Going out with my fried Galen to the Maah Daah Hey 100 in the Badlands near Medora, North Dakota, I figured I’d be in for a tough race. I expected the weather to be hot and the singletrack trail to be as challenging as the trails at the Chequamegon 100 in June, and I also knew that – thanks to a busy summer that ate up my usual time to ride – that I wasn’t in the very best shape for riding.
For those and other reasons, the race proved to be much harder than I expected – replacing the Cheq 100 as my hardest “dryland” day on the bike. I wound up dropping out around mile 55, after about seven hours of riding and (to me) a staggering 6,000 feet of climbing.
By then, a damaged derailleur had been keeping me out of my two climbing gears for a couple hours, my legs were empty, the temperature had risen to a furnace-like 100° F, and I had just started the third leg of the race, which included the most and hardest climbing. I hate quitting, but the call was a good one. Turns out, 70% of the competitors in the long race did the same thing. The race video says that the MDH is “the raddest race in the baddest place,” but you could flip those adjectives around and summarize the event just as accurately.
So while I didn’t finish, I’m eager to try the race again next year with better training, a better race plan, and a bike that’s better suited to the trail. (My sincerest apologies to the Buffalo, but this isn’t your thing.)
In the meantime, I’m going to savor the experience and especially the amazing scenery. I’d never been to the Badlands, and I found them jaw-droppingly beautiful. Sitting on a bike seat always makes a view at least twice as good. The coolness started before the start, when race director extraordinaire Nick Ybarra quoted a famous speech by Theodore Roosevelt (a local hero in western North Dakota, where he ranched before going into politics back east):
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena… If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This was an inspiring way to wait for the gun, looking west toward a nearly-full moon setting behind the buttes.
The first few miles were rolling and slow as the field separated. I stopped at one point to admire the last glimpse of the moon before it disappeared behind the buttes.
Not long afterwards, we started up a long switchback climb, one that other riders had promised would take 15 or 20 minutes – two or three times longer than the longest climbs here in southern Minnesota. A film crew was shooting the race from a helicopter that zoomed deafeningly up and down the course, and the chopper hovered overhead for a few minutes to get what must be gorgeous footage of the glinting line of riders zig-zagging up the side of the hill.
The Buffalo’s new X1 gearing was more than up to the ascent, which ended in a fast, fun section of prairie singletrack – much more familiar terrain, though our prairie here doesn’t end in sheer 100-foot dropoffs.
For the next while, the trail swooped up and down, always following the tall 4×4 posts that marked the trail. The high prairie sections were frequently interrupted by cattle gates: heavy metal gates that had to be swung up and out of the way, then dropped with a huge clang after passing. Not a part of Midwestern riding!
These flat, fast sections all eventually dove down into the arroyos that created the real drama of the race. Some of this drama was visual – stunning overlooks and amazing moments like when I riding west with the rising sun behind me, then turned sharply left away from a ravine. My shadow momentarily leapt out from beneath me so that my head was fifty feet away on the far wall of the ravine. Breathtaking.
The arroyos also created physical drama. They were often full of evergreen shrubs that the climate assured would never be trees but that smelled wonderful anyhow. We could ride down into and up out of most of the arroyos, but not all of them: one had such steep walls that we had to skid down and clamber up.
Whether up high or down low, the views!
Though the terrain varied almost minute by minute, the rutted singletrack was constant: grooves about six inches wide and anywhere from an inch to six inches deep. Any wobble caused a pedal strike or a slap of the Buffalo’s derailleur against the side of the groove – or even a crash if the front tire snagged the edge. I took a couple undignified but minor falls, and somewhere in this section bent my derailleur hanger, which led to one or two dropped chains.
These delays aside, I was surprised to hit the first aid station (at the amazingly-named Scairt Women Road) fairly early – well ahead of my schedule. I gassed up quickly, lubed the Buffalo’s chain, and got back out on the trail feeling strong.
The heat was mounting, though, and the trail soon entered some very dry areas – desert, basically. The trail now often traced the buttes, with a steep wall up on one side and a steep drop down on the other. Whenever the terrain went down or stayed flat, I continued to make great time, blasting along at speeds well over the pace I needed to maintain for a daylight finish. I even zipped through the infamous “Devil’s Pass” section- a few hundred yards of trail between two steep drops on either side. This section is like something out of a movie – like maybe the MDH promo video (see 1:20-1:30 for the Devil’s Pass).
Tight switchback turns were a dime a dozen, and sand or rocks in the apex of the turns made them extra tricky. Playing it safe, I would put my inner foot down and tap tap tap my way around the corner, leaning away from the drop on the other side. This kind of riding was new and scary and exhilarating. Coming out of shaded areas into the sun, I could feel heat radiating off the eastern and southern faces of the buttes. I rode past patches of prickly-pear cacti and even – once – honest-to-God cattle bones lying along the trail!
Whenever the inclines steepened, troubles occurred. Either from wear and tear (the trail was heinously dusty) or more bobbles (the gully trails continued), my derailleur began acting up more and more often, until I could not get to my two granny gears at all without the chain slipping off the biggest cog and getting jammed between the cog and the spokes.
I tried to tamp down my frustration at losing huge chunks of time when I needed to stop to put the chain back onto the cogs. I’d done harder stuff than this in harder races. But my frustration almost boiled over into anger when the chain actually snapped, just as I started a long hard climb. I’d thought to buy a couple master links for my new chain just the day before at the bike shop in Medora, so I could actually make the change and get going, slowly, again – but still without those two valuable lowest gears, and dreading the inevitable next big climb.
