DEATH MARCH REVIVAL
Kim Ranallo (1)
A couple friends from the bike shop and I picked a date to complete the DMR. As it approached, both friends bailed (for valid reasons!) and I was left with two options:
1. Postpone the ITT for a different time; or
2. Complete it alone.
I’ve done many solo rides on the gravel roads in the national forests in TN/GA, but not a ride of this scale. To be honest, I was scared. I had a lot of self-doubt, worry, and anxiety leading up to the ride. I had nightmares about what could go wrong and I couldn’t focus at work. But under the fear lay excitement. I’ve spent all winter spending a ridiculous amount of time on Zwift, so I knew my fitness was there. I also knew what gear to carry, and had enough knowledge on how to handle basic mechanicals or tire issues. I came up with a million contingency plans as well. I know how to be self-sufficient in the woods. Eventually, I ran out of excuses and committed to showing up for the ride solo.
My bike of choice was my 2021 Liv Devote Advanced 1. I ran my favorite gravel tires, Maxxis Ramblers, using a 45c in the front and 40c in the rear. I ran an 11x42t cassette with a single 40t front chain ring. Having a 1by set-up allows me to run a dropper post, which helps me feel more confident on technical descents. I used a Revelate Designs Mag Tank top-tube bag for snacks, phone, chapstick. I had also had a Revelate Designs Shrew seat bag to hold my water filter (Sawyer Squeeze), tire patch kit, C02, tire levers, spare tube, and some small first aid items, as well as extra room to hold any layers I might need to shed during the ride. I packed light, but had enough to feel prepared for whatever the day might throw at me.
I arrived to Thunder Rock campground around 620a. It was a chilly 27*F, but first light was already in the sky. I knew I would warm up quickly on the initial 3mi climb out of Thunder Rock and since it was already dawn, I wasn’t going to be pedaling much in the dark. After getting the last of my gear ready, I set off right around 645a.
The 3mi climb to start was pleasant, I spun my legs easy to give them a chance to warm up and to take note of how my body was feeling. I had just wrapped up an overreaching week with my training program and trained straight through to DMR with no taper. Thankfully, my legs felt light and ready to work. As I ascended, the sky showed off a beautiful winter sunrise- with muted hues of blues and pinks. It was cold, but the climbing had me feeling plenty warm. Unfortunately, my bottles froze pretty quickly. I tried to shake the ice apart, but the bottles were frozen in the cap. Con #1 of a winter ride.
Before I knew it, I was at the top of the first climb and on the descent down to Tumbling Creek. The descent was made more exciting due to the mud and ice. Con #2 of a winter ride. I came to the creek crossing and much to my dismay, the creek was flowing over the concrete bridge, and it was deep. I came to a quick halt to survey my options, but much to my dismay - there was no dry way across. I was only 6mi in at this point and I weighed my options and said some expletives. I decided to cross. I backtracked a little to give myself room to build my speed up, and I took a deep breath saying “full send!” before charging through the water. The water was so deep it almost stopped me and knocked me over, but I was able to pedal through it. I was pretty mad at myself that I didn’t bring any extra chain lube- it was one of those things I decided at the last minute not to bring. I knew I would be regretting that later in the day. I at least had on insulated and waterproof shoe covers, which saved my feet from getting soaking wet.
The next 10 or so miles climbing out of Tumbling Creek was a shit show. It was early in the ride for me to already be having a rough time, but I know ultra-endurance rides are largely about patience. Even so, I definitely debated turning around. After the creek crossing, my entire bike had a layer of ice on it. Which also means my shifter cable was frozen and I was unable to shift gears. I was stuck in my granny gear which was a stroke of luck, but still frustrating. With the climbing, it wasn’t the worst gear to be stuck in - but it definitely slowed me way down on the rolling sections. My bottles now were even more frozen, and I was hurting for water. I was two hours in and had not drank anything. I was frustrated, knowing that was setting me up poorly for the day. I shoved one of the big bottles in the front of my bibs, figuring my body heat would thaw it out. Thankfully, my shifter cable thawed out enough to start shifting clunkily. But I did notice that now my brakes were not working well - probably because they had a layer of ice on them.
By 830a, I made it to the Cohuttas. It was still frosty out, and while I finally got some of my water to unfreeze- the caps were still frozen - meaning I had to stop and screw open the top every time I wanted water. It was frustrating having to slow down for this, but I knew taking the time to hydrate would help me out later in the day. As I climbed to Watson Gap, I noticed there was snow on the ground. It sure was beautiful, and not what I was expecting. I passed by a couple trailheads, and ran into my first cars of the day. There was more snow the higher I climbed and I had never seen the Cohuttas look so beautiful. On one of the short descents after the climb, I saw two animals in the road. I slowed and squinted to try to see what they were. They were too small to be hogs but they were bigger than rabbits or squirrels. The pair looked up at me and darted off the road. I saw their short, stubby tails and realized it was a pair of bobcats! It was the coolest thing ever, I had never seen bobcats in the wild before, but knew they were out there. I was so excited about the sighting, and it filled me with a sense of wonder and amazement at this beautiful wilderness area.
