Here she is. The course profile of the Off Road Assault on Mt. Mitchell. It’s a misnomer because the race doesn’t actually ascend Mt. Mitchell. But you can see it off in the distance from the Blue Ridge Parkway. ORAMM is a 60-mile mostly off road bike race that covers 10,500 ft. To put it into perspective, the famed Leadville 100 MTB race is a 100 mile race over 12,000 ft. Having done both, I’m very comfortable nicknaming ORAMM “Leadville of the South.”
Leadville’s legendary Columbine climb starts around mile 43 and shoots to the heavens, gaining 3,000 ft over 8 miles. The dreaded Curtis Creek climb in ORAMM is a soul sapping climb spanning 10 miles and also rising 3,000 ft. To be honest, I found Curtis Creek to be more difficult than I remember Columbine to be because there’s no respite from pushing the pedals. No moment of flat, not a second of coasting downhill. No mandatory hike-a-bike. And fewer fellow racers alongside to motivate you onwards. It’s just lonely, incessant, mind numbing pedaling, around and around and around and around and around. Embarrassed to admit, I did dismount my bike and walk for about 10 paces, desperate for a quick break.
A different challenge in its own right is the oppressive heat and humidity that settles over the South in the summer. I much prefer the dry and thin air at altitude. Over the past two months, I was able to dial in my fueling regimen, taking Hammer Nutrition’s Endurolyte Extreme tabs every 30 minutes, along with gels and Perpetuem. The last 15 miles, I did stray from my calculated nutrition plan and downed Dixie cups of Coca-cola with abandon. The caffenaited sugar spikes to my brain were a welcome feeling.
Both races also cover sections of pavement, where being comfortable with some road tactics- tucking in and drafting in a peloton- provide an advantage. Both races also include sections of mandatory hike-a-bike, and each has some memorable high speed and tenuous descents.
When I told some folks about racing ORAMM, some scoffed at how “big” the event had become. At fewer than 500 riders, I found it intimate compared with Leadville’s 2000! It was fun to see familiar faces…racers I met during the Pisgah Stage Race or the Marathon Mtb Nationals. It startled me that the woman at registration remembered my name from the stage race too!
Western North Carolina’s terrain makes selecting the perfect type of bike a challenge. Long, sustained gravel and dirt roads are critical connectors to the forests’ single track trails, perfect for a 29″ hardtail. But descents are typically steep and riddled with roots, rocks, and ruts, terrain that is fast and fun on a full suspension trail bike. Opting for fun over pure uphill speed, and in the interest of saving my hands and arms from utter obliteration, I leaned out my Juliana Furtado as much as possible (Industry Nine rims, Schwalbe Nobby Nic tires, 1x drivetrain). I was often passed on the uphill, but many times I passed those same folks (me smiling, them fighting a look of terror) on the descents. If I were to do it over, I’d choose the same bike.
In the end, I came in 5th in the Open Women category. Given that three days before the race I moved to a new rental house in 90 degree temperatures and went into the race exhausted, I was pleased with the outcome. I crashed on a descent before Curtis Creek, squishing my knee hard between the frame and handlebars, and that put me in a sour mood, uncertain about the extent of the swelling, during the whole hour and a half up the road. Without that incident, I think I could have whittled my time down by another 30 minutes, to squeak out 4th. As it stood, if I raced in my age group, I would have come in second, missing 1st place by just 3 minutes!
Many balk at the idea of spending 7+ hours pedaling. Thanks to all the training and exercises I’ve done under the guidance of Julie Young, I’ve come to understand and appreciate how critical hip mobility and core strength are to maintaining strong, steady pedal strokes over so many hours. During all those climbs, I kept thinking about “driving from my hips” knowing that’s where my power center lay. And I stayed confident relying on all the hours of training that prepared me for moments like this when my mental state was not as strong as I knew my body was. I struggled with thoughts of giving up and stopping the race early, but battled on. I was elated to finish.
Despite the sense of accomplishment I feel after grueling races like this, I can’t lie. Now I’m really looking forward to the short and sweet 45 minute races of cyclocross starting next month. Hup hup!