The Trans North Georgia (TNGA)
Before I get to my experience, it seems an explanation of the race itself is in order. The Trans North Georgia (TNGA) is a non stop off-road race across the northern section of Georgia through the Appalachian Mountains, starting in South Carolina and finishing in Alabama. There is no support, no aid stations, no ‘crew’ to help you. You’re not even allowed help from other racers. You bring what you need with you, but can buy stuff along the way from any available stores if needed. You sleep where ever you feel you need to. It totals 358 miles and involves about 56,000 feet of climbing. The race organizers keep tabs of you via a satellite tracker and you must provide your gps file if there’s any question you rode off course. About 50% or less finish each year (This year about 45% finished). It’s a tough tough race that required a tremendous amount of thought to prepare for (Well a tremendous amount of thought for me anyway)
The race starts with a very uneventful signal from one of the event leaders. We roll across a bridge that divides SC from GA. The first few miles are on pavement and full of anxiety in the form of overzealous speed. It’s still not fast by any means, but faster than one would go if they were alone with this challenge in front of them. That giddy fun changes quick though, as the pavement ends and climbing begins. My first lesson of the day came in the form of navigation. On my gps navigation unit (Etrex20X) the turns seem pretty obvious. A fork in the road results in a left or right turn, right? Simple. But what happens when the fork in the road is traveling in the same direction, but now your choice is up or down? Thankfully I learned this while others were still around. The road on the first mountain spilt up and down the hill, but both headed in the same direction. I thought I knew better for about 30 yards, then quickly corrected my mistake.
Rain has historically been my nemesis in mountain bike races, but that may be due to the silty and sandy soil where I live. Any rain results in nasty mud and serious saddle sores from the sand getting places it doesn’t belong. Right from the start it was drizzling, and rained on and off most of the day. Because of the rocky nature of the area, the mud was a non issue, just some slick rocks at times. Quite a relief.
I knew this race was front loaded with the big climbing, but had no idea what a kick in the teeth they would be. The third climb of the day was my wet blanket of reality. I had run out of gears on my bike, was pushing about 2-3 mph and my heart rate was 177 (as a point of reference, I keep my Ironman bike races around 145-150). This was WAY above where I wanted, but had no choice. It stayed there for almost 2 hours. In a world where we measure how many proverbial ‘matches’ we burn during a race, I had essentially lit the entire box on fire in the second hour in order to keep moving forward.
Those first few climbs just never ended. Every time I thought it would flatten I would turn the bend and see another long straightaway upward. I cussed out loud every time, and then would immediately tell myself that I would make up the time on the now larger descent. But that didn’t happen. The downhills tended to be more treacherous than the climbs. The lower sections of the mountain trails/roads tended to be a little smoother as they get more traffic, but became rougher as you progressed up the mountain where fewer ventured. To put ‘rough’ in perspective, for those in Texas reading this, think of climbing Fat Chuck’s Revenge for 2 hours. The descents at times bordered on ridiculous. Where I thought there would be some free speed, there was often none, and at times I was riding down the mountain at the same speed that I had been climbing. Part of this was due to a bike that was around 50 pounds loaded down with gear and harder to handle, and also due to to the fact that I was deliberately cautious in the rain. A broken part on the bike could end the race, and an injury in a remote area could become very serious or fatal with the time it would take to get help.
Speaking of crashes, my first and most sobering crash came early on. On one of the early descents, we entered a single track that was really washed out. With the rain we were riding in it looked more like a small creek. The dirt was eroded and the trail was shaped like a “V’ with exposed chunks of rock on each side and flowing rain water at the bottom of the “V”. Alongside the descending trail was a very steep embankment down to a river below. The embankment was typically 30-80 feet down, and was very scenic with waterfalls showing up regularly. It became tricky to navigate the “V” from one side to the other to avoid the rocks and drop offs. A few times I put a foot down and walked down the more challenging sections. But it was a seemingly tame section that took me out. In an attempt to thread the tire between 2 rocks I got my line wrong. I hit the rock on the left, which sent me to the right and over the embankment down towards the river below. Both me and the bike went over, but to the credit of the rain, the dirt/mud was now soft and grippy. So I came to a stop very quickly. It took me a few minutes, but I dragged my bike back up to the trail. One of my four water bottle cages broke off, but I could fix that (I brought lots of cable ties) and it was otherwise OK.
Forget it and move on.
There were a number of water/river crossings on the first day, ranging from a few feet to 20-30 yards. All very cold and a great way to let the bike get some mud off. Also a great way to keep your feet wet and begin foot rot. Not long after the first few crossings though, my front derailer completely seized up and I lost half my gears for the rest
of the event. No idea why but in hindsight it could be the cables clogging with crud. Could have been the crash too. Don’t know. The good news though was that it seized in the small chainring. So I could climb but couldn’t pedal at high speeds.
