Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Turkey Shuffle

Every year, on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, Mulberry Gap has an event called the Turkey Shuffle. It's kind-of an adventure race, with checkpoints and such, but you only have 5 hours, and the checkpoints don't require a tremedous amount of navigation to get to. It was great fun last year, and I figured it would be fun this year too, so I signed up.

Saturday morning, I grabbed some Waffle House and made my way up to Ellijay. The iconic billboard is still empty for some reason. Man, I hope they don't just tear it down.

Ellijay Sign Still Empty

The square was fully decorated for Christmas, less than 2 full days after Thanksgiving.

Ellijay Square Christmas Decorations

The weather was ok. The weather is always tricky for this event. It tends to be in the high 30's in the morning, but then it tends to warm up to the high 50's or low 60's during the day. And you're climbing for most of the day. But, you end up on the north side of the ridge a lot, and you end up high enough up for that to matter too. One tends to overdress, but year-to-year the conditions are always a little different, so you can't just go by what you did the previous year. When I got there, it was in the high 30's, and a little overcast. I was comfy walking around in street clothes and a puffy jacket, but I had an hour and a half or so before the start, and a lot could change in that time.

I'd already had breakfast, so I just kind of wandered around the barn watching everyone else eat.

MGap Breakfast 
	MGap Lounge Area

I ran into Jeff Leggett at one of the tables, and Curtis Tucker (I think? I'm bad with names) at the stove. The stove felt amazing. It was the first real "it's cold so stand around this heat source" that I'd experienced yet this year.

About an hour out I started getting ready. Instead of the tri kit, I went with the slightly warmer bib-jersey combo, plus a base layer under it. I kept arm and leg warmers and a windbreaker on while walking around, but planned to shed them as soon as I got moving.

Kate gathered us all together for the obligatory pre-ride announcements. Watch for cars, be cool. Don't ride anywhere illegal. Etc. Andrew handed out maps, and we had 5 minutes to come up with a strategy. I may have mentioned this before, but events of this format are always funny to me because they're practical cases of the classic Traveling Salesman Problem from computer science, which is an NP-complete problem. It would take a supercomputer a decent amount of time to come up with an optimal route. There's no way a human can do it in 5 minutes. You can come up with a pretty good route, pretty quickly, but the amount of work and time it would take to come up with a truly optimal route is mind-boggling.

That said, I still put my brain in graph traversal mode and let it crunch. It seemed like a loop up to Potatopatch, over to Grassy Mountain, down Windy Gap, and back, with a quick out-and-back to the Mill Creek Overlook would hit all of the really high value checkpoints. I might be able to scrounge one or two more on the way back, depending on time. Ok, that's the plan.


There were nearly 75 riders, which is right up against the Forest Service's limit for not needing a permit. I tore off with a group of what seemed to be 10 or 12 toward CCC Camp Road. They ALL dropped me within 5 minutes. This was discouraging at first, but I eventually discovered that the group ahead of me included a bunch of folks on ebikes, as well as some seriously strong riders like Thomas Turner, Scott Hanson, and the entire Randall family.

I'd actually spoken to Lisa prior to the start. I'd seen her at Rope Mill some weeks back, riding with a teenage girl that I thought might have been her daughter. Turned out it was! The last time I'd seen her daughter was at one of the first Blankets Race to Sunset rides. Lisa was up on a podium giving the pre-ride info and her kid was climbing all over the place, grabbing on to mom's skirt for traction, yanking her left and right. Lisa was unfazed. This kind of thing, apparently, happened all day long. Her daughter couldn't have been more than a year and a half old at the time. That was the last time I'd seen her. Now she's shredding Rope Mill and climbind in the Cohuttas!

I'd shed my jacket and arm warmers prior to the start. At Holly Creek Gap, I shed my leg warmers. I'd passed a rider or two by then, and passed a few more on the way up to the overlook.

Checkpoint 1: The Bear Creek Overlook.

Bear Creek Overlook Selfie 
	Bear Creek Overlook

The eagle-eyed among you may notice weird black bags all over my bike. Those are super custom bags from The Spindle - Atlanta. I'm pretty happy with them so far. I had to make a few slight adjustments to them, but all were due to me not being conservative enough with my design. As this is a race, they're empty in this shot - well they contain my jacket and leg warmers. I've been riding around with them loaded for a few weeks though, on local rides. So far, so good.

I caught the Randalls at the overlook and a couple of folks that I didn't know too.

On to Potatopatch...

I forget how long that climb it. It's got a kick at the start, then it eases up, then there's this long grind up a ridge, then some curves as you approach the top. There are always more curves than I remember.

Checkpoint 2: Potatotpatch.

Potatopatch Selfie

(you're supposed to take a selfie at each checkpoint, to prove you were there later)

There were like 5 people at Potatopatch when I got there, most of which bailed back down after getting their points. The two riders that pushed on were both pretty young. I recognized one of them though. I'd parked next to him at the 2019 Southern Cross and then happened to again at the 2019 incarnation of this event. His name was Greg, and the other guy with him was his brother Jayden. They're both very strong and skilled, and I ended up leapfrogging them back and forth for the rest of the ride.

