the year. Hillsboro-Roubaix was my first bike race last year as well, and thanks to a knee injury following my two spring marathons it also happened to be my only bike race last year. Last year’s cat 4 race was 44 miles with a field size of 100 riders. This year’s cat 4 race was 58 miles with a field size of 125. I’ll start by saying this is too many people and too long a distance for a cat 4 road race.

Our Wild Card Cycling team had a really strong group of six riders in the cat 4 race. I’m a pretty decent rider (I finished 19th in this race last year) and our other five guys are way better than me. We liked our chances. We headed out onto the course for what I thought was going to be a short warmup ride. We ended up going 10 miles, which is much farther than I should have gone given that I was already nervous about the race distance.


We all started the race in good position–perhaps too good. After the first uphill Luke rode off the front of the group without really trying (the speed was low). I suddenly found myself at the front of the 125 rider group not knowing whether to catch up to Luke (who certainly wasn’t planning to be alone at this point in the race) or slow down and let his gap grow. I slowed down. Nobody came around me. Luke’s lead continued to grow. I slowed down more. Nobody came around me. Finally, after several minutes, a small group surged past on my left super fast. I caught onto the tail end of this group which caught up with Luke just before a turn into a tailwind. We looked around and this group of around 15 riders contained all six Wild Cards. Game on. We pushed the speed even higher and opened up a sizable lead. This was only a couple miles into the race and it was just too early for that kind of move. After a couple miles of chasing the rest of the main field eventually caught up and we were one group.

This is where my race would begin to go wrong. It happened so gradually that I didn’t really notice. I moved from 15th to 20th to 30th to 50th to 80th. The pack was so big and the road was so narrow I couldn’t maintain my position and before I knew it I was at the back of the field. This is not where I wanted to be. In addition to the inherent danger of being directly behind scores of cyclists moving at high speed in tight formation, the back of the pack does a lot of yo-yoing. There’s an accordion effect. There were times when I felt like we were coming to a complete stop, then there were times when I was going flat out to hang on to the group. I knew I need to be eating frequently for such a long race, but there was no time to do it. At one free moment I tried to snarf down a Clif Bar. I got half of it in my mouth before I had to accelerate hard. My mouth was so dry I couldn’t swallow it. The half bar remained in my mouth for several miles before I could finally choke it down.

Making matters worse was my looming dehydration. My bike holds two water bottles. This is enough to get me through 30 miles. The race was twice that distance, this was one of the hottest days of the year so far, and I sweat more than any human being on the planet. I knew I had to conserve what I had, but it was costing me.

The race made its way through the countryside without much excitement. I knew my race would be over if I wasn’t closer to the front by the end of the first lap. The big hill and brick roads in town would definitely split the field. Seizing my only opportunity I found an opening on a straight flat road with a tailwind and flew past about 30-40 riders in one go. Entering town around 40th place or so really only prolonged my agony.

Sure enough the group split going up the big hill in town, and, like every other time I’ve ridden up this hill, I got stuck behind people going very slowly and basically had to stop on multiple occasions. By the time I turned the corner to go back down the hill the leaders were almost at the next corner, almost out of sight. This was bad. I flew down the hill onto the brick road, struggling to keep my bike upright. The group was completely shattered. There was a big group ahead, a big group behind, and I was in no-man’s-land with a couple dozen other stragglers. We remained separate heading back out of town, nobody was able to get organized. The leaders rode away and we could do nothing about it.

Hillsboro 2010

At this point my fate was sealed. I could neither get a good result nor offer any support to my stronger teammates. I don’t like seeing DNF next to my name in race results so I was determined to finish the race. It was a real struggle though. I baked in the sun the whole second lap. I was out of water, thirsty, tired, miserable. In retrospect, I would have been better off stopping. Eventually I came upon my teammate Alexei, who was changing a flat tire. I stopped to talk to him and we rode together for a few miles until cramps in my legs (a sure symptom of dehydration) slowed me down even further. I had more cramps on the first hill coming back into town. I actually had to stop and stretch for a minute because I was unable to rotate my pedals all the way around without cramping up. I made if halfway up the last hill when I pulled off to the side of the road long enough to watch the cat 1-2 riders blow past me up the hill on their final lap. Once at the top I basically coasted on to the finish line.

