Saturday, September 1, 2012

TNGA 2012

It's that time again! Technically, it was that time again this past weekend, but anyway....

Man, this thing is getting kind-of popular. Last year we had 20-some-odd riders and the logistics of marshaling everyone to the start and keeping track of them during the ride was, lets say, challenging. This year I capped the registration at 35 and it filled up right away. There was a waiting list and everything. The word is out, I guess.

Speaking of logistics, in previous years most of the non-local riders drove up, down or over and stayed at Mulberry Gap for a day or so prior to the start and I went around at 3am on Saturday morning waking everyone up to get ferried to the start. That strategy worked but there were various issues, so this year Mulberry teamed up with the Whitewater campground in South Carolina, ferried everyone over there the night before and let them sleep in on Saturday.

I drove up Friday night to meet them. Actually, it wasn't just me though. As usual, I brought the girls along and we made a quick stop in Sautee along the way to pick up my buddy Clark Neal. Mulberry had reserved 16 bunks but only 12 were occupied so there were just enough left for us.

The drive up was interesting. I've said it before and I'll say it again. Don't trust me to get you anywhere. We took the "scenic route" to Clayton. Clark lives up that way. I could have asked him which way to go. He was even IN the car, and yet, somehow, it still didn't occur to me to do so. That's the level of intelligence you have to deal with if you travel with me. Keep that in mind.

When we got to South Carolina, we drove around for an hour because I hadn't paid close enough attention to what road the campground was on. When we found the right road though, it was still tricky to find the campground, and it even took a night hike through some surprisingly dark woods to find the yurt we were slated to stay in.

In the end, we shacked up in the yurt next door to the riders with a bunch of dudes who were going rafting the next day. This worked out great until about 3am when the human lumber mill cranked up in the bunk beneath Clark. It was positively the loudest, most earth shaking snoring I've ever heard, ever, and it persisted for the next 3 hours, indefatigably.

I was actually relieved when my alarm went off.

A few of the riders rose with us, and before too long the mess hall was bustling.

 Breakfast Buffet

Andrew had brought half the kitchen with him from Mulberry Gap and was hard at work on a glorious breakfast spread, complete with eggs, bacon, oatmeal, fruit, bagels... I don't even know what else. Everything!

I handed out 4 or 5 Spot trackers and showed everyone how to use them.

The bikes were already racked.

 Breakfast Buffet

Rick's limo was standing by.

 Rick's Limo



Ruth was back for another run. She rode the inaugural 2010 ride and finished alongside the late Jeff Papenfus. Last year, she got rained out, along with everyone else. I've ridden two Huracans with her and she crushed me both times. I think she's done more of these long rides in the southeast than anyone else. It was good to see her.

We piled into our various vehicles and wagon-trained to the start. Yeah, 35 is a good cap. We filled that little lot at the border right up. Any more and we'd have been strung out down the road too.

I handed out the rest of the Spot trackers and talked to a bunch of the riders.

Matt Fusco and Brad Kee were back again. Brad has had the second fastest time every year so far.

Clay Faine and Scott McConnell were back with only two gears between them. So far, no one had finished on a singlespeed. Maybe this year. I think there was a third single speed rider too but I forget who now.

Interesting fact: there were 7 Scott's registered this year. One dropped a few days prior to the start, but still, 6 Scott's! Crazy.

Shey Lindner was there. Shey had previously attempted the route 4 times. He and two friends were the first ever to attempt a thru-ride, in fact. One thing or another had prevented him from finishing every year. Maybe this year though... Maybe.

These guys though...

 Rick, Matt and Andrew

Yes. These guys.

These guys really make this thing happen. Rick Moon of the Pinhoti Trail Association, Matt Smith of NWGA Sorba and Andrew Gates of Mulberry Gap. They have ferried the out-of town riders to the start every year so far and run around, fetching those same poor, miserable, half-dead souls from the end of the route, or from wherever they threw in the towel.

People credit me with organizing this thing, but these guys, the guys at Trackleaders, and of course, the wonderful Diane and Ginny of Mulberry Gap, they do all the work. On the organization side, they deserve the real credit.

And then there are the riders...

 The Start

In years past we've had an odd collection of folks, only a few of which looked like they might know what they were doing. This year, they were all pro.

I never get tired of scrutinizing the differences in people's rigs. No standard has yet been defined. Infinite variety. Everybody looked confident in their gear though, and in their abilities. For the first time in years, it made me wish I was among them.

We had a short riders meeting, I assured everyone that getting the holeshot would be operative, and at 8:15 sharp...


