Buddy Trip 2012: Cheaha Challenge

“Toughest ride in the South”

Dear Izzy, Max, and Kate,

This weekend my buddies Bill Hampton, Daniel Tardy, and I completed the Cheaha Challenge in Piedmont, AL. We climbed the highest peak in Alabama (yes, there are a few mountains in Alabama) on our bikes. More importantly we kept a tradition going that we started in 2010; our annual endurance trip.

This year we changed things up a little. Instead of the Four Seasons like Austin or the St. Julien like Boulder, we stayed at the Bay Springs Motel in Centre, AL. It was a little different.

The room was clean and the locals were friendly though and we all acknowledged that it was good for us to simplify our travel tastes a bit.

We rented a pontoon boat on Saturday with the idea that we’d take it out on Lake Weiss and get in an open water swim in our wetsuits. On the way across the lake Bill jumped from the moving boat into the water…with his $150 sunglasses on top of his head. Like good friends, Daniel and I laughed at his misfortune.

45 minutes across the lake, we  discovered a secluded cove and swam ashore. On the other side of the rocks we found a deep pool at the base on a waterfall. The man who rented us the boat told us about a 45 foot high cliff that you could jump from into a clear pool, so we were sure we’d found it when we discovered the deep pool with a flat rock nearby. We each took turns jumping from the cliff into the freezing water. We had a brief discussion about our fears afterwards and what the catalyst for making the jump had been for each of us. I certainly know my friends strengths, but part of being a real friend is also knowing your friends “fears” and weaknesses.

That night we ate pizza as usual and then went to Anniston, AL to watch the pros racing at the Sunny King Criterium. It was a blast, and a reality check, watching how fast the pros can ride.

Sunday morning we left our room at Bay Springs at 6:00am headed for “the toughest ride in the South” the Cheaha Challenge. We lined up in the middle of the pack. Once out onto the open roads the pack started to break up a bit. We rode in the low 20s for the first hour. That’s fast when you know you have 4-5 more hours of riding ahead. Once we reached Cheaha park the rolling hills started to splinter the riders even more.

Daniel Tardy, me, and Bill Hampton at the overlook at rest stop 3 Cheaha Challenge

Between the 3rd rest stop and the top of the timed big climb there were grades of 9-10.4% with the final 3 mile timed climb averaging 5%. On the final climb I unzipped my jersey and decided to rediscover my passion for going uphill. I rode a moderate pace most of the 3 miles, but added a few hard surges. I passed a lot of people. I’m still waiting on my results, but it was a great moment for me emotionally. I finished 26th overall on the climb out of 338 riders without every going into my redzone. I was good at something again. The night before at dinner I’d told Daniel that I thought my days of being a “pure climber” were over. He didn’t accept that. And I guess I was wrong after all. Next year I want to place in the top 5 on the climb.

Cheaha elevation profile

We rode into a 25mph head wind in the final 20 miles. That wind was almost more difficult than the climb.

We get into endurance sports for a variety of reasons: to test our limits, to fuel competitive natures, to lose weight, etc. Those are all great reasons to get off the couch and get started, but they won’t sustain most of us over the long haul. One of the biggest factors that keeps us going is the comraderie and the friendships we make.

When I started in the sport 11 years ago I was part of a great training group. We trained together and more importantly traveled and raced together. Sure, our trips back then were mostly short jaunts to McMinnville, TN or Guntersville, AL, but the laughs we shared and joy of competing made our racing experiences so much more enjoyable. There were times in the early days when we’d sit up in a 3rd rate motel laughing, talking, and okay I admit it…having adult beverages until nearly dawn (with race time only a few hours away). We were having a heck of time and creating memories.

Me, Bill, and Daniel at Florida 70.3

Unfortunately I started taking myself too seriously somewhere along the way. The idea of racing got in the way of creating real lasting memories with other people. There were a few years when I wasn’t having fun anymore. I’m convinced it was because I lost those relationships. I wasn’t willing to travel with my friends anymore because my race goals were more important. Truth is, I don’t remember much about the races from those years. Like before, I was probably disappointed in my overall finish nearly every time. Triathletes are just that way. The difference was I didn’t have the stories and funny moments to soften the disappointment…or I didn’t my friends around me sharing in my excitement when I achieved a goal.

Thanks to Bill and Daniel I rediscovered the power of the buddy trip in the last few years. We’ve been to Austin, Orlando, Boulder (twice) and now to Piedmont, AL. I’ll never forget the memories we made on those trips: posing in front of Mellow Johnny’s in Austin after getting there just after closing time, jumping from the rocks into Boulder Creek, riding Flagstaff mountain, running Walker’s Ranch at 9000ft,  Daniel swimming across a roadside channel in Orlando on a dare, everyone getting car sick driving down from Magnolia Road, jumping from a cliff in backwoods, AL,  huge quantities of pizza consumed in each city, Bill losing his sunglasses, when I forgot to anchor the boat and it floated ashore, the list goes on. And those weren’t even the race related memories.

Bill, Daniel, and Me atop Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder, CO

Buddy trips don’t have to be flying across country to Boulder, CO though. It can be as simple as jumping in the truck with your training partners and driving to Piedmont, AL. It’s the people around you that matter, not the destinations or the medals you bring home.

I miss you kids and mommy terribly when I’m away on my trips, but they’re important for me. I’m hard wired to be a man and men are wild by nature. I have to explore that side of my heart and reconnect with what makes me a man from time to time. It makes me stronger for you and it makes your hugs and kisses that much sweeter when I find out that I’m still strong enough to take care of you.

You three went around me like velco when I got home. Always one for drama, Kate, you started crying and patted me on the chest saying “Are you my daddy? Are you my daddy?” Yes, Kate, I’ll always be your daddy, mommies husband, an athlete…and a man.

I love you,

– Daddy