The other guys on the team had done alright, but not as well as they had hoped. We had a couple of guys with pretty good chance of winning who ended up 6th and 11th. They raced well, but it just wasn’t our day.

I crossed the line completely alone in 70th place (which is actually far higher than I thought). I immediately chugged as much water and gatorade as I could find. I felt absolutely terrible–muscles twitching, head aching, disoriented, hungry, and a bit nauseous all at once. The race didn’t go at all how I planned. But that was just my Saturday…

January Stats

Photo of the Day


Riddle Run 2010

Lot of running. Lot of running. Exactly the same mileage as January 2009.

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 109.05 Mile 10 10.905 Mile
Total 109.05 Mile 10 10.905 Mile



I finally got my butt into gear and started riding on the trainer at night after Will (and usually Melissa) goes to bed. Riding on the trainer is not my favorite thing to do, but when it’s dark and icy out the trainer is just about my only option.

Bike Distance # Rides Avg per Ride
El Fuego 40.9 Mile 11 3.71818 Mile
Thundercougarfalconbird 125.35 Mile 9 13.9278 Mile
Total 166.25 Mile 20 8.3125 Mile
Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 166.25 Mile 20 8.3125 Mile
Total 166.25 Mile 20 8.3125 Mile

Cross Country Skiing

Urbana welcomes you

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 6.07 Mile 2 3.035 Mile
Total 6.07 Mile 2 3.035 Mile


A hazy shade of winter

Month Distance # Workouts Avg per Workout
January 28.66 Mile 9 3.18444 Mile
Total 28.66 Mile 9 3.18444 Mile

Riddle Run 11

Yesterday I ran Riddle Run 11. This is a 28 mile ultramarathon held each January. You may recall that I was the first finisher at Riddle Run 10 last year, for which I was awarded the traveling trophy (a roll of toilet paper signed by the previous winners).


Last year I was in great shape, but the course was covered in 4″ of mushy show. I must have ended up running twice the official distance just from my feet slipping around so much. I ran nice and easy, finishing in 4h56m. It just so happened that nobody else ran faster, so I was first.

This year I knew I wasn’t in quite as good shape as last year, but we only had about 1″ of snow on the ground (which, while not ideal, is much easier to run through than 4″). I was really disappointed with my run at Tecumseh last month, so I had something to prove to myself.


I started the run very easy. I picked a big group to run with and we talked and laughed the entire first (of seven) four-mile loop. I’m notorious for starting too fast and (like last year’s Rockford marathon) I made damn sure not to make that mistake yesterday.

The second loop I picked up the pace a little bit, from 9:30 to 9:00 to 8:30. By the end of the second loop I was running slightly faster than 8:00 miles and I would stay at this pace for the next 12 miles or so. At the end of each loop I stopped by my car for 30-60 seconds to drink some gatorade and water and to grab a bite to eat.

“Ultras are just eating and drinking contests, with a little exercise and scenery thrown in.”

-Sunny Blende, nutritionist (from Born to Run)

Over the course of 28 miles I ended up eating four mini Clif Bars, a banana, two flasks of chia gel, a bottle of Gatorade, a bottle of water, and six Enduralytes (electrolyte pills)… and it still wasn’t enough. My stomach was growling the last eight miles.

During the middle part of the run the miles just flew by. Each time I finished a lap I thought to myself, I was just here a few minutes ago. I was flying and the miles were coming so easily, but it wouldn’t last forever.

I started to tire around mile 20. I quickly realized could no longer maintain sub-8:00 miles and I started to question whether I would finish at all. After eating I started my 6th loop much slower and I felt a lot better. I could definitely finish by running closer to 9:00 pace.

Riddle Run 2010

The last two laps were a bit of a slog, but I kept shuffling along, and I never stopped to walk (a feat I’ve only accomplished one other time, at Rockford). Three miles from the end a fellow runner Jason and his friend absolutely flew past me. I had last seen them exactly 20 miles earlier when I had just started to pick up the pace. It was amazing how strong they were finishing. I crossed the 26.2 mile mark at 3h46m, making this my third fastest marathon ever. On a trail. Covered in snow.

