2016 Cherohala Challenge Ride Report

On June 18, I completed my 10th Cherohala Challenge. It’s an organized bicycle ride hosted by the Smoky Mountain Wheelmen. [For previous ride reports see 2007, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2015.]

The ride follows this route:

My 2016 mileage is way down from recent years, partly because I had a rough winter/spring with rheumatoid arthritis.  But I’ve done this event enough times to know what it takes.  When I registered I was confident that I was fit enough to conquer it.  And it turned out that I was.

Here’s the start/finish line (Tellico Plains visitor’s center).  The cyclists pictured are waiting to start the metric century ride.  I got a late start, departing about ten minutes after the main group of full century riders left.

As a result, I didn’t see very many other cyclists the first 42 miles.

Cruising Tellico Plains.

Leaving the Plains.

About ten miles into the day, not far from this photo, I came across a group of cyclists huddled on the road.  Unfortunately a female rider had wrecked, in an incident that may or may not have involved a dog (I heard conflicting reports afterwards).  She was taken to the hospital, but I don’t think her injuries were extremely serious.

Frankly, I’m surprised I haven’t seen more crashes over the years.  The Challenge’s curvy roads and fast descents aren’t suited for inexperienced or distracted cyclists.  A brief lapse in attentiveness can result in disaster.

The first 20 miles are mostly country residential with a small dose of farmland.  I went several miles without seeing a vehicle on the road.

The route’s brief flirtation with civilization at Madisonville.  Pictured ahead, if I recall correctly, is the only traffic light in 113 miles.  I got a red light.

Crossing the Little Tennessee River.

Heading southeast toward the mountains.

If it looks like a beautiful day, that’s because it was.  You couldn’t have ordered more ideal weather: sunny (most of the day), a high of about 90F in the valley, not much wind.  Perfect.

When I got to Chilhowee Lake, my camera indicated the batteries were almost dead, so I severely rationed picture taking thereafter.  Thus I missed a number of good shots.  For example, I didn’t get photos of any of the”underwater” things that have been exposed by the lake drawdown.

I was feeling pretty good at mile 42 when I reached the Tail of the Dragon, with its famed 318 curves in 11 miles.  I finally started seeing/passing more cyclists.  It now felt more like a bicycle event rather than me riding solo.

There are several photographers who sit along the Dragon and shoot passersby.  Here are some of their captures of me:

Following a fancy car.

Do you think I caught these motorcyclists?

Nope.

My only complaint about this year’s Challenge regards rest stop #2, at the end of the Tail of the Dragon.  Usually they have a large array of food here–in fact, the last couple years volunteers served hot food.  But this year the station was dramatically downsized.  There were packaged snacks to meet my energy needs, but I was bummed because that stop is usually where I eat my “lunch.”

After entering North Carolina and passing Cheoah Dam, the road shadows the Cheoah River for about seven miles.  I used to view this section as just a stretch to get through on the way to something more exciting.  But in the last few years I’ve come to enjoy it more and more.  It’s so quiet in the river gorge.  There’s very little traffic, and the nearby ridges seclude you from the outside world.  This gradual climb is ideal for contemplation/reflection.

The last 43 miles of the ride are on the Cherohala Skyway.  Here’s what the climb looks like near the start of the 12-mile uphill slog.  It takes almost two hours of 6-8 m.p.h. grinding.

This is a high-effort, high-reward ascent.  There’s a particularly tough stretch (8-9%) leading up to rest stop #4 at mile 75, and this year did not disappoint.  Once again I was sweating so profusely that I could barely see when I pulled off the road to refuel and regroup.

I love this experience so much.  Many times throughout the day I looked about and thought, “I wish I could capture this moment and save it forever.”  Sadly, I could not.

Mile 82, the high point of the ride.  It doesn’t take much wind at this elevation to make me chilly.  But on this afternoon it was nice.

The last 30 miles are mostly downhill, but not completely.  There are two steep, mile-plus climbs for added suffering.  They’re elevated cramp-risk zones.

