Kim Ranallo (3)
I struggled with writer’s block for this ride report. How is one supposed to write about a ride that took over 17 hours? The many highs and lows, belly laughs, and brain fog. It’s a lot to process and recover from.
It seemed only fitting to do the Dirty 130 (and the last leg of my triple crown) on my 30th birthday. However, my confidence leading into the D130 was pretty low after a disappointing DNF at the Cohutta 100 race two weeks prior. Self-doubt definitely weighed heavily on me during those two weeks and I questioned not only my fitness but also my mental resolve to be able to complete this ITT. Thankfully, I was able to convince my friend, Monica, to join me. She was originally planning on doing the D130 for her birthday one week after mine, but I persuaded her to do it on my birthday instead to allow her time to recover for her next race at the end of May. Having a friend join me certainly made the ride more special, and gave me a little bit more strength to not let my insecurities prevent me from attempting this route. The forecast called for partly sunny and a high of 75 degrees, which is a perfect spring day - and much cooler weather than I had at the Cohutta 100.
I woke up at 340am and arrived at the parking at Mona’s Antiques around 530am. It was pitch black dark and I was so sleepy that it took me an embarrassingly long time to park. I pulled forward, backed up, and circled around the parking lot multiple times before I finally settled on a spot. I then continued to fumble around, getting my things ready and waiting for Monica to arrive. Coyotes howled in the near distance and I wondered what kind of omen that was. Monica arrived and the first light in the sky quickly followed. As we were getting ready to roll, she asked if she should bring her vest. I told her it was going to warm up nicely today, so I would leave it. A breeze blew a couple of rain sprinkles on us and I in turn asked if I should bring my light windbreaker/rain jacket. She looked at the sky and said, “It looks pretty dark that way.” We exchanged a look but we both figured we’d be okay getting rained on in the morning because once it warmed up in the afternoon we would be fine.
With that, we started rolling and joked about the crazy ride we were getting ourselves into. When we got to the Kimsey Mountain climb, it started raining on us. It was a light, refreshing rain that broke the humidity. The climb went by quickly with Monica and I chatting the whole way up. Monica mentioned how later this afternoon we will probably be laughing about how we got rained on earlier this morning. I smiled, looking forward to the adventure the day had in store. At the top of Kimsey, I stopped to pee. I took the time to strip down, determined to not have pee chamois for this ITT. Somehow though, I got a bunch of sand and grit in my chamois and I laughed to Monica about how the sand was going to exfoliate my bum and I was going to have the softest butt after this! Laughing and in high spirits, we snapped a selfie before continuing on.
The rain made the descent down Smith Mountain pretty sloppy and slippery. Usually I am all for bombing descents, but we really had to keep our speed in check because of the mud and slick rocks. Eventually we passed Lost Creek campground and kept on to Webb Brothers in Reliance. A quick bathroom break and water refill later we were back rolling, next stop - Starr Mountain! Monica asked me how I was feeling about the pace, but we both knew our progress was much slower than we anticipated. I shrugged and told her, “It is what it is.” I added that I couldn’t push the pace any more because I didn’t want to blow up my legs. She agreed that she couldn’t push the pace either. We were losing a lot of time due to the rainy conditions, but that was out of our control. We just continued on because ultimately forward progress is forward progress.
We crossed over the beautiful Hiwassee river and turned left on Hambright Road. We reminisced about Flip Flop Burgers and how we wished they were still open. I was starting to get pretty anxious, as Monica and Ali had both warned me about a dog at the end of this road that will give chase until you make it into the woods. I told Monica how I was feeling and she assured me we’d be fine. I wasn’t sure where the “hole shot” into the woods was exactly, and she warned me it would probably be overgrown with tall grass. We rode side by side with her on my left and I saw the “Beware of Dog” sign before I saw the dog itself. Right when I asked “Is that the house with the dog?” this white and brown dog came charging at us. I let Monica ahead of me since I had no clue where I was going and just repeatedly shouted “No!!” to the dog as I pedaled. Monica disappeared into the tall grass and I blindly followed. It didn’t even feel like a trail, as I was just barreling through the brush. I was also screaming now because the dog was still behind me! My anxiety and fear of the dog was overwhelming, but just like Ali said he would, the dog ceased its chase once we were established in the woods. I was shaking and looking back to make sure the dog was gone when Monica shouted “hole!”. I hardly had time to react before I almost rode into a large sink-hole type feature in the trail. I slammed on my brakes and put a foot down, letting out a little screech. Monica stopped and turned around, asking if I was okay. I took a couple breaths to settle and replied that I was fine. We pushed our bikes through briars and poison ivy before making it across the creek and back onto a gravel road. I felt a massive sigh of relief now that was behind us, and I was ready for Starr Mountain.
