Cherohala Challenge 2009 – A Rider’s Diary

I completed the 2009 Cherohala Challenge. It was brutal. The first 70 miles was fantastic. The last 45 miles were rather torturous.

The ride started out in Tellico Plains at the Visitor’s center. Starting out a 7 AM we made a little traverse through the valley as we made our way to the base of the Dragon’s Tail. How does 318 curves in 11 miles sound to you? The top of the Tail saw us enter North Carolina around mile 54. At around mile 72 we entered the Cherohala Skyway. The road undulates until the finish back at the Visitor’s Center with a total of 116 miles.

I enjoyed the ride for 72-75 miles. The valley was nice and rolling and the packs kept together for the most part so mileage ticked off quickly. The Dragon’s Tail was a nice ride. Tight twisty mountain climb. It was fun. The thing that started the annoyance was the motorcycles. I get that we cyclists were pretty much one-day guests on their playground. And these folks were not antagonistic, at all. No trouble. But they were loud and they buzzed by constantly. All the way back to the visitor’s center even. But that part of the ride was fun and I enjoyed “slaying the Dragon”.

Same can’t be said for the Skyway. Cherohala Skyway is a huge grind. It’s not that steep. The views were incredible. But unfortunately I started cramping. Badly. My legs seized up constantly. I was forced to pull over and try to loosen them up as best I could. This ridiculousness continued for 45 miles. I have never been in such pain on a ride. Unfortunately I had to stop half way up to the first rest stop on Cherohala Skyway. I managed to make it the rest stop and rested trying to work things out and hydrate as best I could. I left the rest stop and got about a third of the way and had to stop. I went another third of the way to the next rest stop and had to stop. Dammit, I was pissed and in pain. I rode it out as long as I could until the muscle was just too painful. I made it to the top of the Skyway and started downhill. Which you would think would be a badass ride down considering what we climbed. Nah. It was rolling hills. It was so disappointing to run up on some of these rollers. In fact one of them I had to stop half way up…again. I managed to make it down desperate to get to the finish. I actually seized up on the flat for the first time about a half mile from the finish. It was unbelievable.

The Cherohala Challenge was a low key event. There was only 400 people, max, that rode. The problem with that is that the packs splintered. I rode by myself for the last 45 miles. I doubt I could have hung with anybody given my plight but if might have helped a bit.

The weather was hot. Damn hot. And windy in the wrong direction on the Cherohala Skyway. I’m certain dehydration caused my problem and I should have done a much better job of taking care of myself. Not very smart. We traveled through two National Forests (Natahala and Cherokee) yet the Skyway was not shaded at all. I believe we were in the sun for the better part of the ride. Definitely 95% of the last 45.

How was the rest stops? Not great. There were lines at the first two. I’m too impatient. Sorry I hate to criticize volunteers. They do a great service, but there wasn’t but a couple at each rest stop. And the selection was lacking. I should have provided for myself more.

And to add a finality to my whining the t-shirt is not to my liking. At all. Seems a disappointment given the anniversary. If you look at the front small logo, you’d be hard pressed to know what the shirt is about. There is no bicycle graphic or anything. The color blows. Sorry, just an opinion.

It was a disappointing ride for me in many respects. I was not too happy with how I rode the Cherohala Skyway. But on the other hand, I finished under a tremendous amount of personal adversity. For that I’m proud. It was a tough ride.

I doubt I’ll ride it again. I’m trying not to let my personal adversity influence another attempt but the bottom line is I didn’t enjoy the ride that much. The roads were too wide. It didn’t feel intimate, if that makes sense. Too much traffic. At this point, been there, done that. It was definitely a challenge.

I have to give a shout out to my family. We spent the night in a cabin and they hung out in Tellico Plains until I got back. It was a tremendous feeling to see the girls looking proud of their old man. I hoped to do better and feel better because they think of their dad as a superman of sorts. I don’t like to let them down. I don’t think I did but I wish I had come in quicker and in better condition. And it was very helpful to have my wife drive us home. My legs were cramping all the way home. I doubt I could have driven myself. It was truly pathetic.

