Saturday, I rode the Chequamegon 100 mountain bike race in northern Wisconsin, a notoriously tough race run on the amazing 300-mile network of CAMBA trails in and around Cable, Wisconsin. I got my money’s worth, and then some.
I was only snuck into the race after I mused to a friend that I didn’t have any races on my calendar between the Almanzo in May and the Maah Daah Hey 100 in August. As it turns out, he knew a guy who could get me into the Cheq, and another friend, Galen, happened to be going up there to volunteer.
Things having fallen into place quite neatly, I headed up north on Thursday with Galen. We planned to camp each night and help set up the course on Friday. I’d race on Saturday while he hung out, and then we’d do a bit of riding on Sunday before coming home.
Our leisurely drive ended at a lovely little campsite at Two Lakes Campground in Drummond (just a couple miles up from where we saw a bear crossing the road!). The spot was idyllic, dominated by greens and blues and very quiet except for loons.
On Friday morning, we helped set up a chunk of the course (which had the added benefit of acquainting me with a gorgeous and fun piece of the trail)
and then did some riding on the infamously hard Rock Lake Trail, a savagely difficult stretch of rocky, rooty singletrack. It was as hard as anything I’d ever ridden, and I was riding it with fresh legs in good, dry conditions. If I do say so myself, the Buffalo looked awesome:
For various reasons entirely under my control, Friday night was less restful than it should have been, but I was up and moving by 5:30 a.m. to get to the race, driving over with JB, a fellow Northfielder. Just as forecasted, a heavy, chilly rain started falling about a half hour before the start. By 7 a.m., everything – roads, trails, riders, bikes, gear – was thoroughly soaked. But off we went!
The opening few miles are on a gravel road, so we were not only wet but muddy even before we hit the needle’s-eye opening to Rock Lake. The single-file line of racers jockeyed as we moved along the singletrack. I let quite a few people pass me when I either bobbled an obstacle or pulled over to let them through. I was not enthused about giving up spots, but I could tell that I was in for a long day – my bike computer was showing an average speed of well under 6 mph – and I wanted to conserve every bit of energy rather than go hard just to keep a spot for five more minutes. When we reached a super-steep rocky drop called Wall Street, I was amazed to see many riders take the A-line down the drop rather than the easy dirt B-line. I took the B, and was pleased to scoot around unscathed. Discretion and valor and all that.
As I wound my way through Rock Lake, other racers became fewer and fewer. A couple friends like JB went by me, and I pulled back a couple people who’d gone out too hot, but I was pretty much on my own, and happy enough about it. That’s not to say I was happy, exactly. In addition to the oddity of my hearing aids popping and buzzing from rain getting into my ears (and my consequent fretting that they’d die on the ride), I was uncomfortably filthy, the mud was already causing the Buffalo’s drivetrain to act up, my front brake suddenly stopped working, and my tires were proving to be terrible in the mud.
And I was crashing a lot. I went down at low speeds and at slightly less low speeds. I went off the bike to the right, scraping my legs on the chainring and chain, and off to the left, trapping myself under the Buffalo. I went over the bars more than once, including one idiotic time when I simply steered into a tree and then flew into it when, sure enough, the tree stopped the bike. Just as I started thinking seriously about how I could lessen the chance of an irreparable bike problem or of breaking an arm or leg, we came off Rock Lake and I had a short respite in which to eat, drink, and calculate that I was on pace for a 21-hour finish of a hundred-mile race.
This was an impossibility. I didn’t have enough food or water to race that long, and I didn’t have any lights to ride at night. As I thought about my options, I came up on my friend JB, sitting in the grass at a road crossing, his face covered in blood. “I hit a tree,” he told me. “My nose is broken.” I dug out my phone to find the number for the race director, who’d need to know JB was dropping out. (As it happens, that was a fateful move, as my phone got soaked and stopped working later that day.) As JB organized himself to head back to the start, a couple other riders pulled up, talking exhaustedly about dropping out. One even claimed to be hypothermic, which struck me as odd given that the temps were in the high sixties and that he was wearing a long-sleeve jersey and knickers – all coated in mud and muck.
I headed back onto the race course as they were leaving, and at around that point the race became as blurry and indistinct as the view through my filthy sunglasses. I rode the Buffalo for at least eight more hours after that point, but I remember only little moments in the race. For one thing, the course is so complicated and my knowledge of the trails is so thin that I have little or no idea where I was at any particular time. The only constants were my efforts to get over the muddy, mucky trails, to focus on making the turns, to strive to enjoy the sound of the rain in the trees and the sight of the weak light through the trees, and to try not to crash over and over. In between the usual array of earworm music, dumb but profound sayings popped into my head, like how success is often just rising one more time than you fall. In this race, this was literally true!
At some point, a racer caught me from behind. We talked for a bit about conditions. She said she’d heard that many people had dropped out. I corroborated this. She said she was wondering if we could switch to the shorter, 62-mile race at the spot on the course where the two races diverge. I said I didn’t know for sure, but had heard as much. We traded a bit of intel about the track ahead of us: a short gravel-road section, then a really tough loop around mile 30. She headed off up the trail away from me, leaving me to consider my options. Since I was only getting more concerned that I might wind up with a broken bike or body, I started to really like the idea of switching into the short race, especially if – as seemed likely – that meant that I would still get in a solid ten or more hours of hard riding.
