Tag Archives: Mountain biking

The oddity of ORAMM

Carnage at Rest Stop #4, on the Blue Ridge Parkway.

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. read more

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. read more

90 Second Escape: Last Call at Lake Crabtree

Monday — never an easy time for the outdoors enthusiast, especially come summer. After a weekend of adventure, returning to the humdrum work-a-day world can make one melancholy. 
To help ease this trying transition, we’re running a new feature every Monday, at least during the summer, called 90 Second Escape. Essentially, it’s a 90-second video of a place you’d probably rather be: a trail, a park, a greenway, a lake … anywhere as long as it’s in the sun. read more

Find your passion at the Whitewater Center

I’m a big believer in the notion that if you find your fitness passion, you’ll have no problem staying in shape. Trouble is, it can take a while to find that passion, especially in the outdoor adventure arena. It can take a while, but it doesn’t have to. read more