Before Sunday’s ORAMM mountain bike race in the Pisgah National Forest, I’d heard it said that some people who have done the race never got on a mountain bike again. I’d also heard of those who barely survived ORAMM, yet couldn’t wait to do it again.
After doing the race, I can understand both sentiments, though I will admit the latter didn’t begin to take hold until well after the race as I lay grime-coated and spent in my tent.
ORAMM stands for Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, a nod to its paved and better-known cousin, Assault on Mount Mitchell, a 103-mile road race that begins in Spartanburg, S.C., and ends atop Mount Mitchell. ORAMM starts in Old Fort and and takes a circuitous 63-mile route north into the Black Mountains and back. Maybe five miles is on paved road (mostly getting out of and back into Old Fort); the rest is on gravel Forest Service road and singletrack trail. There’s 11,000 total feet of climbing along the way, and the event’s Web site advises: “Do not underestimate the extreme difficulty and danger of this event. The course is extremely demanding and travels over rugged terrain with extreme elevation changes. … It is not uncommon to see wildlife such as a wild cat or a black bear. Be ready to cope with any circumstances!! Please note that firearms are not permitted in certain areas.”
Not surprisingly, the folks who attempt such a challenge look like they don’t mind a little extreme difficulty and danger, or bear wrestling, for that matter. Checking out my 500 or so competitors at the start I saw maybe 5 pounds of fat — combined. Just looking at the race field it would be easy to be intimidated. And yet spend 10 hours and change riding 63 miles through bear country with them and you come away with a broader appreciation of who would chose to spend a Sunday riding through the highest mountains on the East Coast.
At the start, I ran into Steve Rogers from Chapel Hill. Steve and I are both in our 50s and I see him at every race in the Triangle. He’s a more devoted rider than I am and better because of it. He’s competitive, sure, but when he heard a couple weeks back that I was doing ORAMM, he emailed me some valuable and helpful advice from his experience racing in the mountains. Sunday before the start he attempted to put my prerace jitters at ease.
“Ah, you’ll have a fun day.” I’m pretty sure he meant it.
Fifteen miles into the race, at the first rest stop, I ran into Andrew Katz. Andrew is a managing partner of Morrisville’s Triangle Rock Club (a sponsor of this blog) and may be the most adventure-driven person I know. His specialty is mountaineering, but he’s also an accomplished whitewater kayaker, scuba dives, runs marathons and triathlons and does adventure races. He broke his arm doing the latter last year, which has limited his time on the mountain bike: “I’ve ridden exactly twice in the last year,” he told me. Yet despite having no chance of besting his previous ORAMM record of just over 8 hours, he may have been the happiest guy on the course.
“It’s such a great day!” he said.
As I was hitting the 30-mile mark around 12:30 p.m., if occurred to me that the top riders were just now finishing. Done — and I still had more than half the race left. Then I passed a guy walking his bike up a gentle climb.
“Cramps?” I asked.
He nodded solemnly. Cramps — and he still had 33 miles and most of that 11,000 vertical feet to go.
A couple miles later I was also pushing my bike, up the endless Curtis Creek Road to the Blue Ridge Parkway. I passed a fellow pusher who complimented me on my prowess. “Practice,” I advised. A little later I passed a kid in his 20s pushing his bike but mostly using it for support. “I think I ate some bad Gu,” he said, his sweaty, helmeted head facing the ground. “Save me a drink when you get to the rest stop,” he requested.
Around 2:30 the inevitable summer afternoon thunderstorm moved in. We had just left Rest Stop #4, on the Blue Ridge Parkway, where the race route spends a mile before exiting onto the aptly named Heartbreak Ridge Trail. Drizzle at first, then, as we pushed our bikes up the quarter-mile climb up Heartbreak, the rain picked up. At the summit, several of us stopped. One guy who had done ORAMM before, began telling a story.
“My dad did a marathon when I was little,” he began. “The farthest he had run until then was 8 miles. When he finished he told my mom that if he every talked about running another marathon, she needed to tell him no. Well, a year later the same marathon rolled around and my dad said, ‘You know, I think I’ll do that marathon again.’” He paused. “I guess I’m destined to repeat my father’s mistakes.”
On the rocky, rooty drop down Heartbreak Ridge, the clouds let loose. An already technical trail was now slippery and, in spots, consisted of peanut butter mud. A half mile down I passed a couple sitting on a rock. I didn’t think much of them until a little while latter and another rider asked if I’d seen the two. “Man, she was crying. I think the descent was freaking her out. I don’t know how it wouldn’t freak you out if you weren’t an avid downhill mountain biker.”
I rolled into Rest Stop # 5, the last rest stop at 4:20 p.m..
“How much farther?” I asked.
“About 11 miles from here,” answered the aid station volunteer.
“And it’s mostly downhill?”
“It’s six and a half back up to Kitsuma, then it’s downhill.”
Kitsuma is a legendary climb that greets ORAMM racers about five miles in and spanks their behinds with five miles to go. There are 13 switchbacks to the top, all 26 (13 x 2), I walked. I did the first 13 under the pretense of maybe being able to ride one. There was no pretense the second time around. After reaching the summit, I climbed back on the bike, only to discover that more sore than my legs were my arms and shoulders, which had taken a severe beating jolting down Heartbreak Ridge. It was here that I could understand why someone might entertain a Craig’s List ad after getting back to Old Fort. Instead, the first thing I did after crossing the finish was get my beer chits and cash one in on a Ranger IPA. I sprawled out on the grass, took a sip and, I believe, took a short nap.
* * *
I got back to my tent around dark. Between the 10 hour, 15minute, 59 second day in the saddle and a couple of post-race IPAs, I melted into my sleeping bag. Drifting, I recalled the pain and suffering I’d seen that day. It also dawned on me that that most of the folks I’d talked to mentioned this wasn’t their first ORAMM. They knew what they were up against — and they came back anyway. Which got me to thinking … .
I’m a terminal wimp and, with parts breaking more easily in middle age, I’ll likely never be more aggressive on the bone-rattling technical descents. But with better preparation I could eliminate some of the hike-a-bike up gravel roads. Maybe even shave an hour. Get real serious and who knows, maybe I could break 9 hours. Only 41 riders finished behind me (and close to 100 didn’t finish). If I could get into the 9-hour range, I’d be closer to a respectable mid-pack finish. I wouldn’t come close to winning my age category — that honor went to 53-year-old Paul A. Vankooten of Chattanooga, who finished in a stunning 6 hours, 6 minutes, 32 seconds — but I’d at least finish in the company of other riders (I was 3 minutes behind #355 and 2 minutes ahead of #357).
I could barely move, yet like many of my 500 fellow 2012 ORAMMers who were also in recovery and denial, I had one thought on my mind.
* * *
ORAMM 2012 Highlights
- Winner Jeremiah Bishop, a 36-year-old pro out of Harrisonburg, Va., who races for Cannondale Factory Racing, set a course record, winning with a time of 4 hours, 33 minutes, 16 seconds. In second was Thomas Turner of Canton, Ga., at 4:36:44, and third was Josh Fix of Albany, Ga., at 4:58:18. Raleigh rider Adam Engell was fourth, with a time of 5:01:03.
- Riders from 11 states were represented in the first 30 spots.
- The oldest riders, both 61, were Ed McCalley of Rockwood, Tenn., (8:16:31) and Matthew Marshall Graves of Rockford, Mich., (9:08:35).