Checkpoint 3: Chestnut Lead Trailhead.

Chestnut Lead Selfie

It was cool up on the ridge, but it wasn't "cold" per-se. I was definitely on the edge of comfortable, but I wasn't motivated to stop and redress.

I'd ridden the Mill Creek Loop a few times this past year, and was kind-of familiar with the location of the overlook. It doesn't seem like a long way from it to the ridge, when you're climbing, but bombing down to it from the ridge seemed to take forever. This sounds completely backwards. Like it ought to seem like a longer to climb-from than descent-to. This struck me as I rode and I actually started to get worried that, inexplicably, I'd made some wrong turn, or somehow ridden past it without recognizing it. I kept seeing riders coming the other way though, so I felt somewhat reassured. But, they could also have taken a wrong turn or passed it...

When I finally got there, I was honestly relieved.

Checkpoint 4: Mill Creek Overlook.

Mill Creek Overlook 
	Mill Creek Overlook Selfie

I had to pee about halfway back up, and the kids caught and passed me. I almost caught them climbing out, and then did as they stopped to check their maps at the intersection. We chatted for a second. It turned out that we all had the same plan. They'd never been to Lake Conasauga though, or to the fire tower, and weren't super sure about how to get to either. In 20+ years of riding up there, I'd never actually been to Lake Conasauga either. There used to be a picnic area directly across from Tibbs, and it was once possible to get water from it, so I'd been there. But that was shut down long ago, and I'd never been to the lake itself, ever. It looked straightforward on the map though, and we ended up riding together down to it.

Checkpoint 5: Conasauga Lake Boat Launch.

Conasauga Lake Boat Launch 
	Conasauga Lake Boat Launch Selfie

Now, I've officially been to Conasauga Lake!

I really should go back. Maybe camp there. It looked pretty nice.

Next, we climbed out and headed up to the fire tower. They pulled ahead of me on the climb, but hung around at the top long enough to catch them. Some hikers were just heading down as I arrived.

Checkpoint 6: Grassy Mountain Fire Tower.

Bike at the Grassy Mountain Fire Tower 
	Grassy Mountain Fire Tower 
	Grassy Mountain Fire Tower Selfie

Greg and Jayden:

Greg and Jayden

I left while they were still eating, and passed the hikers I'd seen earlier. We talked for just a second. They'd climbed the actual fire tower itself. It turns out the trapdoor is unlocked these days. Nice! I've never been all the way up to the deck. Historically, it was always locked.

At Windy Gap, I noticed a "Motorcycles Only Beyond This Point" sign that I'd never noticed before. There was always an "Expert Riders Only Beyond This Point" sign, and I could see it further down. I know what they mean - basically "No ATV's Beyond This Point". It isn't meant to exclude bikes an hikers. Odd that I'd never noticed it before. Maybe it's new. I waited for the kids there. It struck me that if they'd never ridden Windy Gap, and didn't know what they were getting themselves into, then it could be bad. It turned out that they'd both ridden it before, and had a healthy respect for it.

I always forget... The first half mile or so of Windy Gap is actually a steep, chunky climb. It tough, so you'd think I'd remember, but no.

I took the lead, but the kids gave me some room, and didn't appear to have any more trouble than I did riding the trail. Legs AND skills, it would appear. Nice!

When we got into the switchbacks, they had fallen behind a bit, so I waited for a minute or so. Jayden came down first and assured me that Greg is a better downhiller than he is, and had just gotten behind because there were some technical rollers up there. I thought that we were through the switchbacks and were about to start the doubletrack section. So, I left them behind, figuring we'd gotten through all of the really gnarly stuff. Turned out that I'd forgotten how many switchbacks there were, and we were only about halfway through them.


The very first bit of doubletrack was super rocky too. I also hadn't remembered that. If I'd remembered it correctly, I'd have ridden it out with the kids, just to be on the safe side. It turned out later, that they'd had no problem with any of the technical stuff. There was, however, a branch hanging way out into the trail. When I passed it, I had to dodge pretty hard to avoid it, and I thought "man, someone's going to hit that", but at the speed I was going, there was no way I was going to walk back up and break it off. One of them hit it. I forgot which one. He was Ok, but ended up sketching pretty bad.

Most of the way down on the doubletrack, I ran into a guy with a dog and an off-road skateboard! His girlfriend was in the lot, sitting in a camping chair, reading a book. She did not, at all, seem even the slightest bit happy about being there. I said hi, but she just scowled in reply.

Checkpoint 7: Windy Gap Lot.

Windy Gap Lot 
	Windy Gap Lot Selfie

From there I bombed the gravel road down to the pavement. It was fairly rutted, and required a bit more than casual effort to negotiate. For one of the Firewater 50s, my truck had been broken, and I'd had to borrow my mom's Thunderbird, and I'd driven it up that road to the lot. No way you could have gotten a Thunderbird up that road on that day.

