With my stomach growling from hunger I nursed the dregs of my nearly empty Camelbak and scanned the trail ahead. Rocks. Endless rocks. The slight uphill of the trail told me I had yet to reach the top but just how much further before the final descent, I couldn’t recall. Twelve hours on the bike had taken its toll both physically and mentally. My mind was clouded, buzzing with that blurry feeling that happens right before it all starts shutting down. And with the exhaustion and pain, the doubt started to creep in. What the heck was I thinking? Didn’t I swear I’d never do this again? Once was enough. It’s too long. Too hard. It had been nearly a year since I’d ridden this stretch of Short Mountain and all I could focus on was getting to the long descent down to the trailhead. Just a bit further and it’s all downhill. All downhill to dinner and a break from the rocks. And with the thought of food and water on my mind, I pushed ahead. Just a bit further.
I took my first pull on the Massanutten Ring just about a year ago not really understanding what I was getting into. But with a big effort, some mental gymnastics, and a little luck I managed to pull it off first try. For several weeks after the pull I said I’d never ride it again. It was too long, too hard, too brutal. But then the doubts started creeping in. I’d think about the places I made mistakes. The places I was unprepared for. The decisions I made that I’d regretted. And a little voice in my head kept nagging me to give it another shot. Unfinished business needs to be finished. And so, like most epic cycling adventures, it all began again with a simple email.
Subject: April 16 or 17th – The Ring
Date: Tue, April 05, 2016 10:47 am
Depends on whether the weather is dry that weekend.
4:45-5am start from the campground — probably will take about 18 hours.
Slow and steady wins the day on this one. I should probably try to find a map of the loop too rather than just winging it…50/50% chance of failure on completing the loop.
How could I say “no”?
I first met Jeff more than 20 years ago when he was a freshman at the University of New Hampshire and I was a local bike shop rat still in high school. After leaving UNH, Jeff would go on to win a National Championship in MTB Short Track before branching out into other sports like Bicycle Orienteering and Adventure Racing. Even today with a demanding job and new baby at home he can still put the hurt on me. I vividly remember the last time I actually beat him in a race: Kingman Farm the fall of 1995. Looking back, he probably just had a bad day. He’s a fierce competitor with high ability for suffering–someone I’d trust to share a pull on The Ring. But this time he made it clear his fitness was in pretty bad shape. Sickness, work, and a long winter meant a lot less hours on the bike than he had planned. Regardless, he’d still give it a shot. We called it the get-in-shape-or-die-trying plan.
Jeff’s invite went out to bunch of local Northern Virginia folk but schedules were hard to synch. After a few rounds of email banter it came down to just Jeff and I in for the full pull. We would duplicate my 2015 Pull and take the Lawrence/Carpenter route from the Signal Knob lot, starting pre-dawn with lights, ascending Shawl Gap, riding the clockwise Ring. Mike and Ian were both interested in riding the portions of the southern end but couldn’t commit to a full pull. Instead they’d intercept at Camp Roosevelt for breakfast then ride Duncan Hollow, Waterfall, Jawbone, and maybe Short with us depending on how rough it got. With some luck, Jeff and I would end many hours later with a dark descent of Signal Knob. After reviewing my notes and Strava file from last year I planned out our checkpoints and time checks. Ascending Shawl at 0500 and keeping a similar pace would put us back at the car by 2130. 16 hours 30 minutes. Always moving, nothing too crazy fast, but with a bit of margin for re-groups and unplanned stops.
After a long Friday of work, I packed the car, tucked the kids into bed, and headed west to Fort Valley. Swag support was hard to wrangle so I again I planned to stash food caches at Camp Roosevelt and Edinburg Gap. I was running about two hours behind schedule, but had to make the drops. Without these oases of food and water we’d never make the full pull. I planted a cache at Edinburg first, making sure it was solidly wrapped to keep it safe from the critters, then drove to Camp Roosevelt to do the same. I finally pulled into the Signal Knob lot a few minutes before midnight. The sky was perfectly clear, with a thousand stars and a setting moon illuminating the steep valley walls. A perfect night. Hopefully the next day would be a perfect day. I found a place to hang my hammock for a few hours and by 0455 I was up, fed, and ready to go. Jeff’s Volvo entered the parking lot a few minutes later with a four-wheel power slide and an apology. After some fumbling and second-guessing of gear selections we hit the trail cold, gradually warming the legs along the slow crawl up Shawl Gap. Wheels up time: 5:08 am.
I attempted to ride a few of the harder sections of the Shawl Gap climb just because I knew I could clean them but made sure to not dig too deep when the ridge pitched up. No shame in walking especially with so many miles ahead. For the first hours of the day Jeff and I kept it moving at an even, steady pace. I like to only stop in the event of mechanical issues, keeping occasional relief breaks of 2 min or less. Other than stripping off layers atop Shawl we only stopped twice along the East Ridge, once to pack our lights at dawn, and once for a quick snack.
The East Ridge was in great shape–the fall leaves had blown away, and the undergrowth of wild rhododendrons and roses was still dormant from the long winter. There was an increasing number of bunch of blow-downs the further south we went, many of them fairly fresh, which forced us off our bikes more than once.
