Photo cred: Ashley Woodring

This past weekend had an unexpected twist for me.  I was registered to compete for the seventh time in the annual Jerry’s Baddle race in Saluda, NC.  The plan was to do the Green River Narrows kayak portion of this biathlon and tag my buddy Ian to complete the brutal 26 mile bike leg of the race.

Unfortunately for me, Ian had a hip injury a few days before the event, and I was out one partner and still registered for the event.  After a fruitless search for another partner, and considering all of the smack talk from my friends, it quickly became apparent that I needed to step up to the plate and race the whole thing solo.

In case you’re not familiar with this race and this course, the first stretch of the bike portion is a brutal climb up and out of Green River Cove Road on a never-ending series of switchbacks that gain over 1000 feet of elevation in very little distance.  I am not a road biker by any means, so I was definitely dreading this portion of the day.

My buddy Ben Blake let me use his towny Cannondale bike for the race, and I was ready to rip!  2.5 hours of suffering, here we come.

The beautiful thing about Jerry’s Baddle is the community that surrounds it.  Check out the Festivals article in this month’s issue of the magazine for more, but this race centers around a fallen friend, and fighting against the disease that took him.  Time spent outside exerting yourself is such a great way to honor a friend’s memory.

Before I knew it, I was on the course.  A couple of bobbles in the rapids below Gorilla, and a frantic portage around the right side of the unrunnable Nutcracker rapid, and I was back in the water with the major boating obstacles behind me.  I hit the transition area breathless, and clumsily got into my biking gear.

I hit the road motivated and excited to try something new (it was my 2nd time on a road bike), but the spirit started to get crushed out of me as soon as I hit the switchbacks.  I consider myself to be in reasonable shape from my kayaking fitness regimen, but this was full-on and unbridled trial by fire on the bike.  I had to reach deep inside just to keep those pedal cranks spinning.  It is a humbling feeling when you reach the redline for your heart rate and breath, especially at the very beginning of a long track.

As other racers passed me and I existed in my own little world of pain, I started to have some revelations.  First of all, I realized that I had traveled effortlessly up these switchbacks thousands of times in vehicles powered by internal combustion engines on the Green River shuttle.  If it took this much energy to power my body and bike up this hill, how much energy could it possibly take to transport a multi-thousand pound car?  There are a lot of things that we take for granted.

My mind also shifted back to the reason for the race.  I clearly wasn’t in contention for the win out there, but just the ability to paddle that river and ride that course was a privilege that not everyone enjoys.  That day, we were all riding for those who suffer from ALS and cannot ride.  Many of these people would have given anything for the vivid exertion and present-moment existence that I was leading as I crept up the hill with my vision blurred.

After a 30+ minute struggle with the initial hill, things stabilized.  I admittedly got a bit lost on the course, but at that point it was all about the journey and not so much about the destination.  I still tried to push myself as hard as I would have had I been in a fight for the win, but I had a blast bombing down the steep downhills at over 40 miles per hour, and encouraging the faster racers as they passed me on the uphills.

After a grinding final stretch, I finished the race with a total time of 2:29.  I couldn’t have a logical conversation with anyone for maybe 20 minutes after finishing, but with a bit of graciously donated food and beer in my body, I started to feel a bit better.

As more of a sprint athlete, I don’t often experience extended physical suffering for long periods of time like I did in Jerry’s Baddle.  In spite of the discomfort, being alone with your thoughts in a world of physical exertion and hurt can be very purifying and rewarding.  It’s nothing but you, your heartrate, your breath, and your thoughts.

We’ll see if that theory holds true in this upcoming weekend’s Bearwallow Beast 5k.  I hope to see you out there!