Death by Climbing: The Garrett County Gran Fondo

If there is a road climb that could literally kill someone by its steepness, it is in Garret County. I remember when I first heard about people riding 125 miles in this area. I thought it was absolutely insane and potentially impossible. I was riding the Savageman Triathlon course with some friends, and that seemed plenty difficult enough.  The rural roads of Western Maryland and West Virginia are an unrelenting and cruel up, down, up, down, with 8 to 15% grades lasting a mile or more and roads that peak out at 20  to 30%.

Welcome to Deep CreekFast forward two years to 2011 and it is the 2nd year of the official Garret County Gran Fondo and I am one of those insane people at the start line. However, I was only going 102 miles that day. Much more reasonable. Against my better judgement, I was riding a standard double crankset with a 11/26 cassette. BAD IDEA. I even knew it was a bad idea, but I did it anyway because I thought maybe it was only kind of a bad idea. Instead, it was a really bad idea. The ride was miserable and I had a bit of a meltdown at the mile 58 aid station. The worst part was that everyone at the aid station looked FINE. Like this ride was NO BIG DEAL. I finished the ride and vowed never to come back.

Fast forward one more year to 2012. I’m back. I spend lots of time complaining and telling people how impossible this ride is going to be. After much debate about gearing, I went for the least amount of money spent and cleaned up my old Trek that had a triple crankset. This bike has proved to be nearly bullet proof over the past several years, it was there when I earned my two Savageman bricks in the Westernport Wall, when I got hit by a car, and many other adventures. After much debate about distance, I took the start for the Savage Century. The Diabolical Double was out of the question due to my lack of long rides and my lack of desire to be on my bike for over 9 hours.

Savage Century Elevation Profile

Start to Aid Station 1

The ride started with a descent off the top of Wisp Mountain and into the morning fog. The first 8 miles or so are fast descents and easy rollers. Then you suddenly come to the first climb, which my friends have aptly named “Bitch Slap Climb.” After an easy first few miles, it’s a slap in the face to the reality that is facing you the rest of the day. It was at this point last year–at mile 8–I realized I was doomed. This year, however, I realized that I might be just fine, and I embraced my triple without shame throughout the day. I don’t really think what gear I am in is relevant if I am passing someone on a climb.

When I arrived at aid station 1 I was on a mission to get in and out as fast as possible. Mostly to gap some of the people I had been going back and forth with because I found them a little annoying. I spotted my husband as I pulled in. He wanted to regroup with our friends Dave and Jeremy so we could all agree to do our own thing for the day rather than ride together. That was fine by me, and by the time I was done at the aid station, everyone was back and we all  headed out together until the hills started to separate us again.

Aid Station 1 to Aid Station 3

I did not want the ride to take a minute longer than needed. It was going to be a long day, and I wanted it to be as short as possible. I took advantage of every flat section, and I went as fast as I felt comfortable on the technical descents. I couldn’t understand why so many people were just coasting along on the easy sections. One of my biggest cycling pet peeves might be unnecessary coasting. And of course these people were almost always in the middle of the road instead of riding to the right where they should be.

Around mile 22, I caught my friend Caroline who started 20 minutes earlier for the Diabolical Double. I passed her on a climb, which must have sparked some new motivation, and we rode together until about mile 60 when the routes split. These were the most difficult miles of the course with constant steep grinding climbs, so it was nice to have someone to ride with.

By aid station 2 I was out of my own drink mix, so I refilled with Heed. It tasted like the smell of a fresh port-a-potty, which I guess is better than a used port-a-potty, but still terrible. I drank it anyway, and refilled later with some more terrible Heed. I really can’t stand that stuff. For all future long rides I think I will bring Skratch Labs single servings in my pockets.

Aid Station 3 to the Finish

At aid station 3 I was starting to fade, but no where near the about-to-collapse-into-tears state I was in last year. I spent a little extra time at this aid station, drinking coke, eating goldfish, and making sure I had what I needed. I knew the hardest part was behind me, and that I had 12 miles of downhill and flat to recover before the next big climb. After that, only one more climb back to the top of Wisp. Caroline and I went our separate ways shortly after aid station 3,  and I saw very few other people along the rest of the route.

I felt a little bit like a zombie when I reached aid station 6. The very nice volunteers had lots of questions for me, water? heed? cookies? pretzels? But I think I just kind of pointed with a blank look on my face. I had been enjoying coke and bananas all day, so I had some more of those, ditched my gross sticky gloves, took advantage of some moist towelettes to wash a day of sweat, gel, and bananas off my hands, and headed back out.

As I was flying through the last 10  miles, what was possibly the worst thing of the entire day happened: I got Power Bar Gel all over EVERYTHING. My hands, my water bottle, my arms, my legs, my bike, and probably a few other things. Based on the amount of gel everywhere, I’m not sure how I even ate any. Luckily, I was soon cruising around Deep Creek Lake and approaching Wisp Resort for the final climb.

Post Gran Fondo

The final climb was probably the most miserable of the day, but it WAS the end. I got to say hello on the way up to many of my friends. I was going slowly enough to almost have a full conversation, if only I could speak.

Done and done

My ride time was 7:08, my clock time was 7:46, and I had a 14.2 mph average speed for 102 miles and 12,700+ feet of climbing. Unlike last year, I actually enjoyed the ride. I’m glad I went back.

One thought on “Death by Climbing: The Garrett County Gran Fondo

  1. Reading about your races inspires me to keep on riding hard. I’ve been riding for a couple of years now and really enjoy it. At 48 though sometimes I wonder if I’m riding too much or too little, wearing myself down or just making up excuses to take a day off. I’m interested in reading what kind of training you do to stay on top of your game. Keep up the good work and stay safe.

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