As soon as I started puking, I knew I could finish the race. I leaned forward into the grass and vomited up everything I’d swallowed since noon: the sips of soda, water, energy drinks and gels, oranges, peanut butter sandwiches, dirt, sweat. In the darkness. I sat back on the gravel – pebbles pricking my legs – to get away from the stench and to savor the feeling of calm, empty guts.
Without the gurgly pinching of my stomach to distract me, I could read my body better. I felt mostly fine. My shoulders and wrists were tight from the trail’s pummeling, but my back was still loose, and my legs felt just a little fatigued, browned rather than charred. I drank some orange soda. Even the fake citrus flavor of orange soda in my mouth was pleasant, or at least not bad. A mask on the acidic tang of the puke.
Behind me, Stevie Wonder sang “Superstition” and the volunteer shouted to other racers as they ripped past on these few blocks of flat city streets: “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!” Someone pulled up and argued good-naturedly that since we were in Michigan, it was pop, not soda. Good-naturedly, the volunteer agreed. The racer murmured something to him. He replied: “That guy’s just puking a little. He’ll be fine. We’ll get him going again in a minute.”
It meant a lot to hear that. I was so fine, he could tell from twenty feet away. I finished the rest of the pop with pecking little sips, and stood up. No wobbling muscles, no aching joints, no head rush. At the checkpoint table, the volunteer instructed me, “Dude, have a pickle. Fermented shit. The Koreans and the Germans were onto something. Settles your stomach.”
“I’ve never had a pickle,” I told him.
“Never had a pickle?!”
”I mean, in a race. I’ve never had a pickle in a race.”
“It’s magic. It’s a magic pickle!”
He fished a pickle out of a big jar, almost empty. Salty, crunchy, tasty. I needed the calories now. As I snipped away at it, a light drizzle began, the day’s thick humidity finally precipitating. All day, the dew point had hovered just a few degrees lower than the mid-70 degree air temperatures – unseasonable warmth for far northern Michigan, on the south shore of Lake Superior. I’d been soaking wet with sweat and humidity since seven in the morning. The volunteer’s partner scrambled out of her camp chair to pull the food table all the way under their pop-up tent. “Don’t worry about this rain,” he told her, or me. “You can still see the stars, so this won’t last long. Just a few minutes.”
I had another pickle and looked up. The stars speckled white against a deeply black sky. The yellow dusklight had faded away into the hills to the west. The lights of the city of Marquette glowed to the east, a red arc against clouds over the lake.
I finished the pickle and had a cup of water. I asked the volunteer if he’d done the race. “Yep, two times. I finished the hundred two years ago and the fifty last year. Hard as hell, man! Just get out and keep going. Your pace, you’ll be done in five hours from here. 80 miles down. One more hour of this loop, then four on the last loop. Two a.m. finish. Longer if you sit at the park too long.”
More racers whipped past. One stopped, shotgunned a beer, and headed out again. I stood up to ready myself to follow him into the wooded ridges we had been riding all day.
The race had started fourteen hours ago at a campground outside Marquette. Todd and Danny had provided helpful directions to the right spot:
The start was a spectacle: the National Anthem on an electric guitar, some fireworks, a woman riding a horse made up to look like a unicorn. In keeping with the race’s ethos of silly sadism, we had to run a half-mile loop through the woods before we could climb on our bikes to head into the woods. I’d set up my bike – Needle, a forest-green Salsa Deadwood mountain bike, shock absorbers front and back, a bike I had acquired specifically for this race – the night before, and it was a pleasure to yank it up off the grass and start pedaling.
Starting a bike race with a not-short run was absurd (I needed six minutes to jog the lap in my cycling shoes), like almost everything about the Marji Gesick, from the course’s 105 miles of distance and 12,000 feet of climbing to the many long stretches of trail too rough or too steep (either uphill or downhill) for me to ride. These stretches were so absurdly hard that the race directors had marked them with warning signs: “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny.”
The distance, elevation profile, and especially the sheer difficulty of the trail had been, absurdly, attractive to me. I love long races for the dense feeling of having done them, a weight that I can carry around forever. I’m not earning any money doing these races; no, they’re costing me hundreds of dollars. If get a little beat up by the races, well, the hours of training – of devotion to an absurd goal – that keep me physically fit. I like this more than I should. I like looking down at the curved muscles of my legs and thinking, “I made them look like that.” I like looking further down my legs to the purple lines of new and old scars on my shins and thinking the same thing.
As my stoke for the Marji Gesick rose over the weeks before the race, I would catch myself savoring the future feeling of having finished the race. I would tamp this back down and think instead about other hard races I’d done, especially my winter fatbike races. I deflated some of my eagerness for the Marji by poring over my race-result spreadsheet. The facts were right there in black and white pixels: to date, I had finished only two of the six 100-mile mountain bike races I’d ever attempted. One had been shortened to 80 miles on the day of the race due to weather. Another, I’d cut short when the trail proved too hard for me. I had abandoned two races, including my first attempt at the Marji Gesick, in 2016. One finish came in a race that I see now was more a gravel-road race than a full-on mountain bike race. The other finish had come when I’d been accompanied every inch of the course by my friends Galen and Sarah, two stronger, fitter riders. Shepherds to my sheep.
