• By: A.J.

RockStar Race Report: Take Two (Hundred and Seventy)

Updated: Jan 24, 2020

I felt a distinctive pop in my right knee, a hard shooting pain, and then I started screaming. The little voice in my head that had tried for 225 miles to convince me to quit was getting louder. I unclipped my right leg as gently as I could and let my bike slam onto the gravel road. I tried to walk. Any pressure was met with an immediate and painful response. I collapsed into the dirt of the road and tried stretching my leg in and out, side to side. Behind me, the sun began to set. Above me, Dragon’s Back, the last – and perhaps the hardest trail section of RockStar 270 -- waited. Three days before, on a misty morning, myself and roughly thirty-five other riders had departed from Black Sheep Coffee in Harrisonburg, Virginia, with one goal in mind: Make it to Roanoke and the Texas Tavern, an understated all-night diner in the heart of the city. Some of us were going on the paved roads to Roanoke, some of us were following gravel routes, and some of us were dumb enough to undertake an arduous amount of singletrack mountain bike trails. I was the latter.

6:58 AM, April 13th. Two minutes before the start.

6:58 AM in Harrisonburg on Saturday morning. T-minus two minus before the start. As we rolled through the fog on that Saturday morning with our knobby tires humming on the pavement, little green heads – the tops of rolling farm hills – poked through the white blanket of clouds every now and again. The sun and the blue sky waited overhead, promising a warm day. Leaving the pavement and civilization behind at mile 20, we started the dirt climb on Union Springs toward Reddish Knob. The field separated. I began to wish that I hadn’t been so miserly and bought that 11-42 cassette. Or at least a 30T front ring. But when the race has already begun, it’s too late for such wishes. So on and up I went with my 32T front ring and 40T little ring. (Don’t worry if you’re lost on the importance of this.) My goal had been to hit the top of Reddish Knob, elevation 4,400 feet, by noon. I made it there at 11:45 AM. The day had become clear and sunny and hot. I ate a wrap of cheese and salami and bemoaned wearing too many layers. Why hadn’t I brought arm warmers? Damnit. Then again, I didn’t own any… Another item I should’ve bought. I rolled out of the graffitied parking lot after a few minutes and began the hour-long rocky and technical descent off Wolf Ridge Trail. The rest of Day One proceeded uneventfully. Over and down Narrowback. I kept switching places with Rob Issem, who founded the event, and a group of two others who were doing the trail route as a stage race, meaning they weren’t carrying twenty-plus pounds of camping gear like I was. Every pass became a joke opportunity: “This is the longest damn mountain ever,” “Hankey Mountain sucks.” Eventually, their unweighted bikes were too fast for me (or maybe they were just faster than I was, I dunno.) But I was left alone. I refueled at the West Augusta store – chocolate milk and a cheeseburger! – and rolled past Braley’s Pond, where, in 2018, I had spent a long and freezing night in my hammock. Not this year. Up, up, and up I plodded. The sun dropped into its bed of color, and I switched on my lights. Down across a freezing, knee deep stream, and I started the final push to the Shenandoah Mountain Trail. The time was nearing 10 PM. I had been on my bike for fourteen hours. Above the intersection of Highway 220 and the start of the long dirt road climb that led to the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, I finally stopped and set up my hammock. Nowhere else to go for the night and no one else around. At 5 AM on Day Two, I heard doors slamming in the parking lot below. Who needs an alarm clock when fate has decided to wake you up? Time to move. The day, however, did not look promising. I had hoped for a lovely sunrise climb to the start of the SMT. Instead, clouds hugged the sides of the mountain and mist coalesced into rain drops on my glasses. The road turned steeper and steeper. My low energy light flashed, despite eating a fair amount for breakfast. Weather truly has the ability to inject or deflect energy. Strong in the sun, weak in the rain. I felt weak. Crossing the Shenandoah Mountain Trail, with its twenty-five miles of magic carpet green moss and rolling ridgelines, an eternity seemed to pass. There are no roads crossing the SMT. No breaks. Just pedaling through God’s Graces. I didn’t see a paved road until 1 PM, and that was after bushwacking and orienteering through the last three miles of forgotten trail. By that time in the afternoon, the mist had grown into a steady rain and the temperatures hung in the low 50s. My clothes, sweaty and soaked, clung to my skin, and my stomach voiced its own concerns. I knew of a gas station in Bath Alum from the previous year’s failed attempt, so