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10 Comments »

  1. Tom said

    Congrats on finishing the ride. It was a very hot day and even though I’ve done the full 115 twice before, I bailed on it yesterday and just did the 50. It was a beautiful route and even though I would’ve loved doing the whole 115 again, I’m glad I didn’t do it this time.

    One thing to consider…comparing Cherohala Challenge to 3 State 3 Mountain is not a good comparision. Cherohala had about 380 registrants whereas 3 State has upwards of a couple thousand. 3 State is always going to have more resources, more volunteers and even more supplies at the stops. It makes no sense to stock Cherohala to those levels (even if they could) as most of it would be wasted with the smaller number of participants.

    Again, great job on finishing it! It’s a hell of an acheivement…even more so with the brutal heat and headwinds yesterday.

  2. roadweary said

    You’re right. It’s not a fair comparison. At all. And I felt bad about knocking the ride. For what they have to work with, and I thought about that this morning-the lack of volunteers and resources-it really is out of the way for convenience sake- the organizers did a very good job.

    But yea, the headwinds were ridiculous. Made tougher because everyone was in their own little private hell, the scattered riders, couldn’t form pacelines and draft a bit. It’s one thing that makes it a challenge because really after about 50-70 miles you are pretty much on your own. It becomes a head game. And then add the unbelievable heat coming off the road plus no shade and it was a very tough day.

    I wish I hadn’t had the cramping. I felt really good and strong until my legs started seizing up on me. I took solace in the fact that it wasn’t my training that let me down or that the route was too tough. When I got the cramping under control and got going again I didn’t feel tired even. It was my own stupidity in not staying hydrated and understanding what my body needed for a long, hot and strenuous day. Now I know better and will try some supplements next time. The last 1 mile on the back of Lookout Mountain was tougher than anything at Cherohala IMO. But on that day it wasn’t hot and I wasn’t nearly as dehydrated as I was at Cherohala.

  3. Night Train said

    I think we did the 3-state 3-mountain in May. I too did finish this Cherohala ride yesterday. I liked it very much. It was a challenge climbing up to the mountain with long hills. The weather was hot but other than that everything was beautiful as expected. The climbs were long and difficult due to the heat. I will certainly be back next year. Oh, I’m Asian guy who wore yellow jersey with a black Trek bike, if you happened to see me at the rest stops.

  4. Bibb Joel said

    I rode the the CC yesterday and was in awe of the whole experience. I rode with Night Train and am very proud of him as well. 8 of us came from Memphis and we all finished the 115, though 2 sagged halfway up the Skyway. I probably should have.

    At 1/2 mile before the mid-point sag on the Skyway I had to get off my bike. The heat got to me so bad my hands, feet, and jaw went numb and I begain to slur my words. I knew I was about to be in big trouble if I didn’t stop and rest. Another guy from Indiana had ridden past me and had to get off about a hundred yards after he passed me. He had found a cleared out area in the shade where there was a drainage ditch. We both laid on the cool concrete for about ten minutes. I stayed a little longer continuing to pour water on my neck and and body. Before I left three more people had stopped to take advantage of the shade. A sag truck finally came to us and said the sag was only 1/2 mile up the hill. I was feeling better by that point and managed to creep on my bike to the rest stop and refuel. Once I rested little longer I hooked back up with another one of my buddys and we continued up to the summit at much slower pace. As I rode I continued to feel a little better. I never cramped and I never stopped sweating and never felt nauseous. When I reached the summit I knew I was going to make it even though there was still more climbing to come. It had become a mind game to me at that point. It was just a matter of feeling good about finishing.

    At that point the pay off came. I had fun the rest of the way. Yes, there was still some climbing to do but the 50+ mile per hour down hills 2 to 3 minutes at a time with good roads was a blast for me.

    Over all the ride was great! The heat was horrible. You can’t control what kind of weather you’re going have. That made it miserable on the ascent of the Cherohala Skyway. The Dragon was great except for the motorcycles, only because the amount of them with the noise and mostly the smell of the exhaust. Again that is just part of the ride. We have to share the road with everyone. The ride itself was smaller than I exspected. This also was not a ride for someone who is just casual either. I think this was a riders ride. I’m going to try to come back, but in better shape than this year. And, maybe I’ll get lucky and it will be cooler.

