95 Miles: Smyrna, GA to Anniston, AL on the Silver Comet & Chief Ladiga Trails
The whole sick story started July 3rd, at about 9 pm after Blake had emailed the Atlanta skaters (aprr) list to ask if anybody wanted to skate the entire 95 mile trail with us, and be able to provide a ride back to Atlanta. He was going to give up on the idea at 11pm and told me at 10.52pm that I had eight minutes, then would be off the hook. Then Tom called. He could skate with us and his wife would pick us up at Anniston. Tom and his family came up to Greensboro last Fall so that he could skate the Carolina Century - pretty much the whole way with Skatey-Mark.
While preparing our hydropacks and snacks/gels, socks, skategear and gadgets the night before, I was rather nonchalant about the whole prospect of skating 95 miles the next day, because it was 'just the rail trail'. I mean, how hard could that be?! It's not like A2A or anything - no big hills, right?!
Fast forward to 11am next day, July 4th. We set off from the trail head in Smyrna, GA, not far from where Tom and his family live. Tom's wife and 2 daughters cycled back to their house, and Tom, Blake and I picked our way through the typically crowded first 4 miles. I had decided to go Gatoradeless for the first time in years, with the safety of knowing where most of the water-stops and dodgy faucets were along the trail. Knowing that I can get water after X number of miles helps me sip sparingly instead of guzzling in a panic and bonking from hysteria. I started off with 48oz of plain ol' water, ice and about half a teaspoon of Elete Water. Tasted like a swimming pool. I told myself my stomach would be grateful in the absence of Gatorade later on.
Skating the first 13, familiar asphalted miles was a breeze of course, and we stopped at the Florence Road bathrooms to load up on water. The picnic benches were populated with cyclists, and one of them mentioned the guy from NC - Hammerheadsk8r, who was coming down to trek from Anniston to Smyrna...on his LONGBOARD! I was glad they reminded me and hoped to see him. I had read about his aspirations on http://silvercometga.com/.
Another cyclist at the shelter tried to alert us to the upcoming curvy and steep hills along the trail between Rockmart and Cedartown. Of the three of us, none of us had previously skated that section. But this is a rail trail! How twisty and hilly could it possibly be?! I replied to the cyclist that it's ok, we skate hills for fun and even skate from Athens to Atlanta on the roads for heaven's sake, plus we wear brakes, so it's all good.
My memory from that point to Rockmart is mostly lost because of what happened later. But I remember hitting the brushed and ridgy asphalt section at mile 13, settling in for that hard graft, and then passing Hammerheadsk8r and the longboard, giving him a yell and the thumbs up. We reached Rockmart and found the newer section of the trail weaving past the river, where locals were taking a dunk to deal with the fourth of July heat. We stopped at the spanky new bathrooms to refill water packs. This is pretty much where the trail went wacko. Ok, fair enough, I can handle picking my way through a strange, small GA town to stay on the trail - not much different from some training rides. But somewhere between Rockmart and Cedartown, somebody decided to throw in the challenge of some climbs that honestly would have been better off as steps up the cliffside.
While winding through a flattish section before we reached the nonsensical twisty hills that only a rollercoaster could handle, Tom realized his front wheel was about to escape due to a loose axle. He didn't have a tool with him. No problem! I had mine...except mine was an allen wrench and he needed a torx. Powerslide. D'oh! After checking road debris for odd-shaped metal that may work as a tool, and using small rocks to manipulate the screw back into place, Tom abandoned that idea and just took the front wheel off. Had we been on a true rail trail at this point, this may have been workable. However, we soon hit what has become aptly known as 'Surprise Hill'. Folks, there's a STOP sign and cross street at the bottom of that hill going West to East. If you see the photo, it's taken from only halfway up! All I can say is, thank God we were going up it. I had to pull over three times on the ascent to stop myself from throwing up in the blazing sun. What a strong skater Tom is though, to have made it up there on his heel wheels of his right skate and to try to avoid scraping and bending the nose of his frame on the concrete. And from my grassy-ditch perspective Blake hip-swayed it on up that hill no problem.
At this point I was trying like hell to ignore the fact that we were only halfway through the journey. I did take comfort in the knowledge of the relative flatness of the end of the trail in Anniston.
