DEATH MARCH REVIVAL
Carey Lowery (3)
The Death March Revival is a 95 mile gravel route deep in the heart of the Cohutta mountains of Tennessee and Georgia. TennesseeGravel.com puts on an ITT series, of which this is one of 3 routes. I have done some sort of version of this route every year for the past 20, as this is in my "backyard," stunningly beautiful, and hard AF (14,000+ feet of elevation gain and 99.5% gravel/dirt).
Having accomplished both a road and virtual Everesting event, I had left to do a gravel version and a single track version. It was also time for me to pay it forward again by raising money for my local animal shelter. So, what better way to combine the two than doing a yo-yo version of the DMR: riding it clockwise the first lap and counter clockwise the second lap. BDR's (Big Dumb Rides), as I affectionately call these adventures, are always better with friends. Earlier in the year I baited the hook, and landed David Jolin, one of my Rescue Racing team mates, and a solid friend.
I chose Ripley, my Trek SuperCaliber, with Ikon 2.2's, for this ride. The slight weight penalty was well worth the added comfort of full suspension. I was able to get away without having to use a hydration pack and that was a plus as well. I was a little concerned about the 4 inches of rain we had in the 4 days leading up to today, but it ended up making the course "hero." Sure, there were the usual mud holes to skirt around, but the gravel and dirt was hard packed, no stutter bumps, and no dust ... yea!
We started at 7:30 am. Temps would be pleasant today (60-78 degrees) and with the cloud cover and tree canopy, we wouldn't get hot. As we began the climb up FS 45, I reminded Dave to settle in at 24 hours pace. Sometimes he likes to get a little too frisky early on. I was riding on feel alone: no power meter, no heart rate strap, and my Garmin screen was blank (battery save mode). I had no goals other than to take it all in (scenery, wildlife, sounds, and all the feels) and finish.
The first descent down FS 221 heading towards Tumbling Creek was blown out, with massive exposure of bedrock. It used to be that the only rough section were the "three bitches," a series of 3 punchy rocky climbs, but now every up and down along this section was a bitch! I cautiously made my way through the chunky sections, very mindful of placing wisdom above the "need for speed." Once the road paralleled the creek, the surface became smooth and remained that way for most of the day. Bluebird skies with puffy clouds and the birds singing their songs had me smiling.
At about 20 miles in, we stopped at Watson Gap for a quick pee break. As I went behind the Cohutta Wildlife Management sign and dropped trou, I began to squat when all of a sudden I realized my bits were right over a yellow jackets' nest. Oh, shit! I immediately began running away down the gravel road, bibs down around my ankles, with my ass exposed for the world to see! Fortunately, I was only stung twice on my legs. It coulda been so much worse! At least Dave got some comic relief (one of the things I am good at on these adventures).
The miles over to the Potato Patch piped spring were uneventful. I kept the pace easy and occasionally pedaled out of the saddle just to test the legs. They didn't bark, so I was good. We filled up at the spring and then placed a bunch of deadwood on the road adjacent to it, so that when we were on the second lap, it would be easy to find if we were in the dark, or our mind was numb.
We arrived at Mulberry Gap (mile 41) at 12:30 pm. That was about 20 minutes slower than my last DMR's pace, which was where I wanted to be. I did the usual: selfie in front of the sign, pee, purchase a Dr. Pepper and a candy bar, talk to Kate, and refill bottles. BTW, if you are a cyclist, hiker, or just want to unplug from the matrix, you gotta check them out. And the food is 5-star!
On the 6 mile climb back up Potato Patch, even though I was feeling great, I had to shake the thought of having to do this again ... aye yai yai. Descending on West Cowpen (FS 17), I was coming around a sharp corner, when there appeared a bear (young, probably last year's cub) hanging by one paw on a small dead tree, like a monkey. I think I saw his eyes swell with fear, as the tree broke, and he fell to the ground 10 feet below. This whole scene played out in about 2 seconds ... it was spectacular and hilarious! It is those times when I wish I had a GoPro.
A quick stop at the game check station for a pee while Dave refilled his bottles, and yes, I scouted my pee spot very carefully this time, and then off to the Big Frog section. I stopped at the piped spring at the beginning of Big Frog to refill mine; love the mountain water! This 10 mile section was also super blown out. I can remember when I used to ride this 10-15 years ago and it was smooth! I cannot imagine trying this now on a gravel bike. Even on my full sus bike, I was wishing for wider tires and more squish.
The miles were winding down on this first lap. Normally when I do the DMR, I am beginning to smell the barn with 15 to go, and I tend to bury myself to finish it. But today, even though I was still feeling great, I had to keep it easy and in the moment. I tried not to think about the second lap at all. But it definitely creeped in my mind a time or two.
