Neither of us was supposed to go to Six Gap. If we’re being honest, neither of us was completely prepared to ride Six Gap. How we managed to meet in a sea of 1,500 riders is still a mystery to me. But we did, and it changed our lives forever.
2020 was to be my second season competing as a triathlete. At the beginning of the year, my coaches and I sat down and prepared a full calendar of races, 12 in total, most taking place near my home in Tallahassee, Florida, but the big one was in May in Tennessee. Chattanooga 70.3 was to be my first half-Ironman, and we were ready.
But it turned out that the world was not, because in late March we received word that, due to the pandemic, the race had been postponed to August. That was fine. A bit disappointing, but fine. It hadn’t been canceled outright like most races, so we still had a big goal to work towards. Fast forward a few months, and another email appeared in my inbox letting me know that the race had actually been canceled. Dreams were deferred to 2021.
It was time to come up with some new goals for the fall. As a Florida girl, who’d always struggled climbing hills and had never ridden in the mountains before, tackling the Six Gap Century, a 102-mile bike ride over six monsters with 11,060 feet of elevation in Dahlonega, Georgia seemed like the perfect challenge.
In the meantime, a former runner-turned cyclist in Tampa was dealing with some emotional news of his own. Matt’s mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and sadly passed away in March. Couple that loss with the stress of working as a doctor in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, and he too was looking for a reason to get out of town for a little while. When a few of his buddies from Miami invited him to do “a bike ride in the mountains,” he gladly joined in.
Important facts to note:
- Matt had never done a century. His longest ride up until that point was 60 miles.
- The only mountain in Tampa is an overpass.
- A road bike with gearing for fast flats should be the perfect choice for a ride in the mountains. And, who really needs disc brakes anyways…
- There are no mountains in Tampa.
When I arrived in Dahlonega for the ride, I had every intention of doing Three Gap—the shortened 50-mile version of Six Gap. Because I had just started cycling one year prior, doing the entire ride was never even part of the discussion with my coaches. Do Three this year to get my feet wet, and tackle Six in the future when I had more experience. Matt and his buddies had intended to do the full century, but that soon changed after the boys climbed the first mountain.
As I headed up the first climb, I heard a voice behind me asking if I’d like some company. Since I was quite a ways back from my group, I welcomed the camaraderie. It was then that I met Mike, one of the members of Matt’s crew. We chatted about the joys of cycling up a 6% grade at 5 mph. When we reached the summit of Neels Gap, Mike met up with his buddies, and we bid adieu as they headed off to finish their ride. Once I made my way over to the aid station to rejoin my group, I noticed that we had picked up a new member. It was Matt.
Still wanting to do the whole ride, Matt was in search of another group that planned to do the full century. Later on he would tell me that he had spotted my coach and best friend talking at the first aid station, thought they looked friendly, and asked if he could join our group. That was the beginning of an eight-hour ride spent together climbing the mountains of Georgia.
Looking back at my GoPro footage from that day, we were surprised to learn that we had ridden together for the entire ride; we just didn’t know each other yet. Matt’s group had arrived late that morning, well after the official start, so they rode in through the entrance and waited alongside the road for an opening. My group started at the back of the pack, so for whatever reason, we ended up starting the ride at the exact same time.
Despite his lack of training on anything steeper than a Tampa overpass, Matt is undoubtedly a stronger climber than I. Still, he stayed right with me for the entire ride. If I’d ever lag behind, I would notice his cadence slow just slightly so I could catch up. Frequent glances over his shoulder told me that he was intent on making sure that I made it up the challenging ascents and down the perilous descents safely.
Eight hours, countless energy gels, one bandaged knee, a busted brake, and a jar of pickles later, and we had both completed our first Six Gap Century. I never imagined I was capable of doing something so challenging for my particular skill set as a cyclist. Matt never imagined that his first century would be a 11,060-foot climb in the mountains. But we did it, together.
Our journey at Six Gap was the most incredible, epic, unusual way to meet the love of my life—the only logical explanation is that it was most definitely by design. Since that day, Matt and I split time between Tampa and Tallahassee. After meeting my crazy group of triathlete training partners, he was inspired to start running again after knee surgery in 2017. Not only did Matt and I meet that day, but he also met his new coaches, who are training both of us to compete in our first half-Ironman together: Chattanooga 70.3 2021. Matt will be competing on behalf of the Ironman Foundation in honor of his mother.
2020 was a challenging year for us all, especially for athletes who trained all year for races that never happened, goals that were never attained, and dreams that were never fulfilled. Looking back, I’m so incredibly thankful that my race was canceled. If not, there would’ve been no reason to go to Six Gap. And I wouldn’t have met Matt.
There is always a reason things happen the way they do. I’ve found mine.