Looking at that spreadsheet, visualizing the finish line, tinkering with Needle, riding long hours of training, I wanted badly to finish the Marji on my own. Or at least mostly on my own; I wasn’t stupid. I wasn’t going to turn down pickles or encouragement. I wanted badly to be able to say to myself, after the race, that I had met the challenge. And to say it to others, if they asked.
Meeting the challenge I had – absurdly – elected to accept, had paid money and spent hours and hours to undertake required a willingness, an eagerness, to approach my physical and mental limits. To touch those limits, even when they made me gasp for breath, made my calves cramp, made vision twinkle and narrow, made my puke up my guts in an empty lot at the edge of town. To back away from those limits, to circle around and make a different approach to them. With luck, I would find that the limits had moved further out.
I had some reason to expect that the Marji would have this effect. The race would be my thirty-first bike race of a hundred miles or more. But the Marji would be the toughest mountain-bike race I’d ever done, more akin to a winter fatbike race (thirteen starts, eleven finishes) than any other MTB event, much less a gravel-road bike race.
I hoped, in fact, that the Marji Gesick would be a long exercise in mapping new personal limits. Before the race, I had told a friend – absurdly – that I was eager to turn myself inside out, a bit of bravado meant as metaphor that had become absurdly real at the aid station. As I finished my pickle, I could see in the beam of my headlamp a dozen places on my arms and legs where I’d sliced or scoured my skin open. Plus also the puking. And now I was getting back on Needle to ride at least five more hours through the woods in the dark? Absurd.
I shook the volunteer’s hand and pedaled away from the aid station. On the hill ahead of me, I saw the lights of other racers strobing in the trees. Maybe I’d catch them, maybe I wouldn’t. The main thing now, as I rode onto the dirt and rock trail a hundred meters from the aid station, was just to keep up a consistent effort. Don’t stop unless it’s to eat or drink or rest, or maybe to puke again. I had already convinced myself that I was nearly done, that I was starting the home stretch, that I’d be done in time to sleep a few hours in my hotel bed before we drove home.
As hard as the trail could be, most of the Marji Gesick course had been – would still be – wonderfully good riding, some of the best singletrack I’d ever seen, and superb in so many different ways. Here, the trail was almost entirely rideable, as it had been for long stretches in the first half of the race: a ribbon of dirt and stones and roots. I was moving at a steady pace, still punching it up most of the hills and braving many of the downhills.
I was happy about this. The lore of the Marji holds that the last two loops – twenty miles each, mostly encountered in the dark – are brutally hard, much more difficult than anything in the race to that point. Endless “Blame Danny” and “Blame Todd” sections, lots of sharp climbing and descending, mostly or entirely ridden in the dark while fatigued if not exhausted.
I had been scared of this possibility. Of this certainty. Three years ago, I had had to quit the race at mile 54, nowhere near the last loops. I’d been overwhelmed by the sheer appalling difficulty of the trail – the supposedly-easy stuff in the first half of the race. It had been too much for me: the climbs too steep, the descents too scary, the rocky sections far too rough to ride or even walk. I crashed over and over and over. I cracked a rib on one crash, on the aptly named “Scary Trail.” Worse, I broke my derailleur. I could ride through the pain of the rib, but I could not ride in one gear. I abandoned and spent the evening and night rooting for a friend.
Going into this year’s Marji Gesick, I wanted to ride the first part of the course – from the start near Marquette to the Jackson Park checkpoint, at mile 65 – steadily and easily, making progress but conserving my energy for the last forty miles. I had done this, been surprised at how good most of the trails had been – how good I had not remembered them being.
I flew over smooth, winding trails from the start to the first unrideable spot, a massive rock outcrop called the Top of the World. Too slick and steep for me, I pulled Needle to the top, where a bagpiper played while dozens of racers took in the view to the north of the Huron Mountains and Lake Superior.
A few of us tried to ride back off the bluff – “Rider coming through!” – but most of us walked back down to to the ragged, rocky trail and resumed riding. I actually started to enjoy the break from pedaling when we’d hit the “Blame” sections and need to walk for a bit. Have a drink, have a snack, admire the gorgeous forest all around us. Heck, hiking over fifty yards of boulders draped across what would otherwise have been a fun climb and descent was easier on the body than riding what felt like a mile down an abandoned railroad track. Not a rail-to-trail path: whoever had removed the rails had left the ties, overgrown with grass but as smooth as a jackhammer. Riders pulled over to shake out their hands and wrists.
I spent much of this opening section in small groups of other riders. A little chatter, lots of friendly warnings – “Low branch! Sharp rock!” – and lots of energy. We’d slow to enjoy the scenery: clifftop overlooks, long narrow forest lakes, those endless stands of trees beginning to change for the fall.
We sped up when we passed through a big crowd of spectators shouting and clanging cowbells. Just before noon – about an hour ahead of my own schedule – we passed through Marquette. After four hours in the woods, the roar of car traffic jarred. We rode frontage roads and parking lots to a damp tunnel that sent us under US 41, a highway runs from the northernmost tip of Michigan to Miami – from Lake Superior to the Atlantic Ocean. The highway felt like a piece of home to me: I’d grown up a couple blocks from 41 where it runs through Hancock, Michigan, 45 miles down the road from its origin in Copper Harbor, and lived for years a block from the highway where it passes, as Lakeshore Drive, through Chicago.