We finished up at 7:15 pm. So that was 11 hours and 15 minutes; right on a pace I had wanted to set (40 minutes slower than my last DMR). And I did, all without any help from my Garmin. See, living in the moment, going by feels, without technology, can be good.
Knowing that a shower would help to "reset" me, I grabbed my bowl of rice and eggs I had prepared the night before, and headed over to the campground bathroom. Some people drink in the shower; I eat 😆. I let the hot water pound out the knife between my shoulder blades while I rinsed off the day's build up of sweat and dirt. A fresh kit and 600 calories of real food felt so good. Then I went to task of readying my bike for the night lap: Lupine headlamp, Outbound Lighting bar lamp, and a spare Lupine in my jersey pocket. I decided to wear my vest for additional pockets and warmth. I also stashed a wool base layer and arm warmers on my top tube. Even though the temps were only supposed to get into the low 60's/upper 50's, I know just how cold I can get when I am fatigued. I refilled my Revelate Designs feedbag with more food.
At 8:00 pm I was ready to roll, but Dave wasn't. For me, it is all about staying in motion, keeping that engine idling. If I sit/lay down and shut it off, it is so difficult to get it started again. We managed to get going at 8:15. I could tell that Dave was thinking too hard about what we were about to do. And that if I let him linger any longer, his lizard brain might convince him to call it quits. So I told him to let's just focus on getting to Mulberry Gap and reassess then. But what I was really thinking was that if I can get him to commit to Mulberry, then at that point he has to finish it, because there are no bail outs at that point in the course.
I could feel the legs on the FS 45 climb up, but I expected it, accepted it, and quickly put it out of my mind. I looked forward to nightfall, for it is exciting to me. It gives a fresh perspective on everything and the sense of space, time, and speed becomes distorted. The second lap was in the opposite direction, which also helped to keep things "fresh." On the plus side, the previously arduous climbs became fun descents. And as night fell on the rollers of FS 221, the climbey bits felt less climbey. I suspect it has something to do with not being able to see the road grade or the horizon.
It was good to get the chunky Big Frog section out of the way during the beginning of this lap, while I was still somewhat fresh. Even with my lights on high, it was sketchy AF! Two miles in, we came upon a truck, going the opposite way, loaded down with wife and kids. He looked a little worried, as he was lost. And his truck was not overland worthy. Fortunately, the worst of Big Frog was behind him. I gave him directions on how to get back to civilization, for which he was most thankful.
Descending off the backside of Big Frog, my only navigational error of the ride was thinking I had gone past the piped spring and back tracked a 1/4 mile before pulling out my TrailForks app and realizing I was one switchback off. Finding the piped spring, I filled one bottle with water; no Skratch added this time as I was about to be "sweeted out."
Although I had done well with my nutrition on the first lap (3000 calories and 6 bottles of fluids), I was having difficulty eating once the sun set. For me, it is a combination of palate fatigue, getting tired of eating, and my GI tract not used to working beyond 6 pm. I knew I had to take in at least 150-200 calories per hour. The waffle I had at the top of Big Frog, a bottle of Skratch, and now the shot blocks I was forcing myself to swallow at the game check station were the only calories I had taken in the past 4 hours. I wanted to just refill with water again, but added about half the usual amount of Skratch. Gotta get those calories in somehow, someway.
Turning onto West Cowpen (FS 17), I was not thrilled to be starting this climb. It was gonna be a doozy! 10 miles and 3000 feet. The first half rolled quite a bit, but still, the climbs were steep. And then it got real: 6 miles straight up to the heavens! It was here that the wheels began to fall off the bus. My easiest gear was a 32 x 52 and I was needing more. At this point in the ride, the fatigue hit hard, and my sit bones hurt. So I got off and walked quite a bit; it wasn't that much slower. But it did help the muscles, the taint, and the mind. And I got to watch the bats dive down at the bugs attracted to my lights, which was really cool!
Once at the top, I put my arm warmers on. The remaining gravel to Mulberry Gap was downhill and it was getting chilly at elevation. The descent down Potato Patch was mentally draining. Lights were working great, but at the speed I wanted to go, I had to keep my eyes peeled for obstacles, like big embedded rocks waiting to take my front wheel out from under me. And the palms of my hands were getting sore.
We got to Mulberry Gap at 3:30 am. I kept on task and stopped at the bathroom first. Then I made my way to the barn, as Kate had mentioned earlier about an option for hot tea or coffee. Something warm with caffeine would be the bomb! When I got there, Dave was already comfortably slumped in a chair ... with cushions. In my mind, this could be disastrous. I wanted to kick the chair out from under him, but figured I would give him 30 minutes and hope for the best.
