Death March Revival ITT Ride Report

 I don't know what got into me

Last year my wife, Courtney, rode all three of Tennessee Gravel's individual time trial (ITT) routes. And she really enjoyed it. But I had very little interest in trying to ride these long, hard routes as fast as possible - all by myself. I saw Chad Hungerford set the fastest known time (FKT) on the Death March Revival (DMR) route last May at 7 hours 41 minutes and I thought, "that looks miserable." I had a hard time imagining putting forth a constant effort, suffering for 7+ hours over these rough roads and long climbs.

That said, I did ride the DMR route last May - but I rode it with Courtney and a few friends. It was a long day out at a casual pace, completing the loop in about 11 hours. And that was really enjoyable. It wasn't super exciting - I might rather spend my time ripping down some singletrack, but it was a beautiful day through my favorite mountains. I had also ridden most of the route (excluding the Big Frog loop) with some friends in 2021.

A little background...

I spent my early childhood in and around Ellijay, GA - just southeast of the Cohutta Mountains. I remember Jeep rides to the "Ramp Patch," sledding trips up and down Potatopatch, camping and swimming at Lake Conasauga, and later - backpacking trips into the Wilderness area. I moved away for several years before landing back near these old mountains in 2021. Living on the DMR route for the last 3 years, I have logged countless miles on the roads and trails in and around the Cohuttas. I feel more of a connection to these woods and mountains than any other place in the world.

Courtney and I both feel like this route is our "home course." And over the last year, the thought of attacking the FKT became more and more palatable...

 A couple weeks ago, Courtney said something about riding the Death March. I probably surprised her when I said, "Let's do it." Our first choice was to shoot for Saturday, March 23 and have Sunday as an option if the weather did not cooperate. And the weather did not really cooperate - it rained late into the night Friday and was still damp and dreary Saturday morning. So, we pushed it to Sunday. And I am glad we did because the conditions were near perfect all day.

Bike Setup

When I rode the route at "party pace" last year, I did it on a rigid mountain bike. And I remember thinking I wished I'd put a suspension fork on that bike. The road surfaces vary so much. You can have very smooth fast rolling gravel or hardpack dirt one moment then slabs of bedrock and boulders another. The smooth sections are welcomed, but they can lull you into a false sense of security. You're cruising down the hill at 25 MPH, come around a turn or over a little rise in the road and WHAM, you're in a full-on rock garden. Two stretches of roads in this route are particularly rough. That's about 10 miles on the Big Frog loop (FS62) and a 7 or 8-mile stretch beyond the climb up from Thunder Rock Campground to Tumbling Creek (FS221). These stretches are more akin to offroad vehicle trails than gravel roads. They are properly rough.

With those roads in mind, I went back and forth several times trying to decided which bike to ride. The mountain bike would likely be safer, and more comfortable on the rough stretches of road... but what about the climbs and the faster rolling sections? I also like having multiple hand positions on drop bars... I knew if I rode a gravel bike, I'd want some relatively high-volume tires (50mm+). I ordered some 50mm Maxxis Ramblers, an AXS Reverb dropper post and a 40T chainring to replace the stock 42T on my Rocky Mountain Solo (shoutout to Cartecay Bike Shop). Well, none of those parts arrived in time for the weekend (shoutout to USPS). Up until Friday night, I thought I would ride my hardtail. But then I found some 2.1'' Vittoria Mezcals in my stash at the house. While the Solo doesn't officially have clearance for 2.1'' tires, I thought I'd mount them up just to check. And I'm glad I did! The front tire was no problem. The rear was a bit tight, but I wasn't concerned about mud caking up, so I didn't think it'd be an issue. Plus, I think it looks bad ass!

Kinda tight

Otherwise, it's a pretty stock bike. I'm running FSA AGX handlebars (40cm), a Ritchey Flexlogic seatpost and a WTB SL8 saddle. This bike has the SRAM AXS 1x XPLR groupset with a 10-44T cassette... I don't love this groupset. I would rather have the range of a 10-50T in the back for riding around here, but I didn't have that option this time. I intended to swap the stock 42T chainring for a 40 (easier gearing would have appreciated on the back half of this route). Because of the shipping kerfuffle, I wasn't able to swap the chainring but I made do. I had an Apidura top tube bag for some snacks. I don't have a power meter on this bike, but I rode with a HR monitor to try to help pace the effort. I dropped my chain once and nailed a rock with my front rim another time... Fortunately, the tire held and I had no mechanical issues.

While the 2.1's are not the fastest rolling tires, I felt like they struck a good balance with this setup. And they definitely helped smooth out even the normal chatter on the "good" sections of gravel. I think it was a good choice. Was it the fastest setup? I don't know.

