Cherohala Challenge

The Cherohala Challenge is a 115 mile ride starting in Tellico Plains, TN and takes riders through the Tail of the Dragon and Cherohala Skyway. The full description of the ride is here, but in short: It takes you to the summit at 5,384 feet, and has a total climb of 10,350 feet. I’d never heard of this before until Rebecca mentioned it to me on a ride, and asked if I’d be interested. I promised to look at it after IMTX. In thinking about it, I was in. I don’t do many organized rides (since I don’t usually stop at the SAG stops and…that’s the point!), but this was a chance to go somewhere, do something different, ride a very challenging ride, spend time with friends, and well…it was almost like a training camp. And for those who know me, I’m all in for training camps!

I was stepping out of my comfort zone, and joining a friend on a ride where she had an aggressive goal. In other words, per her words, it will NOT be a Zone 1/Zone 2 ride. It will be hard. Looking at the profile, it will be hard. The fact that they had a special medal to do the ride in less than 7 hours meant it isn’t easy. And I had no idea on the effort it would require to accomplish that goal. No idea. I only had my rides in the Gaps as comparison.

overall map

Not being sure, I let the time go and decided to focus on what I could do and knew about: riding strong and consistent. I asked Rebecca to not worry about me: that I want to do well. I want to ride strong. I will ride strong. But I also didn’t want to hold her back from her goal. She wouldn’t have any of that and wasn’t planning on leaving me behind.

Strong for me, and my goal for the ride is: ride my Ironman watts where I could.

Where I could. No – that didn’t mean riding hard and then giving up. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. It was looking at the profile, knowing Rebecca’s plan, following it, and realizing:

  • The first 40 miles are flat to rolling, and will be pace-line riding. Naturally, my watts will be lower in the pace line.
  • The descents are plentiful and…akin to those in the Gaps. Not gonna keep my IM watts on the descents.
  • That left the climbs and the little tri bike friendly section coming in to the end to hit my IM watts.

With that in mind (and not overthinking the profile or what I was doing), the information about the ride/plan from Rebecca, and the quip from my coach to make my last 30 miles my strongest, I joined Rebecca and Kris for the Cherohala Challenge.

I thought, for this ride, I’d break it in to sections. Per the map below, I have sections A, B, C, D, and E.


Section A is actually the first 40 miles or so. Mostly flat and where the pace line riding mostly occurs. The plan was to sit in the paceline. I took my tri bike. It was the topic of conversation with the people I rode next to (outside of the compliments on how fantastic she looks. I thank Matt Cole for setting me up on such a sweet rig). Everyone commented on my rig, and asked if I did tris. And if they did too, why they chose their road bike. It’s all good. My answer was that I am comfortable on my tri bike, and I am willing to compromise some speed on the climbs to be comfortable, ride strong overall, and not be in tears at the end from being on a bike I am not as comfortable riding.

Note: I have a road bike, and it is a good bike. But I am not comfortable on it the way I am on my tri bike. My tri bike is mine. I can ride it for hours and be fine. I love to ride my tri bike.  For me, despite the technical disadvantages of taking my tri bike, it was worth it to feel strong and comfortable on a challenging bike course.

I managed to stay with the group where Rebecca and Kris were. I was back a bit. And actually got separated at a stop light about mile 20 or so. But, it was a flat section that was perfect for a tri-bike. And I was in a group, and we let a guy on a tri bike lead, and before the next turn, we had caught back up with our pack. Hooray!

I was able to keep Rebecca in site because of her kit – a pink and purple Zoot. It was fantastic. At one point I almost asked the two guys in front of me to let her know I was back there. But didn’t. So when I saw Rebecca and Kris turn in to the rest stop at mile 40 I turned in. They had no idea I was there with them, and had decided to stop there and wait a bit to see if I would catch up. They were over-joyed (and I was proud) that I had hung on in the pack on my tri bike. I stayed towards the back, winding my way through when necessary.

For the rest of the ride, Rebecca and I stayed together, and Kris would strategically separate at key times.

We went around the reservoir where there was quite a cross/head/other wind at times. I was on race wheels so with a cross wind my bike is a giant sail but…it was short and not fatiguing. And I trained enough with them it wasn’t a big deal.

And soon we reached the first real climb (Section B on my map) – The Tail of the Dragon. It’s a spot motorcyclists love, and there are companies that set up a tent every weekend and take pictures. There were there this weekend. Lots of turns (318 per the Cherohala Challenge website) up and down. We rode steady. My HR went greater than my IM limit at times, but not by much, and never for long. And my watts for the climb were consistently higher than IM Watts. So that was good.

Kris stopped at the rest stop at the top while Rebecca and I went on. The descent was sweeping and the turns not overwhelming. Yes, I used my brakes but….that’s my skill. We made good time, and at the bottom caught a small group and pace-lined with them. Making it a bit harder for Kris to catch us. Oops!