It clouded over when I got back into Tennessee.

To my dismay, my computer blanked out near the end of the 113-mile trek, so I didn’t get my riding time.  I finished at about 4:45 p.m.  Here I sport my finisher medal at the end of the day:

I’m glad I got to do this year’s Cherohala Challenge.  It’s epic.  And, with my joint issues, I no longer take being able to do this kind of physical event for granted.  I hope to cross the finish line again next June.

2015 Knoxville Community Band Christmas Concert

I play the trumpet.  With a few interruptions, I’ve played it since I was in grade school.  Since college, I’ve played either by myself or accompanying the hymns at church.

At the beginning of November I was overcome by a rare urge to try something new.  So I emailed the director of the Knoxville Community Band and asked him about joining.  He said they could use another trumpet player.  So the following Tuesday I showed up and slid in with the 2nd trumpets.

It felt strange being in an organized music group again.  I had not played in a band since my freshman year in college–over 20 years ago.  In particular, four things took some getting used to:

  • Tempo:  Band music can move much faster than hymns
  • Key/Time Signature Changes:  You’ve got to pay attention to the music
  • Sitting Out:  The trumpets rest quite a bit; you’ve got to count measures
  • A Conductor:  You’ve got to watch him

I joined the band as it was ramping up preparation of Christmas songs, which culminated in a concert Sunday at the Bijou Theater.  Here’s video and a few photos of the event.

I don’t get much camera time. One of the shots you can see me is at 37:37.

The view from my seat

Awaiting the start

The Bijou audience

I’ve enjoyed being in the band.  Both playing and listening to the music soothes my soul.  I look forward to more of it next year.

My Skin Ordeal

This is another post on my chronic health issue, psoriatic arthritis.

Over two years ago, after joint inflammation had mysteriously taken over my body, a new nuisance emerged: itching.

Large areas of my torso itched, and I didn’t know why. Was it a side effect of the drugs I was taking? My skin reacting to soap? Landry detergent? A new cat allergy? I couldn’t figure it out.

Eventually I stopped trying, coming to believe that it was part of my then newly-diagnosed condition–psoriatic arthritis.

Over the following months I developed a rash that came to encompass nearly half my skin: around my neck, under one of my arms, on one of my wrists/hands, across a large section of my abdomen and back, my crotch/buttocks, and a majority of my legs. It had a reddish hue and was mostly smooth, but in some areas there were bumps, too.

Some days I didn’t think about my skin, other days it was annoying.  At times I would awake at night scratching.  Sometimes I picked at my skin so much it started bleeding.

My rheumatologist, who said he dabbled in psoriatic arthritis skin treatment, opined that it looked like psoriasis, though not conclusively.  First he gave me nystatin to treat it.  Three months later he switched the prescription to fluocinonide. These cremes temporarily relieved some of the itch, but they didn’t reduce the underlying rash.

My ailment reached its peak this fall when my left thumbnail slowly died. Most of it came off a couple weeks ago.

Finally, I had enough, and reluctantly scheduled my first-ever appointment with a dermatologist (I hate seeing doctors). On the appointed day I went to be examined by a practitioner named Rash–no joke.

Ms. Rash looked me over for a couple minutes, then summoned an M.D. for a “what do you make of this?” second opinion. After taking a few skin “scrapping” samples to the back for enhanced examination, they tentatively concluded that my skin spots are not psoriasis but rather ringworm. Which is not caused by worms, but by a fungus. I’m covered with fungi, presumably.

If true, this is good news because a fungal infection is much more treatable. The dermatologist gave me a three-week course of terbinafine. After a few days I’ve seen a color change in some of the spots, consistent with this diagnosis. The skin has developed a white, powdery texture–as if I has been radiated, or maybe a fungus is dying.

I hope this ailment continues to clear up.  It would be nice to have normal skin again.

Lesson Learned: Sometimes it’s best not to make uninformed conclusions about a problem.  You may need an expert to evaluate it.