Last year I finished the run with mile 28 being my fastest. This year it was my slowest (the second slowest this year was the first mile). I dragged myself across the finish line in 4h04m, my fastest Riddle Run by more than a half hour, and a full 50 minutes faster than last year (almost two minutes per mile!).

Jason and his friend had gained six minutes on me in the last three miles, and they finished first. Matt and another guy were in between us. It’s rather amazing to me that the first five of us finished within six minutes of each other after such a long run.

So that was my fourth Riddle Run, my fifth ultra-distance run, my seventh trail marathon/ultra, and my 11th marathon or beyond. Of all those runs, this one was the third fastest, yet at the same time probably the easiest for me. Considering I didn’t do any training specifically for this run, and I didn’t taper at all, I guess I’d have to say that I’m in a little better shape than I thought I was. That’s a good sign.

The Strangest Marathon

I was moving along at an easy pace. The guy in front of me had just taken a downhill section of the trail very gingerly and nearly tip-toed across a creek crossing. I passed him on the uphill section on the other side of the creek and began to pull away. Then, out of nowhere, I hit the wall. Well, not exactly. I’m not talking about the glycogen depletion “wall” where my fuel reserves have run dry. This was something entirely different and unfamiliar to me. This small incline got my heart beating so fast I was gasping for air only to find I was physically unable to maintain my modest pace. My worst fears had come true. I stopped to walk up the hill. By the time I reached the top I was seriously contemplating dropping out of the marathon.

This was at mile four.

One week prior I was in great spirits, having wrapped up my long training runs and raced fairly well at the FOLEPI River Trail Classic. I showed up at work on Monday feeling as good as possible and left work that evening with a sore throat. My throat got worse through the night and was a full blown illness by Tuesday morning. I went to work (even though I clearly shouldn’t have) only to discover my coworkers were already sick.

By Wednesday my throat started to get better, but the snot and sinus pain got worse. By Thursday evening I was finally starting to feel like I was getting over the sickness. I still wanted to race. I trained really hard for Tecumseh and I wasn’t going to let the sniffles take that away from me.

Friday I travelled to the Nashville, IN area with fellow Buffalo Ken, Brian, and Jen. We stayed at the same paintball/cabin place as last year (though with far fewer people this time). Despite feeling back to normal that morning, by Friday night I felt terrible again. Ugh.

I awoke Saturday morning before the race feeling as fresh as a daisy. Whatever I had seemed to finally work its way out of my system. I thought. We drove to the race finish area, picked up our packets, and loaded up onto the buses to the starting line miles and miles away.

Tecumseh course map

Last year I started way faster than I wanted to, but it was kind of necessary because of the congestion on the single track trail that started 2-3 miles into the race. I vowed to start off slower this year. I ran nice and easy the first mile only to look down when my GPS beeped to read 7:20. The exact same time as last year (and faster than my first mile at the Rockford Marathon where I ran my PR in May). That was the bad news. The good news was that I felt spectacular. Even though that pace felt super easy I made a conscious effort to slow down anyway. For the trail was not nearly as congested as it had been the previous year at this point. Despite the superior weather conditions (sunny rather than snow storm) everyone else was moving slower.

I hit the second mile at 7:29. So much for slowing down. It still felt really easy. I was barely exerting any effort. Still, I decided (once again) to consciously slow down. I hit the third mile in 7:23. Oh, come on. This was too easy. That would be the best I felt all day. We entered the single track trail through the woods, ran down a hill, over a creek, and started back up the other side when my world began to fall apart. This was not going to be my day.

After the first miserable uphill I walked I tried to shake it off and continue on like nothing had happened. I got back up to a comfortable pace on the flat sections of the course, but on the next uphill I found myself gasping for air and walking once again. If after four miles I wanted to quit, then after six miles I really wanted to quit. At this point I decided to stop racing. At the current rate I couldn’t possibly have finished. Instead I slowed down (a lot) in the hope of just dragging myself to the finish line, regardless of time or place. Tecumseh was now a training run. Or so I told myself.

