We conclude our 3-part series; 51 Hours Racing The TNGA
We were both looking forward to mile 284 since we could get water from Tommie’s ranch. As we arrived near the ranch, we could see a bright light. I thought it might be David Chen, but it turned out to be a documentary guy filming. When we got to Tommie’s Ranch, David Chen appeared. You could tell he was frustrated. We learned he had three flats and couldn’t fix them anymore. He walked over to Tommie’s and began telling us his woes. I definitely felt for him; he had prepped well by using a new set of tires but still had issues. I’m not sure what gave him the flats. Maybe he said, but I was concentrating on getting water, figuring out what food I had, and one last look at my bike light. That’s bikepack racing, or adventure racing, “adventure,” or whatever you want to call it. Things break, things you can’t believe fail. Part of me did wonder if he was having a hard time fixing things being exhausted and hungry - was skipping Dalton too much? Was he pushing it too much with sleep? Either way I felt for him, and I hope he comes back next year.
Once filled up, Hart and I continued. David Chen mentioned he had checked Trackleaders and we had about 30+ miles between us the nearest riders – Jon Livegood and Jason Shearer. At that point, I let myself think about the finish, just a little. I enjoyed riding with Hart and I believed we would ride together for a while but then what? We headed out and had a difficult time finding the next section of Pinhoti trail, once we did it was quite a bit of climbing to get to the top. He mentioned I could go on if I felt like it but I don’t think he knew how tired I was as well. I was coming around but definitely having another low. We hit pavement, and I got a gap but I figured we would come back together once we hit trail. Sure enough, I missed the turn for the trail too, not by much, but enough that we hit the trail together. It was fine though, it was the middle of the night and I think we were both happy to ride together. Plus, it was in the creepy spot near Corpsewood Manor. More on that here. As we got the ridgeline back we spooked something, probably a deer. It ran up the hill to the right. This second to last ridgeline was pretty nice other than the giant spiders that built their webs across the trail. Grown men screamed or groaned every mile as
we swerved to miss the Barn spiders and their webs. Thankfully, as far as I know, they were only Barn spiders; I didn’t see any Black Widows. It was nice being able to trade off for spider “clean up” with Hart every couple of miles.
The ridgeline trail was hard to follow in parts, but overall, Hart and I both knew we were zeroing in on the last of the singletrack. It was surreal to be up on the ridgeline, staring down both sides and to see small town lights below. It was uniquely peaceful. We dropped down to HWY 27 and began the last big climb back up. I knew the trail was more singletrack and I didn’t want to miss the junction again. I kept looking at my GPS thinking that this blaze on the left was the trail. It went straight up the side of the road- literally a cliff. Hart got there, and I tried to convince him this was the trail. He looked at me like the crazy person I was. “That’s definitely not the trail, Dude.” I knew I was tired. He knew I was tired. We kept walking up the hill, it felt like a sauna. The temp had dropped, but the humidity had to be near 100%. We walked to the top where the trail actually was just in time to see round eyes staring at us. Probably a bobcat. It ran off. At the top, we discussed what we wanted to do. It was 4:30 in the morning. Sleep, anyone? I looked down where Hart was sitting to discover some “trail magic.” Someone had placed a Powerade there! I checked the lid to make sure it had never been open, hammered half of it and then Hart had the rest. We decided to find a good spot along the ridgeline, sleep for an 1:30 then get moving again.
By sleeping at 5 a.m., we knew we were done night riding and could do the rest of the singletrack in daylight. I was enjoying the ridgeline singletrack, but was looking forward to being done and escaping down into the valley with its paved and gravel roads. The hammock setup quickly and before I knew it, I was out.
My alarm woke me up groggy, but thankfully, morning light was peeking through so at least my body kind of felt like it had a full night’s rest. My body felt good for riding so far, and the hammock sleeping really helped. I liked the ability to get complete air flow all around and use the lines as drying racks. I started forcing myself to eat so I could stay on top of nutrition as much as possible. I didn’t want to bonk in the last 50 miles. I got my stuff together a little quicker than Hart and walked to the trail and looked around. I was trying to guess as to how this last ten miles would be; it looked like it could be good singletrack. I also wondered how Hart was doing this morning; I must admit I was allowing myself to think about the finish a little now and how it would end. The other morning, he had ridden away from me before Mulberry Gap. Maybe another “nap” would have him at full gas again, plus, if he did want to go for it, trying it on the singletrack would be the move for him before we hit gravel/pavement where the Cutthroat was an advantage. With these types of events, it’s really you versus the course at the end of the day. The difficulty and length usually make it a war of attrition anyway. It was unspoken; but I think Hart and I believed it was us
versus the course. Could we finish, and how fast? Other racers were brothers in arms and hopefully motivators to each of us. I was glad to have made a quick friend and hoped we would finish it together since we had already been riding with each other for a while.
