Race Report: Maah Daah Hey 100: How to Win a Race but Still not Actually Finish

Aaron is a professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks.  He is a cyclist, paddler, and photographer.

Ted’s story came at a timely point in the day and I needed a break from coding. Thus, here’s my recap of the MDH. A bit of background. I’m a big dude- total clyde, but my transition to cycling over the past 4 years or so has put me in the best fitness of my life, even if I could still stand to lose 50lb. I’m not new to endurance races- I have done a number of long gravel races and have done the local 12-hr mountain bike race the past few years. I attempted the Maah Daah Hey last year.

Prologue

The theme for the MDH100 last year was hot as balls. I rode a fatbike, and it was a complete sufferfest. I never realized how many hike-a-bike sections there were and I can remember every single creek crossing that required lifting a fatbike loaded down with water up over my head. In fact, last year, my forearms were the first thing to cramp. Despite this pain, I finished 50 miles, reaching checkpoint 2 at the point the race was called due to heat (~100F) around 4:30 pm.

Fast forward to this year. The big question was can I finish? As a big dude, I was pretty sure if the conditions were the same last year, I was hosed. While many suffered heat stroke, I’m pretty good at controlling heart rate and knowing when to dial it back. As such- I obsessed over the forecast- even more so since I’m a meteorologist. I must have checked our weather models multiple times daily for the week before. The conclusion I came to was it would be warm, but not quite as bad as last year.

So could I finish? That was the question I kept pondering. I had completed a few races the past two years. In both cases I dropped oodles of time even despite some issues (destroyed a brifter during DK this year). Climbing hills was less scary, and I was confident that the MDH would be less imposing. A flatlander was actually getting used to elevation change! I did know for certain I didn’t want to lug the fatbike along. With that in mind I decided to bring the hardtail. I felt pretty good about my chances until Nick sent out the racer email. There we found out that the race was starting 2 hours later, yet the first 2 checkpoints would have identical cut-off times. Crap!!! (No hard feelings- I understand the reasoning for these changes). I was left with a sense of self-doubt. Can I really be multiple hours faster than last year on the MDH and finish?

Bike setup

For my rig, I had a Salsa Mamasita 29er. 2x10 and I was running Conti Race King tires (love these on hardpack, and let’s face it… if it’s gets muddy, MDH is done for). In typical fashion, I was in a rush to prep before the race and this time it was the process of going tubeless. With Stans rims, this was a straight-forward process… well sort of. After Ted’s success using the OEM version of the Conti tires, I went ahead and tried to set those set up tubeless. First I did the front tire- and the setup was painless. You might be asking why I’m sharing all of these details, but trust me- this becomes part of the MDH story later on. I went on to do the rear tire. Exact same process before, but as I was seating the bead of the tire… BOOM! Tire blew off the room and like in an action movie, the noises dulled as a fine dust of baby powder filtered to the ground. I couldn’t feel my thumb and it instantly turned purple. To make a long story short, the wheel was out of true and the tire was toast (stretched). I week before the race, I had the tubeless version of the tire on order and it wasn’t till 5 days prior the bike was ready to go. Throughout the week I tested the setup on some local trails and I convinced myself tubeless was OK for the race. Just in case, I packed a spare tube for each checkpoint, carried one on me, along with a pump, tube repair kit, and plenty of CO2. I also carried a spare derailleur hanger, a full set of Alan wrenches (up to 10mm!), chain quick links, and a knife. I’m not a racer for the podium and I wanted to finish- bring everything but the kitchen sink is my motto.

Nutrition

Honing down the nutrition has been an iterative process. I learned a lot last year and realized a) I needed to consume salt in warm weather, b) hydrate plenty, and c) provide a variety of nutrition options (i.e. I can’t eat the same thing over and over). In prior races this year, I had a pretty good system down. ~200 calories of solid food an hour, bottles mixed with skratch, and of those calories, half coming from salty foods (crackers / beef sticks). I also learned that chewing beef sticks is a bitch after a few hours in the saddle, so for the MDH I brought along some salt tabs. I hadn’t tried these before, so I stuck with a 1 per hour rate.