Rob at Tecumseh Marathon

I ran super slow the next four miles, frequently stepping aside to let people pass me on the trail. At the 10.6 mile aid station Ken passed me. Prior to the race I was voted by the others the mostly likely to finish the fastest of our group, and as such I was entrusted with the only key to Ken’s car. Here, 16 miles from the finish and still slowing down, I quickly whipped out the key from my back pocket and handed it to Ken, who kept it for the remainder of the race.

I ate a banana at this aid station and it actually started to bring me back to life. For the first time in many miles I didn’t feel like I was about to die. Ken pulled quite some distance ahead as I walked up the next few hills. Once I got to the flat and downhill sections I just ran a comfortable pace and I actually caught back up with his pack. The thought entered my mind that I might actually be able to keep up with him until the end. Of course, the next uphill section would put that thought out of my mind and I fell behind again. But what goes up must come down and before I knew it we were together again (briefly) at the 15.8 mile aid station. We were running different races, but by not keeping up with him I had just kept up with him for five miles. We ascended once more, and once more I was alone.

Prior to this point I just felt bad for much of the race, but around miles 16-17 I actually started to get tired. I wasn’t picking my feet up, and as a result I stumbled a few times. I almost went down around mile 17, though I was able (with great determination) to stay upright. But this came at the cost of both calves, both hamstrings, and my right hip cramping at the same time while I tried to catch myself. Shaken, I walked for a bit with my head hung low. After a couple minutes I heard someone yell at me from behind, “Hey, you missed the turn.”

You have to pay attention.

I got back on the trail and started running, fighting cramping muscles. There was a big hill at mile 19, a moderate hill at mile 21, then it was mostly downhill to the finish. I got another banana in me and, again, it brought me partly back to life. I was able to pick up the pace a little and before I knew it I had caught up with and passed Ken… just in time to trip and go down. I remained on the ground long enough to work out the cramp in my calf. Then I was back up and moving quickly again.

I had to concentrate really hard through a short, beautiful section of pine forest where the tree roots stuck up really far from the trail. As much as I had been dragging my feet I thought for sure I was going to hit the deck again. I didn’t.

My pace continued to increase. I wasn’t running for a faster time. I was running to get to the finish faster so I could stop running sooner. People often joke about doing exactly this, but I’m completely serious here. I took a short break to walk up the final hill with less than a mile remaining then ran all the way through the finish. Heading into the chute I caught up with a young woman who heard me cough right behind her and took off that last few meters. I congratulated her on the fast finish after the race at which point she informed me she thought my cough sounded like a woman and she really wanted to keep her top 10 finishing place. Ha!

Another 26.2

I finished in 4:20, my slowest marathon yet (by a mere two minutes). Last year, on the same course, in the snow storm, I ran 3:54. That was a really great race for me. I knew I didn’t have the fitness for the same performance again this year, but (given the better conditions) I thought for sure I would be able to equal that time. No dice.

This was a very strange race for many reasons, perhaps the strangest I’ve ever run. I felt great, then crappy, then okay, the crappy, then just fine (and so on). I ran fast, then slow, then moderate, then slow, then fast (etc). I was freezing, then comfortable, then hot, then cold, then hot, then cold. I actually ran about 8 miles wearing a single glove because my left hand was cold but my right hand was not.

The really strange thing, though, is that none of these dichotomies coincided with each other. I ran fast while feeling good. I ran fast while feeling bad. I ran slow while feeling good. I ran slow while feeling bad. I was hot while running slow. I was cold while running fast. And every other permutation of the aforementioned states.

Anyway, I wasn’t thrilled with the outcome of this race, but I did finish and I did learn some valuable lessons. Namely, you can’t run as fast when you’re sick as you can when you’re healthy, AND trying to do so will make for a fairly unpleasant experience.

The Thorn

If you don’t have answers to your problems after a four-hour run, you ain’t getting them.

-Born to Run

The Tecumseh Trail Marathon is coming up on December 5. Rather than the typical 16-week training program I would follow for a big road marathon, I adopted the less conventional 5-week crash course training program for this race.

I ran this race last year and it was incredibly difficult. The course is very hilly, with thousands of feet of ascents and even more of descents (it’s a point to point course with a net loss in elevation).

I’m not terribly worried, for a few reasons.

