What and Why
Two years ago I heard Micah talking about some race in Marquette. One hundred miles connecting a bunch of the trails in Marquette County. It sounded passingly interesting. Sometime the next spring Starr decides she wants to run a 50 miler. The Marquette 50 was full so she decided to try the Marji since they opened a run category.
We headed to Marquette for the first time that June for a training weekend with our friend Jason and immediately started falling in love with the area. So. Many. Trails. Seriously, the place rocks. We made two more trips back that summer including for Starr to run the Marji. I pulled crew duty that day last year. It was tough. I was jealous. After watching my friends race I knew I wanted in the following year.
That may have been the start of my “year of the bike” idea. Right now I don’t remember exactly when I decided to do the year of the bike, but I knew I was going to have to be a heck of a lot better mountain biker than I was then to tackle the Marji.
With more mountain biking on the mind I purchased a new full suspension mountain bike. My Salsa Spearfish is a dream to ride. Putting a KS Lev dropper on it this spring has made it a very capable bike for the kind of riding I want to be doing.
I then signed up for all sorts of bike events. You know, little things like Mammoth Gravel 100, Trans Iowa, Almanzo Royal, Cheq 100, and Tatanka. So after a balmy and disappointing end to the ski season I jumped right into riding. And I did lots of it. Mostly gravel until May, and since then I’ve been doing more single track riding than anything else. I jump started some skills development with the Big Boy Skills Clinic in Copper Harbor in June as well.
The spring events went really well. By that I mean the weather was awful, but I exceeded my expectations on almost all fronts. I didn’t finish TI, but 262 miles is alright. Things started to go downhill after that. I underestimated the difficulty of the Cheq 100 and mentally checked out and quit at 65 miles. Then I prepped really well for Tatanka, but pushed too hard and bonked out hard with heat stroke at mile 35. I bounced back with an originally unplanned participation in the six hour race at the Wausau 24. In the final stages of prep I managed a solo 100k of Woolly. The icing on the cake was a three day hard/easy/hard training camp on my Marji rig, otherwise known as the Gravel Conspiracy.
I had an opportunity to ride with #blametodd a few weeks before the race. He asked what my goals were. I didn’t have a great answer. Sub 12 hours and a buckle? Sure, that sounds nice. We’ll call that dream land goal. Those are good to have, they keep you reaching.
Realistically though? I thought 14 hours sounded much better. Based on much improved bike skills and decent bike fitness I thought hanging in the vicinity of some friends from the year before sounded good.
The baseline goal though was to finish all in one piece. The hype is strong on the race. So many superlatives thrown around relative to this race. The hardest, the toughest, etc. I wanted to pull together everything I’d learned from riding this year and put it together here and finish the damn thing. Screw Todd’s DNF rate.
Despite everyone’s claim that I bring the bad weather to events this year, that just isn’t true. Sure I’ve been at a bunch of events with crappy weather (MGC, TI, Royal all rainy and cold, Cheq 100 and Tatanka both hot) but I’ve been to a couple of really nice ones too (W24 and GC). And there have been some awful races that I wasn’t anywhere close to like Lutsen and the Maah Daah Hey.
That said, for some reason the Marji ordered up the hottest weather of the summer for the UP… in late September. With a forecast high of close to 90 degrees and a fresh dumping of rain 16 hours before the event, it was sure to be a hot and sticky one. This nordic skiers least favorite conditions. Yuck. Just finishing sounded like a sufficient achievement for me. Process goals of staying hydrated and not overheating made the top of the priority well above any “racing”.
The Woolly crew also sweet talked Jeff’s sweetheart Lisa into toting a cooler of water around with her for us. Getting that extra water a couple of times before mile 50 was huge.
800 words and the race hasn’t even started. Clearly this is your first time reading one of my race reports if you are surprised.
Anyhow. Final race prep at the start area is good, lots of nervous excitement shared amongst the racers. The national anthem on bass by Evan was awesome. Bottle rockets and we are off.