I made really good time on CCC Camp Road, back towards Mulberry Gap.

Checkpoint 8: Holly Creek Picnic Area.

Holly Creek Picnic Area 
	Holly Creek Picnic Area Selfie

It's a bit of a slog up that road to Mulberry Gap. I'd ridden it several times earlier in the year, but I was always fully loaded down on those rides. With empty bags, it was WAY easier - tempo climbing the whole way. At the turn before Mulberry Gap, I actually started heading up towards Holly Creek Gap before stopping to check the time. I had about 50 minutes left. There were 2 points available at the P2 trailhead. It seemed like I ought to be able to spin the P2 loop in 50 minutes, but I wasn't 100% sure. I mean, I'm sure I can do it when I'm fresh, but I was definitely NOT fresh. There weren't any additional points right along that route either. Like, I couldn't grab 2 more points on Shakerag or anything.

Enough! I had enough points. I headed back to the start.

In the barn, there was a table set up where you could show your photos and get raffle tickets for every point you earned. I turned out that the lady behind the table was the mom of the 2 guys I'd been riding with all day, but I didn't know that until later. It turned out that I'd gotten 23 points. Not too bad!

Right as I finished collecting my raffle tickets, my riding companions showed up and collected their 23 points as well.

I got changed, started feeling a little more human, grabbed some chili, and started feeling a lot more human. Hot food goes such a long way.

There was a table with all kinds of swag on it, and a little glass cup next to each article of swag. You put tickets in the cup and whoever's ticket is selected wins that prize. The more points you got, the more tickets, and thus the greater chance of winning.

While I was puzzling over what to go for, Scott Hanson slid up next to me and said hi. Somehow I hadn't seen him yet all day. I thought maybe I saw him on the way out to the Mill Creek Overlook, but I was flying and my eyes were watering, so I wasn't really sure. Yep, that was him. It's funny. We've known each other for years, exchanged volumes of data, and ridden many of the same events, yet somehow have only been face to face a few times. I talked to him for a while. Turned out he was on a singlespeed (in the Cohuttas!) and managed to get the same checkpoints as me, but got way more points. Man, that guy is strong.

After noodling a bit, I decided that I was really only interested in 2 of the prizes: an entry into the Skyway Epic, and a collection of Chamois Butt'r merch, as my existing tube was running low. So, I attempted to distribute my tickets over those 2 prizes. I did put a few tickets in some other random bowls - I think a few in the Southern Cross and Fool's Gold entry bowls, and I realized that I accidentally put a few in the bowl for some kind of Whiskey that was right next to the Chamois Butt'r bowl. Oops.

It didn't matter though, because I didn't win a thing! Not one thing! I think there were 2 other tickets in the Skyway Epic bowl, plus like 10 of mine, and somehow none of mine got picked. Two different times, they called the last three digits of the ticket, and I thought I won something, but it turned out no. There were red tickets and white tickets. I had red tickets, and the winning tickets in those cases were white.

Ahh, luck. The great equalizer.

After the raffle, there was about an hour until dinner, and despite having eaten lunch just 2 hours prior, I was already getting hungry again. I parked myself in front of the stove, and it was so cozy that I acually dozed off several times.

Curtis came by and hung out with me by the fire. He's a pretty easy guy to talk to, and it was really nice to sit there by the fire with him. We discussed various endurance topics. He's got a really cool jeep camper setup that I envy.

Dinner was brisket, and man was it good. I eventually went back for seconds. Jeff joined me and Curtis and me and Jeff ended up talking long after dinner. He had been a very avid hiker, and he and I had hiked some of the same obscure spots in North Georgia.

Jayden came up to me after dinner with a piece of paper in his hand. "Do you know what this is?" He'd won the entry to the Skyway Epic. He hadn't specifically wanted it, he just had so many tickets that he put on in just for fun. I described the event, though I'd remembered it being longer than it is. It didn't sound like anything he wanted to do, and he'd won other stuff, so he offered me the entry. Awesome! That was the one thing that I really wanted to win! Score!

I ended up meeting their parents too, as they were all leaving. That's when I realized that the mom had been the one reviewing photos and handing out raffle tickets.

It was pretty late when I left and I remember auto-piloting a lot of the trip home. "Oh, Wade Green Road. Ok." That kind of thing. I wasn't sleepy, but definitely tired.

What a day! Great ride. I hadn't felt super strong all day, but when I checked the data on Strava, I had 15 PRs, so I guess not feeling strong doesn't always equal not being fast. I think that's it for Mulberry Gap events this year, but I think they're open on weekends through the whole winter now, so I'll certainly be back up there.

My next event is the CFiTT. Already getting nervous.

1 comment:

  1. Always a fun ride! I wish I could have seen the guy ride the skateboard down windy gap. He was in the parking lot when I rode by. I've been up to the top deck of the tower a couple times when it was unlocked. I'm not sure if people just broke the lock or why it was open those times. I don't think there was anything up there but the views are awesome. It would be fun to have a longer race version of this with a lot more checkpoints.