Day 15: Seriously though, hardest climb I ever hope to encounter. Waynesville, NC to Gatlinburg, TN.
The day started out wonderfully in Waynesville. We went over our itinerary and route for the day, which included 25 miles on the Blue Ridge Parkway!
We knew the BRP would include some seriously challenging hills, but the stunning views as we got higher and higher up the mountain would be worth the climb (cue Miley Cyrus’s song “The Climb”).
As per usual, the coffee gang rounded up our faithful members and headed to the CUTEST coffee shop called Panacea to fuel up on caffeine for the day.
Then we rolled out, BRP bound! Upon reaching the parkway, our fearless leader Ryan, who was driving the van that day (we have 4 leaders and they rotate days that they have to drive the van), left us this note at the bottom of the first hill… Err mountain:
This should have been the first indication that this was going to be a rough day.
Meg and I blasted up the miles and miles of hills, riding in our highest front cog (again, excuse my lack of correct bike terminology) for about 5 miles uphill! We finally switched into our lower front cog about half a mile from the top of the first hill. The hills were super hard, but let me tell you what… The downhills were SO worth it!!!! The best thing about the BRP is that it’s so nicely paved that you don’t have to worry about potholes or bumps in the road on the way down, which makes it so much more fun!
Making it to the top of the first hill was a huge accomplishment, but little did we know we would experience a much more challenging climb later in the day.
My absolute FAVORITE part of the ride was the downhills through very dark tunnels, where the only thing I was able to see were the reflective strips lining the walls and the middle of the road. Signs before the tunnel indicated that drivers should “Turn on lights” because it was so dark. The rush of adrenaline and the stomach drop feeling was much more exhilarating than any roller coaster I’ve ever been on. I screamed “WOOO!” through these tunnels, and the echoes that bounced back at me heightened my euphoria. We went up three hill climbs on the parkway and had three incredible downhills. As we flew into our lunch spot at the end of the BRP portion of the ride, I don’t think a single rider came in without saying “THAT WAS SO AWESOME!” or “THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER!” Riding your bike on the BRP is an experience that cannot be explained in words, nor captured through photos or video. It is truly a 360 degree experience, where the natural beauty that surrounds you makes you so appreciative for every moment.
Lunch was great and much needed as usual, but after a hard morning of hills and knowing that there were more ahead, we knew we needed to keep moving so as to avoid the post-lunch coma as much as possible. Meg and I set out to ride together again, as we had enjoyed the company of one another on the first half of the ride, and we knew we’d ride at the same pace again. Scott caught up with us about a half mile into the second half of the day, which in hindsight, I’m very grateful for.
At lunch, Leader Ryan had warned us that the second half would be like the first half all over again. The majority of us were okay with that: we’ve come to learn that the uphill is always worth suffering through for the downhill. So maybe we’d have to suffer through another 5 mile uphill… That would just mean a kick-ass downhill!!!! We went into the second half of the ride with a positive attitude.
The beginning was an easy, relatively flat ride. Scott even joked “Maybe Ryan was just f***ing around with us… Maybe it’s just this flat the whole way to Gatlinburg.” The irony of that statement is one for the books. Almost immediately after the words came out of his mouth, the steep incline began. As I always do, I approached this challenge with a positive attitude, knowing that years of being an athlete had prepared me for this moment. But as the hill relentlessly continued on, I began to seriously question my athleticism. As I contemplated whether I’d really make it up this hill, and still hoping it wouldn’t last much longer, Scott said “Do you guys want to know what I was told about this part of the ride?” My answer to these type of questions is always a strong NO! I don’t want to know! Completing a challenge like this is always more mental than physical. For the same reason that I don’t have a bike computer to tell me my speed and how many miles I’ve completed, I also didn’t want to know the distance of the hill because it would consume my mind and weigh me down with negativity. However, Meg said yes, she DID want to quantify what we were up against, so Scott proceeded to tell us that we had a 10 mile uphill and a 15 mile downhill ahead. “The good news is, we’re already 3 miles in.” I almost had a heart attack. Three miles… THAT’S IT?!? He had to be joking. My legs, arms, shoulders, back… Everything was throbbing in pain and screaming for rest, and we weren’t even half way there?! This is exactly why I didn’t want to hear how far we were from the top.
