As I've posted on this blog, the Holy Grail for the Assault on Mt. Mitchell is the golden 6-hour mark--broken once by me in 2007 out of the 15 Assaults I have registered for (with the t-shirts to prove it: http://bit.ly/kOr3Hg).
Strava data: http://app.strava.com/rides/578662
The 2011 Assaults started on a cool and overcast morning, and I sat close to the front of the start nervous about the anticipated rip-roaring start motored by multiple pro teams and one of the strongest collections of top riders I have seen at any Assault. I was also concerned that the 2010 pace had wrenched me useless after rolling through the first 50 miles in two hours.
This year was no let-down for the opening pace; we were averaging 25.7 mph as we churned through Pea Ridge. Unlike 2010, however, the pack was pretty dense--not strung out--and except for a few dropped bottles, a few crossing the yellow line, and a rough bridge crossing, this year's front onslaught was safe and fairly manageable.
At the second section of harsh rollers of Pea Ridge, I made my first big decision of the day. I was displaying about 171 bpm on my heart rate--a solid 17 beats below my max--but I knew that frying myself not quite half way through the miles of the day, and less than a third of the time, was not going to be wise. So I drifted back through the pack and literally rolled over the last section as the final rider dropped at that section from the front group; I could have accelerated and re-attached, but decided to be conservative.
At that point I wasn't sure if I was being smart, but within a few miles I was joined by about a dozen riders, most of whom helped us maintain a small pack all the way to the Hwy 80 climb--this seemed ideal since the group was creating a pace well within my ability and I was taking pulls and having a safe and brisk ride into Marion.
Looking back, two things were probably really bad signs--as mile 55 I began to cramp (thus I cramped for 47 miles yesterday--the new personal record I didn't want) and I made it to the top of Hwy 80 on two 24 oz. bottles and one 20 oz. bottle. Yesterday was perfect for me, cool and damp, but I think it lulled me into underhydrating, something unusual for me because I know that cramping is one of my key weaknesses.
My secondary group navigated the dangerous curve, Bill's Mountain, and the relentless rollers into Marion, where we crossed by the campground in about 3:19--well within my target for having a good time. Most years, I ditch any group and grab some new bottles here, but this year I stayed with this group, and we picked up a few others we caught as we turned onto Hwy 80. This meant my riding the Hwy 80 climb on one remaining bottle, which I did.
I didn't hammer Hwy 80, but I kept a steady pace and felt I wasn't losing important time; according to Strava, I complete the nearly 6-mile climb, averaging 8 mph and 218 watts, well over a minute faster than last year.
I stopped at the rest stop before the parkway and talked briefly with my friend Tim Sprouse, who asked how I was doing. I looked at my Garmin and noticed I was just a couple minutes over 4 hours for the day with only the parkway and the park left--only about 16 miles to do in less than two hours. I was optimistic.
But from the parkway on, my power and heart rate data do not lie--I simply had nothing over the last 16 miles.
The 2011 Assault turned from a potentially 6-hour breaking day to a death march. I like the cool and was at least glad to have the low temps and the fog/drizzle because I had to ride just below the cramp threshold for well over two hours--even then pedalling through persistent cramps.
Being passed and dropped over and over made for a rough mental experience as well.
I finished at 6:22 (123rd), well outside my goal, but realistically at the upper end of my most typical finishes that hover about 6:10-6:25 (a nice lesson in the value of modes over outliers and averages). And for many climbing centuries over the years, I calculate my place/total starting the ride; my typical percentage is around 10-12%, and even with my struggling this year, my place is in the top 14% (trying to see the bright side).
So I was disappointed and frustrated because as with last year, I feel I am stronger and better trained than I was when I did break 6 hours.
But, as I was wallowing in my own disappointment this morning, I thought about standing at the top and watching the suffering and the ELATION. I had several of my good cycling friends walk up to me SMILING, even beaming.
Over and over, they talked about this being their first time, and I do realize that the 2011 Assault was a great cycling day--well organized, well run, and the ultimate in self-torture as recreation.
Paul Thomas, EdD, Associate Professor