I feel no pressure. This isn’t like the 2001 Chicago Marathon or 2009 Illinois Marathon, where I worried about the race for months and choked on race day. This is more like the 2008 Tecumseh Marathon or 2009 Rockford Marathon where I didn’t concern myself with place or time and just went for a run. Those were two of the best races of my life.

I feel better on the long runs than I ever have before. This is fairly surprising given that I took the summer off from running and ran only short distances in the early fall. By mid-October I decided to push myself and run 11 miles (the farthest I had run in 5 months) on the Allerton trails and I was sore for a week. Somehow things just magically came together.

Since the Allerton Trail Race I’ve alternated long runs at Lake Mingo and Forest Glen, running 14.2 at Mingo, then 16 at F.G., then 21.3 at Mingo, then 16 at F.G. These are 2-3.5 hour long runs on fairly challenging trails, yet the miles have passed so easily for me… easier than they ever have before.

Forest Glen Trail

Forest Glen 11 mile loop and 5 mile loop

Lake Mingo Trail

Lake Mingo 7.1 mile loop

The past month or so I’ve been paying a lot more attention to my diet, eating a lot more higher quality, natural, unprocessed food–lots and lots of vegetables and fruits. My blood pressure has dropped noticeably, I’ve shed a couple of excess pounds, and I don’t feel like crap after meals.

I’ve drawn a tremendous amount of inspiration from reading the book Born to Run. It’s incredibly well written and covers everything from history and science to tips on form/training/nutrition/life, all while building up to the story of the “greatest race the world has never seen.” I couldn’t put the book down and when I finished I read it again. I haven’t felt this hungry to be out on the trails since I was in high school.

The only thorn in my plans so far has been, literally, a thorn in my foot. 9 miles into my 21 mile run last weekend I stepped on a thorn, which isn’t all that rare. This thorn, however, went all the way through my shoe and into my left foot. I felt the pain and immediately hopped on my right foot until I could slow down and stop. At first I thought it was just poking me so I gave it a tug and the thorn broke off flush with the bottom of my shoe. Then I tried to take my shoe off, but that required sliding my foot out, which I couldn’t do because the thorn was still stick in both my foot and my shoe.

After about five minutes of trying to get a grip on the fraction of a millimeter of the thorn still sticking out I eventually just shoved a stick in my shoe (like a shoe horn) and pried my foot away from the shoe enough to get the thorn out and slide my shoe off. It was fairly unpleasant. With the shoe off though I was able to pull the thorn out of it and continue on down the trail. I didn’t know whether I’d be able to walk, let alone run. It was tender for a couple hundred meters then I forgot all about it. I ended up running 12 more miles before calling it a day.

I thought my problems were all over, but after the 45 minute drive home I couldn’t even walk on it my foot hurt so bad. I limped all day Monday and even stayed home from work on Tuesday. By Wednesday I could walk short distances, and by Thursday it felt just barely not-horrible-enough to walk to work. By Friday the pain was virtually gone.

Now that this scare is over I’m headed full steam ahead. It’s still early to tell what’s going to happen at Tecumseh, but I feel pretty good about it.

“Don’t fight the trail,” Caballo called back over his shoulder. “Take what it gives you.”

-Born to Run

The Autumn at Allerton Park

Allerton Park entrance in autumn

Entering Allerton Park

The changing leaves means the Allerton Trail Run is coming up. This is one of my favorite races for a variety of reasons. I love the trail. The race is a good distance for me. The weather is cooling down, and my running thrives in cool weather. The race falls right before, after, or (like last year) on my birthday. You may recall I ran 30 miles at Allerton last year in celebration of my 30th birthday.

I like to get in a few loops on the trail in the weeks leading up to the race to re-familiarize myself with it, so the last two Sundays I’ve run at Allerton. Last week the Sangamon river was so high that parts of the trail were waist deep under water. I walked around three of these places and splashed through one other. I was expecting it to be ankle deep, but it was knee deep. That was a wet surprise in 39˚ weather.

Allerton north trail

Fortunately, this week the river was four or five feet lower and no parts of the trail were under water. Hopefully, it won’t rain to much this week and the course will remain fast for the race next week.

