“Sign up for this”, my friend Allison sent me a text with a link.
I registered and then sent a reply.
“What is this?”
The drive from Chicago to Ellijay, GA is only about 10 hours; a surprisingly easy trip south to experience The Trans North Georgia Adventure (TNGA) mountain bike race. And more than enough time to get Tina Turner’s “What's Love Got to do with It” hopelessly stuck in my head.
357 miles (574km) and 56,000ft (17,000 meters) of elevation incorporating singletrack, 4x4 paths, and backcountry forest roads were on deck. The race would start in South Carolina and end in Alabama.
The morning I arrived at Mulberry Gap MTB Park in Ellijay, everyone was buzzing while packing bikes and chatting gear. Mulberry Gap has been assisting with TNGA for years and would provide transportation to the start, from the finish, and would provide a welcoming oasis mid-race for those who choose to stop. We loaded our bikes onto trailers and drove to a hotel near the start line. Group dinner at a restaurant nearby gave us a chance to get to know each other. I met handfuls of people who would become friends and challengers later in the week. After a full night’s sleep, we were off to the start line at the South Carolina border.
Lining up on the little bridge between Georgia and South Carolina, you could sense the excitement. A completely different excitement from a gravel or cross race, it's a mix of knowing we’re going out there for the long haul and not knowing what “out there” is even. I heard it’s not the bears you look out for, it’s the hogs. One dude lost his front thru axle 5 minutes before the start, Koz (one of the race directors, and the main reason this crazy race keeps going) sent us off into the unknown.
I spent days on the route. Sleep deprivation + time of day + how many Twinkies I ate made for some weird thoughts, but here are a few of my favorite memories from the race:
Hickory Nut Trail.
I arrived at this trail at dusk. The stories people told about this trail made it sound like a horror, but, it was definitely worse in the dark. The entrance was hidden, narrow, and overgrown. The kind of trail where you follow the line on your Garmin into the abyss. There were big downed trees and bowling ball size embedded rocks. The best part? The bears. They flip rocks looking for grubs and then they let the rocks roll down onto the trail where they sit like dynamite. And at night by a headlight, they come up on you quick. I walked a good portion of this trail.
At the first gas station,
I was greeted by a few other racers. Sitting on the ground eating cans of soup and frozen burritos. I grabbed a chocolate milk, some soup, ramen, gummy worms, and a few bars. There was a campsite nearby and it was tempting to call it a night, but, I knew I wanted to try to push my comfort zone past its limits. So I decided to push on at night through the steep grade paved climb. Up and over, I slept for a few hours under a picnic table.
Coopers Creek Convenience Store
was the place where the physical toll of the race started to show. A few riders were there to be picked up. The youngest racer, Joe (15), came in shortly after me, shoved an ice cream sandwich into his face, and departed. I ate a breakfast sandwich and realized, for the first time, that I was doing relatively well in the standings. 4th woman and somewhere in the top 20 overall. I left the store and stopped about 10 miles later for a big breakfast of grits, hash browns, and eggs at Iron Gate - it was going to be a long day and I had some folks to pick off.
Mile 212 was Mulberry Gap.
It was around 11 pm so I stopped for some food and rest. They had cots in the main barn for folks to lie down and sleep. After a few more hours of sleep (for a total of six since I started the race), and a run of my soggy clothes through the dryer, I sat for a bit and chatted with some new friends. I can't stress enough how loving the people at this race were. Kind, considerate, funny, and badasses on the bike. I changed my brake pads and was on my way.
After Mulberry Gap, it was a long long day in the saddle.
Lots of singletrack on the Pinhoti trail. A 25-mile paved trek through a valley, during which I brushed my teeth and called my mom. And the gnarliest gap of the race, Snake Creek Gap. Characterized by rock garden after rock garden of baby head to baby bear sized rocks. Riding rigid, I was doing the “point and shoot” thing: lifting and moving my front end to try and find the best line. I was exhausted, and zoned out for a second, and then… I felt it. My bike rolled over the little rock garden. “Woah what was that?” I thought. I realized my hands and arms were loose, relaxed, allowing the bike to do what it did best, riding over stuff. I was stoked. I tried again in the next rock garden and *ziiiiip!* Nice. Through repetition and exhaustion, I learned to trust my bike.
On the second day, as the sun began to set,
I decided I would try and push through the night. Around mile 250, I ran out of water. Someone mentioned a horse stable having water ahead, but I never found it. It had been a few hours since I drank any water, so I drank the only other thing I had, a Red Bull. “Wings” is an understatement. At this point it was midnight and my mind was on 10. So much so that I couldn’t find the next section of trail. I looked left and found nothing but thick brush. I looked right and heard dogs barking at the sound of my light. I sat on the road feeling defeated. If I didn’t move soon, my Garmin would die. It was charging from my dynamo, a hub that generates power through rotation. And my phone was already totally gone.