Sometimes ignorance is bliss, because I had never climbed Starr before and wasn’t sure what to expect. I settled into an easy climbing pace, mentally prepared for it to pitch up into a wall. I slowly pedaled up, following behind Monica. Monica waited at the top and when I pulled up, I asked if there was more climbing and when she said no, that was the climb - I was a little surprised. That’s it? I thought to myself. Starr is no big deal! I was pleased that my legs still felt good and that the rain had seemed to pass. We saw some pink lady slipper flowers on the flats at the top which were a delight and we ran into a couple of ladies on horseback. The good mood was short-lived, because the push onwards to Coker Creek had me feeling a little low. I was annoyed by the dogs that kept giving us chase, my chain was squeaking obnoxiously with every pedal stroke, and I was hungry for some real food.
We were grateful to see the Coker’s Creek Visitor’s center was open. My head felt a little woozy and I was feeling out of it. As soon as I walked in, the guy behind the counter remarked, “You look like you’ve been riding with the windows down.” His joke was lost on me because I replied, “I’ve been riding a bicycle!”. As soon as I said that I felt like an idiot, as I was still wearing my helmet and obviously presented as a cyclist. “I was being sarcastic,” the guy laughed. I turned red in the face and grabbed a Coca Cola, potato chips, and a Moonpie. The guy kept laughing and giving me a hard time for my blonde moment, and while I’m sure he meant no harm by it, I just wanted to crawl into a hole and be done with the interaction. Monica wandered in and the guy proceeded to tell her about it as well. Trying not to be peeved, I walked back outside and devoured the chips and sandwich I had stuffed in my seat pack. In between bites of food, I focused my attention on getting my chain lubed and bags repacked. I felt recharged from the fuel and ready to head back into the woods so after downing our Cokes we rolled out and headed to Joe Branch Road.
Joe Branch was lovely for the most part, minus some super sticky mud that slowed us down. I just relaxed and tried not to fight it, as I didn’t want to waste my legs trying to power through the thick mud, but I was a little frustrated by how much it slowed me down. I was super excited for Buck Bald though, as I had never been up there before. Climbing up to Buck Bald was misty and cold with fog surrounding us. “We’re in a ping pong ball!” I exclaimed to Monica. I had vivid memories replay in my head of climbing El Cap when we had weather blow in and the clouds surrounding us blocked our view of the valley completely and my climbing partners said it was like being in a ping pong ball. The memory made me smile, as it was a similar, epic, hard adventure to this big ride. I think that feeling of total commitment, adventure, suffering, and sub-optimal conditions is something I really enjoy and find myself seeking. I feel like those full-limit days are a rarity and something to be cherished.
I pedaled enthusiastically up the climb to the bald and I was so excited when Monica and I reached the summit even though the mountains were hidden by the fog cover. I cheerfully showed Monica the progress we had made on the map - something I had been doing throughout the day because I loved seeing our little dot progress across the route. We snapped our selfies and decided to head back down into the tree cover out of the cold mist to have a snack and reset for the next push. I chowed down on some of my leftover sandwich, feeling super giddy that we had made it to Buck Bald. We had Fingerboard and Powerhouse to look forward to, but I was thrilled we had made it this far. Monica stepped into the woods to apply some Chamois Buttr and I thought about doing the same, but when Monica re-emerged she commented that the sand/grit combined with the Chamois Buttr created quite the exfoliating lotion. I lost it and started laughing uncontrollably. I could hardly breathe because I was laughing so hard! I think we were getting a little delirious, because the silliness and giggles weren’t going away. We had to keep moving though because it was chilly and time was ticking. The descent was gorgeous with some beautiful vista views which we wanted to stop to take a picture of but also knew we needed to keep moving.
