“You look like a nice guy to be so crazy.” – Hotel clerk at the Econo Lodge in Harrisonburg.
Crazy. The whole idea was crazy. RockStar 270, a 270 mile mountain bike trail race from Rocktown (Harrisonburg, VA) to Star City (Roanoke, VA) was the race that shouldn’t have been. The forecast called for snow, rain, and wind. The course, especially the original trail route, had never been fully tried or completed. What myself and seventeen other riders (plus twenty-four more riders on two easier routes using paved and gravel options) intended to do was a bit ludicrous.
Oh, but it got worse.
I left the aforementioned Econo Lodge on that Saturday morning in good spirits and rolled the two and a half miles to the start in downtown Harrisonburg. Contrary to what the forecast had said, no snow or rain had fallen overnight. I was even optimistic that we might just make it. What do the weather guys know anyway?
Off we went promptly in the pre-dawn light at 7 AM, rolling – sometimes in confusion – through the streets of Harrisonburg, our knobby tires buzzing on the blacktop. We hit some trails in the town park and the group of thirty plus quickly broke into groups of fours and fives. I got lost and ended up cutting off half a mile through the park. But onward I went, joining in with a group of three others as we left Harrisonburg behind.
The course meandered through about fifteen miles of hilly farm country outside of Harrisonburg. Off in the distance, but closing quickly, we could see the mountains. Our speed increased and soon the blacktop changed to gravel as we hit the true beginning of the climb to Reddish Knob, the first big mountain and the point where the trail route veered from the other two options.
My clock read four hours at the top of Reddish. The climb wasn’t so much a climb as it was a death march up an unending staircase of ridges. Up, up, and up. But riding around the graffiti covered top, I couldn’t help but feel pride and wonder. I had powered myself up a 3,000 foot climb and it wasn’t even noon. I felt good.
That feeling quickly faded once I started descending Wolf Ridge. A forty pound bike does not handle well, and it especially doesn’t handle well in sharp, loose rocks. Down, down, down I went, and more than a few times I had to shake blood back into my fingertips.
Next came Narrowback Mountain, a local favorite. The trail up was challenging, but doable. The backside downhill was fast and flowy. So much work has been done on that trail, and it really shows.
The only problem was the snow finally began to fall as I descended Narrowback, and it picked up steam as I started up Hankey Mountain, the third ascent of the day. By the time I gained the top of the three-mile, very technical climb up Hankey, I was soaked, both from the falling snow and from my own sweat. The temperature dropped to near 30F and no other competitors were nearby. The forecasters turned out to be right, if off a bit on timing.
I removed my heavy wet gloves and found pink hands. My head swam. I sat down to eat some food – beef sticks and energy bars – and my core temperature plummeted. My body began shivering. When I tried to put the food bag back on my bike, I found I could barely pull the straps tight. Luckily, I had spare dry gloves, although my intention was to save them for when I had made camp for the night. But necessity dictated otherwise. On the gloves went, and on I went, across the snowy Hankey Mountain Trail and down the five plus miles of Dowell’s Draft, a fun, albeit very muddy, descent into the small town of West Augusta.
I wouldn’t really call West Augusta a town. It’s more like four houses and a gas station. But when you’re cold and wet, a gas station suddenly looks like a church – you know, one with a pizza shop. And it was indeed a church. And the heat was on, and the ovens were still running, and I ordered a whole pizza to myself.
While I sat there, four more riders came in from the trail route. All four would end up leaving the route and riding on the road to Douthat State Park, the midway point of the race, which also happened to have warm cabins. It was tempting, and I almost joined the four. Another man came in from the gravel route and used the station’s phone to call his wife in Covington for a pick-up. He was over it. “All of it,” he said.
I was on my way to Braley Pond, a small campground about a mile outside of town, to bed down for the night. I was advised before I left, though, by a small, ancient looking man who appeared to be the gas station’s founder. He told me in a wizened tone, “Don’t go being stupid.” I meant to ask him if being crazy was acceptable.
It was a cold night. Good lord was it cold. My guess was between 15-20F. I camped with two guys, Paul and Chris, who were gracious enough to share their campfire and their good company. But once I climbed into my hammock, all bets were off. In total, I spent nine hours in my hammock. Seven of those hours were spent shivering. Two were spent fitfully sleeping.
At seven the next morning, I rose to find my jacket lying on the ground frozen into a pile of sleeves that I couldn’t unfold. My bike was a ball of ice and mud. I spent an hour trying to unthaw my riding clothes from the day before, and after much cursing, I eventually gathered up the will to put my chamois back on.
Day two started off rough. I left Braley Pond with a super nice guy named Rob who had completed the IditaSport in Alaska. But because my front brake was dragging and squealing to high heavens, I had to stop and work on it. First, I tried moving my brake lever position. Nope. Next, I tried loosening the caliper. Nope. Then I checked the torque on the rotor bolts. Nope. Finally, after fifteen miles, I tore the front wheel off, pulled out the brake pads, and lubricated the pistons. The noise and the rubbing mostly stopped. But Rob was long gone, and I found myself facing a monstrous climb from a place called the Confederate Breastworks that sharply rose to another trail named the Shenandoah Mountain Trail.