Le Mans Run Start
Meh. 0.35 miles in 3:05 for a sub 9 minute mile pace and bringing my 2017 running total to 62.35 miles. I seemed to hear a lot less whining about running this year.
Forestville to Forestville
The first 17 miles are predominantly ski trail or double track. Sure you have to go up and over Top of the World. I’m sure it is rideable, but not with that many people around me or with the wet rocks. Rickles and World Cup were a little technical and there was plenty of traffic to cause some walking. But mostly this stretch was ripping down double track or finding that hopefully comfortable all day pace on the grinding climbs.
All told this stretch was just under 2 hours of riding. It hardly seemed that long, but that is the scary part of this race. You catch yourself saying it is “only so many miles”, but then you realize how long that takes you.
Forestville to Lowes
Shtuff gets real. After reading Matt Acker’s preview post I knew there was going to be something technical in here. That something happens to be the Pine Knob section of single track. It definitely brought me back to Tatanka and the hike a bike. The climbs were shorter though and the bike was more rollable. At Tatanka it was easier to just pick the dang thing up than try to roll it over the 2+ foot rocks. Here you could push it fairly well.
I rode a couple of the descents. I also took my first two spills here. The first was no big deal. The second I made it all the way to the bottom and then dumped myself into a tree. I halted my forward progress with my shoulder against the tree and my hand didn’t feel too hot either. I got more conservative after that. All told Pine Knob took me over 20 minutes to go one mile. For reference Matt Acker did it in under 10 minutes.
After that it was into the NTN North Trails for a trip along the Dead River. This was a nice return to ridable singletrack. Just before leaving the Dead River I executed my first of many brief water stops. I hopped of my bike quick and knelt down by the river to splash water on my face and over my jersey. Anything to keep from overheating. I wasn’t feeling bad at this point, but I knew I was about to start climbing predominantly for the next five miles.
The remaining miles from Dead River to Lowes are a mix of flowy trails, some technical gnar, and some punchy climbs. New this year I think was Silver Lead which was a fun flowy descent. Sadly I knew it meant we had to climb that all back.
Shortly before the Lowes was a small trail angel station. I took my first shot of pickle juice for the day there. Lisa met us at Lowes and was a savior with our cold water and additional goodies we had packed the cooler with.
All told, Forestville to Lowes was another 11.5 miles and another almost two hours.
Lowes to South Trailhead
From Lowes to the South Trails Trailhead is a mere 11.3 miles with 2ish of that on the paved Iron Ore Heritage trail. Piece of cake right? Except it was starting to get hot. These South Trails are pretty fun to ride with nothing terribly technical. There was a couple of decent sustained climbs that started getting me pretty warm. Particularly ugly were the wide open switch backs on the Pioneer Overlook Connector trail and the two track climb up to Top of Red. I wasn’t feeling bad, but I didn’t feel super peppy either.
After reaching the top of Benson Grade it was time to rip down Eh Line and into the trailhead. I even managed to PR Eh Line. Only 25 seconds off of Jason for the day so I’ll take that.
Another almost 1.5 hours here for a total of 5:10 to get to the first real aid station at mile 40.5 per my GPS.
Kurt was there with the Terravail lunch truck just like he was two weeks before at Gravel Conspiracy. His spread was awesome. I drank a coke, ate a couple of pickles, a handful of potato chips, filled my water, and shoved some ice in my jersey pockets.
South Trailhead to Marqutte Mountain
At the aid station I met up with Nate and Stu. We took off more or less together. It wasn’t too long up a burly technical climb on Gurly and I wasn’t feeling so hot any more. Or maybe it was I was feeling hot. Stu and Nate got ahead of me never to be seen again.
Right after Gurly you bomb down Doctors until you are about at the bottom of the Carp River valley and then you hang a hard left and start up Mount Marquette Road. This is a half mile stretch of gravel road that averages over 12% grade with some peaks around 20%. It took me 13 minutes to slowly walk my bike that half a mile and 320′ of climbing. My energy was definitely getting sapped after that. And I knew that immediately after that slog was a descent down Scary Trail.
