“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” ~Eleanor Roosevelt
A few months ago, I signed up for Peak Racing Team’s ( http://www.peakracingteam.com ) Gaps Camp. Before signing up, I asked my coach, Chuck Sims, and our team’s head coach, Tony Hammett, if I was ready for the camp. They both said yes, and that I should come, so I signed up despite my doubts after learning about what the Gaps were.
In case you aren’t familiar with the 6 Gaps bike route, the peaks range from 1400′ to 3460′ in elevation. There are 6 named peaks: Wolfpen, Woody, Neels, Jack’s, Unicoi, and Hogpen. Hogpen is by far the hardest at an average 7% grade for over 7 miles with sections reaching as much as 15%. The Gaps are spread over about 80 miles and have a total elevation gain of over 10,000′, but the rides including them are often longer.
Leading up to the camp, I started wondering and doubting whether I had done the right thing by signing up. The closer the camp got, the more freaked out, nervous, doubtful, and scared I became. 2400′ of elevation over 50 miles was hard enough for me, so I didn’t see how I could complete 50 miles on two back to back days with 5000+ feet of elevation gain per day. I’d never even ridden 100 miles in two days, and now, I decide it’d be a good decision to try it on a mountainous course 3 weeks before my upcoming 70.3 in New Orleans? I ran about every excuse I could come up with through my head, but it’s kind of hard to come up with a valid reason to bail on your friend who signed up with you, the money you spent to go, and to admit you’re afraid you won’t make it, so you aren’t coming. This is the first event that I have ever wanted to completely bail out of this bad, and it all went back to fear, fear of failure (this seems to be a lesson that I’m struggling to learn) and doubting my ability. The week of camp, Chuck had lightened my training load to prepare for camp, and the extra time wasn’t my friend. I honestly think I almost made myself sick with all the extra downtime to think and stress over it. I had a couple of days where I slept a ridiculous amount of time, and my legs felt extremely heavy and weak. I had joked with my coach and on Facebook about bailing out, but those jokes had a lot more truth to them that week than I shared with anyone other than a couple of people. Facebook messages and text from Jeneen and Dani helped more than they know the week of camp and Friday night.
Friday afternoon: Angela and I met to drive up to the cabin where we were all staying for camp with Peak. We arrived just before 6PM, unpacked our stuff, and were soon sitting down to dinner provided by Peak. After dinner, Tony had a short meeting with all of us where he informed us that we would be riding the harder Gaps on Saturday and instead of just 3 Gaps, we’d ride 4. The coaches gave us all some tips on climbing and descending, and Tony handed out maps, cue sheets, and samples of Foggies and TriSwim hair products from SBR Sports ( http://www.sbrsportsinc.com/triswim.html ). After the meeting, my desire to do the ride took a hit, and I ended up in tears downstairs in my bunk bed texting Jeneen and Dani and talking to Angela as well as Tony. I think Tony knew I was concerned about the ride, but this might have been the first time he got a true glimpse of how concerned. After a bit, I pulled myself together and rejoined everyone upstairs, only to end up in tears again that night in my bunk as I tried to go to sleep. I’m not one to cry unless I’m extremely mad at someone or mad at myself, so the fact that I was crying was bad. I finally fell asleep around 1:30AM Saturday morning.
My alarm was set for 8AM, but I was wide awake by 6:30AM for our roll out at 10AM(late start due to 28 degree weather). By 7:30AM, most everyone was starting to stir and eat breakfast, and at 9:30AM we snapped a photo, finished getting our warm gear on, and rolled out promptly at 10AM. Tony headed out ahead of us in his truck where he’d ride most of the day marking out turns and regrouping spots, and Kat Hammett stayed a bit behind us periodically leap frogging us all day in case someone needed help. The Gaps for the day were to be Wolfpen, Jack’s, Unicoi, and Hogpen….oh, did you notice that too? Yes, they saved the hardest for the last gap of the day.
WOLFPEN was pretty short from the direction we hit it first, so it was tough, but it was over with pretty quick. This short Gap was hard, but not bad, so maybe I could do this. We regrouped at the top before the descent. As we were descending, I realized that we hadn’t came to the stop sign on 180 yet for our left turn, and we would have to climb back up the descent we were coming down. I quickly realized that we were really climbing 5 GAPS on Saturday! Soooo, Tony didn’t completely lie, I guess? We were doing 4 different Gaps. We just happened to be doing Wolfpen twice, and he had only mentioned having to do it on the way out.
JACK’S and UNICOI were harder since they were each longer than Wolfpen, but I was just checking each off the list of 5 that we had to do and hoping I could complete the one I was on at the time. I don’t remember much about them other than I ran out of gears on my 11-28 cassette on both Gaps, and I usually ran out pretty close to the start, so the looming thought of Hogpen was constantly in the back of my head. We all regrouped at the tops of Jack’s and Unicoi to see how everyone was hanging in there, and Tony and Kat met us at the tops of each Gap as well to offer nutrition, take excess clothing, or give us additional items if needed. We had a good 10+ miles from the top of Unicoi to spin out our legs before reaching Hogpen.
