A Human-Powered Tour of the New Gorge by Matt Pascal

A Human-Powered Tour of the New Gorge by Matt Pascal

A Human-Powered Tour of the New Gorge by Matt Pascal

(A report from the 2007 Captain Thurmond’s Triathlon)

By Matt Pascal


The population of Thurmond in the 2000 census was 7. By standard birth and mortality rates, we can extrapolate that on June 10, 2007, the population was 7.3. But, at noon on that day, about nine times that stood at the train station behind a painted red line. They had clip-clopped there in mountain biking shoes after resting their bikes at the end of the old train bridge and fueling up with new-fangled engineered energy gels and bars all in anticipation of a rocky, muddy, and technical 12-mile bike ride through the thick forest, a 6.5-mile paddle down the Class 3/4 New River Gorge, and then a 5-mile trail run that gains over 1000 feet in total elevation. It would be beautiful, inspiring, masochistic, wild, and wonderful all at the same time. Captain Thurmond’s Challenge was about to begin.


A man walked to the line wearing burly chops and a black cotton suit with coattails. He was holding a revolver. The man next to him was holding a cell phone, making stark a contrast that looked to be about 150 years wide. Together, the two men started the race promptly at noon.


In the heyday of Thurmond, WV, the coal extracted from the surrounding mountains was loaded at the depot onto trains which barreled across the New River to be distributed to cities all over the region. On this particular day, the sound of that train was emulated by dozens of racers sprinting to their bikes and taking off across the bridge. Before long, the depot at Thurmond was quiet again.


Meanwhile, the race continued through the woods. For several miles, the cyclists, who included TRPC President Chrissy Zeltner, Outings Officer Jeff Knechtel, and yours truly, steadily climbed a former logging road through a tunnel of foliage, hopping over fallen branches and splooshing through mountain runoff. A turn in the course brought the group to a muddy stretch of singletrack, instigating flat tires, collisions, and crashes of the NASCAR persuasion. A second dramatic turn in the course introduced excessive speed as the race descended a fire road back to the river level. Wipeouts quickly became a terrifying prospect as knees dipped to the insides of turns and flat, protruding rocks became launch pads. Screeching to a halt, a 150º turn to the left brought the bike leg of the race to its home stretch while chains shifted gears for a sprint along the river, once again following the course of the old coal trains.


In Cunard, boats sat in anticipation of the next leg of the race. The WV National Guard had delivered them just before the race and then stood at the transition with water, ready to take the racers’ bikes to the finish line. Soon, cyclist after muddy cyclist emerged from the woods, taking advantage of the WVNG’s hospitality. Team racers passed their batons and together with the solo racers, they headed for their boats and splashed into the New River. A fourth TRPC paddler, Jason Harkobusic, entered the race as a member of Team Pittsburgh. A third of the race was now complete, TRPC was perhaps the best-represented club on the water, and the racers’ tired legs were crammed into their kayaks as they searched for the fast green lines through the rapids and around the flotillas of rafts that make the New River Gorge notorious. The race continued through the Keeneys, Double Z, Miller’s Folly, and other well-known drops and racers put their forward stroke to the test in the flat pools between them in an exciting chase.


At Fayette Station, the scene was much like that in Cunard. Running shoes sat lined up while spectators cheered each racer blasting through Fayette Station Rapid and into the river left eddy. The WVNG sat ready to take boats to the finish line. The New River Gorge Bridge loomed 876 feet above, reminding everybody exactly how much of an uphill battle the run would be. And it certainly was. It would slow most racers’ running paces by more than a third, and nobody would be ashamed to walk. The fist mile of the race goes up the take-out road and puts any fast running strategies into their place and the trail off of the paved road is even steeper, sealing the deal. Captain Thurmond’s Challenge was no longer a matter of finishing before anybody else; it was a matter of finishing. A lack of water stops in the now sunny afternoon assisted short downhill sections in tugging at the spirits of the racers because they meant that even more uphill was ahead. Fayetteville sits atop this gorge and in its center is the finish line. Two to three hours of this exhausting race had passed for most challengers and the New River Gorge was now serving its most demanding terrain.


The highlight of Captain Thurmond’s Challenge comes just before the finish line. Runners, still slogging uphill, enter the neighborhood streets knowing that the end is near. Local children on skateboards, bicycles, roller shoes, and even unicycles pepper the last half mile through the streets of Fayetteville giving high-fives and cheering. Paces are quickly brought up along with the spirits that had slipped in the woods. Then, for several hours, a stream of muddy, sweaty runners with smiling faces crossed the finish line in front of the Fayette County Courthouse in downtown Fayetteville. Families and friends of the racers cheered while dazed competitors searched for water, food, and a place to fall.


I am proud to report that I finished my second race this year as a soloist and will be returning annually for as long as I can tolerate the training and suffering that is associated.


Special congratulations to Chrissy Zeltner, Jeff Knechtel, and Jason Harkobusic for not only finishing the race, but also for earning podium spots in their respective classes. Special thanks to the WV National Guard for their logistical military genius in shuttling boats, bikes, and racers all over Fayette County, WV in such an efficient manner.