I aimed for it. By 2 PM, I rolled into the parking lot to see an older woman – Tammy – sitting on a bench outside smoking a cigarette. Tammy, I would soon learn, was an angel with a raspy voice. Tammy let me sit inside, gave me free coffee, offered her couch for the night, and promised to let me stay in the gas station until she closed at 6. Not only that, but her son was named A.J. She intoned that I was meant to meet her. I couldn’t disagree. And I wanted to say yes to everything she offered. I wanted a warm blanket. A hot shower. Anything, really. I was freezing freaking cold, occasionally shaking. But I wanted to make Douthat State Park, the midpoint of the race, before nightfall. I couldn’t stop. I just couldn’t. I called my wife, Leah, and asked her to see if Douthat had any free cabins. She said a cabin was listed as available online, but I had to talk with Douthat directly. So I called, directly, and I was told by a very sugary sweet womanly voice that I couldn’t reserve a cabin on the same day in which I intended to stay. I had to reserve a day in advance, and I had to book for at least two nights (Yeah, that’s ridiculous.) I pleaded and explained how cold and wet I was, but the sugary voice on the other end simply replied, “I’m sorry, Honey. I can’t help you.” So no room at the inn for me. I armored myself in what dry gear I could find and said goodbye to Tammy the Angel, hoping my expressions of gratitude truly relayed how thankful I was for her. The following climb up Little Mare (aka Nightmare) and across Bald Knob almost destroyed me. I hope I never have to endure a climb that long – from 1600 feet in elevation up to 4200 feet -- and steep again. There were sections of near vertical muddy push climbing where I had to lock the brakes on my bike to pull myself up. At the Trapper’s Lodge at the end of the six mile climb up Little Mare, the wind kicked up and the rain pelted down. I took bites of cheese and salami while sharing the company of Mike Boyes and Brandon Doerner, a team of riders from good ole’ WV. I was so happy to see someone else, because at that point, I had been alone for much of the day, save meeting Tammy. Mike, Brandon, and I ended up riding together, off and on, for the rest of the way into Douthat; and it was with them that I would descend off the top of Bald Knob in swirling fog and dark so thick that our lights could hardly penetrate the soup. Halfway down the descent, the fog lifted. We took the clearing as a welcoming sign that the weather was changing. We didn’t realize the clearing was an atmospheric pause before the stronger storms began. I stopped to adjust my rattling headset and watched their lights race away. Alone again. Once in Douthat, I searched for a pavilion under which to stealth (illegally) camp, and noticed lightning had begun to flash above the tree lined ridges. Little did I know that a Tornado Watch and a Severe Storm Warning had been issued. For maybe five seconds, my cell phone had signal. I called Leah to tell her that I was stopping for the night. I got out the word “hello” before the call dropped. I later learned that she had shouted into the phone, “There’s a severe thunderstorm heading right for you! Take cover!” The words never reached my ears. Less than an hour later, the storms hit. The line was moving south to north, rather than the typical east to west, so for several hours one storm after the next marched over Douthat. I had taken off all of my wet clothes and laid them on the concrete floor of the unwalled pavilion. On top of this pile, I put my rain fly, my hammock, and my sleeping bag, in that order. I then curled up into a burrito and braced myself. For hours. I tried to do the old trick of counting between thunder and lightning to help myself sleep, but the storms were stacked so heavily that I couldn’t decipher distance. One time I would count five seconds. The next three. The next ten. Then a crack would land right on top of the pavilion. Finally, I gave up and sleep took me, with the acceptance that I would survive if I was meant to survive. At 3:33 AM – I remember the time distinctly – I awoke to find my rain fly flapping about in the wind and my sleeping bag half soaked from sideways rain. I re-tucked my burrito into position and tried once again to fall asleep, but the temperature had dropped into the lower 40s and upper 30s. Cold crept in around my toes. At 7 AM on Day Three, I got up and saw Rob Issem and his group roll down the road. I could barely move. My lower back screamed, my calf muscles were swollen with blood, and I had a hint of pain under my right patella. I found a hand dryer in a nearby bathroom – Why hadn’t I stayed there the night before? It was the Hilton of State Park bathrooms! And only fifty yards away! – and began drying my clothes piecemeal, slowly turning each sock and shirt under the forced air… for an hour and a half.