Some miles down the road we had started to wise up to the helpful 'Stop Ahead' signs along the trail. We reached the top of one steep hill and stopped to assess. Knowing Blake's Gatorbrake was finished for the day, and Tom was missing a front wheel, I decided to be a hero and ride my brake down the hill and call out 'clear' for the others. Half way down the hill I noticed the trail did not cross the street at all, and had only an overgrown ditch on the other side of the street, with who knows what rusty farm equipment or rattlers in it. Leaning hopelessly on my brake and adding up my options, I executed Plan B and bailed into an adjacent, rocky lawn. Upon hitting the rocks I slid into third to avoid stumbling forwards and braking a limb on the fast downhill. It worked - I just scraped up my leg a bit and busted a vein. Nice! After shaking and wobbling my way in side-steps down the rest of the hill, I yelled to Tom and Blake not to attempt to skate down the hill at any cost. They didn't reply, but were leaning over the fence, talking to the rocky-lawn house owners. Phew! Nobody saw me fall :-). The kindly residents were able to find a tool to help Tom get his wheel back on securely. Oh! Did I mention the deep pit of gravel at the bottom of that hill!?
After the first of many steep-downhill-dog-legs-over-train-tracks and local roads along this part of the trail, we picked back up and headed straight up the side of what felt like another cliff. Steps, people. Steps. Thanks to the Philly Freedom Skate, I can handle steps in my skates. Steep uphill cliffs - not so much. We concluded that the path we were attempting to climb would have been downright dangerous even for cyclists, too, going the opposite direction. Lady in the red shirt at the 13 mile bathroom: you were right!!. A few more downhill turns into cross streets and a run in with two ATVs later, we saw where the rail trail obviously picked up again with the Silver Comet at Cedartown. To my relief, Tom said he'd skated this section out to Piedmont, AL, and that it was regular ol' rail trail again. Woo hoo!
We spent a good half hour at the Cedartown Depot, buying cokes and stocking up again with water. Then came the steady climb up to the border on partly asphalt, mostly brushed, rough concrete. I was feeling somewhat queasy at this point, around mile 58, and there wasn't to be any water until we arrived at Piedmont, AL, around mile 75. It was a learning experience for me, to interpret my brain's signals from my body regarding its source of calories and hydration, and retraining myself not to expect a steady influx of calories from Gatorade, but to appreciate the belly comfort at the same time. Unfortunately, I was gagging on my rubbery hydropack water and the disana bottle was dry.
Happily, we reached the border where the Silver Comet and Chief Ladiga trails meet, and the smooth pavement starts! No water up there - just an older gentleman who had cycled over 100 miles that day, checking out possible water stops for an event. I think he thought us crazy for skating the whole thing and doubted we'd make it by nightfall. Having been there the same time last week, I knew we'd make it.
The section between the border and Piedmont, AL, has many little rocks slap in the middle of the trail, which the rabbits must've put there since nobody else is ever on that section of trail. My painful 70-mile toes wouldn't let me barrel through those rocks any more but had me tripping on every single one. I swear I heard the rabbits laughing. We picked up speed and enjoyed the lovely long downhill. An Oasis greeted us about halfway from the border to Piedmont: a couple of country folks chilling out under a tent beside the trail, selling ice-cold drinks and snacks. I had about $15 in my hydropack and was ready to blow it all on the whole lot. I asked the lady if I could plunge my hands into the bucket of ice-water. They were only charging 75c for drinks. I took an Accelerade because I wanted the calories: 4:1 carbs to protein. About 20 mins after slamming most of the bottle I got side cramps, and discounted it as a long skate energy drink for me. Approaching Piedmont, Tom headed for the chocolate milk in the town grocery store, while Blake and I guzzled two or three more bottles full of water at the Eubanks Welcome Center water fountain.
One last long slog to go. Twenty more miles to the finish! The sun was going down, the heat of the day sloped off west and we plodded on. I had an exhausted fit of the giggles watching Tom navigate the downhill ramp to a trash can at an 85ish mile water stop, cussing the whole way. My left foot was totally numb by now.
About 10 miles from the finish we realized it had to be 95 miles instead of 93, which doesn't sound like a big deal but after 9.5 hours, it's huge. My eyes were playing tricks on me as I saw an alien or two slip into the hedgerow ahead of us like on Signs. Tom sprinted on ahead for the last mile or so, to greet his wife and daughters who had been there in anticipation for an hour or two, and had even walked the trail some.
I don't remember much about the ride back to our car at the Smyrna trail head, but I do remember craving bacon (salt & fat!), buying a Wendy's Jr. Bacon Cheeseburger, inhaling it and feeling the calories practically evaporate immediately.
Drink: 48 oz Water mixed with Elete Water, 4x 48 oz of trail water, 1 bottle Accelerade, 5 x 12 oz bottle of trail water.
Food: 4 Power gels, 8 Nutter-Butter cookies, 1 Peppermint Patty, 1 package Goldn Chees Snack Mix, 6 Cheese & Chives crackers, a handful of Jolly Rancher hard candy.
I needed to eat about 10 minutes sooner than when I'm drinking Gatorade, and needed to eat 1 gel + 2 salty crackers every hour for the first 4 hours. After that I needed to eat every hour and a half.
[I've added a profile of our miles as skated, including minor side trips and backtracks, based on our GPS data. --roadskater]