Sunday 4 July 2010

Short and to the Point - Man vs Bicycle

On my recent holiday to the Georgia Appalachians, I had the opportunity to properly test my hypothesis that a cyclist climbing a mountain on the handy switchback roads is not going to reach the top as quickly as a runner on a slightly straighter trail.  The venue was Brasstown Bald - Georgia's highest peak.

For a few years, my dad has forged an annual battle with the Bald.  He spends a week or so getting used to the mountains and then does a one-man time trial from the base of the climb to the scenic car park below the observation area (2.4 miles, 1890ft).  Last year, Nic and I joined him on his attack - we hiked the nearby trail that tops out on a minor peak and then descends to the car park (1.9 miles).  All the way up, I thought, "this is nearly runnable".  Especially for the gentle drop from the peak to the end.  So, this year, I challenged Dad to a race, fairly sure that it would be close enough for some good family rivalry - he's been in top form in his racing, and I've never been running stronger.  After a good deal of needle, and the promise to Nic that I wouldn't race back down the fairly treacherous slope afterwards, we set out on the challenge.

Although the distances are different, the challenge is pretty equal.  The trail is shorter, but includes some stretches that run between 30% and 50% grade climbs.  The road is longer, and requires pushing a bike, but is steadier with gradients generally ranging between 10-16%, with a short evil stretch of 24%.  Given all that, I figured the winner would be the one in better shape for his sport.

The race started, and within seconds I was already above Dad and his road.  From then on, I was never at a lower elevation than the road.  The first quarter mile was about as horrible as I remembered it, but manageable.  Then, a short runnable ascent followed by a steep, tight switchback.  My heart rate topped out in the low 170s (about 10bpm lower than I'd expected), and I could tell it wasn't going to get any better.  Occasional 5-10 second stops for recovery became necessary, and I had to give up all hope of running.  The steep part was lasting a lot longer than I'd remembered.  I looked at my watch and took my phone out to send Dad a message - I wasn't injured, just very slow.  I knew at 25 minutes that I wasn't going to beat him, and that he'd have a bit of a wait on his hands.  Finally, after around 1.5 miles, I peaked and was able to hit the fun gentle descent.  I was sure it would be more of the route!  Anyway, I took a couple of mind-clearing breaths and hit my pace.  Then, I hit a root, followed by the ground.  I minor fall, except that I'd already landed on the same bits earlier in the week on a short trail run.  I quickly washed the mud out of the re-opened wounds and raced on.  I wasn't about to let an evil ascent and a little fall ruin the fun of this fabulous drop from the peak.  I reached the car park in just under 37 minutes, 4 minutes behind Dad and about 8 minutes behind what I'd thought possible (bad trail memory, for sure!).

Still, I'd say my hypothesis is still correct.  A trail runner in the same relative form as my dad has at the moment would probably nip in before him.  This trail runner, though, was totally outclassed!  Hats off!

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