It’s one of the most grueling bicycle rides in the country.
Cyclists pedal 103.1 strenuous miles from Spartanburg, S.C., to Mount Mitchell, at 6,684 feet the highest peak in the East. They climb more than 10,000 feet in cumulative elevation gain.
Chests heave, legs burn, fatigue sets in as cyclists strive to overcome the force of gravity.
On May 18, during the 40th annual Assault on Mount Mitchell, the ride became a milestone for Raleigh cyclist Karen Kemerait, 49.
Kemerait, a triathlete and swimmer, was competing in her fourth Assault. Her goal was to come in under seven hours. She had trained rigorously in the past few months with after-work rides on weekdays and long-distance rides on weekends.
On the Assault course, Kemerait kept a steady pace on her 16-pound carbon-frame bike. With most riders far behind, she wheeled across the high-elevation finish line at Mount Mitchell State Park in 6 hours, 47 minutes.
That was faster than her three previous Assaults. The time ranked her third among 57 female finishers and 98th among all 530 finishers.
“When I came in at 6:47,” she said, “I was thrilled. I was very, very happy. … I was absolutely exhausted. I had trouble walking up the stairs (in the parking lot). My legs were cramping.”
The four cyclists who posted the fastest times celebrated by completing the ride as a group.
Spectators clapped as Scottie Weiss, 43, of Radford, Va.; Mathias Nothegger, 36, of Charlotte; John Overton, 36, of Wilmington; and Bradford Perley, 25, of Brevard, rode across the finish line in 5 hours, 25 minutes.
“We just agreed to all work together,” said Weiss, a pro cyclist who holds the all-time speed record for the ride – 4:54:48 in 2012.
Cycling her favorite
Kemerait, a swimmer since she was in the third grade in Satellite Beach, Fla., has long been an athlete in multiple sports.
Kemerait ran track and was captain of the track and cross-country teams at Davidson College. She graduated from Wake Forest Law School in 1991 and began practicing law in Raleigh. After running 5Ks and marathons, she moved up to triathlons, which include running, swimming and bicycling. Cycling was new to her when she began riding nine years ago; now she considers it her favorite sport.
Today, she’s a single mom of three sports-oriented sons: John, 18; Owen, 13; and Carson, 12. “I have to keep a balance in my life,” with job, school and athletic activities and her own sports pursuits.
Her first Assault on Mount Mitchell, in 2012, was more difficult than she expected. She admits she didn’t train enough. Nevertheless, she finished in 8 hours, 48 minutes and 54 seconds. That put her, a newbie, 572nd in a field of 767 finishers. “I had a tremendous sense of accomplishment for having finished it.”
The mountain’s siren call beckoned her back. Kemerait kept improving her speed. In 2013, she clocked in at 8:30. Last year, she broke the 8-minute mark, registering 7:25, 195th of 612 finishers.
“Each year I’ve learned so much more how to train for it. You have to have the endurance to do it. Or you won’t finish the event.”
Wind and rain
She carries her own food, energy bars and gels, skipping nine of 10 rest stations along the way.
“You have to consume a lot of calories to ride that long and climbing,” she said. Along with physical exertion, thirst and hunger, heat and humidity, riders sometimes also must cope with raw weather. “Wind can be really difficult as you get close to Mount Mitchell,” she said. This year, rain pelted riders.
To prepare for the 2015 Assault, she put in long-distance stints. They included a 65-mile ride that ascends Hanging Rock and Pilot Mountain state parks; a 65-mile Beech Mountain ride; the 71-mile Tour de Lure from Marion to Lake Lure and back and, on April 5, the 28 miles from Marion to Mount Mitchell.
“I trained really hard this year,” Kemerait said of her increased stamina. “You have to put in the training. It is a really grueling race, and you’re going to suffer in the last 30 miles up Mount Mitchell.”
The Assault is more agony than ecstasy. The toughest part starts north of Marion on N.C. 80. The steep, two-lane highway – cars go up in low gear – twists its way up 12 miles to the Blue Ridge Parkway. It’s pure punishment.
Conversation ceases as each rider, hunched forward, grinds his or her way uphill, pedals whirring. “It’s you riding up the mountain,” Kemerait said. “You’re pretty much by yourself and on your own in the climbing stretches. It’s very quiet.”
Was this year’s Assault on Mount Mitchell the easiest of the four?
“No. Each of them is equally as difficult and equally painful,” she said, “but I was faster. I think training and experience is more of a factor than age is.”
Jack Horan of Charlotte is author of “Where Nature Reigns/The Wilderness Areas of the Southern Appalachians.”
About the Assault
▪ The Assault on Mount Mitchell bicycle ride was started in 1975 by the late John Bryan of Spartanburg, S.C., and a group of friends.
▪ The average time for the 2015 male finishers was 8 hours, 11 minutes, according to the Freewheelers Association of Spartanburg, which organizes the ride. For female contestants it was 36 minutes longer.
▪ Robin Farina of Charlotte holds the fastest time for a woman: 5 hours, 27 minutes, 2 seconds in 2011.
▪ Although Mount Mitchell is 6,684 feet high, cyclists finish in the parking area, elevation 6,575 feet.
▪ Results of the 2015 rides and those of previous years are posted at www.freewheelers.info/assaults.