There were more dogs on Bailey and Duckett Ridge and combined with the steep pitches, I was not a happy camper. Once on the Fingerboard section I was feeling better thanks to some energy gels. I was enjoying a descent when I heard the whoosh of air escaping from my rear tire. Monica was ahead of me and I called out to let her know I was stopping but she was too far away to hear. I got off and walked to the bottom of the rocky hill and cursed under my breath. We were 90 miles in and still had a lot of climbing to do and it was getting late in the day. I pulled my tools, plugs, and one of my tubes out of my saddle bag and got to work. The hole was right in the center of the tread, so I was hoping a plug would do the trick. Monica had a spidey sense and was pedaling back to me, asking if I was okay. I explained the situation and she snacked and went on a flower walk while I fixed the tire. Unfortunately, the hole was too big for the plug so I had to throw a tube in. I was covered in sealant and mud and I fumbled around a lot because the brain fog made me feel uncoordinated. Getting cold, I wanted to rush through it, but I knew taking my time now would save more time down the road so I sternly told myself to stay calm and focused. I sucked down a gel while getting my wheel back on the bike and we were on our way again. It was uphill now which warmed our core back up, and thankfully my legs agreed to keep working.
We chose to not detour to Reliance Fly and Tackle and instead, make the push to the piped spring. We headed to the suspension bridge and Powerhouse and I was feeling pretty nervous for the last climbs of the day. After crossing the bridge and starting up Powerhouse, I was definitely feeling tired. Seeing Monica’s taillight and steady pace in front of me helped me keep the cranks spinning. I used some aggressive positive self-affirmations and pep talks to make it up Powerhouse and I was super happy when it was behind us. We took the descent extra slowly, trying to find the piped spring. I was incredibly grateful when we found it and gave silent thanks to the earth for providing us with some much needed hydration. Monica only filled up one bottle. I had half of a bottle left of electrolytes, so I just filled up my empty bottle - figuring a bottle and a half would be more than enough to make it to the finish.
There’s not much of a break though, because after the short-lived descent, you roll right into the Kimsey Mountain climb. Daylight was running out, but we were feeling optimistic and had our heads down to grind up the climb. We paused a couple of times to snack and eat salt chews, as we were too tired and uncoordinated to eat while pedaling at this point. There was another short descent that was pretty rocky, and this is where we ended up turning on our lights. We picked our lines carefully, not wanting to deal with another flat this late in the ride. It was starting to get pretty cold now that the sun was down, so I was happy when the terrain pitched upwards again, as climbing kept me warm. The climbing was pretty technical, and it was hard to choose good lines with the limited light and low visibility. The gravel was obscured by a thick shroud of fog that hovered over us. We plodded slowly along and the colder and later it got, the more focused and determined I felt. Part of that was the realization that I certainly did not plan for the worst for this ride - I frankly was not prepared to survive the night should we be forced to sleep outside. With the chilly temperatures, soggy ground, and wet clothes, it certainly was not a great scenario. I was reprimanding myself and it was a good reminder to always be prepared. As I was riding and reflecting on the decisions I made leading up to this, I noticed my rear tire felt a bit flat. In denial, I rolled on, just wanting to get to the end of Kimsey. I told Monica I needed to check my tire and once I confirmed it was flat, I definitely felt frustrated. Exhausted, I didn’t want to put another tube in. I was annoyed that the tube from earlier was already leaking. It appeared to be leaking from the valve. After some digging around my seat pack and grabbing my extra valve stem, I tried to replace it - but it wasn’t seating in the Tubolito properly. I was shivering at this point and knew if I took the time to replace the tube now, I would get too cold. I told Monica I needed to walk to warm up.
The intersection wasn’t much further away, so we power walked the half mile to it. She asked me the very practical question of what I was going to do should the second tube not work. My heart was gutted just thinking of the possibility of not being able to finish this close to the end. I told her that I would walk it in. Dubious, she replied that it’s over 10 miles to the car, almost a half marathon. She said she could always ride to the car, then come get me. I didn’t even want to think about the possibility of the second tube not holding air. It just wasn’t an option - “It’s going to work”, I said matter-of-factly as we half stumbled, half walked through the night. Walking to the intersection was certainly the right decision, because once we got there we were warm again and it was a bit more sheltered from the wind and not as bone-chillingly cold.