    Cudos to who ever is looking at this

  5. I rode in the cherohala challenge two years ago and liked it until I started cramping really bad after mile 65. I ran out of water before starting up the dragon and had no sag vehicle anywhere going up and had to wait until I got to the top to get any water or gatorade. This is where I think I got dehydrated and cost me from finishing. Rest stops were terrible.

    However, I enjoyed the 3-state, 3-mountain challenge. plenty of good food and plenty of rest stops. we were catered to.

    I highly recommend that you go to the Hottern’ Hell 100 in Witchita Fall, TX in August. I went there and rode 100 miles. 11,500 riders. At the start they played the national anthem, then F-14’s flew over us low as the anthem ended. The route took you through a NATO air force base where you could touch or rest under an f-16, c-130, etc. 100 air force cadets came out on both sides of the street as we came through cheering, clappin and high-fiving us as we went through. As were were coming down the final street toward the finish line, hundreds of people were lined up behind barriers cheering us onas well.

    There were rest stops every 10 miles with plenty of food and drinks, bike repair and a spray mist for very hot bikers. We were highly catered to. Sag vehicles were everywhere. You can go to http://www.hh100.org for their site, or to my facebook for a couple of pictures. http://www.facebook.com/randallmoser
    Thanks, Randall

  6. roadweary said

    Randall that ride sounds fantastic in Texas. I’ve heard of it but didn’t know it was that big. Wish I could find the time and money to try it.

    • Night Train said

      I will be doing Hottern’ Hell 100 in Witchita Falls, TX in August. Hope I can find a decent place to stay. Right now, all places in Wichita Falls are used up that weekend. Any suggestions.

  7. roadweary said

    Changed my mind about the color of the t-shirt. It’s pretty cool. 🙂

  8. Big Turtle said

    We had 12 riders from Cookeville, Tn. 8 did the entire ride (116), one had to abandon with leg cramps. I thought the SMW did an excellent job considering the adverse conditions ( note SOMEBODY please put a word in to the man upstairs re: weather). In comparison last years Assault on Mt Mitchell was about eight degrees hotter, according to my bike computer, and the people there could have cared less.

    I felt that due to the heat here it woud have been good to have just water half-way between the rest stops on the major climbs ( both the metric and the 116). We have had a wet, cold spring and I had the lowest training miles in years, I think others were in this boat. This created even more problems with the heat – can you say “bike and hike”. I personally look forward to next years ride and would like to thank the many people who helped.

    P.S. the T-shirts are cool… a badge of honor/insanity!

  9. roadweary said

    I usually don’t start riding in earnest until around April. I just don’t like riding in the cold. But when I decided to ride 3-State I had to start riding in Late Feb/Early Mar. I rode in rain and cold more than I ever had. So when 3-State came and it was raining it was difficult but not surprising.

    I was pretty comfortable with my training up to Cherohala. But the cramps were a game changer. I couldn’t control them from the start of the Skyway until the finish. I can’t let that happen again. Staying hydrated better. Using supplements. I usually have no problem in heat but this one was different apparently. Have to figure out a way to be more prepared.

    I just don’t think I can make it to Hotter n Hell this year unless I go by myself. I have no problem sleeping wherever but the family unit wouldn’t be too thrilled with low rent/borrowed accommodations and sitting around waiting on me in the heat. We made a few cursory inquiries about hotels and they are full. Been full since last September even. If not this year, I will definitely be making plans to go next year. I never considered doing HHH until Randall above brought it up.

    6 -Gap is next for me. After that I’ll be coming off my road bike and hitting the trails for the rest of fall. I usually ride from late March/early April to early November. I got an early start this year so I’m pretty sure I’ll be tired of the road bike after 6 Gap. Next year I’ll do 3-State, Hotter n Hell and maybe 6 Gap depending on how it goes this year.

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