The climb up to Potato Patch was a slog. The sun was out and it was slowly getting warmer and my bottles were now drinkable through the cap, but I was just ready for a break at Mulberry Gap. Three teenage boys ripped down on mountain bikes coming from the opposite direction and it was refreshing to see other cyclists. Not far behind them was another guy on a mountain bike, loaded up with a frame pack. Seeing others out there helped boost my mood to finish the climb. Once I turned left onto Potato Patch, I was stoked. That descent down to Mulberry is one of my favorite gravel descents around and I tried my best to not think about how I would have to climb back up this way in a short bit. I couldn't help but howl with joy on that descent and I flew down the mountain, smiling wide at mountain bikers, and was rolling up to Mulberry Gap before I knew it. I definitely cried a couple happy tears coming into Mulberry Gap. Just riding from the Ocoee to Mulberry felt like a helluva achievement. It took me almost 5 hours to get to Mulberry, and I thought it would take me closer to 4.5hrs. It was 41 miles though, with over 6,000ft of climbing already so I didn’t beat myself up over the half hour discrepancy.
Mulberry Gap was quiet, and I didn’t run into anyone there. I went about refilling my bottles and I sat outside the barn and ate lunch and soaked in my morning. I began to get cold and chilled, so I set out back on my bike, knowing I couldn’t procrastinate on the climb out of Mulberry forever. My legs didn’t seem to mind the break, and they felt ready to pedal as soon as I got back on the bike. I was in a happy groove pedaling through Shakerag and felt strong pedaling up to Bear Creek overlook. I stopped at the overlook to let some cars pass by and to share pleasantries with a mountain biker. Soon enough, I was on my way again and slowly made my way back to the top. It was slow going, but I did feel like my body was happy with a proper lunch and I wasn’t cold anymore which was a welcome reprieve at this point.
My spirits definitely improved when I turned left onto Conasauga Lake Road. I had been dreading that climb out of Mulberry Gap and with that behind me, I knew the pace would pick up a litte. I tried not to think about the fact that Big Frog was still looming ahead. Conasauga was uneventful, and I turned onto West Cowpen. This section was definitely one of the highlights of the ride. It was super fast and a much needed break from the climbing. I basically just let off the brakes and hung on, trying to steer clear of any rocks. I was sad when I rolled into the ranger’s station because I did not want West Cowpen to end! Once at the ranger station though, I was in familiar territory. This section is fast too but the dread of Big Frog approaching hit me.
I turned right onto Big Frog and began climbing. I was definitely feeling low and tired, but I told myself to just pedal until the spring and then I could take a quick break. I stopped at the spring and chugged the remaining water in my bottles before refilling. I was so close, yet so far from being done. Most long rides people start daydreaming about what they want to eat after, but all I wanted was a hot bath and cozy sweatpants. There was more traffic on Big Frog than I was expecting, and I found myself in a bad mood and annoyed at the sound of the revving engines coming up the mountain. The Big Frog section was definitely the low point for me on the ride.
Big Frog was in rough shape (or maybe it’s always like that?). I kept pace with a Jeep for miles, and it helped having a rabbit to chase on the climb. Behind me was a big ass diesel truck. I yo-yo’ed with the truck- it ended up being a nice couple and their kids. At first I was super annoyed, wishing they would just go on (but then I would pass them on the descents). My frustration continued when the Jeep in front of me stopped in the middle of the road. The woman driving opened her door and walked over to the passenger side and opened that door. “Can you please let me through,” I asked, no denying the desperation in my hoarse voice. The woman looked blankly at me and told me to go to the other side. “Um, your door is open,” I retorted back. I ended up pedaling through the bushes. Feeling exacerbated, I let out a loud and dramatic “UGHHH!!!”. They probably thought I was rude, but if they only knew…
I kept pedaling and thankfully I never saw the Jeep again. I was super frustrated by all the rocks and ruts and by now my back was really starting to hurt. The legs were running out of juice and I was cursing Big Frog. It was absolutely relentless. The truck caught back up to me and they pulled up next to me asking if I knew where we were. If I was less tired and grumpy, I would’ve laughed. I had pretty much lost my voice from breathing in cold air all day, but I told them we were on Big Frog and had another 5mi to go. “Oh, that’s not bad!” the guy replied. I wanted to say, For you-maybe! But I bit my tongue. They said how impressed they were that I was able to ride my bike up this. I thanked them as they continued on. I climbed in peace for a little bit, but once again, caught up to the truck on a descent. He let me pass and then stayed behind me for the last few miles to the next intersection. At first, I was just wishing they would pass and let me suffer alone in peace, but eventually I came to appreciate the friendly folk behind me. It kept me motivated to keep the pedals turning and it was comforting knowing that they were looking out for me to make sure I got off Big Frog safely. I dropped them on the last descent and didn’t see them again after that.
Reaching the intersection after Big Frog was a massive relief. The pace picked back up again and I felt like a horse running back to the stable. I was in for a last rude awakening though with the 221 climb. I very slowly made my way up, and I have no shame in admitting I dismounted and walked the steepest pitches. Back on the bike, I convinced myself half-mile by half-mile to keep pedaling to finish up the climb. The sun was beginning to set, but I didn’t let that frazzle me because I had fully charged lights and knew I was almost back. I kept plodding along, slowly and stubbornly.
I was over the moon when I made it to the top of Thunder Rock descent! 3mi downhill to the car! I howled with excitement the whole way down, and that final descent was a great way to end the ride. My mantra throughout the day and during each climb was “Fear not the hills but she who climbs them”. I’m really glad my winter training has been paying off and I already have my eyes set on the next routes in the ITT series.