The first few miles are road, so the riders took off, sounding like a swarm of angry bees.

And a minute later, all was quiet again.

TNGA pioneers Norma Rainwater and Johnny Garner had once again come to watch the start. Sherri Olsen and Kari Lindner were hanging around too. Clark was there with me. We all stood there jabbering for 10 or 15 minutes to let the riders get to the first turn.

This year I wanted to get a few photos of the riders, so we all drove up to the old Apple Valley to watch the riders cross Sarah's Creek.

 Sarah's Creek

It should have been a great photo of everyone splashing through a weird, jaggedly ford, but when we got there, an ultra modern multi-pipe, half-circle culvert-bridge thing had replaced the ford. It wasn't as cool looking, but it's definitely better for the watershed. The engineering was impressive. They'd diverted the entire creek, built the bridge, restored the original route and rehabbed the diversion channel. Waah!

We watched three groups come through, then everybody went our separate ways.

I say separate. It seemed separate at first, but it turned out that most of us were headed to Mulberry. Kari and Sherry were staying there for a few days. I base out of there during the event. Clark was providing valet service for a trio of Floridians, including Huracan/CFiTT director, Naked Indian, and Singletrack Samurai, Karlos Bernart who was up here for his second TNGA.

So, we all headed back that way, but not all together.

I had to take a 20 minute nap in Blue Ridge on the way back. Man, driving across the state is tiring enough. How did I ever ride it?

Later I drove Clark home and everything was really quiet for a while.

We watched the silent procession of little blue dots creep west, little-by-little on Trackleaders. No clear leader had yet emerged. Most of the trackers appeared to be working. All was well. I could imagine the riders, climbing, still feeling fresh, listening to the little drum of their heartbeat...

They'd wound their way up through the massive climbs of Warwoman, hike-a-biked across Ramey Creek, bombed down to the Nacoochee prep school, heaved over Patterson Gap, struggled over Abe Gap, hopefully enjoyed their scenic runs through the Coleman River area and up along the Tallulah, possibly been surprised by how fun a "road" can be along Charlie's Creek, and again, hopefully, still felt good enough to enjoy the scenic vistas of Titus.

I fielded a few phone calls - mostly concerned spouses. Some of the Spots weren't working. One hadn't been set up with Tracking Service at all. The others either hadn't been put in tracking mode or weren't very well positioned for good reception. Eventually they started working.

The trackers don't work as well in the Appalachians as they do out west. We've got a lot more trees and the canopy attenuates the signal.

My wife is used to mine disappearing and reappearing when I'm in Florida. Heck, she doesn't worry when I take off into the Wilderness, untracked, for days on end, but I guess I've come home from those kinds of things enough times already for her not to worry. I can imagine the anxiety of someone with a less experience.

Eventually, everything got quiet again.

The girls found a huge toad.


This was the third huge toad of the weekend actually. Clark had one on his porch and we'd seen another at the campground the night before. Huge!

Night fell.

Eddie and Nam were there and it was just cool enough for Eddie to make a fire.

 Eddie's Fire

The last O'Dea fire I sat around was a 3-foot tall teepee fire which I was certain was going to topple over on me, but which collapsed perfectly on itself instead.

This time he made a log-cabin fire, which, despite being substantially more structurally sound, did manage to topple over, though fortunately not in my direction.

A group of riders were up from Savannah. They joined us around the fire and talked on and on about the insanity of the TNGA and the unbelievable hardness of last year's leader, unaware that it was that very leader with whom they were speaking and who's fire they were enjoying.

Sophie had made me promise to bring s'more materials and she made a giant s'more.

Sophie vs. the S'more...

 Sophie vs the S'more

While we relaxed into the late afternoon and evening, most of the riders were approaching the town of Helen.

They'd ground it out on the road over Dick's Creek Gap and crossed a dozen creeks coming down Kennesaw Lane.

Then they had to contend with "The Wildcat Reroute". There was construction on FS26-1 to deal a rock slide, so instead of a long, fun descent and a long, gradual, scenic climb, the riders had to take the shorter, meaner route, up over Park Gap. It was probably 2 or 3 miles shorter, but added a thousand or more feet of climbing and removed two opportunities for resupply and camping. On my original maps of the area, I'd actually marked that route as "The Route of All Suffering" and intentionally not made it part of the TNGA route because of its difficulty. There was no choice this year though. All suffered.

Those who survived still had to climb over Addis Gap and the steep descent along Mill Creek that followed offered no recovery.

And then there was Trey Mountain.

