ORAMM: Where a good idea bumps up against reality

Fear the rabbit? You bet.

When I write a book proposal, I’m full of great ideas. If the proposal gets accepted, those ideas seem even better. Then, as reality draws near … .
Last year, UNC Press wondered if I’d be interested in writing a book about adventure in the Carolinas. Boy, would I? I came up with a proposal heavy on personal involvement. How better to tell a story than to actually be in the midst of it: It’s an approach I’ve sworn by in 20 years of adventure writing. If you want to convey the experience, you have to experience the experience.
For instance, if you want to describe what learning to scuba dive is really like, you embed yourself in a class of folks learning to scuba dive. That was a blast. If you want to give readers a sense of what it’s like to explore the wildest spots in the Carolinas, you tag along with people exploring the wildest spots in the Carolinas. Again, so much fun. And if you want to truly capture the addictive nature of mountain biking, you find someone who hasn’t been riding long, yet signs up for the toughest mountain bike race in the region and you agree to ride along to capture every exhilarating moment.
This is where an idea hatched a year ago to rubs raw against reality.
After asking around, I determined that perhaps the most challenging mountain bike race in the Southeast is a mid-July sufferfest called ORAMM — the Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell. Starts in Old Fort, climbs up to the Blue Ridge Parkway, descends a little from the Blue Ridge Parkway, climbs to a higher part of the Blue Ridge Parkway, descends back to Old Fort. 63 miles, 11,000 feet of total climbing, lots and lots of technical trail. Word has it that ardent mountain bikers have given up the sport after doing this race. The ORAMM Web site offers this cheery insight to riders: “Have no illusions you can escape some type of injury on 63 miles of rough terrain. Whether it be an abrasion or a mental breakdown, everyone suffers in one way or another.”
Part of the problem is that I’ve waited a little too long to face reality. Two weeks ago I happened to glance at the calendar and noticed a red smudge on July 22. I squinted; the smudge read “ORAMM!”
Better start training, I thought.
I should find solace in the plight of Daniel Hemp, who only started riding two years ago, like me, is doing his first ORAMM, and because of professional and family obligations only gets to train about once a week. But then I learned that Daniel is a spry 36 years of age and did the grueling Burn24, a 24-hour mountain bike race at Kerr Reservoir over Memorial Day weekend, solo, and finished 7th. “I won’t be in the top 50 at ORAMM,” he mused.
I was a little more encouraged by Melissa Cooper, who first did ORAMM in 2010.
Like me, she lives in the Triangle, and also like me, her training was restricted to local trails. Good trails here in the Triangle, but you’d need to ride for a week, round-the-clock, to rack up 11,000 feet of climbing.
“It was the hardest thing I had ever done,” Cooper says of ORAMM, “but at the same time I had a blast. I remember it like it was yesterday: the hike-a-bike up the switchbacks to the top of Kitsuma, often forgetting to unclip upon coming to a stop while descending Kistuma (much to the amusement of the rider behind me), the grassy-road that seemed to go on forever, the incredible views, the broiling heat during the trudge up Curtis Creek Road, the scary thunderstorm that started right when I got to the hike-a-bike at Heartbreak Ridge … .” Not only did she finish, but she did ORAMM again last year and will be at the start this year.
“Am I crazy to keep doing this ORAMM thing year after year?” she asks.
At 27, Melissa, you can afford to be a little crazy.
My problem is that at 56 I’m more than two Melissa’s. A 27-year-old can get away without training in the mountains for a mountain race. And a 36-year-old like Daniel can get away with riding just once a week training for an event of this magnitude. But can a 56-year-old who spaced out ORAMM until a month out survive a race in which, “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.”
Certain areas?
In the past 12 days, I’ve ridden 214 miles. Fifty of that was on the road bike and 164 on the mountain bike. Of the latter, 137 was on the forest roads at Umstead State Park, 27 on nearby single track. I’ve been riding roughly every other day, for 2 to 3 1/2 hours a shot. I’ve got another 10 days of hard training before I begin to taper. I need at least one six-hour ride and one four-hour ride in the mix. My legs are perpetually tired — though I can tell I’m getting stronger. Stronger, but strong enough to survive 63 miles and 11,000 feet of climbing? And outrunning black bears?
In January, I was 36 miles into the 42-mile Mountain Bike Marathon in Sanford when I joined up briefly with Steve Bevington. Steve, as it turned out, had done ORAMM the previous year. Perhaps it was the pain of the moment (we were both on the verge of cramping), but Steve, who is 48, said he enjoyed ORAMM, that the race we were doing, though shorter, in some ways was harder. Steve wound up finishing the MBM a little over two minutes ahead of me. He did ORAMM in 9 hours and 46 minutes and 42 seconds. By my admittedly convoluted conversion formula, I figure that means I should be able to break 10 hours. With just over two weeks to go, I think that projection sounds good.
Kinda like my proposal to do the race sounded more than a year ago.

5 thoughts on “ORAMM: Where a good idea bumps up against reality”

  1. Joe,

    I am in the same situation as you. I had a herniated disk in my neck and was off the bike from Mar until Jun. I’ve done some riding but not nearly enough. Question, when will you start to taper? I was to ride as much as I can until the race but ensure my legs are rested. I am 41 yrs old if that makes a differnce and it will be my 4th oramm and I am slow. Thanks!


    1. Hi Bridgette,

      A running coach once told me that anything you do within 10 days of a big event doesn’t really help. Ten days, in my experience seems a little extreme. For an event of this magnitude my plan is to ride hard through this Sunday, perhaps riding every other day for at least two hours, hopefully get a four- to six-hour ride in. Then, next week, do a couple of fun, short (between an hour and an hour and a half), singletrack rides. I’m sure there’s a science to it, but I generally go by what’s worked for me in the past. Of course, much as I like my plan on paper, reality often has a way of mixing things up — like it did this afternoon on what was supposed to be a mellow singletrack ride — a mellow ride that broke my frame. Am now in scramble for substitute bike mode.

  2. ORAMM is quite a event, well organized and hard enough to gain the feeling of a large accomplishment when you cross the line. Congrats on attempting it! You had mentioned it as the most challenging MTB race in the Southeast? Difficult yes, but with Cohutta 100 adding an extra 35 miles and 4,000 feet of climbing to the totals of ORAMM, Shenandoah 100 adding 2000 feet and 30 miles onto the total, the Allegheny Loop race planned for this fall in Virginia (400 miles along the Blue Ridge Mountains and an estimated 45,000 feet of climbing), Trans North Georgia with 350 miles and 65,000 feet of climbing…I wouldn’t call ORAMM even close to the most challenging.

    1. Dang! I must have meant it’s amount the most challenging for mere mortals. I’m familiar with Shenandoah, but wasn’t aware of the others. Appreciate you flagging them (and feel free to mention any others); I don’t mind exposing my ignorance in an ephemeral blog, but in a book with, hopefully, a long shelf life that wouldn’t be good. Thanks, Justin.

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