Adventures in Breathing – Part I

This spring has been a challenging one to say the least. After a less than stellar day at the Biltmore Marathon, I have struggled to get any kind of running regimen back. The numerous tendon aches and pains have continued, no matter how long I rest, or how little I run, or on what surface. Consequently, I shifted back to more riding, and began preparing for my third PMBAR, the 10+ hour adventure race in Pisgah National Forest that I have finished (barely) the past two years. I had a new teammate lined up for this year, my friend Christopher had asked me if I would ride with him. Just to make things interesting, I also decided to enter PRAR, a new event this year… just like PMBAR except on foot.. the Pisgah Running Adventure Race. An estimated 20-30 miles of running the mean Pisgah trails instead of riding them. The catch?

The two events are back-to-back, on consecutive days.

That means having less than 12 hours to recover from PMBAR before starting out on PRAR.

With all my run troubles it seems a bit ludicrous to sign up for something I may not even be able to finish on fresh legs, let alone the day after riding 10+ hours/60+ miles/??? thousand feet of climbing on a mountain bike. That’s what made it so appealing though.. it was just crazy enough to be worth a shot.. and my friend and partner for PRAR, Jon, would also be doing PMBAR the day before. We figured we’d at least do whatever the minimum requirements were to “finish”, regardless of how slow we ran or how long it took. If nothing else, we’d walk/limp/crawl for 10 hours and laugh our asses (and feet) off at how stupid the whole idea was.

I decided preparing for PRAR was pretty much pointless, other than maintaining a minimum amount of run fitness, and that it was more important to prepare for PMBAR to go as smoothly as possible. My partner Chris has been obsessing (he’s even more OCD than I am!) over choosing optimized routes based on predicted checkpoints (some never change from year to year).

A couple weekends ago, Chris and I headed out on a route he had designed to do just that… an optimized loop through Pisgah that would hit all the major areas of the forest, but not actually hit some of the singletrack where checkpoints are assumed to be. The route would be about 40 miles long and take an estimated 8 hours. For mere mortals like ourselves, 5 miles per hour is a standard rule of thumb for riding Pisgah – yes.. it’s that difficult. Since we were choosing an optimized route however, and riding a significant amount of faster gravel roads, we were hoping to cut the core of ride down to less than 8 hours – leaving time to add in some additional trails that are the standard finishing route – Maxwell Cove Rd. up to Black Mtn and down to the finish line.

We also mixed in a little extra at the beginning, just to hit one seasonal trail – Pink Beds – that would be closing to bikes that weekend, and that I had never ridden.

We started out going up Clawhammer Rd., a nemesis of mine, one of my least favorite of all gravel roads in Pisgah, mostly because starting off the day with a 4 mile climb is never fun. But it went pretty smoothly and we then had fun riding up and over Black, down Club Gap and then riding the easy but entertaining Pink Beds trail. We dropped out at S. Mills and then proceeded to ride first up one section, then down the other, to Squirrel Gap trail.

We made really good time to this point and were having a blast. Chris is a better technical descender than I am but we were both climbing well, so we stayed pretty close together and the miles seemed to fly past. I started up Squirrel Gap ahead of Chris by a few minutes and rode to Horse Cove pretty much on my own, but he came in behind me in nearly the same gap as when we started out. We took a longer break there and then kept going on the rest of Squirrel, which is mostly “rolling” with some technical rock and root sections that are challenging but fun. Squirrel has always been one of my favorite trails in Pisgah. Partway down the descent from Squirrel Gap (the actual gap) we turned onto Laurel Creek trail and descended that. Other than the top section which is steep and has some big drops, we cruised on down the more gradual part and just before we reached the end, we met up with our friend Patrick who was unable to start with us, so rode our route course backwards until he saw us.

After we crossed Bradley Creek to get to Bradley Creek trail, we made a last minute decision to skip the gravel climb up 5015, which is usually off-limits during PMBAR, and go up Bradley Creek trail instead. BC trail is notorious for it’s roughly 14 million creek crossings, necessitating repetitive and time sucking bike dismounts, hoisting the bike overhead and traversing the very rocky and uneven creek bed. The logic was that if we had to do it in PMBAR we may as well see what condition the trail was in.