After my run today I took a little time to snap some photos. For most of them I used bracketed exposures. For each photo I actually took three photos: one with normal exposure, one underexposed, and one overexposed. The underexposed photo picks up details in the bright areas of the photo (e.g. the sky) and the overexposed image picks up details in the dark areas (e.g. shadows).

Once back home I combined each set of three images into a single high dynamic range photo and adjusted the levels so both the lights and the darks are visible in same image. If combined well HDR images look spectacularly vibrant and detailed. If combined poorly HDR images look very unnatural and washed out. I’m still pretty new to HDR so I may not of done a great job, but most of them look pretty decent I think.

Fu Dog Garden

Fu Dog garden

Fu Dog Garden

Fu Dogs

House of the Golden Buddhas

House of the Golden Buddhas

Near Allerton Park

Leaving Allerton Park

The Highest Point in North Carolina

A few days after riding Clingman’s Dome (the highest point in Tennessee) I rode Mt. Mitchell (the highest point in North Carolina). That was four years ago today. The bulk of the climb was quite similar to Clingman’s Dome: not very steep, winding roads, not much traffic. However, Mt. Mitchell threw in a few surprises that made it quite a bit more challenging.

Rob computing

Just outside of Asheville, NC we turned onto the fabled Blue Ridge Parkway. This is a 500 mile scenic drive (no commercial traffic allowed) through east-central Appalachia. Once again, I rode my trusty Thundercougarfalconbird, while Melissa drove Iris the support vehicle. The road turned upward immediately as I rode away from Asheville.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The first few hours (yes, hours) went smoothly. This part of the climb was not very steep. I settled into a steady pace. This climb (35 miles) was much longer than the two other mountains I had previously ridden, Clingman’s dome (20 miles), and Mt. Tam (10 miles). To put it in comparison, it dwarfs the climbs typically done in professional bike races (where 10 miles is a long climb, and virtually no climbs are longer than 12-15 miles). Of course, it wasn’t that steep though. Yet.

Mt. Mitchell

Around 5,000 ft altitude I noticed for the first time it was actually much more difficult to breathe. Around 5,500 ft I encountered a fairly long downhill section which caused me more worry than relief. Every inch I descended would be another inch I would have to climb again to reach the top. Before long the road went up again. Then back down again. Crap.

Mt. Mitchell

Finally, I reached the turn off of the Blue Ridge Parkway into Mt. Mitchell state park. This is where things got interesting. The road immediately hit 9% and stayed that way for 1.5 miles or so. After hours of climbing a moderate grade, this steep section really hurt. Fortunately, the top was very near, and I made it without incident.

Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell

After a brief rest at the top came the fun part: 35 miles downhill (well, except for those two stupid dips which I had to ride up on the way back).

Mt. Mitchell descent

At one point I noticed a few cars backed up in the road, so I had to slow down. I wondered what was going on. There was nothing blocking the road so I gently eased around the stopped cars and continued on my way. As soon as I reached the front of the group I looked over to my right and noticed about 20 meters away from me was a bear walking along the side of the road. I coasted along as I stared at it, not believing my eyes. I was used to seeing dogs while cycling, maybe even deer, but this was a first for me. Anyway, I quickly came to my senses and hauled ass out of there. I had no desire to become this bear’s lunch.

Mt. Mitchell map

Mt Mitchell profile

Ride Information
Date: 2005-08-11 8:50 AM EDT
Mountain: Mt. Mitchell
Road Elevation: 6585 feet
Climb Distance: 34.25 miles
Climb Ascent: 5956 feet
Climb Average Grade: 4.3%
Climb Maximum Grade: 9%
Ride Distance: 69.9 miles
Ride Total Ascent: 7472 feet
Ride Maximum Speed: 48 miles/hour
Ride Start: Asheville, NC (2194 feet)
Ride End: Asheville, NC (2194 feet)

The Highest Point in Tennessee

I enjoy cycling. Long time readers might recall that a long term goal of mine is to cycle to the highest point (well, highest paved road) in every U.S. state. The first one I checked off the list was Tennessee, four years ago today.

Living most of my life in flat, flat central Illinois I have a special appreciation for mountains. The first mountain I rode was Mt. Tam in California, in 2004. I rode it again in 2005, at which point I was hooked. I needed more mountains, but I had none near home. So I started looking around for places where I could take trips to ride mountains.