Sunrise in the pavilion on Day Three... I am not happy.

Of course, within two hundred yards of starting the climb out of Douthat, I hit five stream crossings. It was then that I cussed. A lot. The hard work I had done drying my socks was for nothing. I sloshed onward and upward. Day Three went like this: See Mike Boyes and Brandon, keep climbing, descend a bit, cuss a lot, and then climb some more. Eventually, around 3 PM, I became obsessed with the Burger King in Covington. I wanted a hamburger. And some hot french fries. And a booth in which I could relax. And maybe a hotel room. I would get all four. And THANK GOD Mike and Brandon were with me on that long day. I wanted to quit when I rolled into Covington. I knew it was about 40 or 50 miles of road riding to the finish in Roanoke if I quit. Maybe a four-hour ride to warmth and safety. Via the trail route, I would have to endure another eighteen to twenty hours of pain. Price Mountain and Dragon’s Back awaited us, two of the most technical and unrelenting trails of the race. The choice seemed straightforward, at least to a normal person.

But, man oh man, what a hot shower and a night in a bed will do for the spirit! I opened my eyes at 5:45 AM on Day Four, snuggled under a heavy blanket and surrounded by dry sheets. I did yoga to stretch out my lower back and popped 1000 mg of Ibuprofen for my right knee, which had started hurting worse as I came into Covington the night before. I hit Burger King one last time on the way out of town for breakfast sandwiches – two for here and three to go! – and made my way toward the climb up Rich Patch Road.

On course... Two miles up Rich Patch Road, I stopped to take more medicine, 1000 mg of Tylenol. My right knee pain stubbornly remained. But the combination of Tylenol and Ibuprofen did the trick, at least temporarily. I had a lovely rest of the day. Roaring Run was a delight. Price Mountain was long and terrible and interminable, but the sun was out. Strong in the sun! By 5:30 PM, I was on a connector trail between Price Mountain and Dragon’s Back. My spirit buoyed above pessimism. There was a chance I might even be headed into Roanoke that night if I could summon the strength and resolve. Then I started the steep dirt road climb that would lead me to the trail head for Dragon’s Back, aka the North Mountain Trail, aka the final thirteen miles of ridgeline ass kicking. My rear tire had a slow leak, so I stopped to pop in a new tube on the side of the road. An old boy in a beaten-up red Dodge Ram pulled up and asked if I needed any help and if I’d seen or heard any turkeys. I said no to both and he rumbled down the road. I remounted my bike to continue climbing and that’s when the pain truly started. Sharp and immediate and serious. In twenty years of riding and racing, I’ve never had pain in either of my knees like that. Ever. Quickly my mind turned to thoughts about how expensive an EMS ride would be and how deflating it would feel to have to quit after feeling so good. I took more pills. Another 1000 mg of Ibuprofen. Another 1000 mg of Tylenol. I decided to firebomb the damn pain. I stretched in the dirt, doing every yoga pose I could imagine. Then, after some time, I stood and started pushing my bike up the road as the sun sank into the trees. I might have to walk my damn bike to Roanoke, but I was going. The moon smiled down by the time I made the Dragon’s Back ridgeline. Little shiny black beetles skittered up the trail ahead of my lights. Wolf spiders, with their diamond eyes, scampered under the cover of last fall’s leaves. My knee had shut up, thankfully, but my stomach had turned to battery acid after the onslaught of pills. High on the ridgeline my cell phone found signal, so I called Leah and asked her to talk with me -- about anything. I hadn’t spoken with anyone all day. Not really, anyway. She told me about what our sons had been doing that day, about school, and about the work she had accomplished, as I plunged through the darkness down one steep hillside and grunted my way up the next. Over and over and over and over. At 9:30 PM and six miles out on Dragon’s Back, I came across Dave Williams, the man who finished second in 2018 and endured two snowstorms (He also wrote a WONDERFUL write-up of his adventures on Medium, which you should check out.) I asked Dave where everyone was. He told me most had either made Roanoke or were behind. Brandon and Mike were back at the start of the Dragon’s Back. Rob Issem and his crew were finished. Joe Wharton, an awesome rider from Florida, had finished in style on Monday night. Joe had somehow ridden the entire Dragon’s Back at night and had enough gas left in the tank to make it into Roanoke. Not far behind Joe was Laura Hamm, who finished second overall and shattered the women's record. But Dave and I were about fifth and sixth, respectively. That surprised me. I hadn’t been thinking about “racing” much until then. I was just trying to survive, to keep pedaling forward. Or walking forward. So I said goodbye to Dave and kept moving. I ended up sleeping about a mile farther down the trail. I called Leah and let her know that I would be stopping. I set up my hammock, found yet another tick crawling up my thigh, and then hopped into bed. At 4:15 AM on Day Four, I rose and began to pack my gear with a determination to find my way off the Dragon's Back and to eat a congratulatory bacon cheeseburger at the finish line of the Texas Tavern.