IMBA has the Shenandoah Mountain Trail labelled as an epic, meaning they recommend the route as an epic one-day ride. Or a two-day ride. What IMBA does not call the Shenandoah Mountain Trail is a good mid-day jaunt. It’s 25-30 miles of isolated singletrack. I started on the trail at 3 PM that day. I wouldn’t see another road or trail until nearly 9 PM. And that dirt road was quickly followed by three miles of bushwacking in the dark.
At 10 PM, I emerged from the Blair Witch Trail (the name I created for the bushwacking section) and I turned right on the first paved road I had seen in seven hours. I knew I was spent. Cooked. Exhausted. Even half-confused. My headlights were cones of light surrounded by spirits and weird neon squiggles that flitted in and out of my vision at will. I made a plan to try for Covington on the road. There was no way I could confront the technical thirteen mile trail to Douthat State Park. I needed a hotel and warmth. More snow was on the way, and I didn’t dare doubt the forecast again.
It was then that I left the route and headed west on a road called Mountain Valley Road (or something like that.) On my Gaia GPS, I saw switchbacks leading to a main road that supposedly ran directly south and flat to Covington. I had no idea of mileage. Maybe it was twenty miles away? Maybe twenty-five? But hey, those switchbacks were downhill. That couldn’t be bad.
Only the switchbacks weren’t downhill. They were uphill. Over Warm Springs Mountain, a 2800 ft. peak that wasn’t labeled. I kept waiting for the top as my tired legs slogged on. Where the hell did it end? I looked at my GPS. I wasn’t even moving.
Text messages from my wife began pinging on my phone, despite the lack of signal. Where was I? Did I know where I was going to stay? Were there hotels nearby? Did I know there was snow on the way? (*and she sent me a picture of the radar with a big frowny face.)
I couldn’t go any further. There was nothing behind me, except scattered homes. So I did what I had to do: I found what I thought was an abandoned road on the side of the mountain and tried to set up my camp. Of course, I followed the overgrown road to see where it ended first. Which I shouldn’t have done. The road dead-ended at what looked to be a squatter’s home. All I saw were tail lights and loose trash scattered around. I went back closer to the main road and put up my hammock, being careful not to let too much light shine out in fear that I might be arrested by the police for illegally camping or found out by the Deliverance under-studies down below.
And of course, I didn’t sleep. For five hours I sat in my hammock, constantly rolling from side to side to keep at least one side of my body from being exposed to the cold air flowing underneath of me. Every ten to fifteen minutes I rolled over. I think I slept at some point. Maybe.
At 5:30 AM, I looked out under my rain fly to see an inch and a half of snow on the ground. A snowplow whooshed past on the road. I knew I had to get out of there.
I packed as quickly as I could after brushing the snow off my bike. As the light broke on day three, I found myself climbing, again, up Warm Spring Mountain. Every truck that passed me produced a wave of cold slush. Four snowplows passed me. Only one stopped plowing. At the top of the climb, I found an overlook and nothing else.
I dropped off the backside for two miles to Sam Snead Highway, aka Route 220. I tried to keep going. After four miles, though, the game was up. I saw a motel on the side of the road and pulled in. It was only 8:30 in the morning. I didn’t think I’d even be allowed to check in.
I rang a doorbell and the owner came out to greet me. I think she’d been sleeping. Graciously, after hearing my story, she gave me a room for the day/night. My dad was nice enough to pay for it, too. I’m sure it gave him peace of mind.
That day was spent getting warm and eating food. I took an hour long bath, slept for four hours straight, and then ordered enough food from the local Italian restaurant for two people. I watched Braveheart and Tombstone on AMC and thought of being home and what my family was doing. Stress and pain has a funny way of elongating the hours to seem like years. I missed my wife and my boys. I had only been gone since Friday morning, but I could’ve swore it was longer.
At 4:30 the next morning, on day four, I slapped the alarm clock silent and climbed out of my hotel bed. By 5:45, I was on the road and flying through the dawn again. I was determined to make it to the finish in Roanoke, although I wasn’t on the trail route any longer. I jumped on the paved route in Clifton Forge and kept churning south.
At 2:30 PM, I was ninety-one miles away in Roanoke navigating the confusing city streets. I called my wife from the base of Mill Mountain, which looms over the city. My five-year-old son Miles took the phone and said I was “Daddy, King of Bikes.” My heart almost broke.
Another hour later and it was finished. I rolled up to the Texas Tavern, the official finish line of RockStar 270. I walked into the small restaurant and plunked down at the bar. The older guy behind the counter looked at me dubiously, as if he didn’t even know why I was wearing such weird, stinky clothes. I explained the importance of what I’d just survived and why I was so happy to see him. He shrugged, looked me over, and said, “Well, you don’t look like you dropped any pounds.”
And that was the end of the journey, mostly. I still had to drive home to WV, which wasn’t fun, but I made it late that night after crop dusting many convenience stores with my stinky clothes.
And I gotta say, after thinking about all of this over the past week, I’ve come to this conclusion: We’re tougher than we know. There’s an extra gear somewhere inside of us that waits for survival situations like what I felt. We rarely use that gear, especially in our first-world lives. Maybe that’s why races like these are growing in popularity. In a life so safely padded, it’s easy to forget what real fear feels like. And fear isn’t a bad thing. Fear can make us appreciate safety. Fear can make us look longingly at a gas station. And fear can make us kiss your spouses harder and hug our kids longer when we finally come home. It really isn’t a crazy idea at all.
Till next year, RockStar.