Nutrition / Hydration

We started the route near Mulberry Gap (more on that later). That meant we would not be able to resupply anywhere - with the exception of getting water at Thunder Rock Campground (Mile 50). So, we had to start with all of our calories. Here's everything I consumed:
  1. 1 bottle Skratch Super High Carb (100g CHO)
  2. 1 bottle GU Roctane 1.5x concentrated (90g CHO)
  3. 1 banana (~20g CHO)
  4. 1 GU stroopwafel (22g CHO)
  5. 1 chocolate croissant (25g CHO?)
  6. 1 pack peanut butter crackers (25g CHO)
  7. 1 flask Flo Formulas Endurance Gel Mix (120g CHO)
  8. 2 SiS gels (2 x 22g CHO)
  9. 1 fistful of gummy worms (20g CHO?)
  10. 1 GU Liquid Energy (25g CHO)
  11. 1 Snickers Bar (35g CHO)
  12. 1 Maurten 100 CAF gel (40g CHO)
I finished with 1 stroopwafel, 1 GU Roctane drink mix powder in my pocket and about half a bottle of water. So, I think I planned it pretty well. There were times when I felt like I was forcing myself to keep eating sugary things, but my stomach never revolted. 

I opted not to take a water filter and rely solely on getting water at the campground. I went through 3.5 bottles and roughly 2.5L from my USWE hydration pack (starting with just over a liter and then refilling). Courtney refilled again at the spring pipe just past the Jacks River Fields campground... and I knew that was an option, I just didn't want to stop at that point. Fortunately, the temps were pretty mild and I never felt like I was behind or in trouble with my hydration. But I did start to ration my water in the last 15 miles... Another bottle would have been appreciated.

The Ride

I emailed Shannon at Tennessee Gravel last week and asked if it'd be alright if we rode the route starting from our house near Mulberry Gap. I assumed it'd be fine - that's what we did last year with a few friends. He said, no problem - just make sure to go down to Thunder Rock Campground and back. Maybe I should have informed him we intended to set some records. The recommended start of the route is the Thunder Rock Campground, but it really didn't make any sense for us to drive over an hour to the "start" just to ride our bikes back by our house, finish and drive another hour back to the house... when we could literally jump on the loop from the bottom of our driveway and finish right back at the house.

Courtney rolled out at about 7:45 AM and I planned on starting an hour and a half after her. This way, I thought I'd be able to catch her somewhere in the closing miles. But also, if she had any major issues along the way, I wouldn't be too far behind.

It was 40 degrees at 9:30, warm enough for me shed my vest and just start with a jersey, base layer and arm warmers (and shorts, of course).

My start at the mailboxes

9:30 on the dot

The first few miles were a bit chilly, but once I got up to Holly Creek Gap and climbed into the sunlight towards Taterpatch, it was perfect. I used my heart rate monitor to try to control the effort early on. In retrospect, I maybe went out a little too hot.

Bear Creek Overlook

I made my way over to Bald Mountain and started the long descent of West Cowpen, heading towards Jacks River. I felt like I was really rolling from here to Big Frog. Things were good, I was really enjoying it.

I hit the right turn to start climbing up the Big Frog loop, still feeling really good. I topped out and knew I needed to be careful on that descent. I took my time and before I knew it, I was off the loop and heading toward Thunder Rock. I started the descent to the campground and saw Courtney for the first time as she was climbing back up. I got to the campground, used the bathrooms, chugged a bottle, refilled it, filled my hydration pack, snapped some pictures and took off.

I felt pretty good climbing out of the campground. I knew the next stretch of road was pretty rough going - but it seemed to last a lot longer than I remembered. I got through all the chunky descents and punchy climbs, down to Tumbling Creek - which was a well welcomed, much smoother gravel road. Once you hit Tumbling Creek, it's more or less a 15 mile climb to the other side of Watson Gap. This was the hardest stretch of the day for me. I was feeling it. I didn't feel like eating any more, but I still had 30 hard miles to ride. My arms, neck, shoulders and back were killing me after all the rough descending.

I caught Courtney along the creek just after we crossed back into GA. That was the one bright moment during that pretty dark stretch of climbing.

A short section of this road was closed because of a washout or culvert work between Dally Gap and Watson Gap. I rode up on some baricades and tought "Oh no... I've ridden this hard for 5 and a half hours just to have to get off the route to go around somewhere..." But, I was able to ride right around it. It appears people are driving around it too. I took some photos:

Once I got to Watson Gap, I tried to rally. I felt like, then I was back on my home turf - back on the roads I have ridden numerous times. I just had a few more hills before the long descent off Potatopatch. But the climb from Jacks River Fields to the Mountaintown Creek trail was another tough one. Then again up by Three Forks. But after the Mountaintown overlook, I could smell the barn. 

I choked down the last bit of gel I had in my flask, finished the bottle of GU Roctane and kept pressing. I crested Potatopatch and tried to enjoy the descent as much as I could with my aching neck, hands, and back... Just one more kicker up through Mulberry Gap and I'd be home. I came through the gap at the county line, and it was all downhill to the mailboxes.

I tried to get the Mulberry Gap selfie... couldn't be bothered to stop.

County line

Vital Statistics

Finish at the mailboxes

I took some video at various places through the ride, but none after Jacks River Fields Campground. Here's the compilation:

I finished at 4:20 PM... putting my elapsed time at 6:50. When I started, I thought 6:30 might be within reach, but no. Not today. That was as fast as I could go. I hope this FKT holds for a while because I don't know if I want to try to go any faster. That was really hard. Beautiful, kind of fun, but really hard.

Courtney finished about 30 minutes later, for a time of 9:02. We both had pretty good days out there. 


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