I changed the tubes out and luckily it looked like it was going to work. I crossed my fingers, willing for it to hold air long enough for me to limp back to the car. We continued on, and the descent down Kimsey Mountain felt like it took longer than the climb. I tried to ride very cautiously, because if I flatted again I was pretty screwed. It was also really cold at this point, and rolling slower meant less wind. I was getting cold to the core and was starting to shiver. I had a weird twinge in my knee and sometimes a pedal stroke caused a sharp shooting pain. I yelped quietly under my breath, not wanting to concern Monica. My cleats have a fair amount of float, so I was able to adjust my foot position in a way that prevented the knee pain. My brain was starting to play tricks on me now, too. The wind would cause the leaves to rain down water, and the sound of the water hitting the foliage on the ground sounded at times like an animal was scurrying around. A couple of times, it startled me so much that I almost screamed. But I was able to rationalize with myself that it was just water droplets falling from the trees. Monica seemed ready to be done too, so I just stayed calm and positive, knowing my anxieties would not help either of us. Finally, the gravel turned to pavement and I was relieved and ecstatic that we were almost back to the cars. I prayed the Great Pyrenees I read about in other ride reports was fast asleep, as it was almost midnight. We didn’t see the beast on the way out, so I was hoping we wouldn’t catch him on the way back. I was too tired to deal with yet another dog chase. My teeth were chattering and I was relieved for the couple little stingers where I could pedal for warmth. We rolled past Hall’s and up the road to Mona’s. We were relieved more than anything. Being the emotional person that I am, I expected to have huge feelings at the end of this ride and perhaps even tears. I remarked to Monica how I felt emotionless since all day long I had my emotions turned off. And I guess that’s one of the things that draws me to ultra-endurance riding - emotions are not of service out there. As a highly sensitive and tumultuous person, having a setting where my emotions are clicked off is a reprieve.
Hopping off my bike, I almost fell over I was so dizzy. I wobbled around like it was my first time back on land after being out at sea. We cranked the heat on in our cars and changed out of our wet kits. We couldn’t believe the day we had - starting at 624am and finishing at 1209am! I shivered in my car trying to muster up the wits to drive. I drove slowly on 30 and my hands went to shift my bike levers, even though I wasn’t riding anymore and my car is an automatic. It was quite the sensation. By the time I got home, showered, and crawled into bed it was around 230am, almost 24 hours of being awake. I couldn’t imagine a better way to celebrate turning 30.
Reflecting back on my personal journey completing this Triple Crown series, I am so proud that I was able to complete them in such a relatively quick timeframe. There’s a lot of different ways to approach the series: as a training ride for other objectives, as a race against the clock, or as an adventure. For me, the ITTs were an avenue of healing and personal growth. I remember when I first got my gravel bike in October 2020. My first “real” gravel ride was actually in the Hiwassee region, which gave a full circle feeling completing the D130. I remember pouring over the routes on TNGravel and I thought it would be so cool to tick every single route off - except for the “big three”. I guess the joke’s on me because I have a lot more to complete before I can say I’ve completed all of them.
Throughout lots of heartbreak, failure, and rejection - these ITTs have given me back my sense of self during a time I felt very isolated. It’s a lot to reconcile but long hard gravel rides offer plenty of time for reflection. I think that’s why I’m so proud of this triple crown accomplishment. I set out to do something really hard when all my sad brain wanted to do was binge eat Ben and Jerry’s while watching Netflix comedy specials in bed. Instead, I chose the bike.
People tend to only see the accomplishments - it’s hard to keep the perspective that the lows are as profound as the highs. No one sees the times I would go mountain biking and rage pedal as hard as I could and scream at the top of my lungs (unless you heard it…yeah, that was me at 5 Points…). Other times I would just break down into tears on the bike, having to stop and sob before finishing my intervals. Before every ITT I battled fear, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy.
What’s crazy and beautiful when you’re pedaling up in the mountains is that all your worries tend to just float away. All of your issues don’t matter when you’re 65 miles into a ride in the remote wilderness. I came into the things I like about myself: my tenacity, my strength (both physical and mental), my courage and bravery, my badassery, my independence, and really just my sense of self. My constant pursuit of what’s right and true for me has led me to some amazing places and some epic adventures. We must be bold and willing to dream big and to allow ourselves the chance to put in the work to make these things happen. They don’t happen overnight. These ITTs will help me in my next big adventure. It’s all experience and building blocks for our next pursuits. It’s beautiful and perfect, even if it’s hardly ever easy.