On the far side of the tunnel, I took a short break at the first official aid station and then started a long downhill stretch of paved bike path. Making 15 mph with no effort and a full stomach felt great, charging me up for the turn back onto trails. I let my rear wheel buzz, saving pedal strokes for later. Though a bunch of racers had crowded the aid station, by the time I hit the woods again, I was alone again. No matter: these trails too were fast and fairly easy, skirting subdivisions on the south side of Marquette and the city golf course. Every turn seemed to reveal another green or fairway. Was this a 54-hole course, or what? A winding climb to the top of a grassy hill ended with a long view north to the lake.
Not long after that, the course popped out at a trailhead, the second official checkpoint and, surprisingly, a massive party: dozens of racers, scores of volunteers, even more spectators, and tables loaded with millions of liquid and solid calories. Mile 40. I was about an hour ahead of my 2016 pace, which boded well for the rest of the race, especially given that I didn’t feel tired. I was very hungry, so I decided to take time to eat and drink: water, Coke, PB & jelly sandwiches, some obscenely salty potato chips, some shockingly sweet orange slices. A feast.
I probably soaked in the atmosphere a little too long, and probably soaked up a little too much food – all of which I’d see again that night. But the vibe was hard to leave. A few racers were abandoning here, strapping their bikes to their cars and driving off. I liked the normalcy of the scene, a beautiful autumn Saturday afternoon : little kids riding strider bikes on a child-scale pump track, moms and dads and husbands and wives hurrying around taking care of their racers, volunteers bringing sandwiches and Gatorade right over to racers, even a new mom nursing a tiny baby, its dad giving her and the baby gentle kisses before heading back onto the course.
Honestly, I felt a pang of loneliness. I didn’t have anyone “crewing” for me, didn’t know anyone in the crowd, didn’t even really know where on the course I was. But that was part of the deal I’d made with myself. Do it myself, more or less. When I felt less hungry, I had a volunteer (I wasn’t completely alone!) fill my hydration backpack with cold water, strapped my helmet – soaked and stinking of sweat – back on my head, and headed out onto the course.
I probably looked like I was going to a funeral as I rode away from the checkpoint, thinking worriedly about the fact that this was where my race started to go wrong in 2016: crashes on the extremely rough trail just ahead and then a massive, exhausting climb up a gravel road. No time to be lonely. Between the caffeine and calories from the checkpoint, fresher legs than that year, and especially better riding skills, I hoped that the trails wouldn’t be as fearsome as I remembered. And they weren’t. The descent to the bridge over the Carp River was easy, and the river was gorgeous, even if a few filthy cyclists were wading in it.
Then – as abruptly as I reached the trailhead checkpoint – I emerged on the gravel road that climbed the back side of the Marquette Mountain ski hill. Ahead, I could see racers pushing their bikes up the incline. I clicked down to my crawler gear, dropped my chest and chin almost to my handlebars, and started grinding away. I passed almost everyone, appreciating the exhausted-sounded “good job” and “keep it up” encouragement.
A car rolled past me, enviably fast, and parked at an overlook. Somehow this broke my concentration, and I too needed to hop off Needle and walk for a bit. The bit of hike-a-bike freshened my legs again, so I resumed riding up the road, steeled for another ten minutes of climbing. No! A blessing: the course veered off into the woods. Curse: this was an infamously steep and rocky stretch called “Scary Trail” that I had walked in ‘16. Somehow, the bouldery, rooty garbage didn’t seem as brutal this year. To be sure, I didn’t try to ride all of that bastard, but neither did I feel like it was breaking me in half. The rocks and boulders and roots and mud were just hurdles to climb over. Kids hammocking at the bottom of one descent on Scary gave me a good-naturedly sardonic cheer as I hiked down. They’d have to wait for another rider to give them a show.
Scary turned into flowing trail that I remembered from three years before. Definitely more fun to ride – and more rideable – than Scary, this was where my derailleur had finally crapped out here. I had had to walk and coast to the Marquette Mountain lodge, where I found a ride back to the start. This time, my bike was working perfectly. I enjoyed how Needle helped me solve the roots and the rocks and the way the trail seemed always to be slanting away from the direction I wanted to go – almost identical to a favorite stretch of trail back home. Even the steep drops were fun. I found myself plummeting down ramps that I would not have even tried to ride three years before, or maybe even this year, outside of a race.
I also did not ride much of an incredible trail, like nothing I’d ever seen before, built from massive slabs of rock. A cobblestone road, for giants. A few other riders were hiking this with me; we traded spots and moved aside when a few intrepid racers came through on their bikes, moving powerfully over the rounded stones. I leaned later that this trail was called New Yellow. Had there been an original Yellow, or was the name a judgment of the cowards who wouldn’t ride it?
The massive rock armor on New Yellow turned back to dirt, a trail called “Easy Rider.” Compared to the impossibility of New Yellow, yes, sure, easy. But I realized that name was ironic after the tenth or twentieth steep downhill drop. Maybe a little guilty from hiking New Yellow, here I pushed myself to ride a little further down the slants, a little harder over the rocks. I could hear car traffic through the trees, always a sign of civilization, and then the trail pitched me out into the ski hill parking lot. A few more racers were quitting here, loading up their Subarus and Tacomas with dirty mountain bikes. This year, not me. A volunteer was manning a small aid station at the far end of the lot. I stopped there to jokingly complain that Easy Rider had not been easy riding. He just laughed – well trained by Todd and Danny to show no mercy. He pointed me toward the next section, some of the easiest in the race: a little more straightforward singletrack and then miles of gently uphill bike path to Negaunee and the first pass through Jackson Park.