Watching the mileage tick by on my bike computer, I knew I was getting close to the second aid station, which – another rider had told me – came after a stiff climb on the far side of the Little Missouri River. I thought I could sense the river because the landscape began greening up, becoming more like the area near the start, which had been right on the Little Missouri. I saw some cattle meandering through the damper landscape, and when I didn’t see cattle themselves, I saw many of their leavings: cow patties right on the damn trail.
Here, the terrain was flatter again, too – floodplain. I crossed a trickle of water named Whitetail Creek, a sad little watercourse made sadder for flowing around the bloated carcass of a fawn. After a little more pedaling, I arrived at the Little Missouri. A couple other riders were on the bank, taking off their shoes and socks, but I decided to just get on with it and walked right into the warm, muddy water. I first pushed the Buffalo and then hoisted it onto my shoulder when the water came up to knee height.
The crossing only took a minute or two. The trail resumed in a beautiful cottonwood grove that provided the first real shade all day – which was pleasant, since by now the temperatures must have been near a hundred degrees.
Riding away from the river, the cottonwoods ended where the promised big climb up to Aid Station 2 began – a long, steady grunt along the face of a bluff that must have been visible from the floodplain. The ascent was tough but feasible, even with a malfunctioning bike and increasingly dead legs. I was still pedaling when I popped out at the top and rolled past reached the timer’s tent. She welcomed me in and warned that I had arrived just 45 minutes before the time I had to leave. Thanks to all the delays from fixing my chain, this was far less time than I’d hoped to have in hand, but the number was still manageable.
Making my way to the shelter where volunteers were handing out food and drink, another volunteer stepped out to greet me. “How’s your bike working?” he asked. I shook my head. “I think the derailleur hanger is bent. Can’t get to my two granny gears.” “Well, I can take a look!” Past him was a bike mechanic’s station, complete with a bike stand and a big set of tools. “You go have some food and drink and I’ll see what I can do.” Before I could even really assent, he had the Buffalo up in the stand and was starting to examine the wonky der.
Smiling folks at the refreshment tent provided me with Cokes, ice water, and some food – and a handkerchief that had been soaking in ice water. Thrown over my head, it felt fantastic. Adhering to Jay Petervary’s directive to always do two things at once whenever you’re not riding, I ate and drank while restocking my backpack with supplies from my drop bag, then tried to rest in the shade, looking out over the Little Missouri.
Also resting in the tent was Scott J, a racer whom I’d met for the first time at the start that morning. Scott was the star of “The Push,” an amazing short film about the Arrowhead 135 fatbike race in the blizzard-marred 2013. I’ve watched “The Push” dozens of times, drawing inspiration from how Scott had ridden and pushed his bike through the storm that hit during the race to finish in 52 hours.
Of the Maah Daah Hey, though, Scott said that it was the hardest race he’d ever done and that he was quitting.
This gave me pause. One of the toughest racers around, dropping out? Before I could think too much about it, a timer announced that the cutoff time was only fifteen minutes away, and that anyone intending to continue needed to leave a.s.a.p. From the other side of the checkpoint, the bike mechanic called to me. “149, let’s talk about your bike!” We talked for a bit about the Buffalo’s problems: he’d straightened the derailleur hanger and adjusted the cage, which had been twisted, and felt decently sure that the bike was ready for the second half of the race – including, right away, the 25-mile section that included the course’s toughest climbs and that would be run under the day’s highest heat.
I decided I needed to give it a shot. I thanked the mechanic, hurried through the rest of my prep (grabbing two cold cans of Coke), and mounted up. For about ten minutes of rolling climbs, the Buffalo worked fine, even in the low gears, and I felt decent. Then, on one steep ramp, the derailleur started clanking again. I shifted out of the granny and found that I couldn’t pedal the hill. Get off the bike. Start hiking. Feel the heat pouring down from the sky.
On the downhill, I remounted and rode till the next climb, which I rode as far as I could in a medium gear. Shifting down to my granny, everything started clanking again. I hopped off and checked the time. I was now about half an hour out from the aid station – just far enough that turning around would be futile, since the crew would probably have been packed up by now. So I walked that uphill and rode the downhill, then repeated it.
After hiking one long grassy climb that I could have ridden easily with a functioning bike, I stopped in a tiny patch of shade to consider my options. I could see a gravel road – one of the many new roads cut into the grasslands to service new oil wells – in the near distance, but I had no idea where it went. Comparing the mileage on my computer to the course map, though, I figured that I was about three miles from the next checkpoint.
I figured that if I could make it there – even walking – I could abandon and get a ride back to… somewhere. I took a pull of water (already lukewarm) and some food and started riding. As I paralleled the road, a truck came up on me. The driver slowed and shouted, “You okay?” I shouted back, “Nope! Bike’s screwed up.” Pulling over, the driver turned out to be the race director, Nick. After we determined that the Buffalo had reached its limit and that its rider was pretty close to his, Nick loaded my bike in the bed of the truck. My day was over.
For the next couple hours, I toured the course with Nick and a couple other riders whom we picked up, including one guy who thought he had a dislocated shoulder and my Twin Cities friend Ryan, who had a bloody face after a hard crash. When we stopped at the third aid station, the one on the end of the hardest stretch of the course, I saw at least a dozen racers sprawled out – sleeping, resting, dropped out, preparing to go on. Carnage, at least as bad as anything I’d seen at the Arrowhead in quite the opposite weather.
Though I still felt some pangs of disappointment over dropping out, I felt better about the decision when I saw just how far gone were some of these racers – and, more jealously, what kinds of bikes they were using. Not a fatbike in the bunch, and lots of full-suspension mountain bikes. Every few minutes, a racer would come down off the hill into the aid station, and they too would be on light trail bikes. Drinking water and eating potato chips from Nick’s truck, I made some mental notes on what I would need to come back and finish the race in 2016.