Looking at the tracker, the riders had been spread out by a quarter-mile apiece, crawling up Corbin Creek Road, the longest climb of the route, and possibly in all of Georgia.

I was a little worried about that road. It's remote and most riders would hit it in the dark. Jason Murrell did an ITT of the route earlier this year and got chased around up there by the locals, not unlike how I got chased around during last year's CFiTT. He got away, but it made me worry that it could happen again until I saw that long train of blue dots. There's definitely safety in numbers.

After Corbin Creek, they descended the roughest road in the state and then descend the Hickory Nut, possibly the roughest trail in the state. More than one rider has told me that they hope they never have to ride it again. I don't know, it never seemed that bad to me.

Most of those who made it that far continued on into Helen for the night.

A few pushed on.

Back at Mulberry Gap, we slept. I dreamt of the route.

The next morning we had some delicious breakfast - waffles AND pancakes.

Courtney Akin and her kids, and Wayne Gowens' family were all staying all weekend. The kids all eventually ganged up and ran around the property together for the rest of the day.

In a rare moment alone, Sophie paid a visit to the chickens.

 Sophie and the Chickens

She really likes those chickens, for some reason.

Later, we noticed that the leaders would be coming down Bear Creek soon. I wanted to get a couple more photos, so we drove over and hiked up to the Gannett Poplar.

That is one big tree.

 Gannett Poplar

 The Girls at the Gannett Poplar

I found a couple of pretty big poplars and hemlocks in Coopers Creek recently. They seemed pretty big, but having seen the Gannett again, I'm not sure they really compare.

We hiked back down to the previous stream crossing and waited.

 The Girls at Bear Creek

Quite a few riders came through, including a few that we'd met earlier at Mulberry. Shane Schreihart rode through too. He just happened to be riding up there. It's just not possible for me to visit the North Georgia mountains without randomly running into someone I know.

Before too long, the leaders arrived.

 Jason and Shey at Bear Creek

Jason Murrell and Shey Lindner. They paused briefly to say hi, but they'd run into so many other people they knew already that day that they were starting to worry about it affecting their overall time.

The girls and I ran into town for some lunch and met Kari and Sherri at the bottom of Pinhoti 3, just in time to see the poursuivants arrive.

 Robert, Matt and Brad Approaching P3

Brad Kee, Matt Fusco and Robert Peerson.

They were moving, and on target to at least match Brad's 2011 ITT. We didn't keep them.

Back at Mulberry, we had to get packed up. Previously, I'd held the event in Labor Day, but in 2010. A Hurricane threatened and in 2011 we had an actual Tropical Storm roll through. I figured by moving it up two weeks, we might dodge the weather, as well as the Labor Day crowds. The only problem: school. The kids had to get back to school on Monday.

Just as we were leaving, Wayne Gowens showed up.

Yeah, Wayne!

 Wayne at Mulberry Gap

Last year, Wayne rode into the storm and evaded capture by a frustrated Matt Smith who chased him from trailhead to trailhead for several hours, only to miss him by minutes every time. Eventually we just let Wayne go but he was stopped and had to abandon within 15 miles of the end by wind and rain so fierce that he just couldn't pedal into it.

This year, everything looked good. The weather ought to hold out and he was making better time already.

Unfortunately we couldn't hang around to cheer him on.

Then, at the VERY last minute, as we were walking to the car, we ran into Thomas Russell, pushing up the hill.

 Thomas Russell at Mulberry Gap

He'd had all kinds of trouble and taken a shortcut to Mulberry. We all thought he might abandon, but the next day I saw his blue dot headed back out to where he'd left the route. Nice job Thomas.

The girls and I said our goodbyes, went home and slept.

While we'd been playing around, the riders had drug themselves over Hogpen and Wolfpen, continued climbing along Duncan Ridge, descended along Coopers Creek, probably got surprised by how cold it gets in there, even in the summer. jogged across the back end of the Noontootla route and struggled up over the last little gap before following the Toccoa into Blue Ridge.

Some found lodging there, others pushed on through the night.

The next morning I was covered in chigger bites.

 Chigger Bites

I also had an email in my inbox from one Eddie O'Dea: "Is it too early to sign up for 2013?"

I checked Trackleaders. Shey and Jason had pushed all night and finished moments earlier.

The times from the Spots were a little inconclusive. There were track points leading up to the finish, but none at or after the finish. I could extrapolate a time, but maybe they had checked it themselves. I made a few calls. It turned out that Kari had met them at the finish and taken video.