Riding the singletrack, my stomach didn’t feel right. I hadn’t noticed on the demanding stuff on the other side of the mountain. Everything from sternum to navel felt churny and tart, empty and growling. I took an energy gel, a few sips of nutrition drink, a handful of cashews, and hoped everything would settle. If not here on the ride up to Negaunee, then maybe at the checkpoint. On the path, I could shift into a higher gear and crank along at 10, 12, 15 miles an hour, luxurious speeds that let me catch a couple other racers – visible ahead on the straight path – while still relaxing. While I pedaled, I reviewed the food and drink I had in my drop bag at the checkpoint: Red Bull, canned coffee, Fritos, cheese, little sausages. None of it sounded interesting or appetizing. This was familiar; I often – maybe always – feel this way about food and drink during races, especially long ones.
I caught up to a racer who saw my name on my number plate as I approached. “Hey, I know you! Or of you!” He introduced himself – Dan. We’d never met, but he was the friend of friends, and lived just up the road from me back in Minnesota. 400 miles from home, and here I was meeting someone who lived 15 miles from me. We chatted as we rode along. He planned to drop out at the checkpoint, too worn about by the 60 miles we’d covered so far to contemplate tackling another 45. I complained about my stomach, saying I was going to find a store in town where I could get some ginger pills.
“Oh, man, here, have mine!” He dug out a baggie full of gray-green ginger pills and passed it to me. Ten bucks worth, handed over as casually as a pretty leaf he’d found on the trail.
He laughed. “I won’t need them now. Take two every hour or so.”
I one-handed the baggie open and fished out two pills. A swallow of water washed them down. I imagined they started working immediately.
We talked a little bit more as the path improved, flattened, started passing signs about the area’s history as a center of mining. I really wanted to stop to read the sign about “Mules in the Mines,” but didn’t. After seeing wetlands and scrubby woods for miles, we now started crossing streets, passing houses. I could hear cheering in the distance. From the crowd at a high school game or something? No, from spectators at the checkpoint. Then we were there, and they were cheering for Dan and me as we rode into Jackson Park.
The cheers were energizing, motivating me to take a solid rest: to sit in a chair (or at least on the ground), to eat some of my food and drink something besides my nutrition drink, to not move for a while. I laid Needle down and dropped to the grass next to it. I looked for Dan, already lost in the crowd. I made a mental note to friend him on Facebook. A volunteer brought my drop bag over to me without even being asked. I opened it. Though the food looked gross, I dutifully followed my plan: down one of the sugary coffee drinks, put one Red Bull in my frame bag, refill my cashews and open the Fritos and stash both in one of my handlebar bags, eat some Pringles, drink some soda.
My stomach disliked this effort to get calories, and especially fluids. I’d lost god knows how much water over the, what, ten hours since the start. Ten hours. That’s a long day on the bike, and with the hardest trails still ahead of me, I was probably less than half done with the race.
Ten more hours? Twelve? More? I watched racers come and go – some back onto the course, some to their cars. The racers’ appearance didn’t correlate with what they were doing: some riders looked fresh as they let someone else walk their bikes over to the parking lot. Other riders looked blasted as they pedaled out of the checkpoint to the course.
I felt solitary, not lonely as I had at the bustling trailhead checkpoint back in Marquette, 25 miles ago. I was glad that I didn’t have anyone crewing for me; I’d feel guilty at making them wait and do my dirty work, and guiltier as making them wait for me to finish. Maybe to worry about me out there in the dark. I didn’t care if I had fifteen more hours to ride. I wanted to do this next loop, return to this checkpoint, and then do the final loop. I had to be in and out of the checkpoint by 2 a.m., the cutoff for starting the last loop. With luck I’d be back here by midnight and long out on the course by 2. Regardless, I was fine with it. I had come all this way for this particular challenge.
Having planned to get to this spot in the race before dark, I now needed to set up my lights for overnight riding. I fixed a headlamp to my helmet with some of the thousand black zip ties that I carry with me at all times. The racer next to me noticed. “Hey, man, can I borrow just a few zip ties? This guy” – he pointed to another racer, packing up to quit – “gave me an extra light, only I don’t have a mount.” This light was absurdly small, the sort of light you put on the handlebars to ward off drivers on daytime streets, not the sort that you need to ride all night in the woods.
“Sure, take as many as you need.” He took a few, took some more, took a few more. He narrated his progress as he worked. By the time he was done, the tiny light was almost swaddled in black zip ties. “Great! I think that’ll work!” He tidied up his drop bag and thanked me and hopped back on his bike.
Watching him go I realized that I need to go now too. I contemplated and rejected my food options one more time, returned my drop bag to the volunteers, and buckled on my helmet, heavier now with the light strapped to it. Riding back to the course, I was surprised at how good my legs felt after the, what, hour or more of rest at the checkpoint. My stomach still felt wrong – twisted and bubbly – but yeah my legs felt great, and the caffeinated drinks had restored the focus that I’d lost on the easy-riding bike path.
If the approach to the checkpoint had been gradual, the exit was abrupt: a few turns, and I was suddenly in the silent woods again. Except: under my tires was not a dirt path, but a broken-up sidewalk. Ahead, a volunteer pointed me into a right turn. I accelerated toward him, expecting a nice corner onto the trail. Nope: old concrete steps, just long and unexpected enough that I couldn’t ride Needle up then. I laughed. The volunteer laughed with me, having probably seen dozens of us encounter his particular obstacle. As I walked Needle up the steps, I said, “Tell Danny and Todd that they’re assholes!” He laughed again.
