Adventures in Breathing – Part II

After what started out as a terrific ride in Pisgah the previous weekend, but turned out to be an exercise (pun intended) in breathing misery, I called my doc first thing on Monday and made an appt. for mid-week. I explained my issues and was prescribed an Albuterol inhaler – which I’ve used before, and also a small supply of Singulair to try out. The following weekend, I proposed to Chris that we head out into Pisgah on what I assumed would be a roughly 5 hour loop. Unlike the previous weekend where we were seeking an optimized path thru Pisgah, I chose a route that is much more difficult, but sometimes necessary depending on where the mandatory PMBAR checkpoints are.

The route: Black Mtn. > Turkey Pen > Mullinax > Squirrel > S. Mills > Buckhorn > Clawhammer > Maxwell Cove > Black.

The route did a few things for us:

  1. The only way to start PMBAR is up Black Mtn., so we’d get a fresh reminder of what it’s like to make that climb. (Although we opted to go up Thrift Cove to start – something I’ve never done before)
  2. We’d go over Turkey Pen as a reminder of what that’s like as well…. Turkey Pen is an arduous 5 miles of narrow singletrack that although it drops 1700′ “downhill” it seems as if there’s more up than down, and much of it has to be hiked.
  3. We’d finish the route the way we had intended the previous weekend.. and exactly how we anticipated finishing PMBAR.
  4. (Not only that – I’d get to descend lower Black in the daylight for the first time ever)

We had originally intended on riding on Saturday, but heavy rains prevented that. Despite getting a couple of inches of rain, when we headed out on Sunday we were pleasantly surprised to find the trails mostly dry… gotta love thirsty trees in spring!

Before heading out I took one of the Singulairs and also used the inhaler, plus carried it with me. We started out the steep and lengthy climb up Thrift/Black, reaching Maxwell Cove in pretty good time. We then continued the push on up middle Black to Turkey Pen, a climb which seemed to take forever. In fact, we were almost convinced we had actually missed the trail connection because it was taking so long (I hadn’t done that climb in a year and a half, and I don’t think Chris had either). Finally we reached it, and without much of a stop, we started down the steep early part of Turkey Pen.

Then came the “fun” part… There are five distinct climbs on Turkey Pen, which is why I mentioned that despite being an overall drop, it feels like you do more climbing than descending. Not only that, but the mostly dry, but soft loose dirt on a lot of TP trail, coupled with the fact that I was riding a hardtail and not my full suspension, PLUS the numerous treefalls we had to hoist the bikes over, meant a whole lotta effort and a whole lotta time and energy spent to go “downhill”.

The Turkey Pen "Descent"
The Turkey Pen “Descent”

As you can see in the elevation profile above, the fourth of five climbs on Turkey Pen gets you nearly back to the same elevation as the top of the first climb, netting zero benefit from going downhill. The following descent isn’t really all that fast for someone with my limited skills, because I have to hike down a fair amount of it. The same is true for the final descent down to Turkey Pen parking lot. In total there is almost 800′ of climbing to do in a 3.5 mile “drop”. Consequently, our moving average on the downhill run is only 3.8 mph. Chris would have been much faster overall, but even so, this was an object lesson – try to avoid riding Turkey Pen during PMBAR unless the checkpoints make it an absolute necessity.

And never, under any circumstances – do it in the other direction. That’s an exercise in futility that fortunately I’ve never done.

It took us over 2. 5 hours to go barely more 10 miles and despite my newly prescribed inhaler, I was feeling the pain. This was much harder “riding” than the previous week however, and I was OK knowing that we wouldn’t (likely) be doing anything this difficult on race day.

The next part of the ride doesn’t get a whole lot easier however… a looooong climb up Mullinax/Squirrel. Although it’s mostly all rideable, it’s a hard effort. By the time we got to Squirrel Gap, (the high point of Squirrel Gap Trail) we had climbed 4200′ in just 13.4 miles! And we had been riding for 3.5 hours.

From Thrift To Squirrel Gap
From Thrift To Squirrel Gap

The next part of the route was much easier (aerobically) and as I mentioned in the previous post – one of my favorite trail sections in all of Pisgah. Despite riding the hardtail I cleaned some sections of Squirrel that I rarely make. With only a brief stop to refill/purify water at Squirrel/Cantrell trailhead, we moved right along and I was feeling much better. Since we were 4 hours in I used the inhaler again, although I only took one puff instead of the standard two.

The next section is the mild climb up S. Mills and Buckhorn and Chris led the way while I held his wheel. By the time we got to the top we were nearing 5 hours and although I was feeling better than the previous week, I could feel my lungs starting to fill with fluid.


We headed down Clawhammer without stopping and in the time it took to drop 3.5 miles – barely 10 minutes, my bronchial passages had closed up and as we started up Maxwell Cove – I began struggling once again to breathe. Sure enough – 5 hours. The inhaler had bought me nothing.

Except for the fact that this ride was MUCH harder overall than the previous weekend. I held onto that hope for a short while.

I somehow had forgotten how steep and difficult the climb up Maxwell Cove is.. although the gravel road is much improved after some extensive work by the forest service – it’s an evil grind, especially on my 1×10 gearing. Then comes the short but very steep hike-a-bike up Black before finally getting to start the final descent back to the parking lot.

That was all it took… by the time I reached the apex I was done. And very upset.

Chris led me down Lower Black and we reached the parking lot just as we lost the last bits of daylight (our timing was perfect, as I had not brought a light with me). What I assumed was a five hour loop was actually six hours, thanks in part to my slow descending and breathing issues.

As I stood (hunched over) in the parking lot, I told Chris that I wanted him to start looking for a replacement partner. If I were riding solo, I would attempt it and face the DNF, but with only two weeks until race day, although I hated to quit on him, I knew it wouldn’t be fair for me to have him also risk a DNF. Secondarily, I knew that if I was responsible for a partner, I might push myself into dangerous territory. With the remoteness of Pisgah Forest, and the lack of cell signals, and lengthy wait for emergency responders… it’s just not worth even a minor risk of something serious happening.

Chris understood and agreed. When we got home we put out inquries and I’m happy to not that he found a replacement in fairly short order. Someone he’s never ridden with, but I know from by reputation and also have ridden with one time. I think they’ll make a great team.

So that left the question of what to do about PRAR. If I didn’t do the 10+ hour PMBAR with Chris, that would leave me more rested for the 6? hours of running for PRAR. This would be over my usual 5 hour time limit of effort before the asthma kicks in, but on the other hand, running is far more strenuous than riding, especially in Pisgah. Down is as hard as up, there would be no breaks, no coasting. On top of that, this is a first time event and the estimate of 6 hours is purely a guess. For all I know it will take more like 7 or 8 hours.

Not to mention the fact that I had to walk 6 miles of my last marathon and that was only 3.5 hours in.

I asked Jon if he had a backup plan in mind for PRAR and fortunately he did. That made it easy to decide – just as it wouldn’t be fair to Chris to attempt PMBAR knowing my limits, it wouldn’t be fair to Jon to attempt PRAR.

So.. I’m out of both.

I’m upset about this – very upset. I hate not having the ability for my body to do what my heart and mind want to do.

But at the same time I’m relieved. I don’t have to worry about pushing thru the inevitable misery of these arduous events, or letting down a teammate.

In fact, I may go out one or both days and do an unofficial attempt at the races, just to see how far I can get. That way I can bail at any time, I’m not negatively impacting a partner, and I can play in the woods for as long as possible.

Best of luck to Chris and Jon in their respective races with their new partners!