And then on to Section C – the three of us are regrouped now, and had mostly climbing but not yet on “The” 11.2 mile climb. Some of the road was rough, but OK. The pace line broke up. We passed some people. It was funny as people remembered Kris and Rebecca from last it. It’s a small group that does this several times, apparently. And female riders, and even more couples, are rare enough that they are remembered.

Somewhere during section C of climbing I asked if we were on the Cherohala Skyway yet. The answer? “Nope. A couple of turns and then a left turn and we are on it. This isn’t climbing yet.” OK – and so we climbed to get to the climb!

And now we reach Section D – Cherohala Skyway. 11.2 miles of climbing. I didn’t know how long it was. I knew the elevation change was big (> 3000 ft for this climb – and bigger than anything in the Gaps that I had done). I asked how long it will take to climb. The answer? About 1.5 hours. We did it in 1 hr 15 minutes. Well, 1 hour 20 minutes with our second (and necessary) stop for the day. And it was a good thing as I felt the heat. Rarely do I feel all out hot in my helmet, and here, I did.

The climb is mostly exposed in the sun. And it was getting warm. There is a rest stop half way up where we stopped as all of us needed fluids.

I grabbed a couple of pickles and jelly bellys, topped off water, and we were soon off.  I felt good again for about 3 minutes, and then the climb took hold again. Sheesh! You just keep plugging along. I was holding IM watts, but it was harder than on the climb of the Tail of the Dragon. Kris and Rebecca were ahead of me, but I kept them in sight (for the most part). We came upon a guy walking his bike up the way. There was a short down section just before I passed him where he got on and rode down. And when the climb started again he got off and walked. I kept plugging along.

Although the sun was still beating down, we were high enough it was cooler, and that helped. A lot. I saw the elevation sign for 4000 feet. We still had over 1,300 feet to go. And I kept plugging along. Watching my watts.

As we neared the top it is anti-climatic. There is a rest stop where Kris stopped (strategically) and Rebecca and I went on. But there is no elevation sign. The highest point in the region and no sign? OK.

Kris was supposed to rejoin us, and could have. Had it not been for a flat just before a 1 lane bridge/construction area, and some technical issues (and not lack of skill at changing a tube on a bike) that delayed him 30 minutes!

And we started to descend. And it just so happens this is the last 30 miles of the ride. The part where my coach said to make my strongest. Game on!

I had been warned there are kickers on the descent. So I knew it wasn’t all downhill. And I knew those kickers are heart breakers as at this point you are tired. And I felt it. I didn’t pass Rebecca for a bit as I didn’t feel my brain was in it. And my arms were tired from holding me up on my base bars in the climb. At the first kicker I took on some more water and nutrition and my brain reengaged.

I am calling out Point E because this is where I came as close to complaining as people will hear me. Not really – more commenting on the reality. I said “Crap” out loud on the second kicker. I, like most everyone, was a bit fatigued at this point. And that was enough. We knew we were riding well. Rebecca and I were working together. She heard me, and led the kickers with her road bike, I lead the descents and areas where my tri bike was happy to go. And together we got through and down the Skyway.  And to the small remaining flat-ish section back to the start. Where my bike got to play and shine.  Yeah –it was nice to have a little section where she (that would be my bike!) got to play.

I got a little ahead of Rebecca on the last bit of descent. I looked back and she was bringing along a few other riders! I held up a few seconds and then lead the way in. I heard her say something about the time – either we had made the 7 hour limit or hadn’t. I couldn’t tell, so I made it worst case (we had missed it) and decided to ride hard and minimize the miss. Plus – I had been told to make the last 30 miles my strongest. So I was going to.

And we rode in together. And we had made it! We “slayed the dragon”. We arrived somewhere between 6 hours and 51 minutes and 6 hours and 52 minutes. Total ride time. Our ride time without stops was about 6 hours 45 minutes. That’s not much stoppage time.

Cherohala Challenge
Rebecca and me after we had “slayed the dragon”

This was the first ride where I stood over my bike and was catching my breath after the ride. Holy cow. We rested a bit, and then meandered beyond the finishing area, looking for Kris. Someone else caught us and told us he had flatted, and he’d be along shortly.

Rebecca and Kris were my rabbits on the climb, and actually the reasons I pushed myself in the pace line, and really all day long. I wanted to ride strong and not keep them back. I just didn’t know if my effort would be enough. We worked together in many ways on this. They fed me the info I needed and used their experience to have a plan to make the 7 hour goal. And it worked. Holy cow it worked! Even with me taking the time element out by focusing on watts, it worked! That and the push from my coach to make the last 30 miles my strongest.

comfort zone

Pushing your comfort zone is a scary thing. But when you succeed….it’s amazing. And worth it. And even if you don’t quite succeed, it still carries many lessons to bring forward for the next time. And we are already plotting the ‘next time’.



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