Jeff started experiencing light cramps just north of Kennedy but we pushed on at conversational pace and he was able to ride through them. Despite our unplanned bushwhacking due to tree fall we still made good time, rolling into Camp Roosevelt in almost exactly 5 hours per the plan. Ian and Mike, along with our brunch, were waiting for us at Roosevelt. I should say most of our brunch becasue Jeff’s cache was attacked by rabid possums or some other hungry critter. Having had problems with critters the last time I rode the Ring I made a point to double wrap the food, but even with double zip-lock bags inside a nylon musette wrapped in duct tape, something ate Jeff’s banana and sandwich. Fortunately between the four of us there was enough food to go around. After a much-needed fifteen minute break we filled our Camelbacks and headed South again.
The initial mile of Duncan Hollow is one of the more enjoyable stretches of trail–fast, smooth and flowing single track, actually very uncharacteristic of the majority of The Ring. The remainder of Duncan is an old logging road, once double track but now wide singletrack, which rises at a steady grade for five and a half miles. Again the trail was in really great shape–a bit of mud in spots, but the path was wide and clear. I think someone must have recently driven a bushhog up as the brush was cut back and we were spared from the the sharp-as-knives thorns on the blackberry canes. But spring comes late in the mountains, and the bare trees offered little protection from the mid-day sun overhead. It was pretty hot as we soldiered on. Ian and Mike were gracious enough to let me set pace so their fresh legs wouldn’t totally overwhelm Jeff and I. Despite having almost six hours in my legs I was feeling pretty good and probably pushed a bit harder than I should have–Strava says Mike and I set the second fastest time up, behind J.B.’s KOM.
Over the top I absolutely ripped down the Massanutten connector. I was really feeling great and my Habit was feeling dialed. Had my Garmin been working I’m sure my time would have been significantly faster than last time I rode it (more on that later). After a few miles of descending, we reached the southern terminus of The Ring, and faced the infamous Waterfall climb.
Waterfall sucks. Period. It’s only six tenths of a mile, but it averages 25% grade–i.e. straight up. Really the only way to make it up is to push. Occasionally it will trick you with a short stretch that you think you can ride, only to be crushed again after a few hundred yards. There are several strategies to getting up Waterfall–the most effective I’ve found is counting: Count 10 steps forward. Pause. Count to 10 while you rest. Repeat. We all struggled up except for Mike who did some crazy sprint up it in 18 minutes and set the Strava KOM. Hot, tired, and demoralized we arrived at Crisman Hollow just after noon.
Waterfall is hard but because it’s not really ridable you just push through it. The next two segments–Kern Mountain (“Jawbone”) and Short Mountain are tantalizingly difficult. The trail undulats up and across the west ridge with sections that seem ridable on fresh legs but make you second guess with tired ones. Mine were very tired. After a short food break at Crisman I tried to set people’s expectations low for Jawbone. It was going to be a hard go. Jeff was hurting pretty bad from Waterfall so we agreed to spilt up and ride our own paces when things started getting knobby. I was still feeling surprisingly good and kept pace with Mike, pulling some great moves as we smashed forward.
In hindsight, I probably went a bit too deep keeping up with Mike, but it sure was fun. At Jawbone Gap Mike and I found the only bit of shade under a fallen tree and we waited to regroup.
When we were all back together we took inventory of bikes and bodies. Ian’s suspension lock-out was stuck in the locked-out position, which was not helpful. His lack of a dropper post was also not helpful in the rough. With nearly two more hours of bump and grind on Short Mountain ahead of us Ian and Mike decided to bail down to Crisman Hollow and call it a day. Jeff was running on fumes and needed to dial things back to keep it together. I was still feeling pretty good so he sent me ahead and said don’t wait up–we could keep in touch via texting as the day went on just to make sure each other was OK. I still had unfinished business that I needed to finish. So I pressed on.
It rained on Jawbone my last Ring attempt and I had suppressed the memories of the experience. This time seemed much better because it was dry. Overall my descending went OK, but as the trail started to gradually climb back to Short I started to feel the effects from the efforts on Duncan. I knew the intial climb from FR 374 would be a slog due to the steep and chunky scree fields but even at the top things hurt more than expected. Mentally and physically I started to fall apart. I had run out of water about half way along the ridge and I had eaten my last bit of food back at Jawbone. Was this the end of my Pull?
Every long ride or race has a crisis; the challenge is pushing through it and keeping your head in the game. Sometimes the crisis is really, really hard–harder sometimes than the physical effort. Doubts started creeping into my mind. Regrets of being out on The Ring again. Like the stages of grief, there are stages of crisis–doubt, anger, self-pity, denial. Not really knowing how much longer I could last I put all my thoughts on the one thing I knew could get me through: my food cache waiting at Edinburg Gap. Food, liquid, and a short break. On the exposed uphill climbs on the north side of Short I started getting that tingley feeling you get just before you bonk. Somehow I managed to throttle it back enough to keep moving. Up, over, and down. Dreaming of my chocolate hazlenut spread sandwich I rolled into the Edinburg lot at 4:30, exhausted. To my luck my cache was unmolested by the critters and I “gave” myself 20 minutes to lie on the ground as I stuffed as much food and Nuun into my body as I could. A shot of Red Bull, and I was off again, with a full stomach, up to Waonaze Peak.