8:49. She'd set her watch from a smartphone, so it was as accurate as my phone that I used at the start.

They'd started at 8:15 two days earlier. Their time: 2:00:34.

Eddie's record: 2:00:34!

They exactly tied the record.


They'd ridden 350-odd miles and finished in the same amount of time, to the minute, as the previous record holder. What are the odds of that?

I did some math to verify that their finish time was likely, and it was. Ha ha! Amazing!

We now have a three-way tie for the course record holder, spread over riders from two different years. Who'd have guessed that such a thing was even possible?

Five hours later the Matt, Brad and Rob finished, crushing Brad's previous time while they were at it.

 Matt, Brad and Rob

A few more riders finished that day. I don't remember who offhand. I believe Wayne was among them. He finally got to see the last 15 miles of the route.

Most of the riders though, were still a good ways back, heading into the first real singletrack of route, the murderous Stanley Gap. Then they descended into Cherry Log, contended with an infinity of rollers on the way over to Brushy Head Gap, probably walked over that, then made their way steadily into the Cohuttas along Cashes Valley Road.

A few camped at Jacks River, but most pushed on, down along the South Fork trail, past the Eastern terminus of the Pinhoti and ultimately up the long, grinding grass track up to Buddy Cove gap. There they climbed even more to East Cowpen, and then even more to Potatopatch.

From there, they bombed down to the Bear Creek trail to pick up the next bit of real singletrack and alternated between trail, road and "troad" on the Pinhoti over to Mulberry Gap.

They were right about halfway done.

For some, that was the end of the line, they were spent and couldn't make it another mile. There were surprisingly few drops this year though. Most riders pressed on.

Next was the glorious singletrack of Pinhoti 3, followed by a seldom ridden section and the roads and trails of the Tatum Lead, including the endless rollers of Peeples Lake Road.

Then, the riders had to cross The Great Valley on the longest stretch of pavement of the route - over 15 miles.

Some would pause in Dalton for the night. Others still, would press on, through the Snake Creek Gap Pinhoti, too complex to describe except that it's mostly singletrack, extremely rocky in some places and generally the most technical terrain of the route.

Beyond that lay the seldom ridden Pinhoti of Strawberry Mountain and a long series of roads and trails along Taylors ridge where water is scarce and resupply options even more so.

Finally, after a hair raising singletrack descent, the riders faced a fifteen mile grind along an old railbed and ultimately a few miles of road into Alabama where the lights of the 24 hour convenience store at the border shine like those at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Plenty more riders finished over the next two days.

On Monday, a feeder band of Hurricane Isaac may have soaked them, but only for a few hours. On Tuesday, the sun was shining again.

John Hightower and Trey Woodall finished together somewhere in there, beating their previous time as well. In 2010, they left the SC border carrying only slightly overstuffed camelbacks. This year, John just carried two bottles, some stuff in his pockets and a very small seat bag. "What is this 'gear' you speak of?" When they slept, they simply slept on the ground. No need to carry gear when an inhuman level of hardness will suffice.

Two of the Scott's finished together as well.

 Scott and Scott

Thigpen (left) had all kinds of issues trying to find batteries for his Spot in Helen, among other issues. He and McConnell eventually caught each other and rode the route out together. Thigpen enjoyed the route but had a very difficult time of it. My favorite quote of his: "Some of those climbs absolutely destroyed me and not-as-good-looking-other-Scott.". Oh, man, that's funny.

McConnell was on a singlespeed, but I believe that Clay Faine finished ahead of him, making him the first rider to complete the route on a singlespeed.

Ruth finished well ahead of her former time, almost a day ahead, I think.

Ray Porter from Dallas finished in there too and a guy from Michigan who's name I unfortunately have forgotten, dang it. It's great to see people from so far away coming down to ride this thing, and not only ride, but finish.

There are certainly more stories to tell. I imagine that every rider has at least one or two good ones. I wish I knew every one of them, but this year I only heard a few.

It's now Friday night, almost 7 days since the start and as far as I can tell, there is one, lone rider still moving on the course - Brett Davidson. He is somewhere on the Pinhoti past Snake Creek Gap. I'm pulling for this guy like you can't imagine. If he finishes, I'll be passing him the Lantern Rouge, but more importantly, if he's taking this long, he must be having quite a time of it. I know just what that's like and it's quite a thing to persevere in the face of it.

Come on Brett, I'm pulling for you!

1 comment:

  1. Awesome write up Dave! Thanks for such a great event! I had amazing time and am definitely hooked! Hopefully we'll see you again next year!