The Primal State (Vista 300)

Day 1

The day started early, coming from Central Time. I got up around 5:45am Eastern, departure was at 6:30. I had no trouble waking up, as a nervous excitement had been lingering since the day before. I drank my cold brew and loaded the bags onto my bike, making the final call to bring my wind jacket, even though I probably wouldn't use it. I still couldn't decide what shirt to wear - long sleeve, quick dry for sun protection or a regular cotton blend tshirt from the MS Gravel Cup for better air flow. At the last minute I decided neither. I'd just wear the one I had on - my tri-blend Rat Bastard Brewing shirt (gotta represent!). It's not a 'performance' shirt, but it's super comfy and dries reasonably well. I took the long sleeve to change at some point. Rolling up to the start I had a mild panic that I hadn't loaded the route onto my GPS, but it was in fact there. I had loaded it a week or two ago and forgotten. 

After a brief 'good luck', we were off. All eleven of us. (Plus maybe a couple that weren't on Track Leaders, not sure, I didn't count.) Riding up the first climb, my lower back was complaining about having slept in my car. I figured it would stop sooner or later, and eventually it did. About twenty minutes in, with no one in sight, I realized this was going to be a very solitary ride - compared to TNGA where you see a handful of riders at every resupply. Early on I got passed by Joe and Garrett. I would see Joe again at the first resupply in Tellico Plains at mile 47, otherwise I was alone for the rest of the ride. 

For the first hour I was zipping up the climbs with minimal effort. Two hours in, I thought, damn this is getting hard. Four hours in, I had settled into endurance pace and was feeling good again. The first several hours consisted of mostly smooth gravel roads, some pavement. I was making good time and calculated that, at that pace I could knock this thing out in under 48 hours, easy. Then I got to the sustained climbs. The gravel climb up to Indian Boundary started wearing me down, but I got to the camp store just in time. They had closed up, about to leave, but they were super nice and let me grab a few things. I had hoped for some substantial food, instead I had a Snickers ice cream bar, a pack of Combos, and a Coke for dinner. I ate and rested for a bit, then started up the Skyway - a 10 mile 3000 foot climb. 

The Ride with GPS map has two overlooks marked on the way up. I got to the first one pretty quickly, feeling good. A little while later I got to the second, thinking this isn't so bad, I have to be over half way up. Then I passed another overlook and another overlook and another overlook. Five miles later, all uphill, I thought, alright I'm ready to go home now. A couple miles later I finally got to the top of the ten mile climb, exhausted. At least there was a ten mile descent next. 

Day faded into night as I made my way down. I cruised on to the game check station at mile 120 where I refilled water, put on a fresh shirt and socks, and rested a few minutes. Originally, I thought I might stop for the night around this point. There was a campground coming up, but the night was young and I wanted to press on a while longer. I then realized that the next few resupply points would be closed when I passed them. I took stock of my remaining food. It wasn't quite enough to make it to the next major town - McCaysville at mile 178. I would either have to stop for longer than I wanted, waiting for somewhere to open or risk a major bonk.

Around 12:30am, mile 140, I stopped to sleep for a bit at a tiny trailhead on the side of the road. The first night is always difficult. I was sweaty and tired and the air was chilly and damp. I wanted a shower and a warm bed, instead I got an inflatable sleeping pad and unknown critters wandering about.

Day 2

I woke up chilly around 4:20am. A sleeping bag liner doesn't offer much warmth by itself, and I wasn't going to get any warmer laying there. I packed up and was rolling by 4:45am. About a mile later there was a right turn in the route but no road. Oh boy! Singletrack! Not just single track but hike-a-bike with big loose rocks. What fun! Thankfully, the steep section was fairly short, most of the trail was rolling to flat and a pretty easy ride. I saw a bunch of squiggles coming up on the route and thought, what the hell is that? Oh, it's Buck Bald. I watched it get closer and closer. 

I popped out onto a road and next thing I knew I was heading downhill. Wait what happened to Buck Bald? It's a short out and back in the route, and my GPS had skipped over it. But I could see the road on the map. I doubled back and rode up it anyways, pretty sure I knew what I was doing. I didn't want to miss that 360 degree view of the surrounding mountains or get hit with a three hour time penalty. I got to the top at first light, which was pretty cool. I could just see the dark hills against the less dark sky. Getting there about 45 minutes later would've been awesome. 