HOGPEN: The last turn before Hogpen, Tony and Kat met us. We shed some layers for the 7 mile climb, and I made sure to look at my watch to see what my mileage was there, so I knew when 7 miles were up! I should have eaten something at this point, but I was still okay on time with my Ucan, and I didn’t feel hungry, so I didn’t eat anything at the bottom of this climb which meant I had eaten nothing since we started the ride over 3 hours earlier. I know I usually need nutrition with my Ucan around 3 1/2 hours, so it can kick in by 4 hours, but I wasn’t thinking ahead about not being able to stop on Hogpen to get something out and not being in my aerobars to be able to eat like I usually do. Off we went. The first bit from the turn wasn’t bad, so I realized that it probably wasn’t part of Hogpen quite yet, but soon, the CLIMB started. Everyone was finding their own rhythm, so we quickly got spread out as we climbed, and I got in my easiest gear and just figured I’d chug along at my own pace. My pace quickly began to slow….5-6mph. About 2 miles up, we got a slight break and small, short downhill for relief before it suddenly began to climb even steeper than before, and my pace dropped to 3-4mph and 40RPM. These 2-3 miles pretty much sucked as I was starting to feel like my stomach was burning from hunger, but I couldn’t stop because the grade was too steep to start back if I did, and I couldn’t lean on my aerobars to eat, and to top that off, my inner thighs started trying to cramp on and off along with my upper left calf. I think this was where we saw Kat and Tony standing on the side of the road cheering.
I should know by now not to ask Tony how much farther because he will never give me the answer, but I asked anyway, and he was evasive as usual. I might have lost Jesus at that point as I yelled something about my legs cramping and perhaps a few other words (ok, maybe this was just the first time anyone was around to witness it), but I kept chugging along as they gave me a little push to try to get my cadence up which quickly returned to less than 40. At this point lots of quotes started running through my head, and the main one that kept resonating was “Your legs are not giving out. Your mind is giving up. Keep going!” So, I did. Around the 5 mile mark the slope lessened, but my cadence slowed so much with my legs cramping that I barely got unclipped in time to avoid falling. My legs felt like noodles, and barely caught me even after getting unclipped. I had just passed Kat again on the side of the road where another rider was getting out after having a flat and needing to get to a flatter area to be able to start again, so there I stood straddling my bike trying to determine if I was going to throw in the towel and tell Kat I needed in the truck, or if I was going to continue. Jeff, the rider getting out of the truck, walked his bike up to me, asked me how I was doing, and I told him my legs were cramping, so he said, “let’s walk a minute and stretch them out.” We walked about 1/10th a mile to a slight downhill where we climbed back on and rode about a mile before needing to walk and stretch my legs again for another 1/10th a mile. We got back on our bikes with about 1 mile of steep climbing to go, and down the hill comes Al (from in front of us, he’d already gotten to the top) to ride the last bit back to the top with us. By this point I was pretty well shut down and not talking at all (other than some words I shouldn’t repeat, sorry folks, I usually watch my language pretty well, but this whole weekend pushed me a bit too far), but Al and Jeff kept talking to me and encouraging me. I have no doubt that I wouldn’t have made it to the top without the two of them staying with me. Al guided me up the last part of Hogpen weaving side to side to ease the climb (it really does help to weave on steep areas), and we reached the top where the rest of the Peak group was waiting. I got off my bike for a moment, stretched my legs, took in a PowerGel donated to the camp by Power Bar ( http://www.powerbar.com/products/ ), and ate a Kind bar. Finally, something to eat! As I stood there, Chuck came over and told me good job or something and that he’d never done Hogpen until that day to which I replied that I’d never do it again, and I’d rather run 2 marathons on back to back days than climb that hill on a bike again. It’d have to be easier. I also told him he was lucky that I didn’t just punch him right there for telling me I should come to the camp! Punching him would have made me feel better. I told Dani before camp that I just thought Chuck was trying to find my breaking point by telling me to do the camp, and I have to say that I think he finally found it. I told Tony that I wanted to descend and I was done! I had done the 4 Gaps which was all that was mentioned, and I knew with my legs still cramping I wouldn’t make it up Wolfpen a SECOND time. Then, down Hogpen we went!
The descent down Hogpen was sketchy at times as the wind had picked up and the road is kind of rough in spots, so I was getting blown left and right pretty good from the gust. I had to brake a lot on the top steeper part, but the descents are always fun even if a tad bit scary.
We reached the turn at the bottom of Hogpen, and I put my bike in the truck and called it a day. Chuck came rolling up as we were loading my bike, and the rim wall of his back wheel had shredded on the descent, so his bike was done as well and got loaded in Tony’s truck. Seeing his rim, I’m just glad he made it down safely.
Back to the cabin…….. (to be continued)