About half way to the top, we stopped for a very quick water/Gatorade break. We all ate a couple of Clif energy gummies and stood up (didn’t sit down… NEVER sit down in the middle of a hill like this) in the shade. A minute into our break, Scott said “I don’t mean to be the bad guy here, but we have to keep moving.” He was totally right. Stopping for too long is one of the worst decisions you can make on a ride like this because it takes forever to get over the hump of lethargy and back into the groove of riding, especially after already completing 25 miles on the BRP. We slowly but surely got back on our bikes and began climbing in “Granny gear” which we’d stay in for the remainder of the hill.
On this hill of all hills, I kept thinking to myself: Going into this, you knew it wasn’t going to be easy. There are going to be days that are incredibly difficult, that push you so far past your comfort level that you will be on the verge of tears… And this is just one if those days. For just less than 2 hours of your life, you’ll suffer through the pain of this hill, but when it’s over, the feeling of pride will be all that matters. These are the days, hours, moments that will always remind you that if you can do this, you can do ANYTHING. The only feeling that is worse than the pain and exertion of pushing up this mountain is the regret of quitting and giving up on something that would have made you stronger.
So needless to say, I pushed on. I could NOT have done it without Meg and Scott, and there’s no one else I would have rather accomplished that with than them. At the top of the mountain was the NC/TN State Line. I was so proud that we had all made it and kept each other positive the entire time.
If you were wondering if by the time pedaled to the top and over to that sign, I was so exhausted that I cramped when I tried to unclip from my bike and proceeded to fall over onto the side walk, the answer is yes, that is exactly what I did. It was my first fall of the trip, and I laughed every inch of the way down.
FINALLY time for the downhill – 15 miles of it!!!! Here was the down side: Scott had warned us that if we were to somehow miss the State Line sign, we would surely know that we were in Tennessee based on the drastic decline in road conditions (apparently TN doesn’t spend enough money on maintaining their roads). I can’t emphasize enough how right he was. Going downhill was SO fun, but dodging pot holes, bumps, and gravel while going over 30 MPH on a bike was treacherous. I carefully avoided them, all while being so happy about giving my legs a break that I was singing songs out loud the whole way down. “Free Falling” by Tom Petty, “Free” by Zac Brown Band, and… don’t judge me… “Fearless” by Taylor Swift were just a few of the songs that I sang out loud for anyone and everyone to hear.
We had just gone through the Great Smoky Mountains, and we made our way through the town of Gatlinburg, TN. I’d heard of this town before, but never knew what was so appealing about it. Now I know that it’s really just a tourist trap. Max decided that it was essentially a combination of all the trashy things about Myrtle Beach and Las Vegas. Tourist attractions like Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, funhouses, mirror mazes, as well as typical restaurants like Hard Rock Cafe, Kilwin’s, and fast food restaurants lined the main street of downtown Gatlinburg. At one point, I said to Meg and Scott: “Uhh… Is this kind of, I don’t know, WEIRD to either of you?” They definitely agreed. If nothing else, the people watching was phenomenal.
Unfortunately, this was not the end of the road this day. The queue sheet was off, and since we were the front runners of the group, we found this out the hard way. After failing to find the next street to turn onto after several miles, the three of us pulled over and called Leader Ryan to sort out new directions for getting to the campsite that we’d be staying at. We assumed it would only be another few miles, so it was quite the blow when we found out it would be at least an additional 12 miles of riding up and down rolling hills.
When we finally made it and some of our teammates began to trickle in little by little, I was just so happy to see them all arrive safely that the crazy, overly ambitious day of strenuous climbing no longer mattered. This is the best thing about being on a team: sharing all of the highs and lows with one another, and getting through it no matter what. We relaxed in the cold pool at the campsite and rehashed our day.
Unfortunately, over half of our team either “bonked” (got so low on energy and fluids that they just couldn’t keep going) or only made it to downtown Gatlinburg, so the van had to pick up a lot of people. It was a humbling experience for everyone and a reminder that this whole trip is going to be quite a challenge, but the friendships that we make along the way will be worth every second.
Quote of the Day: toward the end of the ride, Scott referenced the movie The Hangover and sang “We’re the three best friends that anybody could have, we’re the three best friends that anyone could have.” Click here to see the YouTube clip from the movie with this song, if you can even call it a song.