Now I was on real trail again: a ribbon of dirt and rock winding over a defunct mine site. Amid the scrubby trees, I’d see the remnants: old staircases leading to and from nowhere, stretches of broken-up pavement, the foundations of buildings, street signs leaning at intersections where there were no houses. Lots of stretches of trail alongside chain-link fence studded regularly with stern warning signs. Beyond the fence: a defunct open-pit iron mine.
Dusk was still a couple hours off. In the trees, the light was already fading. I flicked on my headlights and enjoyed zigging, zagging, zooming on the graying trail. I caught another rider on a climb, and we rode together for quite a while: wheel to wheel on anything flat, me pulling ahead on any uphill, him escaping on any downhill. Complimenting him on his descending skills, he told me, “You gotta get a dropper post!” – a device that lets you lower your seat on descents to make the bike easier to handle. I’d never thought seriously about getting one – my home trails just don’t have enough steep downs to merit one – but watching this guy fly down some insanely steep, rocky stretches, I could see the value.
Just before dusk, we popped out on an overlook with a view that literally stopped us in our tracks. Tired but focused from the riding, we could hardly say anything to each other about it, only gesture at the trees and lake and ridge and dig out our phones for photos. I wish I’d had him take a shot of me. I bet I looked like shit on shingle.
I lost Dropper Post on a long descent. Night had fully fallen on us – on me – now, and I felt as comfortable and happy about this as I always do. My winter ultramarathons have helped me feel at home on a bike in the dark, savoring the isolation and the narrowed view and the way everything outside the beam of the headlamp seems far away. The simplicity of it. Just chase the yellow spot of light in front of you, and navigate by watching for the course markings, glowing like eyes when the light hits them.
The temperature did not drop with the sun, nor did the humidity magically decrease either. This was wrong; it’s supposed to get colder and drier when the sun goes down. I had not been eating or drinking well now, and the slower nighttime speeds let me pay too much attention to how I felt. Every part of me was totally soaked with sweat. My shorts were so wet that they squeaked against my saddle, which itself was so slick that my hand slipped off it when I had to push Needle. My arms and shoulders were sore, my legs just tired. Worst, my stomach was both utterly empty, grinding against itself, and demanding food and drink. Tiny sips of water and nutrition drink felt like water balloons exploding. Gross. A Frito? Somehow, crunchy and slimy. A cashew? Oily paste.
I could sense my legs turning over with less force, my concentration slipping, as I dealt with my stomach. Climbs got steeper, descents slipperier, corners sharper. Without even really deciding to walk, I’d find myself hiking stuff that I would have easily ridden earlier in the day. The trail cruelly wound back and forth over a hill literally across the road from the hotel where we were staying. The hotel’s sign glowed through the trees. I could bushwhack down to the road, coast over to the parking lot… Quit. Easy. I could be in the shower in ten minutes.
I was felt too lazy to do this. Easier to stay on the course, to wind away from the hotel and up onto the hill. The trail dropped out of the woods and onto city streets not long afterwards, a nice respite. Riding the flat streets past rows of old mining houses that looked just like the ones in my home towns, I decided to get back to Jackson Park and reevaluate. If I still felt shitty then – whenever “then” would be: an hour? two? four? – I would pull the plug. The last loop of 20 miles was supposed to be the hardest of the whole race. Doing that after hours of eating and drinking badly? And on legs that, sure, weren’t actually aching but that were definitely now depleted? A bad idea. I felt mostly sure I would quit. For a second time, yes, much further up the course than I had made it last year. That’s a good thing, right? Maybe the Marji Gesick is just too hard for me. Maybe I need another year or two of training to handle something this hard. Or maybe it’s just not my thing, the way triathlons or open-water swimming aren’t my things.
Ahead I could see open space. I was already coming to the edge of town. Back to trails, and hopefully soon to Jackson Park. I swung around a big corner and found the pop-up aid station, the volunteer yelling, “Soda! Beer! Hot dogs! Pickles! Chips!”
I didn’t want to stop but I needed to stop. “What kind of soda do you have? Sprite or 7-Up?” I was desperate for something to calm my stomach.
“Hmm, no. Coke? Mountain Dew? I have Fanta.” I opened a Fanta and took a tiny sip, acidy and orangey. Another sip. My stomach flipped. I walked away from the aid station and crouched down near a patch of weeds. Another sip, more stomach flipping. Then the painful relief of throwing it all up.
I felt light and clean back in the woods. Not fast but steady. I could not believe that I’d made a deal with myself to consider withdrawing. I hadn’t needed to quit, I had just needed to puke. Jackson Park was a few hours off, according to the volunteer. No problem. I rode up a tough climb, took a wrong turn, and wound up climbing it again. Two hours before, this would have been insurmountable. Now, I laughed. Some other racers came along and gave me directions back to the course. At the bottom of hill, I got turned around almost right away, fatigue, unfamiliar streets, and darkness too much for me. I called my friend Marty, who’d finished the 50-mile race earlier in the day. He figured out that I was just a couple blocks off course, not the several miles I had worried about. As we rang off, he said, “You sound really good, man! Keep it up!”