I pressed on, down and up, down and up. I made it to the convenience store in Harbuck around 8:15am. They don't open until 10am. I was down to half a Clif Bar and a few sips of water - I'm pretty sure half a Clif Bar is enough to kill a man on the verge of dehydration. I hadn't seen a good place to filter water from in a while, either. So, I could wait nearly two hours for them to open, or I could ride another fourteen miles and be in McCaysville before 10am. I checked the upcoming elevation profile - relatively flat - probably a lot of pavement from what I remembered on the map. Easy decision: onward. (Looking back at the map now, there's a Dollar General a mile off route that was open at 8am...)

When the clock tower struck 10, I had found Catz cafe, ordered, and sat down. I sipped hot coffee while still dying of thirst because that's what I do in the morning. The cafe had been converted from an old house, but the bathroom still had a tub in it with a hose/shower head attachment... it was awfully tempting. I ate enough to feel like vomiting, then hit the Dollar General to restock. Riding out of town was very uncomfortable from having eaten and drank so much, but my stomach had settled by the time I hit the singletrack. 

It was quite warm by this point and the humidity among the dense trees was stifling. I took off my long sleeve shirt, the relief was instant. I never ride shirtless, but I did for several hours this day. It was liberating. With proper fuel, fluids, and convective cooling, I felt like a new man. I was ripping up and down the trail, but it still took three hours to go 22 miles. Near the top of a long singletrack climb approaching a gravel road, I saw a small black bear run off into the woods. Shortly after that on the gravel road a deer saw me coming, yelped, and ran off the other way. I didn't know deer could yelp, but I thought it was hilarious. 

Next up was the Sylco backcountry trail. I had ridden it before in the other direction as part of the Cohutta Cat. And even with the recent controlled burn, it was worse than I remembered. It's an overgrown, washed out, sorry excuse for a trail, and we should really let it die already. 

I made my way to the Ocoee Dam Deli where I got a buffalo chicken wrap to go - got a bit messy trying to eat that while riding. Then I got a milk shake from Sonic in the next town over to sip on as I cruised the easy pavement. I was making good time again. I got to the convenience store at mile 250 well before they closed. This would be the last resupply, then just 65 miles to the finish. It was 9pm. It would be a long night, but if I pushed through, I could squeak in, just under 48 hours. Little did I know what was in store.

Riding the next section of pavement, a dark mountain ridge loomed on the left. Then the route turned left. I walked most of two miles up a ridiculously steep gravel road, thinking I would have a nice descent on the other side. Nope. More singletrack. It was a bit technical and slow going in the dark. And it went on. And on. And on. I made it to Chilhowee Campground around 1:30am. Still over 45 miles to go. There was no way I was going to finish under 48 hours, so I stopped to sleep a while.

Day 3

I woke up around 4:30am again, ready for the final push. The long climb and singletrack the night before had distorted my sense of elevation. Was I on top of a mountain or near the bottom? The gravel road away from the campground went up. I could look out in the darkness and see lights far below. But then I would come across a fairly loud creek - how did all that water get up here? The road kept going up. Surely I was near the top of the world by now. When I made the turn to go down, there was yet another road that continued going up. I was baffled (also sleep deprived). I hit a wicked descent as the sun was rising with a waning quarter moon shining over the misty valleys far below. At the bottom, I stopped for second breakfast, then rode on towards the last big climb. 

Even though my goal had been 48 hours, I wouldn't trade my experience. Finishing in two days is just an overnighter. The third day is when things get interesting - when you really start to feel the effects of sleep deprivation and the finish line is within your grasp, watching the sun come up over the mountains while your very being is reduced to it's primal core of raw power and will, driven to complete a single task. Nothing can stop you. Nothing else matters. For me, this primal state of being is the essence of ultra endurance racing. It's a high not easily achieved or sustained. 

My transcension was complete when I decided to drink tepid instant coffee after consuming several thousand calories the day before, far, far away from civilization or a restroom. There's nothing quite like wiping with leaves still wet with dew to bring you back to nature.

When I crested the last peak, I stopped for some celebratory Pringles. They had survived surprisingly well over the rough terrain. It was all (mostly) downhill from here - gravel, singletrack, gravel - down to the Hiwassee river. If I hadn't been so close to the finish, I would've stopped to swim. One last little bushwacking, creek crossing adventure and a short loop around Ocoee State Park and I was done - 316 miles, 53 hours 25 minutes.


Anonymous said...

That’s amazing!! Congrats!

Anonymous said...

This is amazing Brandon !!

Anonymous said...

Straight badass, and a talented writer to boot.