PMBAR is an adventure race with mandatory and optional checkpoints on trails through the Pisgah National Forest. The race is organized by Eric Wever. It is an easy race, and a short distance.
Still with me? Did you believe that last sentence? I hope not.
Racers are given a start time (8 am) and mandatory finish by time (10pm). The checkpoint information is provided when the race starts. Each team determines their route for the day based on their knowledge of Pisgah and their preferences. People win based on a recipe of route choices, technical skills, speed, luck, and sacrifices on the mountains. I am joking about the last item. Mostly.
On May 4 TC teammate Sherry George and I took on the PMBAR challenge. And the rain gods decided to come along for the ride.
Sherry G. and I arrived at the start area. I was happy that it wasn't raining and determinedly pushed the ominous forecast out of my mind. I had my rain jacket with me which should mean that the rain would wait another day. There were other racers that had the same idea. We saw plenty of friendly and familiar faces at the mandatory gear check and had fun chatting about the upcoming adventure.
Jordan, Jana, Sherry, me and other racers.
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
Everything we had for the 14 hour race was in our packs or on us. PMBAR has no drop bags or no true aid stations but checkpoint volunteers provided encouragement, aid, fires, and welcome surprises along the way. My pack contained 80 ounces of Infinit mixed with water, Infinit powder for later, 2 bars, water filter, light, and bulging out of one of the pockets were an extra pair of socks, 2 pairs of gloves, and a hat. It felt ridiculously heavy. Was I carrying a toddler? An extra racer?
At 7:45am Eric (race organizer) started race announcements. I missed these while I waited for the Portolet. Eric was still talking when I found Sherry and we were handed our plastic bag with a Pisgah map and passport that had checkpoints inside.
Eric talked a bit more, the race started and the racers stayed put. Like most teams, Sherry and I talked through route options and compared them with checkpoints.
It was a beautiful moment. We were about to embark on a great day of riding. Trail checkpoints were located on Avery Creek, Laurel Mtn at Sassafras Gap, Cove Creek near Cove Creek campground, Clawhammer on Black Mtn, and so forth. Trail names, gap names, all of it was exciting. I was really looking forward to our route.
PMBAR had 3 mandatory and 4 optional checkpoints this year. Sherry and I decided on a route to get the mandatory checkpoints while also picking up a few optional checkpoints. We stowed the map and passport, and started riding.
First we went up. I climbed up Black Mountain feeling like a turtle with my house on my back. The trail was somewhat muddy but not too bad. I looked down at my rear suspension and thought I should have added an extra 10 psi to account for the extra weight on my back.
We passed a few teams on ride up and exchanged hellos and then began the long hike a bike up the steep sections of Black Mtn trail. We saw Rob C. and Tim K.; a father and son team; and other friends. Everyone seemed cheerful and happy to be out on the trail.
We continued past Turkey Pen trail and soon got to a point where we were able to ride a bit, scramble down boulders, and ride a bit more. This is where Rob C. and Tim K. caught us and disappeared with their boulder descending skills. I thought to myself that one day Rob C. and Tim K. might show me their lines and spot me from cracking open my head when giving those big rocks a try.
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
A number of duo teams passed us going fast in the the opposite direction including someone I thought was Sam Salman but I think might actually have been Sam Koerber. It was fun to see them. We rode up on the volunteers at our first checkpoint, and got our passport signed, and race tag scanned. The trail began to descend and it felt great to be on the bike and rushing through the trees.
At the intersection of Clawhammer, Black, Black and Buckhorn we continued on Black towards Avery. We had missed the faint, squiggly lines of a shortcut on the map (a forest service road to Avery) that we learned about after the race. Instead, we rode up another part of Black Mtn. But it was worth it.
Black Mtn going west after the gap was quiet and beautiful. We were surrounded by misting clouds while we rode this trail section. The wind gusted through the ridge at times and pelted us with raindrops shaken from the trees. Spring leaves, with their bright green color, the white clouds, dark tree bark and roots surrounded us. I loved it. And, we soon descended Black to yet another downhill on Avery Creek trail. Avery was really fun. I hadn’t ridden Avery in a long time and the trail had changed.
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
A good way down the trail near a curve I smelled smoke, and a bit farther we found our Avery checkpoint. The volunteer had small fire and Pro bars for racers plus he gave me a spoonful of his hot canned peas. Delicious! I wanted to eat the rest but thought better of it. The volunteer needed his strength to deal with the racers and the long day.
Sherry and I turned around, and rode and hiked back up Avery. I had gotten cold on the descent, and although somewhat tedious, I was glad to hike and get warm again. We turned right and we hiked and rode back across Black Mtn to the gentle descent on Buckhorn and South Mills trails. South Mills was wet and chilly but the gravel road we ended up on was wetter yet and cold because it had started to rain lightly. It might have been 1 pm by this time.
I stopped and put on a rain jacket and hat at 1206. It was about 3pm and the rain had started up again. We rode past Pilot Rock to Pilot Cove for an optional checkpoint. Since we hadn’t hiked in awhile we were immediately rewarded with a steep hike.
We both got back on our bikes occasionally as we thought we had reached the top but usually we had to hop off and hike some more. The trail leveled out momentarily and the rhododendrons leaned in closely. It felt like a hobbit world. In a moment the scent of wet wood campfire filtered through the dense brush and spurred us forward.
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
Photo Credit: Brado Allen
A brave volunteer had a snug tent and tarp, fire, and was making hot cocoa for the racers. It was great. I was amazed by the efficient and cozy camps I saw throughout the race and grateful for the volunteers that clearly committed to a whole day in the woods.
