For those who recognize my name, you may know my twin brother, Luke Heller, and it's without a doubt, (cough, cough, Mom and Dad), his fault that I am entangled in this whole randonneuring world. He lives in the mountains of Western Carolina and got me to join him and our buddy Ian Hands for my first 1000k to Crater Lake two summers ago in 2018. These boys are climbers. I am not; I'm a recovering triathlete! Not to be too self-deprecating, just stating this as a matter of fact: whenever I ride with AIR (Asheville International Randonneurs) I am no doubt the weakest link on the pavement. So I knew I wanted to be a better climber and I suppose that evolved into “The Goal” for 2020 when all RUSA-sanctioned events were cancelled.
There's plenty of good climbing where I live in Washington, DC, once you get out of the city, but that's beside the point. For years I've avoided all that and focused on my strength: riding on flat roads. I decided to tell my brother that we had to do AIR’s SR600 (not for credit of course, this was still during pandemic, mind you) because I needed to work The Goal. As you may know, Super Randonnées are mountainous Permanents of 600 km (373 miles) with over 10.000 m (32.800 ft) of elevation gain. I figured if I could manage that, then I could consider myself a climber (spoiler alert: I'm still working on this skillset!) Luke obliged me and we picked a date that would work for all of our buddies' calendars: Father's Day Weekend (since half the crew has kids under the age of 5, it seemed like a reasonable gift to ourselves that spouses couldn’t argue with too much). We decided we'd take the whole 60 hours and get hotels for TWO nights! We'd do roughly 300/200/100 and while there'd be hella climbing, there'd still be hella resting too. Easy, right.
Weather was looking good for the weekend and we set out on Friday morning at 5:16 am. We had 6 people in our crew and I was the only non-Ashevillian (Atlanta rando Brian Burke would later join us on Day 2). The morning was perfect and quiet; there was not a lot of traffic due to coronavirus as we began the climb to Mount Mitchell at 6000+ feet. I remember stuffing my arm warmers on my bike that morning, hesitantly, and later being glad I had them (Hellers are reliably underdressed when it comes to riding brevets). Before we descended Mount Mitchell in the middle of June, mind you, we had to put on rain jackets to stay warm (I'm sure that as you read this, everything I write confirms that I am still in fact quite a rando rookie – or as Hamid Akbarian likes to call me: a young Jedi – with much to learn). I remember seeing red spotted newts on this section and thinking about how beautiful they were.
We meandered north toward the Tennessee border. It became clear to me that while I might in fact have had the weakest climbing legs, I also wasn't doing myself any favors with my gears (a look at Ryan Prentiss' setup confirmed this). I made a mental note to make changes later (and by that I mean: have a conversation with twin bro Luke). As we made our way to the delightful lunch spot, Chris Graham spotted the most beautiful sight a forager could see along the road: a massive chicken of the woods mushroom. I knew better than to stop myself and slow my roll, but he, Ian, and Ryan collected it (and we'd later feast on it at midnight in the aforementioned sleep stop!)
We climbed to Carvers Gap at around 5000 feetand then made our way back southwest toward Hot Springs, North Carolina. Doing both Mitchell and Roan Mountain in the same day was one of the most rewarding feelings I've ever felt as an athlete (and it was also super fun and gorgeous). I was definitely riding a high and still inexperienced enough to forget/remember that day 2 is always my toughest and there'd be some carnage to come.
The start of Day 2 in Hot Springs brought a new friend (Brian) and Ryan had ridden back to Asheville and wasn't doing the whole thing, so our pack of 6 remained (silver linings of riding during covid: friends can come and go as they please and not run afoul of RUSA rules). As we climbed out of Hot Springs, me pulling up the caboose, I remembered Day 2 of Crater Lake and wanting to fall asleep on my aerobars while Ian tried to keep me awake with stories of Donkey Dan and Luke introduced me to Yohimbe for the first time. Those boys saved me. I then remembered riding back from Brest (somewhere) and feeling like death and dying and dragging and only being lifted back to life by another female rider (now a lifelong friend, Alina) who possessed magical superpowers and boosted my spirits simply because we were two women toughing it out on this really. hard. thing. we were doing. But no one brought me back to life on the SR600 and I started feeling sorry for myself. At one point we passed some road that would have taken me back to Asheville but Ian wouldn't let me quit. We peddled on. (Thank you, Ian). I think Luke might have smartly tried to scare me off of it by mentioning that the detour/shortcut involved gravel.
Then there was a crrrrrrrazy descent. The most fun descent I have ever done because there are no switchbacks. We passed people on motorcycles as I saw my wahoo say 51.9 mph!! I think the motorcyclists make shirts to say that they did this thing (we laughed at the idea). So I was clearly starting to feel better but as you may have already guessed from the title of this article, I suppose you could say I still have some unfinished business with the SR600....
My mantra all-covid-year has been that I don't need credit to ride and I just want to ride for the joy of riding. But it turns out that, for me at least, getting some credit may help get me to the finish line (maybe it's that terrible recovering triathlete in me?) By the middle of Day 2 I already started socializing the idea of quitting early and getting beers instead. I'm not really sure who agreed with me most, but no one seemed too argumentative with the new idea. We still had an overnight though, and I guess we could have continued the peddling into South Carolina, but the appeal of a 40ish mile downhill (and cutting out 6k feet of climbing, give or take) on Day 3 to wrap things up was just too tempting.
We said goodbye to Brian who was heading back to Atlanta and our group was now 5 riders strong. We began the long and spectacular climb out of Brevard to bag our last big climb of the ride: Mount Pisgah. There was dancing, silliness, and awesomeness at the top (see picture). I think we even had lighter loads because Brian had graciously offered to drop our bags back off at Luke's house. It was an easy day. We finished in West Asheville early and still had time for some socially distanced beers in the backyard of Ian’s house.
So, while there's still some debate about our total mileage and while Chris now famously refers to this as the SR480, I will still proudly refer to it as the Southern Appalachian Five Hundy. I guess I have to go back and attempt it again, maybe with better gears and stronger legs, perhaps next year, when more events may be back on the RUSA calendar. My brother Luke told me at the end "you know, I've attempted this 4 times and only finished it once." I was grateful he didn't tell me that at the beginning!!!!