The last big climb (Tray Mountain) before the town of Helen and the 100 mile mark was just like the others. Brutal. And endless. Frustration was building because I needed to get to Helen before the gas station closed, and it was going to be closer than I wanted. I got to a point of the climbing where I was literally eye level with the mountain peak and STILL CLIMBING. YOU HAVE GOT TO BE KIDDING ME! How can I still be going up, there’s no more effing mountain! The exhaustion started making me a bit delirious and I began making up conspiracies as to why I couldn’t find the top. The bullshit finally ended and I reached the peak. By this point I could see that the sun was sitting just above the mountain tops and falling quickly. It didn’t give me much time but I was hell bent on getting off the mountain before dark.
What I didn’t realize what what this descent would look like. The first part was a enormously rutted out section that 4 wheel drive vehicles use as challenges to climb and cross. Like the stuff you see on youtube. So instead of bombing down the mountain like I was hoping (again), It was so difficult that I had to walk some sections. About midway down there was a hard turn off the road from hell and we moved to an overgrown single track section. Initially I was relieved as I knew this section couldn’t be carved up by Jeep’s and monster trucks, and should be smooth. Boy was I wrong.
The trail I entered was largely overgrown and clearly not used much at all. There were rocks that ranged in size from a lunchbox to a large suitcase that looked like they had been flung all over the trail. So much so that parts of the trail were again unrideable. And there was a very good reason for the rocks.
This section was mentioned more than a few times before the race. Those rocks are there because the bears like to pull them up to get to the bugs/food under them. It’s famous because this is a well know bear feeding area. One of the mountain bike forums says of this trail “Woody’s Mt Bike Shop in Helen says do not ride it alone! Lost and lots of rocks and lots of Bears”. Well, so much for that advice.
It kept getting darker. The sun was gone behind the
mountains. Owls were now hooting constantly. I finally gave in. There was about 5 minutes left of twilight and I needed to get my lights out. So I stopped to assemble my helmet light and the battery pack in order to continue. But it didn’t turn on. I took it apart and repeated. No go. I tried a few more times, but my time was up. It’s now pitch black out. My only guess was all the rain had shorted a connection. I began feeling around for my back up handlebar light and trying not to panic. You see, my biggest fear is becoming part of the food chain. I feel that getting eaten alive is the absolute worst way to go. And now I’m standing in total darkness in the bear cafeteria at feeding time. Add to that I was literally dripping with opened food wrappers and food on myself and my bike. My ass pucker was so severe that I thought it would cramp.
I was able to find the back up light and battery and plug them in by feel. I began the “Hey Bear” chant as I mounted it to the bike and finally got going. Problem was like before, a lot was unrideable. There were many large trees down across the trail in which we had to crawl/drag the bike through. It took way too long. In between fallen trees and stupid bear rocks there were a few rideable sections. In fact one of those sections I heard the very familiar sound of a rattlesnake. It happened so quick that it didn’t initially register. I must have ridden too close. Surprisingly that didn’t bother me. The 4 dozen hungry bears that my imagination had created terrified me. A very real snake? meh. Go figure. Certainly wasn’t going to go back to look for it.
The trail obstacles finally came to an end and I was able to ride the remainder with another rider who caught up to me with all my bike light incompetence. On a side note, with about a mile left on the trail, my helmet light came on. I think God has a sicker sense of humor than I do. Well played.
Hit the road and raced to the gas station with 12 minutes before closing. Dinner time! I got a can of chicken noodle soup, a can of beans and franks, a liter of coke and a bag of chips (and some water for the road). There was a group already fine dining out front and I joined them on the curb. We swapped a few stories. I was actually feeling pretty good. My knees hurt some, and back, neck, legs and hands all ached like you would expect in an event like this but otherwise I was good to go. My plan was was to continue on and try and get to 120 miles, because that is the top of a climb that follows with almost 30 miles of mostly downhill riding. I could potentially be napping at mile 150 when the sun comes up.
So I finished up my gourmet meal on the curb of the old gas station and started the next climb that I was told was most or all pavement. There were a few paved sections so far, mostly short distances, that connect the offroad/trail sections. I was told this was about a nine mile climb.
The smooth road was such a welcome relief to my contact points (hands, feet and rear-end) that I was almost giddy. As I began to plod along at the base of the next climb I noticed that my satellite tracker hadn’t blinked in a while. The Spot tracker is a device that was strapped to the bike and tracks my location so anyone interested can see my progress, but more importantly to me, it’s a safety device that has an emergency button that when pressed, will summon emergency services anywhere in the world. Given the remote nature of the event, this is pretty important, especially to me. While I want to think that this whole thing has some great importance, the reality is that I’m not Lewis or Clark, I’m not searching for the Ark of the Covenant, nor am I out looking for POW’s. I’m a grown ass man, a father of 2 and husband playing in the woods. So getting out safely in my mind was top priority.