We got moving, and it was a surreal experience. Another morning and day of riding my bike on little sleep. At least the trail was good. The ridgeline singletrack rolled decorated with early season color change. My legs began to warm up, but I was feeling the soreness. Hart was leading and moving quickly. He either wanted to finish, see how I felt, or get a gap; either way I had to turn it up a bit. He did get a little gap on me but I think he was just trying to warm up. If he really did gap me, I knew I could catch him once we were off singletrack. It was an amazing trail that finally had us pop out on overgrown FS road. We kept moving until we got close to a cell phone tower and it was easy to see we were at the end of the ridgeline. We missed the hidden left the Pinhoti singletrack made, but finally found it.
This started the full-on descent, and Hart let me lead. It got rocky, or at least I was tired, and I began to worry I was going to make a mistake or get a flat. At some point, I missed a
turn and Hart went around, but I could almost see the parking lot. We finally came out to the road, and Hart recognized the left we needed to make. It was surprising how fast the road felt and how I suddenly knew the hardest trail was behind me, but still plenty of miles to go. We caught the old railroad bed that paralleled Hwy 100. The trail is good, but I imagine it’s used more for horse riding or four-wheeler rips than bike riding. It was nice just to sit and spin, stretch the back, and enjoy the sunny morning before it got hot again. Hart relived the race from two years ago and talked about where people were and how the course had changed. We passed the junction where in previous years they took a right and finished in just another six miles. Hart and I were now on the new course with another 40 miles to go. I kept trying to eat but could tell the exhaustion was weighing me down. Just get to Coosa I told myself. I couldn’t believe how much I was looking forward to this gas station.
The path, how tired I was, and the nice morning made me just want to slow roll, but no matter how it turned out, I wanted to give it all I had and leave it on the course. I was trying to gauge how Hart felt. I wanted us to finish together, but I also wanted to give it all that I had and see what I could do in this last 40 miles. I knew my road racing this year and “puppy dog” practice could come into some real use here at the end. We kept moving and eventually talked about what we were craving. I kept thinking about hamburgers at the time if I remember correctly.
We popped out at mile 326 to the gas station I’d be dreaming of. Hart’s dad was on his way to the finish and stopped to watch us and say hello. We both wondered around like Zombies in search of the perfect breakfast. Thankfully they had a little kitchen inside, and we both had sausage biscuits and sat at a picnic table drinking Coke, Gatorade, Mello Yello, chocolate milk, etc. Drinks just get more desirable by the end because you are tired of chewing. I also put more air in my rear Race King. It had lost some air coming into Coosa, and I was worried it was leaking. I’ve had a bad year of flats and this was just another one to add to my list if it got worse. I started worrying this was the start of something – of course in the last 40 miles! I got more air into it, and it seemed to hold.
As we finished, we joked about the end and what we were thinking. With the food and drink+ caffeine, I was coming back around. I wanted to finish with Hart, but I also wanted to give it all I had at this point and see what I could do. I decided that I wouldn’t do any roadie attack moves, but I would just slowly ramp it up to my tempo pace and if Hart and I stayed together great, if not then we would just finish at our own paces. If we did finish together, Hart said he would give it the “old college try” with a wink but that I would likely win. I thought I had a good chance but was also worried about my energy level falling flat or getting flat tires.
We headed out from the gas station around the Rome bypass. It was full daylight now, and the shoulder was huge. It rolled along, and it was hard to believe we were getting close to the finish. I started working up to my tempo pace and felt good. Maybe I did have some left in the tank. I got in my slight aero tuck, and it felt good to move. I looked behind me, and Hart was right there. We kept rolling along the big rollers. I think on one of the longer rollers the gap started. I thought about what I should do and what was Hart thinking? At this point I believed both of us knew it was each person against the course, what we had left, and how hard we could go. I decided to keep up my pace and if he caught back up, great, if not, then I could keep giving it what I had.
