Sunday, May 2, 2010


Earlier this year Mandy, one half of, told me she'd never ridden in Pisgah. So when my thoughts turned to the Pisgah Mountain Bike Adventure Race I asked whether Mandy might want to make this her first Pisgah visit. PMBAR requires teams of two, and finding the right partner was key. I definitely wanted to race, but due to various considerations I didn't want to partner with anyone who would have massively competitive goals this year. A good friend, a great technical rider, and a racer with the taste for the epic day and the offbeat race, Mandy would make a perfect partner. We could keep the goal simple: fun times all day. It was a fairly ridiculous idea for several reasons, mainly because Mandy lives in Vermont (and because no one in their right mind would think PMBAR was a good first day in Pisgah). But the stars aligned somehow and the team was a reality.

Like P36, PMBAR is a choose-your-route race. Get to two mandatory checkpoints, and at least two of the other three checkpoints, via any route you want. The race starts and we open the map to find out where the checkpoints are. Mandatory Squirrel Gap at Cantrell, and mandatory top of Pilot Rock trail, with the other three being end of 5000, Laurel Creek at Bradley Creek, and end of 225.

Everyone around us started hammering up Black right away, but I intentionally held back for a couple minutes because our pace would be mellow and I didn't want to get caught up in the early frenzy. I checked the map and figured out a route that would make sure Mandy got to see several of Pisgah's most classic technical trails. My original intent was Black Mountain-> Buckhorn-> S. Mills-> Squirrel Gap-> Laurel Creek-> 5015-> 1206-> 5000 out-and-back-> 1206-> Laurel Mountain-> Pilot Rock-> 1206-> 276-> 475B-> 225 out-and-back-> 475B-> 276-> 477-> Clawhammer-> Maxwell-> Black Mountain. We'd hit all five checkpoints, Mandy'd get to ride some of the best trails in the forest, and we'd have fun times all day.

Black starts with a rideable grade on an old logging bed for about 3/4 of a mile before turning sharp left and getting steep. There's a lot of hike a bike on Black in the direction we were going. It wasn't long after this turn to the steep that I looked back and noticed Mandy seeming a bit frustrated. Uh oh. There was a lot more pushing to come. I had definitely mentioned all the bike pushing/carrying involved in riding in Pisgah, but maybe not prepared her enough for it. These mountains are steep and these trails are hiking trails, not designed for effortless mountain biking. Everyone who rides here regularly is used to sizeable doses of hike a bike. Anyway Mandy didn't say anything but I suspected she was not enjoying it. It didn't help that when we got to the Black Mountain outcrop not only were all the views completely fogged in but the rocks were too slick with rain to ride well. Overall I don't think Black Mountain impressed her, which bummed me out somewhat but there was plenty of trail still ahead.

We descended to the hanging bridge over South Mills River and hopped onto Squirrel Gap. While I rode a cut off branch almost poked my eye out, but instead stabbed my cheekbone so hard I fell off my bike. I tried to keep it to myself because Squirrel Gap is my favorite trail and I wanted to enjoy it. Mandy started out not enjoying Squirrel because it has some erosion and isn't IMBA-style mountain bikey, but I flat out refused to let her diss my favorite trail out loud and after a mile or so on the trail she came around.

The checkpoint at Laurel Creek/Bradley Creek trail intersection
photos by Mandy

She rocked the rock gardens and we railed the turns down the last part of Squirrel and Laurel Creek. We passed some racers with their maps open, and I realized how much local knowledge is worth out here as we blew through trail junctions without pause. With 2 checkpoints down in the valley we started up the steady gravel climb of 5015. Mandy was on a single speed and I was on gears, which meant our comfortable speeds on gravel differed somewhat. I kept getting a little ahead on this part and hoped I wasn't pushing the pace too much. The deal in this race is that teams need to stay together. This was good because it was keeping me from riding as hard as I wanted to. All part of the goal of non-competitive fun times all day.

At the top of 5015 Mandy told me she didn't think she had the legs to finish five checkpoints. I was just a little bummed since it meant she'd see less trail, and I might have chosen a different route if I'd known from the beginning that we'd only hit 4. Oh well! We went down the long gravel descent to the checkpoint at 5000. No way of getting around it, if you go down you gotta come back up. I started to make a conscious effort not to push the pace, worried I was letting Mandy get too shelled. As our pace slowed I had more energy for conversation, and tried to keep a good mood going with a steady chatter. In retrospect I'm not sure if this was entertaining or just annoying, but I definitely intended it as supportive.

Recalling the look on Mandy's face as she went up Black, I was afraid Laurel Mountain might not go over well. To get to the checkpoint meant either a long slow climb up Laurel, or a shorter but definitely more painful push up Pilot. I decided we should do the short painful climb. I'd never actually gone UP that trail before so I didn't actually know just how long it would take. Our pace slowed even more. At the slow pace there was time to enjoy the scenery on a trail that's usually taken as a white-knuckle descent. The views were great, and there were several different kinds of flowers in bloom.

On Pilot. I made Mandy take this photo so she could enjoy the view later,
because she certainly wasn't enjoying it at the time...