After a few minutes of no blinking I stopped to see if there was a fix. Previously pulling my bike through some fallen trees back on ‘Bears Will Eat You Trail’, the bike came crashing down and reset my Garmin, so I thought maybe I just need to reset it. So I held down the power button a few times. Held down the other buttons, tried a few combinations of multiple buttons, etc. Nothing. So after staring into the complete darkness in front of me, I decided to head back down to the town where I knew some people were camping to see if I could get help with this thing, as riding solo through the night with no way to get help might not be the most responsible thing for this grown ass man playing in the woods.
Near the town was a small bike shop that had a dirt road and a grass parking lot where a few were sleeping. At the moment there were two people bedded down, and one of them was a guy named Graham who rode part of the ‘Bear Boulder Snake Death Trail’ with me and hadn’t fallen asleep yet. I borrowed his phone (mine had no service here) and called the race director. Turns out they had lost track of me for 5 hours and my wife had contacted him worried. Long story short my tracker was defective. He had a few on the course with problems. A fresh set of batteries are supposed to last around 7 days. Mine lasted 8 hours. He allowed me to take some extra batteries that Graham had (no help is allowed, not even from racers) to continue. I decided that I couldn’t trust the tracker through the night, and even though I was hopped up on a liter of coke, beanie weenies and ready to roll, that the adult decision was to stay put and ride when it was closer to sunrise. This was a killer to me for a few reasons. 1.) I felt good. 2.) I had only 3 days to get this race completed because of some time sensitive stuff that came up at work the previous week. So not riding through the night guaranteed I wouldn’t finish and 3.) Stopping means stiffness, and I’m going to hurt a lot more than I do now come morning.
So I pulled out my bivy (this is an emergency sleeping bag that is basically that foil blanket material that runners get at the end of a marathon to stay warm in the shape of a sleeping bag, but rolled up is about the size of my fist.) and my a bug net that goes over my head and laid down on the concrete slab next to the shop’s front door. Believe or not it was actually just as uncomfortable as it sounds. But a tired body will sleep and that’s what eventually happened. It’s not restful though. I kept waking up with both my hands numb from the jarring ride. Then it started raining yet again. So I had that going for me. I’m going to call it a bath. Multitasking.
Got up around 5am and packed up. I had about 90 minutes of riding in the dark before sunrise and that seemed acceptable. I got back on and my knees were swollen, stiff and painful. Reason #3 in full effect.
Back up to the big climb on the road, and while it was nice and smooth it was also nice and steep. Some locals actually marked a Strava segment on the road with spray paint and ticked off each mile, so I was reminded of my lack of progress constantly.
There was a steep descent on the road before entering back into the national forest and what was to be my final climb off-road. it hurt like the rest but the surface was much better or I was slower and didn’t feel it as much, and we climbed up into a low hanging cloud ,making the views something out of National Geographic. At the top was mile 120 and that meant that I had 30 miles of mostly downhill. My butt was becoming extremely painfull with swelling and saddle sores, but aside from that I was really enjoying myself. And the scenery was just so great. We’d pop out of a trail into a valley with 100 year old barns and sheep and cattle and chickens wandering freely. Then another hour of riding next to a rushing river where occasionally you’d see a fly fishermen. I saw in excess of 100 waterfalls, rode through areas ravaged by forest fires of years past, and not a single person had a banjo or thought I had a pretty mouth. It was a good day.
In my solitude, I was running the numbers on this tracker’s life. 7 hours was going to put me pretty close to mile 150, and 8 hours is about when it shut down yesterday. This put me in a great little area with one store and a couple of river tubing companies. After that you entered back into the woods for another massive climb (and descent). So it seemed like the logical place to call it. Getting stuck, potentially in the dark on a mountain with a dead tracker was what I was trying to avoid, so I got to the store/restaurant, and called for a pick up. It was time to end the adventure I was enjoying so much.
I called my wife, and her not know the whole story or my reasoning, said, “Are you kidding? You’re like the first quitter in this race.” Absolutely Savage. Ha! I need to rethink my whole “family first” “be responsible” bullshit! In my prideful defense it looks like I was the #18 drop but a quitter nonetheless. That makes race number 3 that I can remember that I pulled out of not due to a mechanical issue (#1 was my first marathon attempt at age 14, and #2 was Ironman Lanzarote). I was ok with it though. I felt it was the correct decision. And hey, if the creators of this event took 3 attempts to finally finish it, and with this years drop out rate at 55%, it seems that failing might be part of the process.
In the end, this was quite possibly the most interesting event I’ve ever done, and I feel I’ve done a lot of interesting events. I learned volumes with that experience that will help me prepare…for the second attempt.
*Some of the photos used were off of some of the social media posts . More photos here.