Almost immediately after getting on Scary Trail I took my third big digger of the day. There was some off camber wet rock and I just slipped out and went down fairly hard on my right side. Skinned up my knee a bit and my right hamstring went crampy for a minute. I got back on the bike and continued down Scary Trail. I rode it fairly well a month ago, but I got a little rattled this time and walked one or two of the steep drops. I was also pretty tense and my arms were screaming at me saying there was no way we could ride another 50+ miles.
Without dying I did make it down to the river. I stopped for a few minutes to dunk myself again in the Carp River before beginning what I knew was going to be one of the longest sustained climbs of the day up to the top of Marquette Mountain. Things got pretty ugly in here. I was really starting to lose power. I ended up walking quite a bit and eventually even stopping to stand a couple of times. I was having flashbacks to Tatanka where I did the same thing. The difference this time though was that I didn’t actually feel sick to my stomach like then. Just hot and tired.
Forty minutes of pushing and occasionally riding my bike later and I was 540 feet above the Carp River and ready to head down Ezy-Rider. After chattering down the hill into the ski area parking lot I found Lisa again with life saving cold water and my food (which I didn’t want but took some anyway).
Marquette Mountain to Jackson Mine
From there it was across (under) the highway and getting on with chugging up Off Grade. I didn’t get too far before I found myself sitting on the side of the trail. I just didn’t feel great and thought I needed a good sit-down and cool down before continuing on. Looks like I probably took a 10 minute break there. I got back on my bike finally and kept plugging away, only to take another 10 minute break 20 minutes later. Eventually I got back on my bike again and plugged my way through Easy Street and Freak N Nature on my way down to the Lake Enchantment Connector and begin the climb towards Negaunee.
I certainly didn’t feel great here, but I was plugging away steadily. Based on descriptions from last year I was expecting this to just deteriorate into a beach ride all the way up. I’m guessing that the rain the day before helped because it really wasn’t too bad. Somewhere along here I ran into Christopher from Indiana. He was talking about keeping a positive attitude and that was just what I needed to bring my own positive attitude back. So I started talking it up too even though I wasn’t feeling it really.
We rolled into the Wurst Aid Station together. What a relief. The folks there were amazing. The ice cold towels to drape over your shoulders and head helped cool me off. I ended up sitting down in a chair while I was there. I was hoping that eventually I would feel cooled down and re-energized. Unfortunately I felt cooled down but my stomach was definitely turning. I finally had to just commit to rolling out of there on my way to Jackson Mine where I would re-evaulate again.
It couldn’t have been more than a mile down the trail and I started feeling a whole lot better. Somewhere along the way I caught up to Frank and we rolled and chatted all the way into Negaunee together. By the time I got there I felt like a new man and while I wasn’t ready to race the rest of the day, I certainly felt like not finishing wasn’t looming over me any more.
Jackson Mine to Jackson Mine
Despite feeling much better, I still spent a good 20 minutes screwing around in Negaunee. That stop included 4 or 5 pickle spears and a Solo Cup FULL of pickle juice. Not much else sounded very good, but that sure went down well. I changed my socks and put on one of my lights.
As I was getting ready to roll out Christopher asked if I was getting ready and if we could ride together. He was upbeat and I was all for it. So shortly we rolled out to head to Ishpeming and the ride past the finish line and back to Negaunee again.
About 10 minutes into our lap, out on Humpty Dumpty, I pulled a Humpty Dumpty. There was a steep uphill pitch and I got a little front wheel light at the crest and tipped over, off the side of the trail, between two trees. I left my bike stuck up there between the trees and rolled about 10 feet down the hill on my back. Christopher said something like “Oh dang, are you all righ….. ahhhh” and toppled down next to me. Thankfully we were both fine. Unfortunately in the fall his seat managed to pop off the rails. We tried valiantly to force that thing back on there to no success. He was encouraging me to go on without him. I wasn’t going to leave a man behind though. I was adventure racing now, not race racing. Eventually we got the gorilla tape and zip ties out of my backpack and we got it strapped on there well enough to continue. We did have to make another stop a few miles later to reinforce it, but he ultimately rode 20 miles of RAMBA trails with a seat ziptied and taped on!