That was as good to hear as his directions, and as good to see as a pack of riders coming toward me and then turning around. They too were off course. I latched on to them and we rode sidewalks and paths to more singletrack – passing within a block of the race’s finish line, raucous with music and crowds. A few minutes later, I realized the silly cruelty of that course routing: sending tired riders literally past but not over the finish line? Todd and Danny might as well have put up an arrow pointing to the finish area: “This way to quit. Also: food and beer.”
Our little group fractured as soon as we hit the singletrack again. In the darkness and the thin second-growth trees, I could see the bubbles of light from everyone’s headlights. From high points on the ridges – the endless goddamn ridges – I could look up or down and see a string of pearls moving through the woods. Sometimes a pearl would catch and pass me, often on a downhill or a technical Blame Danny or Blame Todd section. Sometimes I’d catch on, often surprisingly on an uphill. Regardless, we encouraged each other. “Nice job, man. Keep it up.” Lied to each other: “Not much further. Jackson Park is coming up.”
Tiny pulls of nutrition drink were staying down now, providing more calories than none, though more would have been better. Hunger aside, I was in a nice flow state, chasing my headlight beam, trying to climb a little higher on the uphills than my legs wanted, trying to descend a little further on the downhills than my nerves wanted. Lean into the corners. Drive my feet through the pedals on the flats. In a word, I was having fun.
A light flashed behind me. Someone running his headlight on that random-flicker setting designed to make you more visible to drivers? Thunder pealed just over my head like every Independence Day firework detonating at the same time. I instantly thought of the volunteer back at the aid station assuring us that the rain wouldn’t last. That drizzle had turned to something more serious. Maybe, I hoped, the thunder and lightning was just a show. Maybe no rain would fall. I heard the rain hitting the canopy leaves a second before it reached me, a spray of huge warm drops. The water splattered the mud off my arms and washed sweat out of my hair into my beard. I licked at the saltiness, savoring it a little too much, crunching the dirt and grit that came with it.
I could not tell how long the rain lasted. The dirt trail turned to mud, too slick to ride on any sort of up or down, and almost too slick to walk. The rocks and roots in the Blame sections were even more slippery, impossible to negotiate. I walked around them through the mucky leaves alongside the trail. I skidded and slipped on hidden rocks. Fell into puddles. Filled my cleats with water.
“Okay,” I said out loud. “That’s enough of this.” A few minutes later, the rain began to let up, trailing off as steadily and perceptibly as if someone were slowly turning off a faucet. Water continued to drip from the trees for hours, probably for the rest of the race. Whenever I bumped a tree – increasingly often as my fatigue mounted – it showered me with raindrops and wet leaves, a bit of rustle and splatter to disturb the pleasant quiet after the storm. Already, the trail started absorbing the water or letting it drain off.
Within a half hour or so, almost everything was rideable again, and so quiet after the din of the storm. I had stop paying attention to the sneezing sound of my rear shock handling the bumps; in the rain, I had forgotten the sound. A flock of birds, or maybe just one bird moving through the brush, chirped at me, so rhythmically that I momentarily wondered whether my drivetrain was squeaking. A raccoon scrambled out of the trail as I approached, eyes beaming. At a complicated trail junction, I turned left, following some tracks in the mud, and had to dismount to hike up a mud-slicked hill. Leaves that blew up the trail away from me turned out to be tiny whitish frogs, hunting in the wet. At the top of the incline, I found myself on trail I had already ridden. I rode back to the base of the muddy hill, where I saw that I’d missed the reflective arrows indicating the correct turn. This time I followed the signs, laughing to myself at my fuzzy decision making.
Though wrong turns meant that my bike computer’s mileage reading was inaccurate, I felt that I could not possibly be far from the second pass through Jackson Park. I checked the time: half past midnight. I had 90 minutes to reach and leave the park before the cutoff. I imagined I could hear street traffic, and imagined that this meant I was getting close to the park. No, the sizzle of cars on wet streets was real. I saw the flash of vehicles’ lights trough the trees, the steady glow of house and street lights. And here was the park, almost deserted, the big tent glistening from the rain.
I rolled right onto the tarp under the tent. Needle was filthy, caked in mud and needles and leaves. I was no better. Worse, since the bike couldn’t be tired. I lay down on the tarp, making my stomach roll unpleasantly toward my mouth. I sat up again, sipped from my water bottle. A volunteer came over. “Do you want your drop bag, 1295?” I told her I didn’t. Everything in it – food, dry clothes, drinks – sounded repellent and useless.
The racers here were a varied lot: a few clearly gearing up to head back out on the last loop, a few clearly packing up to drop out, a few in the middle – deciding. I guess I was in that group. I didn’t need to quit, really. I just had to sit here until 2:00, and then my decision had been made for me. I couldn’t leave after the cutoff. And anyhow 85 miles was a pretty good ride. More like 90, with my wrong turns. I had needed to be pretty tough to do that much, on these trails, in those conditions. Absurd trails. Absurd conditions. I had needed to be tougher than I expected, tougher than I had been before the race, for sure. Just not quite tough enough for the whole race.
Maybe this was good. Maybe I needed to be less tough. Weaker might be good. Maybe weakness, dropping out, was really recognizing limits. Physical, mental, spiritual. Maybe I had gone too far with this whole biking deal. Had gone far enough with it to find a place to stop, right here in Jackson Park. The woods had been lovely, dark and deep, but maybe I had seen enough of them for the day. The night.