2015 Cherohala Skyway Fall Foliage Ride Report

Last week I drove to Tellico Plains, TN, to bicycle to the top of the Cherohala Skyway and enjoy the fall colors.

It was as nice an afternoon as I could expect in mid-October.  The temperature was 72F when I embarked at 2:00 p.m.

There was some traffic the first five miles along the Tellico River, less so the next six miles to Indian Boundary, and not much beyond that.

It’s easy pedaling along the river.

Thereafter, there’s a tough mile to the first overlook, then it’s rolling (but generally uphill) for the next five miles.

The serious climbing begins 11 miles into the Skyway.

I last did this ride five years ago.  Back then I reached the highlands after the leaves had peaked; this time I arrived before maximum color.  So it goes.

Common status during the long, slow (6-7 m.p.h) slogs: standing on and mashing the pedals, eyes focused slightly ahead of the front wheel, attempting to keep audible grunts/groans to a minimum, with a song repeating incessantly in my head.

The most vivid colors were red dogwoods and and other assorted red trees.

Conquering this road is a vastly different cycling experience than my typical rides.  There are rolling hills around Knoxville, but nothing strenuous like this.  It’s a tough climb–more so than going up the North Carolina side, I think.

Just as notable is the solitude.  No shopping centers, gas stations, or traffic lights.  Not even a visitor center.  Just a strip of pavement through the forest, with an occasional passing vehicle.

The aloneness with nature is a powerful experience.

I ran into issues when I got above 4,000 feet, near the North Carolina border.  By this time (~5:00 p.m.) shadows were extending on the east side of the ridge.  It was also breezy up there.  I got chilly, even while laboring uphill.

Moreover, I inadequately fueled myself.  All I brought was a granola bar and an apple.  That’s not enough to eat; I was hungry and running low on energy.

Finally, daylight was becoming an issue.  I had planned to be at the top at 5:00 p.m., but I was 20-30 minutes behind schedule.  I knew if I went all the way to the top I would be pushing it to get back before dark.

So four miles into North Carolina, 3.5 miles shy of the summit, I decided to turn around and head back.  I was bothered (still am) that after an afternoon of driving and climbing, I quit just short of my goal.  On the other hand, the prospect of freezing/cramping/bonking miles from civilization, with no support, was not a good thought.  Better safe than sorry.

Fortunately, none of my doom scenarios played out.  I warmed up once I got back in the sun.  I had enough gas in the tank to overcome the three returning hill climbs.  And no cramping.

I enjoyed one more hour amid ridges, lit by lengthening evening rays.  I got back to my car a few minutes before sunset.

Ride Statistics

Distance: 55.2 Miles

Time:  4:02

I didn’t see any wildlife during the ride, other than birds and squirrels.  But I did spot these cute bears in the Tellico Plains visitor’s center.

The End.

My Drug Addiction

I have psoriatic arthritis, an autoimmune condition which causes inflammation in my joints and skin.

For the past 2.5 years the symptoms have been moderate to severe.  For over 2 years I went through several different drug combinations, none of which consistently kept the swelling under control.  Despite hefty doses of immunosuppressants, I still had reoccurring joint flareups.  On the worst days one or both of my knees were so big that it was difficult to walk.  Some days I had a hard time putting on shoes or tying my tie.

Finally this summer I switched to a drug regimen which has succeeded in keeping my joint inflammation in check (although my skin is still a mess).  I can basically do all the things I used to do, every day, with little to no discomfort.  It’s also helped return my blood chemistry, pressure, and pulse back to normal.

The daily regimen consists of the following:

The good news is that these drugs have given me my joints back.  The bad news is that they do more than that.  The first three are capable of causing many serious side effects.  Infections, vision problems, diabetes, depression, cancer–to name just a few.

I would love to stop taking these drugs.  For most of my life I rarely took any pharmaceuticals, including aspirin.  But when your alternative to being a druggie is to be functionally disabled, it’s an easy decision.  You got to do what you got to do.

Hopefully research on the disease will someday soon present me with better options.  But for now I’m popping pills.