I tended to myself. Coffee was of the instant kind, so I opted for black tea. A warm mug of this, with a little honey, did me some good. I got my bottles filled with water, cleaned the garbage out of my pockets, and then PayDay-boarded my pie hole until I got the whole thing down the hatch. It was now 4 am. I told Dave I was ready to head out. He looked shell-shocked. He said, "Are you leaving?" I told him not without you. He said he needed another hour. So I drank another cup of tea and tried to power nap. But I began to shiver uncontrollably. It wasn't that cold, it was just that my body was tired and my core was not generating heat.
I needed/wanted to get back at it, but a heavy shower hit around 4:30 am. As the rain was ending around 4:50 am, I woke Dave up. He then said he was just gonna sleep some more. I told him I had to go, as I was freezing. He had the course loaded, so I was 90% confident he could find his way to the finish, as long as he did not have a mechanical. But he also had Zeke's phone number, so an "Uber" was indeed possible, if he couldn't get hold of me (cell service is unreliable at the start/finish).
Once I got back on the bike, I immediately warmed up and had to shed the layers I had put on at Mulberry Gap. That extra hour also allowed some digestion of my earlier force-feeding which made the 6 mile climb back up Potato Patch not as hard as I expected.
I always enjoy riding into daylight. The sun rising got my circadian rhythm back on track, and my energy levels rose, despite my inadequate caloric consumption. 35 miles to go ... I got this! I began visualizing the remaining miles in sections. Just focus on getting to the piped spring at Jack's River. And so I did, not letting the 3 or 4 grunty kickers knock me off my mental game. I saw the stack of deadwood we had set out earlier, so I stopped and refilled my bottles here. That water was cold and tasty.
The next section was getting to Watson Gap. The climb out of Jack's River campground was pleasant, but I forgot just how long it was (2.5 miles). The hip bone pain had been replaced by achy patellar tendons. Now my knees were feeling like the Tin Man's. I got some relief when I could get out of the saddle, but then after about 15-20 pedal strokes, my quads were blowing up.
At Watson Gap, I now had 20 miles to go. Just get to Tumbling Creek campground, a 10 mile pull, and mostly downhill. But there were 2 short climbs that tried to break me. Nope, not gonna happen. The body may be falling to pieces, but the mind was strong and unwavering. I was now riding on sheer will power, as I had not been able to eat anything since I washed a peanut butter date down with spring water 15 miles ago.
The biting flies and gnats found me on the final 1 mile climb halfway through this 10 mile stretch. I could only laugh at my predicament: 171 miles into this adventure trying to eek out an extra 25 watts to get above fly speed, wildly waving one hand to keep the little bastards from biting me and maintaining balance on no sleep for 28 hours. Cresting that last climb, I finally gapped them!
Riding past the campground, I had 10 miles and the final 2 climbs. Now, I was smelling the barn. This was the same chunky blown out section we had descended over 24 hours ago. I walked a couple short steep sections for my fear of stalling out on dead legs and falling over. Yep, I was that tired.
Then I saw the FS 45 intersection. I was so happy I woulda cried had I had enough water to form tears. Those next 2 1/2 miles descending down to the finish were ... the ... best ... ever.
I had just accomplished something I had trepidations 48 hours ago of completing. And I completed an Everest on gravel. Well, maybe 263 feet short of the "official" mark of 29,029, but close enough to check that one off my bucket list. The one goal I did miss was the 24 hour completion mark. While moving time was under 24, total time was just over 27. But I am ok with that.
Not that this is necessarily the hardest thing I have ever done, but relative to my age, yes. Even though in my mind I still feel young, my body has told me otherwise these past few years. It takes a lot more relative effort these days to execute BDR's. But I am very grateful I still can. And that I can find like-minded individuals to play the game.
I showered and tended to my gear. I still did not feel like eating and besides, I had forgotten to bring any post-ride food. I pulled out my yoga mat and anxiously awaited Dave's arrival. He finished up a couple hours after me, having left Mulberry Gap around 6:30 am.
He, too, was shelled, but had enough left to crack a smile. For both of us, this has been our longest effort, time-wise, in one go. And I do believe that we may be the first to have done a DMR double.
I want to thank everyone who donated to my local animal shelter and held me accountable to finish this beast. Together we raised $3475. One of my mantras during the difficult sections was "One paw-stroke at a time." You and the critters helped me to keep my mental game strong.
Now, off to eat whatever I want, guilt-free. I think I have some calories to make up for.
This ride report was copied from Carey's blog - Carey's Cycling Chronicles - which contains ride reports from her adventures dating back to 2007!