Things were pretty uneventful after that. I felt really good and seemed to be riding technically sound. I still had to hike a bike the steep uphill stuff. I mean, this was 12+ hours and 70+ miles in on a 90 degree day. Somewhere before we got to Ishpeming the lights had to go on. There was definitely an adjustment period where I felt like I couldn’t see anything and my riding got far more tentative. That smoothed its way out eventually and you just get to riding in a little bubble of light as if it was perfectly normal.
We finally rode past the finish line… and back out into the dark again. I really have no idea where we were. Someday it would be fun to go ride those trails in the daylight. Eventually we got to the stretch of Iron Ore Heritage Trail again and we ran into mini crisis number two. Christopher’s light was dying and had gone into flash mode. Mine was starting to indicate low battery too. He was debating just rolling the trail back to Jackson Mine and calling it a day. I told him no way. If we had to walk the downhills together with one light we were going to make it. We ended up riding slowly down most of the hills so he could follow my line and shortly before we popped out onto the trail again his light died completely. But we were there as it was just a short half mile of pavement back to the park.
Jackson Mine to Finish
My plan when we got to the park was to get my fresh lights and then bum some lights off of Nate Ball to keep Christopher rolling. We had plenty of lights… but sadly I could not convince Christopher to finish the race out. So I ate some food and sorted my lights and got myself ready to finish. Starr had left about an hour and a half before so I was kinda hoping to run into her shortly before reaching Ishpeming so we could finish together.
As I was getting ready I made my next new friend of the day in Micah. He was ready to go and was definitely interested in a riding partner. Turns out we were both riding Spearfish, with droppers, and are bigger ski nerds than mountain bikers. Perfect.
Somewhere along the way we picked up Dan from Southern California. I was still feeling really good and it was kinda like a nice group ride. Of course it was after midnight and 90 miles into the ride, but still, I was having fun.
Somewhere near the bottom of Devils Descent, I found my exit from the trio of riders. I was sad to let them go since we were having a good ride and I felt awesome, but it’s kinda hard to leave your fiance sitting on the side of the trail in the middle of the woods at 1:30 am…
I’m sure she would have been fine on her own, but I know she appreciated some company too. So for the next two and a half hours I walked and scootered my bike while she shuffled along. I offered to trade my bike on the uphills for her trekking poles, but she declined.
Finally, at about 4:15 am, almost 21 hours after starting we crossed the finish line together.
I finished 95th overall, 78th in the open men. She finished 2nd overall, first (and only) woman! Yeah, she kicked butt.
So, I’m glad I finished. Significant portions of the race definitely sucked. Heat and I are not friends. The trails are definitely nothing to turn your nose up at. 100 miles with a ton of single track and 12,000+ feet of climbing. You can’t fake that.
Clearly I only met my C level goal of finishing. But the guys I knew were way more fit and better bike handlers than I am didn’t clear my B goal either. And that A goal… well… that was a dream anyhow.
I’m pondering if my C goal was enough though. I finished feeling great. I had a good time (after the stretch where I really didn’t). I really liked finishing with Starr.
But, the hype of the race, and most people’s reactions to it… “The hardest” “The most” “#unfinishedbusiness” etc etc. I dunno. I’m positive it was just that for many people. I’m sure I could have made it that for me too if I had pushed harder. But I didn’t, because I wanted to meet my C goal and I didn’t want to risk not achieving by pushing harder. Again, I don’t do well with the heat. Had it been other conditions I’d like to think I would have pushed harder.
All that rambling to say I had a great time at the race. It did challenge me to put together a bunch of everything I learned over the spring and summer. I’m proud of that.
I always finish with that. My watch knows what’s up.