It took some time for the food to take effect but the climb up Waonaze wasn’t too bad. With he exception of a few rocky pushes near the top I was moving OK, and by the time I hit the west ridge I was feeling pretty good again, ready for the jewel of The Ring. The stretch between Waonaze and Woodstock has to be one of my favorites–mostly downhill, flowing, some rocks, but just plain fun. Certainly after the on-and-off teasing of Jawbone and Short this stretch makes it feel like you’re going a million miles an hour. The leaves were shallow and there were no deadfalls. I made good time past Woodstock and down to Mudhole Gap just as the sun was getting ready to set. All that lay ahead now was the road up to Signal Knob, and the burly descent back to the parking lot.
The road up Signal Knob was recently graded but was a relatively easy spin uphill, albeit slow with my dead legs. At mudhole I didn’t stop to put my light back on and chose to do the climb by the light of the moon which was rising in the east. Only a few more miles and I’d be home. I arrived at the peak at 8:40, strapped on my light, and bumped my way across the ridge towards Meneka Peak and my nemisis–the Signal Knob descent. Last year I flatted, got lost, and then had my light die on the Signal descent. This year I was ready to not repeat my mistakes. But even in the daylight descending Signal Knob is a doozy. There are three major rock sections each of which are barely rideable due to their roughness. With a spent body and in the dark I didn’t try to ride the bigger moves but still was able to kick-pushed down most of the sections on the way down. I’ll admit I once again missed the hard right-hand turn that sent me off course last year–only this year I missed it by 4 feet and not 400. Mentally it was the boost I needed to know I was on track and almost done. After a few more minutes of descending and a whoop and a grin I rolled the final section and arrived back at the Signal Lot to find Jeff and Graham cheering my arrival. As I rolled up, the time was 9:37 pm. 16 hours, 29 minutes. Right on schedule.
Afterwards I learned that Jeff had also had a crisis on Short. Running out of food and far beyond the limits of his current fitness he decided it was time to pull the plug–a difficult but noble decision. He managed to stumble down Short and refuel at the Edinburg Gap cache, but instead of getting back on The Ring he headed east to Fort Valley Road and spun the blacktop back to the Signal Knob lot. He would still end the day with nearly 70 miles of riding over 14 hours, with 10k feet of climbing along the way. But his effort also slayed some of the hardest sections of The Ring, and included nearly two hours of rocks in the dark. Not too shabby. And while he might not have finished this time, I know Jeff. Just last weekend he ran more than 30 miles around Stokesville during an orienteering competition. He’s a competitor. Give him a bit to recover his cycling fitness and he’ll be back. Unfinished business needs to be finished, right?
On Short Mountain I was pretty done with The Ring. Even a few days later, I was still pretty done. But now it’s two weeks later I’m not sure how I feel. Physically it’s a tough ride, and mentally it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. Both times. Sometimes I think my business on The Ring is done. But there are some crazy ideas floating around about new combinations of The Ring, including one version that could be 24+ hours. Are they possible? Could they be done? Guess we’ll have to see if anyone is crazy enough to try them out. And there is still the bit about a speed record. 16:30 was fast, but there is still a lot of headroom in my opinion. Add up all the eating and re-grouping and I could probably drop another hour at least. Would be it be worth it? I don’t know. But if anyone is up to consider it, send me an email. Maybe I still have some unfinished business.
Cannondale Habit 27.5 (120 mm front/rear travel)
KS Lev internal dropper
Wolftooth 28T front ring w/bash guard (1×10)
Wolftooth 42T Giant cog with GoatLink
Specialized Purgatory Grid/Butcher Grid tires at ~20 psi
Bontrager Ion 700 light
5.10 Kestrel all-mountain shoes
In the Camelback:
2 Pedro’s Milk Levers
Crank Bros handpump
3 full camelbaks of water with 2-3 Nuun each
2 Justin’s Nut Butter sandwiches
2 Wholefoods blueberry muffins
1 can Red Bull
Several packs Nature’s Bakery Fig Bars
More Clif Shot Blocs than I can count
There are two ways to ride The Ring: clockwise or anti-clockwise. I’ve only done clockwise but am curious about an anti-clockwise attempt, which would let you ride down Waterfall and up Signal.
If you choose to ride clockwise, realize descending Signal Knob in the dark just sucks. It’s really hard in the day, and at night is brutal especially with dead legs. If I went again (if) I think I’d start at Camp Roosevelt following the route of J.B. & Sam’s attempt. This way you’d get a warmup on Crisman Hollow, have fresher legs on Waterfall/Jawbone/Short, and then get to ride Signal in the daylight. You’d finish along the East Ridge, which is slightly harder than the West Ridge, but it shouldn’t be too bad in the dark, especially the last wide fireroads past Kennedy. I’d have to re-think where chaches/food drops would be though. Less than 6 hours apart seems a good spacing.
Photo Credits: Some Barry, some Mike, some Jeff