Amidst all that, I enjoyed the swoopy fun of the Danky Dank and Esker trails, which were challenging but not obscenely so. I did not enjoy Hildebrand Loop, which is rated as “Very Difficult” and might better be rated “Very Effing Difficult.” Racers who must have been the leaders of the 62-mile race caught me in this section, as did a number of others like my friend Finn Sunboo. I crashed my way through the loop, walking plenty of hard sections, including the dicey, wooden “No Hands Bridge” over a creek running into Hildebrand Lake. Relieved to get off Hildebrand, roughly a third of the way into the 100-mile course, I decided to reward myself with the Red Bull I’d been carrying in my frame bag. I eagerly dug it out, almost tasting the sugary fizz. The can was, however, empty: it had been punctured in one of my crashes and all the caffeinated elixir had dribbled out into my frame bag.
Expletives were uttered here, and I decided to definitely shorten my day by switching into the 62-mile race. Now, though, I had to make it to the course split and then ride 20 miles after that to the finish. Back out on a gravel road, my chain, which had been creaking and catching all day, finally jumped off my biggest cog and lodged itself very, very tightly between that cog and the spokes. I needed a good 15 minutes, or maybe more, to fix it, in which time drivers in two passing trucks asked if I needed help. Nice folks, Wisconsinites!
Getting the chain back in place was in some ways the last test of the day, because the rain stopped around then, and after the repair had a long, fast gravel-road section that my computer suggested would end at or near the magical course split. I hammered the road, feeling very much at home in the big ring, head down near the Buffalo’s bars. The rollers and sweeping curves carried me past mile 35 and on to 40. Just as I started to wonder if I’d somehow made wrong turn, I came across a guy sitting in a lawn chair on the edge of the road. “Almost to the checkpoint!” he shouted as I rolled past. I pushed a bit more and got there: a pop-up tent, some muddy trucks, and a few volunteers wading through the soupy mud. I tried to make my stop quick, first confirming with the race director that I could in fact switch to the 62-mile race, then drinking a Coke and devouring some sugary food.
I dunno how long I was stopped, but I felt refreshed and relaxed when I took the Buffalo back onto the course. The trails were now a little drier than they had been in the morning, and these particular trails were also much more fun to ride: aerobically challenging, but technically just right. In the woods, I realized that I could hear birds singing for the first time all day, and that I was really dripping sweat – also for the first time.
I enjoyed the work of trying to punch the climbs – including the ascent to the course’s high point – and then letting the Buffalo run down the descents, including some truly amazing corkscrewing descents that got less and less frightening with each turn. I stopped crashing, and even went long stretches without putting a foot down. More racers caught me, including some 100-mile racers who were now hours and hours up on me. But I felt like I was on the home stretch. The trails – now the long northwesterly Ojibwe (or Ojibwa, depending on the sign!) – continued to be much more fun than work, and far easier to ride than those early in the day. I almost – almost – regretted that the race was coming to its conclusion, and then looked down at my filthy legs, my muddy bike, my clanking chain, and thought, “Naw, a hundred kilometers will be fine.”
Around the time my computer said that I’d gone about 55 miles, my fatbiking friend Wisconsin Mark caught me. He was shocked that I was ahead of him, since I am way slower than he is (even through he’s 18 years older than I am), and then very relieved to learn that he was actually about 40 miles ahead of me, having done the full 100-mile route. I tried to hang with him as we wound through the trees toward what had to be the road section to the finish, but he got away from me.
Then suddenly I saw his red jersey on a switchback ahead of me, riding out a descent that was paralleling a road and thus had to be dropping to the end of the Ojibwe Trail. A few minutes later, the Buffalo took me down that descent, under a nice little archway, and out onto the gravel road to the finish in Cable. I put the bike into the biggest gear that was still working and pushed as hard as I could, seeing Mark off in the distance. When the gravel turned to pavement, I knew I was done. A couple more turns and I pulled into the finishing area, completely and thoroughly worked.
My friend Galen met me with a grin and a few words of sympathy. All told, I logged a solid 100 kilometers in a pathetically slow but brutally hard 10:45, good enough for 18th place in the “metric” field. Notably – and leaving out the complication that some of us stepped down from the long race to the short one – only 35 out of 131 starters finished the 62-mile short race (a 27% completion rate), while only 63 of 130 (48%) finished the 100-mile long race. (Even weirder, the winner of the short race needed 8:05 to do those 62 miles – almost ten more minutes than the winner of the long race needed to do the full hundred!)
At the afterparty, Galen offered to loan me his car so that I could head home early on Sunday while he and another Northfielder – neither of whom had raced – did a bit of fun riding. The drive home was slow and easy, and included way too many stops to take on and let out food and drink. I got home in time to have a great Father’s Day, which was perfect.
Two days later now, I am sure that I will be back to try the race again in 2016. I’ll definitely approach the race differently, in big and small ways. Assuming I can maintain my endurance base, I will have to orient my training around the challenge of singletrack. I need to get much more practice on true singletrack trail, for one thing. I also need to practice handling rough trail – logs, rocks, mud – when fatigued, which is a very different thing than handling obstacles fresh. I’m lucky in these respects to have some fun local singletrack to ride now – and to have the Maah Daah Hey as a goal and a gauge, exactly 40 days from today!
I’ll definitely also need to figure out how to eat and drink on a mountain bike. Unlike either fatbike or gravel racing, a MTB racing seems to offer very few opportunities for eating my preferred “real foods,” like trail mix and jerky. I survived the Cheq on energy chews, but I could kill two birds with one stone by using an energy drink that provides water and nutrition at the same time. And I definitely need to use water bottles, not a Camelbak bladder in a frame bag! (I dislike wearing a backpack, but maybe I need to go in that direction again anyhow…)
I’m even feeling a perverse pride in having some of the ugliest legs in Minnesota right now, thanks to all those crashes. They’ll heal.