Having spent every summer during college working in central Appalachia I was somewhat familiar with this mountain range, plus it’s an easy day’s drive to get there. But where to go. If I was going to take a special trip I wanted some big, big mountains. The two biggest are Mt. Mitchell (6,684 feet, the highest point in North Carolina, near Asheville, also the highest point east of the Mississippi river), and nearby Clingman’s Dome (6,643 feet, on the TN/NC border, the highest point in Tennessee).

Iris packed for vacation

What started out as kind of pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking quickly turned into a week-long family vacation in August 2005 (i.e. best vacation ever®). We packed the Insight full of camping gear, food, clothes, and two (yes, two) bikes and headed to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Camping at Great Smoky Mountains National Park

We camped in the park (just outside of Gatlinburg, TN) the first night and woke up bright and early, ready to tackle Clingman’s Dome: me on the bike, my wonderful wife driving the support vehicle. The ascent was 20 miles long and rose around 5,000 ft. The road wasn’t terribly steep (4-5%) since it was in the national park and it was built so RV’s could make it up.

View of Gatlinburg, TN

The first mile or two was very easy. I was cruising along at 16-17 mph thinking this will be a piece of cake. The gradient increased gradually until I was closer to 8-10 mph, where I would remain for most of the climb. I didn’t know what to expect with such a long climb (twice as long as the only other mountain I had climbed), and since I have a double chainring I switched to a mountain bike cassette with a 32-tooth cog before the ride. I could have gotten by comfortably with a 28. My regular road cassette only had a 25. This would have been usable, but much more difficult.

Clingman's dome

The first 12.5 miles on Newfound Gap Road had just a little bit of traffic, but it wasn’t bad. All the cars were going very slowly anyway, so my presence didn’t seem to cause any problems.

Newfound Gap

At Newfound Gap I stopped to get new water bottles from Melissa, then turned off onto Clingman’s Dome Road for the final 7.5 miles. There was very little traffic on this road. Aside from a short downhill this road was also a little bit steeper.

Rob at top of Clingman's Dome

What had been foggy and overcast weather all morning turned into a light drizzle at the summit of Clingman’s Dome. Fortunately, we made another trip back there a few days later for a better view from the observation tower at the top.

View from Clingman's Dome

Appalachian Trail at Clingman's Dome

I chose to descend the other side of the mountain, into North Carolina, rather than go back down the way I came up. Like the other side, this side wasn’t terribly steep, but it did have some long straight sections that relatively safely allowed for high speeds.

Rob on Clingman's Dome descent

This was only the third time I had ridden a mountain, so my descending skills were a little lacking. Nonetheless I was able to get up to 48 mph or so on the descent.

Clingman's Dome descent

At the bottom Melissa picked me up and we drove off to the next campground where we would continue our great adventure. I really enjoyed the ride up to and back down from Clingman’s Dome. It was challenging, but not ridiculous (like Mauna Kea). It was a good warmup for Mt. Mitchell a few days later.

Clingmans Dome map

Clingmans Dome  profile

I had some GPS wonkiness that caused the square looking sections

Ride Information
Date: 2005-08-08 7:39 AM EDT
Mountain: Clingman’s Dome
Road Elevation: 6318 feet
Climb Distance: 20.0 miles
Climb Ascent: 4837 feet
Climb Average Grade: 4.8%
Climb Maximum Grade: ?
Ride Distance: 50.6 miles
Ride Total Ascent: 5895 feet
Ride Maximum Speed: 48 miles/hour
Ride Start: Elkmont Campground, GSMNP, TN (2285 feet)
Ride End: Oconaluftee Vistior Center, GSMNP, NC (2046 feet)

A I mentioned, we came back to Clingman’s dome a few days later and parked at Newfound Gap. From there Melissa & I rode together the last 7.5 miles to the top. Despite her fear, I think she really enjoyed the ride. Conquering that mountain was certainly difficult for her. She often mentions that experience in the same breath as other difficult moments in her life (i.e. marathon #1, marathon #2, marathon #3, etc.) that have helped her learn to persevere.