I put my earbuds in and kept jamming along. I was feeling surprisingly good, all that forced eating was helping me out it seemed. I had fuel for the fire. Miles kept rolling, and it seemed like I was riding the roads around my parents’ house. For most, it was a normal Monday - get to work, drop kids off, mow the yard. I felt like an anomaly going along the road trying my best to finish a journey that I started long ago, out of place in their world. The miles were ticking off, but I didn’t look at my GPS very often, just kept pedaling. I made the outskirts of Cave Springs and pedaled down main street. The Hearn Inn, a new TNGA destination for us, passed on my right. They were out setting up signs and tables for TNGA riders. Someone yelled at me, but with my music in and exhaustive state, I have no idea what they said. I waved and kept moving down Old Cedartown Road. Because of some work, a detour was ahead. I kept my eyes glued to my Garmin and was getting very worried I was off course, but then the right-hander appeared, and I calmed. The road turned to red Georgia clay gravel, and I kept looking for the next left. I knew I had one more section of trail before I was done. Sure, enough I missed it and started thinking Hart was right behind me. I got on the singletrack and barely found the route. It was rarely-used trail with just blazes to guide you. I finally hit Esom Hill Road as the sun really began
baking the course. It felt like a normal southern summer day. I was ready to be off the bike. I kept rolling along, the legs still feeling reasonably strong.
Around mile 354 a rider was standing at the top of the hill. As I got closer he clipped in and started moving. I thought it was one of the documentary guys at first. I just kept pedaling hoping for the finish. I finally looked over to realize it was Honcho! Now I felt bad, just head down pedaling along barely saying a word. I greeted him and apologized. I’d seen Koz several times now, so it was a real treat to see Honcho and he said I was so close to the finish. I think I mentioned thanks
and how great the course was and then probably rambled on about food I wanted. He gave me some words of encouragement and said my dad was waiting at the finish. I made the quick right, quick left, and could see the Silver Comet junction. I couldn’t believe it. There it was!!! I took the right-hander and knew it was still 1.5 miles to the finish. I thought about slowing and taking it in, but I wanted to finish and do it as soon as I could. I wanted to give it all that I had. I somehow felt like this was honoring the course and those who had put in all the time to make it happen. Then it came into view – the Arch. I wish I knew more history about the arch, but either way, I was glad to see it. I could see my dad, Derek, and some documentary people standing there. Looking back on it I should have slow pedaled once I was within 100 feet and stopped at the arch, but at the time for some reason, I just couldn’t help but pedal right through. It was like I was worried that at the last minute something was going to happen and I wasn’t going to finish. Once I got through the arch, I finally felt like I could relax. I made the U-turn and came back to give Koz a fist bump. I got off the bike and gave dad a hug, super glad to see him! He knows me well and handed me a chocolate milk.
I eventually put the bike down and talked with Koz and crew about how the adventure had unfolded. I mentioned how the last miles from Coosa had worked out and that Hart should be here any minute. I had looked over my shoulder several times expecting to see him charging after me! Eventually, Hart rolled in, and we congratulated each other on an amazing race. There was part of me that was glad it was over and part of me that wanted it to keep going. On Monday at 11 a.m. I finished, 51 hours after starting. I thought about all the riders behind me moving this way, and I hoped it was going well for them. It was great to finish the course the fastest and get the new course record, but I have a good feeling somebody will do it faster next year.
The best part of the whole experience was being in the Appalachians with a lot of great people. I was happy with the Cutthroat and drop bar setup. I think for the course it’s perfect, having multiple hand and thus back positions was so nice, plus, I could get in a nice position on the road. Having the Fenix flashlight on my helmet saved my bacon since I almost sabotaged myself with my own 3D print. That’s bikepacking though, it’s always amazing the things you can break out there. I’m glad I had a hammock, it’s worth the weight. If you aren’t getting a lot of sleep, at least make sure it’s good sleep. With the ample numbers of trees along the course, the hammock worked very well. Nutrition went well with a mix of Skratch, water, real food, and grocery store snacks. I’m still craving the vegan fruit snacks I randomly picked up in Dalton.
The TNGA is an amazing event, as are the Appalachians. Go check them out and do the TNGA. Thanks to my amazing family who has supported me along the way and brings me chocolate milk at the end of races. Thanks to Koz, Honcho, and all the others that support and make the TNGA such an amazing experience. Congrats to all the racers who finished and towed the line. If you didn’t finish, congrats for starting, challenging yourself, and not being afraid to fail. Come back and finish it next year!
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Sean 'Mailman' Mailen
I was born and raised in the hills of Tennessee. I decided in high school I wanted to design the best bikes and parts possible; I’ve been following my dream ever since. I love about every possible mode of cycling, mountain biking is the most fun, but if I’m on two wheels I’m happy.