Sunrise on the Dragon's Back. 6:15 AM on Wednesday morning.

As the sun climbed higher, I popped more pills. My right knee flared, but now the pain combined with the acid in my stomach. I met up with Dave again at the little store at the bottom of Dragon’s Back to refuel. Sadly, the breakfast biscuit I inhaled wanted to come roaring back up my throat. In Carvin’s Cove, ten miles later, I almost broke down and vomited, sitting on the side of the trail in the early morning heat. I prayed to be done. My body felt hollow. All my blood was gone. If I had muscles, I didn’t know where they were. My legs turned only because they had independently decided to do so. My brain didn’t have the energy to ask, but I had to get up. I had to keep moving. Twenty more miles to go. Mile 252. In a last ditch effort, I stopped at another gas station and slammed back a Red Bull. BOOM. Everything came flooding back -- my muscles, my optimism, everything. I time-trialed into Roanoke, all the way to the base of Mill Mountain, then up the last penultimate climb to the Roanoke Star. I called Leah, and I may or may have not started crying a bit. The tourists who had driven to the top in their cars probably thought I was crazy. Or emotionally distraught. Well, I freaking was. Two miles and a quick descent later and I finished at the Texas Tavern. Total time: 4 days, 4 hours. Final placing: 4th for Men’s unsupported trail route, which meant I was on the podium, even though no podium existed. I ate a double hamburger, a hot dog with chili, and drank the most glorious Sprite the world has ever known. Half an hour later, bloated and less emotional, I paid my bill, got back on my bike, and rode to my car. Then I drove back through the mountains to West Virginia. To home.

The Finish Line

I'm not crying. You're crying.

There are no awards in RockStar. There are no cheering crowds. Or even people who know what you’re doing. There is only the possibility of pushing personal boundaries. And that’s the value in doing ultramarathon type events, at least to me: Finishing and accomplishing something previously deemed impossible. Such rewards are intrinsic in the RockStar route, sown into every sweaty mile and muddy push climb. Less than fifteen people have ever finished the entire, 272 mile RockStar trail route, and I’m damn proud to be one of them. Many thanks to Leah for supporting me, talking to me on the phone when I was in the middle of nowhere, and single-handedly taking care of the kids while I was gone. Also, to everyone who donated to TOTL in honor of my ride and all those who followed along with my little blue dot on trackleaders. Every comment and well-wish was appreciated. Lastly, thanks to Rob Issem for founding this crazy event, and all those who selflessly clear trails for others to use. ------------------------------ On the playwriting front, I just returned from an amazing trip to NYC for my first ever industry play reading in the Big Apple. I’ll write more about it later. But in the meantime, I’d just like to say a huge thank you to Adam Fitzgerald for directing the reading and Ben Bartolone for, well, everything – my housing, my transportation, and just being an awesome friend. I’m also directing Gracefully Ending at the Our Town Theatre in Oakland, MD. Production dates run May 29th through June 2nd. We’d love to have you come out and see a beautiful play about aging and love. And, of course, we have the Old Red Barn New Play Reading Series on June 28th and June 29th! Come hear some incredible new plays written by incredibly talented playwrights. And we have free popcorn! Check out the synopses and playwrights at Until next time. Thanks for reading!

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