All I had to do was sit here on the cold tarp, shivering, till 2:01. Let the volunteers tell me, sorry, you can’t leave. I’d be happy with doing eighty percent of the race. I checked the time on my bike computer: 1:15. Late as hell. Someone had left a pizza on one of the tables under the tent. I had a bite of one slice and had to lumber to a trash can to spit it out. A little spray of vomit came up too. I had puked once in races before, never twice. I was past that limit.
I sat back down. A racer who’d come in just behind me was giving his crew insanely precise directions for readying him get back out on course. Put cream cheese on a bagel. Fill his reservoir with water and add this much nutrition powder. Put this flavor gel in that bag on his bike. Bring him that item of clothing from his drop bag. Help him put this other item in his backpack. He was hyper, eager to get moving again.
A volunteer walked past dragging two trash bags full of race detritus. Another volunteer yelled, “1:30, racers! Half an hour to cutoff! Half an hour!”
Looking at the other racer and his crew, I realized that we were in the same goddamn spot. We were both thirty minutes from the cutoff, not yet dropped out. Not yet quit. I stood up and flexed my legs. They felt good. Not great, but not shredded. Well, shredded from the falls and low branches, not shredded like hamburger.
20 miles didn’t seem that far now. Four hours, maybe five. Moving around dislodged something Marty had said when I called him during my wrong turn in town. “The last loop isn’t that bad. It’s definitely easier than the next-to-last loop” – the one I’d just finished. “The first part is annoying, then it gets easier and better. I thought it wasn’t that hard.”
Not that hard. Though I’d barely registered this when he actually said it, my brain had stored it away and gave it back now. “Not that hard” would be not that bad. Did I really want to sit here another half hour? Did I really want to type “DNF” into my race log? Did I really want to shrug and tell friends back home, “Yeah, I made it to about mile 85, then I quit.” Did I really want to think about quitting for the next year? To have “quitter” hanging over my head during my winter races, just a few months away?
No, I didn’t. Marty’s advice tipped a balance in my mind. Suddenly staying and quitting seemed like the difficult thing to do – the difficult action to take right here and right now, and the difficult thing to absorb after the race, after quitting. The difficult thing to carry around forever.
Going back out seemed easy. All I had to do was fucking get on Needle and start riding again.
The manic rider looked over at me. “You going back out or quitting?” I answered instantly. “I’m ready to go.” I asked a volunteer about the route back to the course. She pointed me toward a gap in the black wall of trees ringing the park. 20 more miles out there. I could do it, one way or the other. I had ridden a bike over a lot of last twenty miles. We only had to get into the woods to have fewer than 20 miles to go.
“Dude, this guy’s ready to go. Get your ass in gear,” the other racer’s friend told him, seeing me standing next to Needle.
“I’m ready!” he said, jogging his bike over to me. “Let’s go.”
A few volunteers and spectators stood at the exit from the park. They clapped for us as we went past, a witching-hour cheer. The trail turned right and pointed uphill. A-fucking-again. Of course it did. The other rider, just off my back wheel, asked, “Have you been riding most of the hills?”
“Some. Not all of them. This one’s fine.”
At the crest of the climb, I looked back under my arm. He was walking up the hill. I pedaled on.
Marty had been right. The first five miles or so was annoying. I don’t recall if any of the burly sections were marked with those damn “Blame Todd” or “Blame Danny” signs. Maybe at this point Danny and Todd knew we blamed them for everything. I dismounted to walk up, down, around, over, under. My upper body was so sore now that I would lose control if I didn’t keep both hands on Needle. If I tried to guide the bike with one grip, the front wheel twisted angrily and the whole thing tipped down into me.
Between the rugged sections, the trail was very rideable, and no more hilly than the last loop, or the stretch between the first aid station and the Marquette Mountain climb. I stopped at exactly 2:00 a.m. to take a photo of not missing the cutoff:
I marveled at how much the trail had dried out already. Except for a few puddles invariably located to catch my foot, the dirt was merely tacky now, not slick or muddy. I started catching other riders and even a couple of runners finishing the 100 mile footrace. Some of the racers were riding together, teaming up to keep some speed. I didn’t join them, except temporarily and accidentally, trying to maintain my own pace. I rode some climbs that others walked, thanking them for stepping over to let me through, then reciprocated on the descents when they rode over the junk past me. From the tops or bottoms of the ridges were were climbing, I could see their lights moving in sync through the trees, another string of pearls.
As we rode with each other, we held broken conversations about two topics: the distance to the finish – somewhere around 15 miles, we guessed; everyone’s computer had a different reading – and the location of the “checkpoints” where we had to pick up tokens to present at the finish as evidence that we had covered the whole course. As far as we could tell, the first checkpoint hadn’t come until deep in the race, and had been labeled “Checkpoint #3.” Had we missed numbers 1 and 2, or was this just another way Danny and Todd were messing with us? Probably the latter. I’d visited Checkpoint #2 twice: once on purpose and once in the middle of my longest wrong turn in Ishpeming. Now we were hunting for #1. It had to be here somewhere. There were only so many miles where they could have hidden it!
The string of pearls frayed and broke. Only on the longest straightaways in the thinnest woods could I see anyone else ahead or behind. The trail popped out the foot of a double-track dirt road running straight up what must be the steepest hill in Michigan. No energy-saving switchbacks, no visible summit, no flats halfway up where I could rest, just a drag up toward a TV transmission tower, its red lights blinking robotically.