Three checkpoints down and we were having a good time in Pisgah. Sherry and I got on our bikes and started riding down what we had so slowly hiked. Sherry’s front brake immediately stopped working and started screeching. She kept going using one brake and skill to make it back down to the trailhead upright.
We stopped to resupply water, eat, and so forth at 1206. I filtered water and added Infinit for nutrition while she looked at her brake.
As an aside - I love Infinit for my race and ride nutrition. It’s simple, effective, tastes decent, and easy to carry. Bars and real food are nice too when a race or ride has drop bags or loop options. And it's really nice to have checkpoint treats too.
Sherry discovered that her front brake mechanism had lost a screw and the brake pads needed adjustment. I got out a multi tool, pried open the brake pads and pushed back the pistons. We then tightened the brake, and hoped that it would stay in position. Her brake didn’t rub the wheel so we were off to the next trail – Pilot Rock.
We chose to climb Pilot Rock because one of my friends said she loved climbing Pilot and descending Laurel. I wondered how much she loved hiking Pilot as I hiked it. This was the fourth major hike a bike of the day and by now it didn’t seem to matter how long the hike lasted. The effort kept me warm and we were having fun! Fun! (At least that is what I told myself). The rain had started again and seemed determined to stick around.
Instigator and good friend Leanne
We saw plenty of race teams coming down Pilot including good friends Jordan and Jana and Sherry’s husband, Scott, and his partner Mike. They helped us remove a screw from her rear brake to bolster the front brake. We hoped that the fix wouldn’t lead to problems with the rear brake but there wasn’t much time or point to think about that. We had more hiking to do.
It was close to 6pm. We had been riding and hiking for almost 10 hours by now. I felt somewhat cold but the hiking kept me warm, and my rain jacket helped to keep most of the water off of my core. My feet and hands were getting wetter and cooler but it was manageable.
Finally, at the top of Pilot, we got back on our bikes. It felt surreal to ride instead of hike. The trail leveled out, and then descended. We were riding downhill! On Laurel! Riding - at least until the steep downhill hike a bike section. I made it down only slipping a few times in the slick mud and rough footing, and then got back on the bike.
The wind picked up quite a bit and so did the rain. I was cold and my feet and hands started to get wet from water on the trail and wind gusts of rain. By the time we got to Sassafras Gap I was freezing. One of the two brave volunteers signed our checkpoint packet for our fourth checkpoint. I warmed myself briefly at their fire until one volunteer said I was steaming. This Saturday was her first camping trip. I looked around at the clouds, rain, and wind and hoped she would stay warm.
Sherry and I continued riding down Laurel. A few teams passed us going up Laurel including Becky B and her partner. Becky warned us about Bradley Creek and deep creek crossings. She had gone in twice by accident and wasn’t looking happy about it. It was great to see her and the other folks on the trail.
By now we were riding down rivulets of water. The rain got stronger and the wind was cutting. My winter gloves were now wet and so were my feet despite the neoprene shoe covers, and my hands and feet were freezing cold. The rest of the way down Laurel was miserable. I was really cold, and everything but my core was drenched.
I made it down to the trailhead and met Sherry warming up at a great fire pit that two volunteers had brought and supplied. A few other racers were warming up as well. The heat felt great on my legs. I pulled off my gloves to warm my hands and almost shrieked. My hands were bright red and as they warmed up they hurt terribly.
Stephen Janes and the other volunteer, both involved with Trips for Kids, were great. They helped us and the other racers, offered food, kept the fire blazing, and asked us how we felt. It was a few minutes or so before I was able to talk without losing it. Stephen offered to run the heat in his truck. I got in eventually, and then I started to shiver. That's when I realized how cold I felt.
I shivered in the truck for a bit, then got out and shivered by the fire. Sherry and I discussed our options. We stayed at the fire a bit longer. She was shivering violently and had purple lips.
Stephen and the other volunteer said little but I could tell they were worried about us knowing that we were headed to Bradley Creek, and its 14 creek crossings including 2 that would be almost waist high. And, after Bradley, we’d have a long slog up Turkey Pen with multiple hike a bike sections before reaching Black Mountain.
Sherry and I got back on our bikes and crawled down the hill towards Bradley Creek. We didn't want to go fast because the wind was cold - and found the trailhead. That's when I said to Sherry I had to DNF. There was no way I was going to safely make it through Bradley Creek trail - not with the creek crossings – and not get hypothermia.
We rode back up to Stephen, got in his truck, and shivered our way back to feeling somewhat human after 15-20 minutes. Stephen was on the phone talking to the race crew. That gave Sherry and I time to talk through our gear, our route, and the decision to stop. We both hated to DNF. We had been hiking and riding most of the day in the cold, and the cold temperature and rain had worn me down after 11 hours outside.
Warm truck and Grilled Cheese Station - courtesy of Stephen Janes
Stephen brought us back to the Davidson River campground and we had help from Scott unloading the bikes. Sherry and I took time getting cleaned up in the campground bathroom with its hot showers. It felt amazing to be dry and on the way to getting warm again.
It felt anticlimactic to sit and eat in a wonderfully overheated camper. We had just had a huge day, and didn’t get to cross the finish line. That’s difficult to accept. I had a great experience even without a good finish. It was fun to join the adventure, see friends and fellow racers wandering the marvelous trails in Pisgah, meet the stalwart volunteers, and enjoy a day outside.
We came, we saw, and we survived to race another day.
I would like to thank Chad Andrews and TotalCyclist for his coaching and a fabulous training center, Mark Kane of Kane Training for his effective off bike functional movement training and dry needling treatment, my great TC teammates, and friends that helped me on training rides. Thank you all!