Thursday, May 11, 2023

PMBAR '23: Part 2, the first place loser

I stared blankly down at the map as Cinderbloch raced to locate the checkpoints. I nodded my head and occasionally let out an "uh huh", but to be honest, I was just the pretty face in this operation. In the words of Schultz from Hogan's Heroes: I know nothing.

At Buckhorn Gap (I think)

But seriously. I did know nothing. After a few minutes of map reading, Cinderbloch seemed confident (enough) on where to go, so we headed off down Buckhorn Gap Trail. If you didn't read the first post, or forgot what PMBAR is, it's an adventure MTB race that requires you to navigate on your own to five checkpoints in Pisgah National Forest. Oh, and you don't know the checkpoints until the start of the race, and you can ride any route you want. But anyways.
Buckhorn Gap was a pretty fast descent. Wide, relatively non-technical, and not overly steep. It reminded me a lot of Detweiler in the Wilderness 101. At the bottom, there was a creek to cross, and we made our way onto South Mills River Trail (the map says it's a road, but no). We took that for a while before joining onto Squirrel Gap Trail.

Squirrel Gap was easily one of my favorite trails of the day. It was just technical enough to keep you on your toes, but not enough to break your rhythm. Perfect. It weaved along hillsides, dove through short rocky sections, and just had that indescribable quality about it that made me smile.

We reached a checkpoint - our first one - and after getting our passport stamped, we kept riding. Before long, we reached an intersection. We could either continue on Squirrel Gap, or turn onto Horse Cove Gap. Our first instinct was to stay on Squirrel, and two out of three dentists agreed. I mean teams. Two out of three teams that we saw stayed on Squirrel.
Map checking on Squirrel Gap

We stayed on Squirrel Gap for quite some time, until turning onto Mullinax Trail. It was a really fun downhill with some chunky sections mixed in, and we knew right away it was a trail we did not climb back up again later in the race.

After Mullinax, we turned back onto South Mills River Road/Trail (it was now more of a doubletrack) and rode for about a mile or two until we hit the second checkpoint. On the way there, we saw Dicky and Watts riding the opposite direction. They were the singlespeed team that was public enemy number one, or at least our main competition. The fact that they were coming from the checkpoint already means they were a good deal ahead of us.

At the checkpoint, I filled up water from the river (with my filter), scarfed down some food, and did some more blank staring as Cinderbloch figured out where to go now. He pointed back to where we came, and I hopped on my bike and followed him. 

Bradley Creek Trail

Eventually, we reached Bradley Creek Trail. The trail was extremely overgrown, and it crossed the creek 14 times. Yes, 14. Someone counted. Every one of them involved carrying our bike through knee to waist deep water. There were also dozens of trees down (not an exaggeration), each one requiring lifting the bike up and over. It was an experience, but to be honest, it was really enjoyable. Maybe I'm screwed up in the head (spoiler: I am), but I enjoy that kind of slog.

After Bradley Creek Trail, we were on Yellow Gap Road. It was a steady gravel climb for a while, before we started the real stupidity. From here on out, we had a good idea of where to go, and we know it involves a ton of hike a bike.

Up first was hiking up Pilot Cove Trail, right off of Yellow Gap Road. It was about 600 feet of vertical, and pretty much 100% hiking. It got pretty steep at the top, even by enduro-bro standards. Once at the top, we descended down the backside about 200 feet of vertical, where we found the checkpoint. That's three down, two to go. The friendly volunteer there gave us some Nutter Butters and Oreos, and he even filtered a little water for me. We then turned back around, hiked up the 200 foot climb we just rode down, and then descended the 600 foot trail we had just hiked up.

Back on Yellow Gap Road, we continued on until we reached Pilot Rock Trail. That trail is one of the most well-known trails in the area, and 99.9% of the time, it is ridden as a downhill. Actually, 100% of the time it's ridden as a downhill. Any time someone goes up it with a bike, it's not riding: it's hike-a-bike.
Hiking up Pilot; on the gravel road

Hiking up Pilot Rock was extremely stupid and extremely difficult. According to Strava, the hike took us 55 minutes. It was a 1,600 foot vertical hike, which is quite substantial. My right knee was really bothering me, but luckily the pain subsided quickly never to return again in the race. After we reached the top, we descended down about 600 feet of vertical to the checkpoint. Four down, one to go. And, you guessed it, then we turned right back around, hiked up the 600 foot incredibly-steep trail we just rode down, and then descended the Pilot Rock Trail which we had just hiked up.

Pilot Rock Trail is incredible, going from 4800 to about 3200 feet elevation, and is filled with great views. It has a lot of technical sections, a few of which I walked, and keeps a smile on your face the whole time. It completely made up for the stupidity of hiking up it.
Filling up bottles at the bottom of Pilot Rock; another shot of Pilot Rock Trail

Once at the bottom and back on Yellow Gap, we took that road out to a pavement road, rode down that for about a mile, and then turned onto Avery Creek Road, another gravel road.