We got to the top at last. Mandy was not looking good. She told me flat-out that she couldn't finish the race and she was going to DNF. She was going to go straight on 477 back to the campsite instead of taking the left onto Clawhammer to finish the race. Uh oh. Not good. Teams have to finish together. If she quit, I couldn't finish alone without being disqualified. We sat at the checkpoint for a little while. She ate and drank and we got ready to go back down. I stayed quiet most of the way down Pilot, coming up with a list of arguments for why she should not quit. I ranked them in my head in order of how aggressive they seemed. When we finished the trail and were back on the gravel I started talking Mandy out of quitting. She was resistant.

My arguments included:
  1. You are just not a quitter. That ain't you.
  2. For the entire rest of the season you can look back on this day as the hardest day you've had on the bike all season.
  3. I've DNF'd and it is really a horrible feeling. You should only DNF if your bike has fallen apart beyond repair or if you are lying on the side of the trail and literally cannot move.
  4. All the way back to Vermont, you'll think about how you didn't even finish the race you came down for.
  5. You can't enjoy the post-race beer and burrito after a DNF. They will taste like ashes!
  6. This is all Eric's fault. He's an asshole! He made us do this, the hike up Pilot was all a part of the mindfuck of his races. When we finish you can be mad at Eric! (Apologies to Eric who is an awesome guy, a genius race-designer, and absolutely not an asshole. But the situation was dire and this argument actually seemed to work.)
  7. [As we passed a racer dejectedly walking his bike along the road] You don't want to be that guy.
  8. I GUARANTEE finishing will hurt, but it will not hurt in any way that will leave a permanent mark.
  9. You can cry if you want to, but keep on pedaling.
  10. This race is really very difficult. You're up there in the elite of mountain bikers if you finish this race. Serious bragging rights for finishing, but nothing whatsoever for a DNF.
  11. If you really just can't do any more hike a bike at all, any time we get to something steep I will push both our bikes and you can just walk (I meant it too, even though Mandy didn't believe me).
As we filled our water bottles at Pinkbeds she asked me if we truly had enough time to finish before the 10pm cutoff. It was some time after 7. I said we definitely did, as long as we just kept moving. We kept moving. I was incredibly stressed out wondering if she was going to make good on her decision to bail, but I was pretty sure I'd done all I could to sway her.

I'm willing to go pretty far down into the pain cave on a regular basis. Separating pain from suffering may be an acquired skill, but it's a skill there's no good reason to acquire. I completely respect that not everyone wants to touch that darkness, that actually it makes little sense to get to that place. Mandy wanting to quit was a total curveball for me and the challenge was harder than just hammering all day would have been. Riding down Pilot, trying to figure out what, if anything, I could do, was the crux of my race. But PMBAR is a mental game, from the initial push up Black, through the on-the-fly route choices, to the tense dynamic as two minds push two bodies to the limit. Buy the ticket, take the ride.

As we got down 477 to the Clawhammer turnoff I was in the lead. Without a word I swept through the left turn and glanced over my shoulder to see Mandy do the same. YAY!

I am so incredibly proud of Mandy for turning it around. I really, really, really, really didn't want to DNF this race. I don't know what would have happened if she'd gone straight instead of turned. I'm pretty sure I would have started weeping. I was still afraid she might change her mind as the Clawhammer-Maxwell climb dragged on so I kept just far enough away that she couldn't talk to me. We made it to the Black Mountain trail turnoff at about 8:15 and we stopped to put on our lights. We pushed up the little climb and I told Mandy that from this point it would take longer to DNF than it would take to finish. So we were finishing.

It was dark. On the ridgeline it was completely fogged in and raining lightly. Our lights were illuminating the fog, rather than showing the rocky trail, but nothing could be done. Conditions were as difficult as I'd ever had in Pisgah, but Mandy just rocked this last descent. Crossing that finish line felt fantastic and I gave her a giant hug.

I am so happy that we finished this race! In 50th place, at just under 13 hours. I am really glad I got to show off some of my favorite trails even if it was under less-than-favorable conditions. I am pretty sure Mandy is not mad at me, although I am not sure if she will want to ride in Pisgah again any time soon. It's weird to write a first-person-singular race report of an experience that was such a collaborative effort. I hope Mandy does a writeup on her blog soon because it will be a great read. Her accomplishment was pretty great and really big congrats for what she's said was her biggest day ever on the mountain bike.

Thanks again to Eric and Erinna for another amazing Pisgah Production. I love this forest even more after seeing it from another new perspective. I learned a lot about myself from this race too. Even at its tensest moments, it was a beautiful long ride in Pisgah, which means it was fun times all day.


  1. I just traced your route on my map. That's unsanity. Oddly enough I'm planning a weekend trip to Pisgah to involve a long ride Saturday, the 22nd through the woods. 4-6 hours, depending how I feel.

    Great write up though. Mandy is super brave to do those trails single speed. Doing the 10 miles I did last time single peed nearly killed me, I couldn't imagine that sort of distance. Nice work Emily.

  2. thanks Bob! offer still stands to tour-guide you around some good trails

  3. Thanks for pushing me through, Emily! Now that it's over I'm glad you didn't let me call the DNF. Race report coming tonight.

  4. Awesome job and great report! We crossed paths just as you were getting to the top of Pilot... can't think of a better intro to Pisgah than PMBAR, hahaha.