My legs were aching now. Hard uphill pedal strokes caused a squeezing pain around both knees. Standing on the pedals turned the pincing into burning in my hamstrings. I pedaled up the climb until I could not turn the cranks again. An honorable place to stop. This hill was no harder than the biggest climb back home, the one where I liked to do repeats. I had never climbed that hill after 20 hours of hard riding.
I pulled Needle off the road into the grass and sat down in the grass, knee-high and bowed under the clinging raindrops. The cold water felt refreshing against my butt and back. My stomach growled. I craved a beer, washing down something warm. Pizza or a grilled cheese. Then another beer. I had no beer, just a Red Bull in my bike bag. I dug it out. My hands were too numb to pop the top, so I used my teeth, which meant I only had to tip the can up to get the first mouthful of syrupy goodness.
I drained the can in small sips, each one testing the stability of my stomach. Across the ravine in front of me, I could see some sort of white rectangular shape. Staring, I made out a long flight of steps. I hoped that we would not have to ride back down this hill and walk up those fucking steps. Light flickered below me on the road, a group of racers, actually riding up toward me. I finished the drink and resumed my own struggle toward that transmission tower. I made it to the flat there just ahead of the other racers, found the singletrack, and started back down the hill. Please, please, please Danny and Todd, not those steps.
No steps, just more trail, first furiously descending the hill and then tracing the banks of several small lakes. The waves lapped in a breeze I could not feel. If the trail twisted just right, my headlight shone on the water, a rippled sheet of metal. Then the beam lit up a green shape bulging in the trees between the trail and the lake. I jerked my handlebars away from the thing, almost clipped a tree, overcorrected, hit a different tree, and fell sidelong off Needle into the lake. A cove, really, six inches deep. Six inches of water is deep enough when you’re kneeling in it.
I stood up, giggling and letting the lake water run off my legs. One of my lights had fallen off too; it glowed beautifully under the water. I fished it out and clipped it back on my handlebars. Needle silently reproached my fading skills by lying there alongside the trail. “Notice that I did not fall in the lake.”
Okay. Regroup. The bath had felt nice, really, had washed off some of the grit and grime on my legs. Under my headlamp beam, I could see red where I’d cut my shins and calves. I looked back down the path at the distraction that had caused the mishap: a green canoe, leaning keel-out against some trees along the shoreline. I have crashed my bikes for lots of reasons, never for seeing a canoe in the woods. I laughed again. Absurd.
I stood Needle up and checked my computer. Three a.m., well beyond 100 miles now. Come on, I must have less than five miles from the finish. An hour or so. Maybe less if the trail was really easy and the Red Bull kicked in, maybe more if I had more climbing to do.
Up another ridge, one that must be the last one in the county that we’d hadn’t already visited. From the top, city lights flickered in the distance. Ishpeming. The finish line. Was I at the edge of town? In the center, somehow? A bubble of adrenaline swelled and popped in my stomach. This had to be the finish. The trail wound around the top of the ridge, dropped, climbed. The city lights rotated around me: in front, beside, behind. A car passed slowly along the street along the base of the ridge. Who the fuck is out driving around at four in the morning? Probably someone out looking for a Marji racer, I guessed.
I dropped down off the ridge onto a street, an actual honest to god street. My stomach lurched. This had to be the end of the race. Had to be. I pedaled hard to an intersection up ahead, sensing that a left turn would send me deeper into town, toward the finish. But no: arrows directed me to the right, down more street. Fine; the pavement was luxuriously smooth and fast. More arrows, pointing off onto a footpath into the woods. Okay. More singletrack because why not more singletrack. The path was too narrow and steep to ride. I started pushing Needle. Down the hill came the wobbling headlight of a runner. He grinned at me. “Last checkpoint!”
“Really. See you at the finish!”
I pushed a little further and then remembered that racers had said the last checkpoint was actually an out-and-back. Walk or ride up from the street, get the token, walk or ride back down to the same street. I leaned Needle against a tree and hiked up the path. Nailed to a tree was a bucket with the final tokens in it. I went over to grab one, but it was empty. A scrawled note read, “Ha ha! Go finish!”
Absurd. I laughed at the pointless fun of the walk up and now down the hill. I retrieved Needle and rode back to the bottom, passing the runner. I told him, “Good job, you beast. See you at the finish!” The path ended at a street. Follow the arrows left, follow the arrows down a gravel trail, follow the arrows right, onto a street running straight toward downtown Ishpeming. I yelped with excitement, pedaling hard down the slope toward the black finish-line arch, glowing under the streetlights. In seconds I flashed under the arch, nailing my brakes and climbing off Needle for the last time.
Todd and Danny were there at the finish line, looking awfully tired but pleased, I think, to see another finisher. Handshakes, hugs, their congratulations, my apologies for being filthy, their apologies for not having any beer left.
Marty was there too, looking awfully fresh. I was babbling, full of swirling energy. I tried to sit down on the curb, but the concrete was too hard on my sore glutes so I stood, paced, chattered about who knows what.
When Todd and Danny moved away to greet two guys finishing together, I dug out my phone to stop my tracker: 114 miles, 14,641 feet of climbing, 22 hours and 54 minutes on the course. I finished in 127th place of 137 finishers – but 63% of the starters dropped out. Next year I aim to be in the finishing group again, but a little further up the list.