Shortly after joining Avery Creek Road, we turned off and started riding/hiking up Cub Gap Trail, which would take us to our last checkpoint. The checkpoint, Cub Cap, was the start of Black Mountain Trail, which leads all the way to the finish. From that final checkpoint, it was maybe only 10 miles to the finish. 

Eventually, we reached the checkpoint and I chatted for a couple minutes to Chris J, who was volunteering there. We told him how we hiked up Pilot Rock, and he agreed it was extremely stupid. Oh well.

From the checkpoint, we descended part way down Avery Creek Trail (which we hiked up the day before) and then turned onto Fire Road 507A. Or something like that. Anyways, it was rolling doubletrack terrain for a few miles, and then we got to Clawhammer Road. We descended down Clawhammer Road to Maxwell Cove Road (according to Strava map), which was a 700-800 foot climb back up to Black Mountain Trail. I felt super good on that climb, so I started pushing the pace and tried to pass as many people as I could.

But wait, why did we do such a weird route instead of just following Black Mountain Trail to the finish? Well, the section of Black Mountain Trail we skipped is horrible. So much hike a bike, extremely slow, and just an overall bad decision. If you don't believe me, we saw a couple riders take a different option, and they finished 45 minutes behind us. So, like I said, avoiding Black Mountain Trail was extremely smart.

After re-joining Black Mountain Trail at Maxwell Cove, we took that downhill all the way to the finish. It was an awesome way to finish, and it was also the required way to finish. Even without the requirement though, it would still be my preferred way of finishing, that's for sure.
Bombing down Black Mountain Trail to the finish

We crossed the finish line and immediately saw Dicky standing there in his pink sleeveless shirt. I asked him if he did all five checkpoints, and he said "yep", meaning he beat us. Dicky and his partner Watts (race partner, that is) rode extremely well, and they beat us by almost an hour. That was also Dicky's 19th PMBAR, which is crazy impressive. All the kudos to them.

After looking at the results posted, it seemed no other singlespeed teams did five checkpoints, and none of them finished more than two hours before us. That means, with our two hour time bonus for doing all five, we finished in second place. 

Cinderbloch and I were both really happy with 2nd place, considering neither of us knew Pisgah very well. Looking back, there were a couple mistakes we made. For one, hiking up Pilot Rock instead of taking Laurel Trail to that checkpoint easily cost us 45 minutes. Then, getting stuck mid-pack on the first climb definitely cost us time, maybe 10 to 15 minutes in total. Although, it also meant we finished the first climb extremely fresh, which was definitely a benefit. The only other questionable choice was taking Bradley Creek Trail instead of taking the gravel road, which although longer mileage, was perhaps faster time wise since the trail was so overgrown. In general, we also lost time just looking at the map and making routing decisions, but that was unavoidable since neither of us knew the trails well.

But, despite just writing a whole paragraph about our mistakes, I'm very happy with how it went. We didn't make nearly as many bad decisions as we could've made, and we still beat every singlespeed team except for one. I'd say mission mostly accomplished down at Pisgah, and I'm certainly satisfied with how it went.
The SS podium; hanging out after the race

After chatting with Dicky for a little bit at the finish, Cinderbloch and I went to get showered and changed back into non-biking-costume clothes. After that, it was time for podium pictures, and then dinner. Hawg Wild closes at 8pm, and it was 7:45pm, so we decided not to be those people and went to a Mexican instead. I just graduated from Penn State, so Cinderbloch bought me a celebratory dinner and margarita, mucho gracias.
Margarita courtesy of Cinderbloch; JAM BARS

Once we finished our margaritas and Mexican, we headed back to the race finish. There was free beer, and Dicky had already told us he was going to be staying there very late. The rest of the night pretty much consisted of cheering on finishers, drinking beers, and Jam bars. If you ever want to know what a Jam bar is, just ask Dicky.

I was able to chat with a bunch of friends that evening, and talked with some new friends. Ryan, the director of Transylvania Productions, was there until late, so we talked a good bit. I also got to talk with Jarz for a while, someone I knew from social media but not in person. Nice to put faces to the names. I don't want to list everyone, because I know I'll forget someone, but there were a lot of cool people there.

Me, Dicky, Watts, and a few other people stayed around at the finish until around 1 AM, when we went our separate ways. Luckily, I found my way back to camp, although the mile-long walk back was quite treacherous. 

Post-race gathering

The next morning, Cinderbloch and I packed up and hit the road around 7:30 AM. It was a pretty rainy drive, but we made it back to the 'Burg before dinner time.

It truly was a perfect race, if there ever was one. I got to suffer all day long on fantastic trails and then hang out with friends until after midnight; it's hard to beat that. Pisgah Productions does an A+ job on races, and I'll certainly be making many more trips to Pisgah for these races.

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