Tackling the Beast: Prepping for a 60-mile mountain bike challenge isn’t easy
By Jamie Arnold • Contributing writer
It’s a 95-degree Sunday afternoon. Most folks are at the lake, or lounging on the couch with a cold beer. Me? I’m on my mountain bike, grinding my way up a 5,000-foot mountain, all because my buddy Don decided to add the Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell to his bucket list.
Following the vein of cheap tattoos, lost wallets and accidental scars, a beer-induced challenge ended with both of us registered to compete in the infamous July 31 event. Now, two months later, we’re winding our way up a dusty brown gravel wall. A loud truck rumbles past, throwing even more gritty dust into the stifling 90-degree air. I glance down at my wheels to see the slow, never-ending gravel treadmill as I pick my way up the mountain.
We’ve been climbing for more than an hour now, pedaling our full suspension mountain bikes up the long gravel road from Curtis Creek, near Old Fort, to the Blue Ridge Parkway. The Parkway means no more dust — at least for now. More importantly to us, it means we will have finished the tortuous climb up Curtis Creek. I can’t help but grimace at the thought of how deep I just had to dig to merely ride half of the distance of the actual race. Oh, did I mention that the race is less than a month away?
The Off Road Assault on Mount Mitchell, or ORAMM for short, is a long-distance mountain bike race over some of the most beautiful but challenging terrain in the Eastern United States. It’s known as one of the most grueling events in the country with more than 60 miles of gravel and trail, and 11,000 feet of climbing. The climbs are long and steep, and the descents narrow and treacherous. And it’s at the end of July, so the weather is nice and balmy.
Despite the title, riders never actually ascend Mount Mitchell. The apex of the race does, however, offer fantastic views of the famous peak. The race includes a section of the Blue Ridge Parkway that runs somewhat parallel to the mountain for several miles.
More than once, climbing inch upon inch of trail, I question my own motives. After all, if just training is this hard, how can I possibly complete the actual race? What is fun about beating myself up with little chance of reward? Is it fame? With 500 other racers, fame is unlikely. Money? With two kids and a full-time job, deriving any income from training — much less winning any prize — is highly unlikely.
So why does this incredibly hard race, in and out of the small town of Old Fort, attract so many riders? Many folks just like pushing their bodies to the limit. Others love the competition and sheer challenge. I just wanted to check it off the list of accomplishments. That and the aforementioned beer challenge. What could go wrong, right?
The course will start tamely enough — well, if you call 500 riders charging shoulder-to-shoulder up a narrow mountain road tame. The first section of the race sends the riders up and over the infamous Kitsuma Trail. Steep grades and technical switchbacks create bottlenecks for the surge of riders. Some sections of the trail are so steep, many racers opt to shoulder their bikes and slog up by foot. Tempers that might normally flare are tempered by lack of energy to spare. Instead, a lighthearted comradery ensues as everyone settles into the fact that it’s going to be a long, long day. After all, why get frustrated when we’re all in it together, right?
The next section is the climb to the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is one certainty in reaching the highest point of the climb — you eventually get to go back down. But the reward of a long, grueling climb isn’t the screaming downhill that one might envision. It’s a rocky, twisty, ridiculous route called — appropriately enough — Heartbreak Ridge. The views are incredible, if you dare to look away. The trail rolls under your tires at an extremely uncomfortable speed. You’re not really riding your bike down the trail. Instead, you’re hugging the top of a spinning pinball hurtling down a steep tunnel, careening side to side as you bounce from one boulder to the next. The ridgeline-hugging trail is an adrenaline-pumping hodgepodge of jagged boulders and sharp drops.
The descent eventually reaches the valley floor, causing chattering teeth the whole way down. But even then, the race will be far from over. We’ll have to point our bikes uphill once again for another ascent over Kitsuma.
To be fair, I’ve yet to actually ride the entire course at once. Over the months my friends and I have completed each section individually. Time constraints and lack of fitness have kept me from spending an entire day in the saddle training for an event that’s still months away — but now, suddenly, it’s a lot closer. Will my preparation be enough come race day? Or will I falter on the last climb and throw in an early towel?
One thing is for certain — if I do actually finish this race, I’ll have won the most rewarding party bet ever.
Editor’s note: Jamie Arnold is an attorney and outdoor enthusiast who lives on a hobby farm in Haywood County with his family, bees and too many dogs. He especially enjoys mountain biking, fly fishing, cyclocross racing and, on occasion, writing about those experiences.