The trail is in shit condition. Overgrown, with countless treefalls, we ended up dismounting to get around fallen branches almost as much as to get across the creeks. Despite not being only gradually uphill.. less than 300 feet gained in 2 miles, it is sloooooooow progress. Wanting to get a “race day” benchmark in the event we had to do it on PMBAR, I pushed the pace, and it still took us 35 minutes, only 3.2 mph moving average.

By the time we got to the end of the trail and up onto the main gravel road, we were at 25 miles in 5 hours.

We paused for a short time before resuming our ride loop… the rest of the day would be comparatively easy. Gravel road with some long but not too strenuous climbing, a short descent back down to S. Mills, then the long but fairly fast climb up S. Mills and Buckhorn to Buckhorn Gap. Then a roaring descent down Clawhammer Rd. Instead of going back to the Horse Stables parking area, we’d tack on the extra ride up to and down Black Mtn. then loop around on the forest roads back to the car.

But before we got to any of that, things went from great to horrible, nearly instantly.

As soon as we started up the first climb on 5018 I realized that I was having trouble breathing. My bronchial passages had constricted, and fluid was building up in my lungs. Oh shit.. the telltale signs of exercise induced asthma. My old nemesis, and it had returned with a vengeance. In the space of just a few minutes, I was reduced to pedaling as slowly uphill on easy gravel as if I were climbing 20% singletrack. I was hunched over the bars, only able to take shallow breathes, and coughing up fluid, except that I couldn’t breathe deep enough to cough.

I haven’t felt this bad in quite a few years. Sure.. I have still had occasional issues on long rides – up over 8 hours, but I stopped using an inhaler four years ago and have done PMBAR twice previously, Double Dare, many 8-10 hour MTB days and countless century rides on the Blue Ridge Parkway and other mountainous rides. I went 10.5 hours hard during the (not quite) 12 hours of Tsali and never had a problem – good enough to make the podium in solo men’s division.

Why now?! After four years of relative ease?

I struggled the rest of the way up to Buckhorn Gap, turning the pedals over slowly but steadily.. fearing to stop for more than a few seconds because my lungs would constrict as soon as my effort level dropped. It was an hour and a half of sheer misery, after five hours of sheer fun.

At the top of the gap I talked with Patrick and Chris and told them I couldn’t make it up Maxwell to Black but that they were welcome to. They opted to finish out the ride with the descent straight down Clawhammer. I felt bad… the day was going great and we had looked forward to the extra mileage.

Only problem is that Clawhammer isn’t “straight down”. Midway there are a couple climbs… normally we don’t think much of them but in my condition I was barely able to get up them even in my granny gear. I’m pretty sure I was going as slow as 1 mph a couple times, and breathing was so difficult I was nearing panic.. which wasn’t helping any. Chris and Patrick, not realizing the severity of my issues, had bombed down the road, apparently at Strava worthy speeds. I snapped at them a bit for abandoning me once I finally made it to the car, but it wasn’t their fault.. even I didn’t realize it was going to be so difficult to go “downhill”.

As always happens with this EIA, it takes about 30-60 minutes of shallow breathing adn coughing before I start to feel at least somewhat normal, but I did manage to get out to dinner with the guys. By the time I got home things were returning somewhat to normal, but I had done a lot of damage.

And I was getting scared about PMBAR. If I struggled this badly after 5-6 hours (the total ride back to the car was 6.5 hours.. well ahead of our planned 8, but without the Maxwell/Black loop that was about right) and only 37 miles, how would I be able to go 10+ and cover at least 60 miles, maybe more?

I figured the first thing I needed to do was go to the doc and see about getting back on an inhaler… something I had not done since I moved from Ohio. Based on previous history, I figured I could go from at least 5-6 hours up to 8 or so with about the same results, and then I’d have to see how things went. But in the back of my mind I was starting to think Chris might be better off looking for a replacement for me.

Adventures in Breathing – Part II coming up…