I checked right again and found a clearing where a pickup truck with big cages in the bed for hunting dogs was parked. On the other side of the truck was the entrance to the trail and a creek. I set my bike down and got my filter and bladder from my pack. There was a nice big flat rock I could stand on and filter. I took one step and my foot slipped right out from under me *POP*. I landed square on the back of my head. Luckily, I still had my helmet on. My ears rang and my head spun, so I sat down in the creek and gave myself a pep talk.
“Okay, Sam chill. The dogs won’t get you. You have water now. You have to keep going. Yea ok your phone is dead so you really have no freaking choice, so get up.” I filtered the water and marched into the trail.
About 5 minutes in I saw two flashlights pointed towards me. I shouted hello. Then shouted again. It wasn’t until the two lights were right on me that one of the men said,
“Well hey! What’re you doin' out here so late?”
“I’m doing a mountain bike race from South Carolina to Alabama.”
“Oh yea I’ve heard of that, how do you know which way to go?”
I showed them my Garmin and explained a bit more about the race. They were so excited and amazed. I was relieved. They were headed to the top of the trail to call their dogs, I was headed there too.
“See you up there,” they said.
Halfway up, I heard a loud bark right behind me. I screamed from shock and hopped off the bike and spun around so my headlight faced the barking thing. A beagle mix was staring at me. I gave him a “Heeeeyyyy buddyyyy!” He barked again and ran up into the trees next to me. I faced him again and asked, “Hey are you havin' a good time out here?...” He tilted his head and wagged his tail. What a sweet, sweet boy.
Near the top, I was greeted with the two flashlights again.
“WOW! You are really movin' on the bike!”
“Yeah, I’m just walking now too…”
“I bet you go even faster when you ride then! I gotta get me one of them bikes… Someone like you has to have a lot of endurance. Its gotta take so much energy to… you know what… Do you want a Mountain Dew? It’s diet…”
I paused and looked up the little hill at the man. He smiled and held out a 16 oz can.
“Yes. Yes, I would love a Mountain Dew.” I took the can and guzzled it down.
“If you get lost, come back around and we will help you figure it out. You take care now.”
mI thanked them both and rode off into the night. One of the most seemingly terrifying experiences turned out to be one of the best of the entire race. Those men made my heart swell. Through repetition and exhaustion, I learned to trust other people.
After the dogs, the trail got very very rowdy.
Weeds taller than me. Spider webs that you could hear *snap* as you rode through, and downed trees so big that neither over or under were possible. I walked and rode this trail until 3:30 in the morning. Cursing and laughing and singing Tina Turner the entire way. During one descent I noticed two very smooth rocks at the bottom. “Wow,” I voiced, “Those are some smooth… WOAH!” The rocks popped open and ran away. Armadillos! Soon after, my Garmin threatened to die. I was on a big hike up and decided it would be best to lay down and rest for a couple hours. I lay my bivy on the side of the trail where the warm leaf bed was plush and surprisingly comfortable and closed my eyes. Blissfully free of worry; through repetition and exhaustion, I learned to sleep in the woods.
The first encounter with the Pinhoti trail was around mile 170.
A sign with a black and white bird foot was the indicator. I later learned this footprint is that of a turkey, Pinhoti means “turkey home” in a native tongue. 177 miles later, I was passing through the last town, Cave Spring, and was stopped by a man taking photos. It was Honcho, the race director. I stopped and we talked for a while. He is amazing. 10 miles to go - a bit of logging road and the last stretch of the Pinhoti. The singletrack was paved with pine needles and the trail markers were pinned perfectly to the trees. With no path really worn in, my head was up and looking for that next turkey foot. I emerged out of the forest and onto the gravel Forest road and was greeted by a turkey. I thanked her for a safe journey. I cried. Through repetition and exhaustion, I learned to appreciate nature.
This race was a defining moment in my life. Not only did I step outside of what I thought I could do, but I also stepped outside of my dated notions of reality. My perception of the south was one of hate and racism. I was incredibly biased. And I was proved so wrong. I’m not naive enough to think racism does not exist, but I would be wrong if I didn’t acknowledge the love and support I felt during TNGA. Not only from the racers and organizers but from people encountered along the way.
Multiple days of challenging myself (repetition), coupled with a wearing down of body and mind (exhaustion) forced (and allowed) me to accept and see things differently. And while I know my view of humanity is changed, I can only hope that humanity’s view of me, and people like me, has changed as well.
Sam Scipio was the 2nd woman to cross the finish at the Trans North Georgia Race, the 2nd person riding a single speed, and she finished 6th overall. Sam is a Liv Athlete, who can be found racing endurance gravel races, cyclocross, and endurance mountain bike events. She completed the TNGA aboard her specially-built Liv Obsess Advanced. Learn more about Sam HERE.