The Race – the first 25

I always find the start of the race to be the toughest part. A string of a 100+ riders trying to sort out their pace. It’s easy to ride too fast initially and burn out as I’m always self-conscious on slowing people down on the narrow singletrack. It’s not until after the first few miles you can really start to spread the field out. Complicating this factor is that my riding style is varied. I climb like a sloth up hills, but as soon as I get a descent, I haul like a bat out of hell (well as much as the MDH allows). This time around, I was pretty happy with the first few miles. Myself and a few others had a similar pace and we climbed at a reasonable rate until we reached the switchbacks. Rode those for oh a 100 yards or something then hopped off and walked up them. I encouraged the others around me with the fact that the initial climb is the toughest *single* climb on the course.

After crossing off the feelings of doubt you experience on that climb, I got in the groove on the doubletrack on the grassy plateau. I was making good time and surprised a female rider who had to take a bathroom break- she quickly pulled her pants up and inquired if she had given me a show. No worries, I didn’t even notice her till she had mentioned it. The next notable point in the race came during the first steep descent. Even with taking a rather cautious approach (a guy in front of me went over the handlebars on this descent last year), I had a hairy experience when I got wide and hit a sizable rock head on. I saw my line was off and was able to slow a considerable amount. The tubeless tire did its job, absorbing the blow and allowing me to do a small endo (but keeping rubber side down!). In the process, I received my first lesson in tire burping. The tire reseated and I stopped to fill up air. Went a bit farther and I made an ill positioned creek crossing through some mud. Much deeper than I thought and in seconds I made the bike a muddy mess. I had grit and crap in the rear brake and I had to stop to clean off the rotors. I took the chance to consume some calories and get back in the groove. Regardless, the two quick stoppages allowed for me to lose quite a few positions.

The next 5 miles or so I rode with a couple of other guys. We discussed a number of topics, and had a good trail-side conversation while flowing through the scenic MDH. Our time looked pretty good, I estimated I would be into the 1st checkpoint with 30-40 minutes to spare- well ahead of my time last year. Given that the race was pushed up two hours, my goal was simply to hit the first aid station before the cut-off as this time decreased from 6 to 4 hours.

The amazing thing about races is the quickness at which feelings/situations can change. For me, this occurred around mile 18-19. 2nd in a train of three guys, we were keeping our pace. Up ahead, there was a relatively shallow, dry creek crossing- one that I felt was completely rideable down and up. I sped up a bit, closing the gap between myself and the racer in front of me. As I descended down the creek crossing, it was clear we weren’t on the same page. He slowed down and stopped in the trail at the bottom of the creek. Woops. I locked up my brakes, but it was too late- I rear ended him and was flung over the handlebars. Thankfully, I landed without injury, however, the loud hiss proclaimed another burp of the front tire. This time it did not reseat. As I assessed the situation, I tried to pop the tire back on the rim since I still had plenty of sealant. Unfortunately, sand and gravel from the creek bottom got stuck in the rim hook and on the tire bead and with that, I was no longer tubeless in the front. Would this have happened if I ran the tubeless specific version of the tire as I mentioned earlier? Who knows. I had no problems with the rear tire the entire race (well regarding tubeless at least… the entire wheel detensioned on one side and I rode many miles with the tire within 2-3mm of the chain/seat stay on the left side).

You quickly need to forget about what has happened and deal with the future. Save for the point I was trying to inflate the tire with the valve still closed (way to get flustered Aaron!) installing a tube and remounting the tire was straight-forward, but still time consuming. It seemed like most of the time was wasted pulling out all of my gear since the tube- the last resort- was buried at the bottom of my storage. I watched countless riders go by, and I finally got the wheel back on and spun it around… the tire was no longer true, but it was certainly rideable. I promised myself I wouldn’t stare at the front tire- it’s easy to obsess over such things when you still have a long day ahead of you. I made up time, and passed a few riders. Within a few miles, I reached the section we did trail work on a week prior. With the commotion of earlier, it was nice to know in advance what the next few miles held in store. I reached the point at which we accessed the trail for work (back on top of the butte in the grasslands) and checked the time on the gps. Not good. I spent the next mile doing the calculations… how fast do I need to ride to read the checkpoint in time? I cursed every hill and undulation- any potential threat of slowing me down.

The obsession over time continued and did not stop after climbing back up to the grassy butte after a brief foray into a valley. I made my way to the first road crossing. Viewable in the distance was the checkpoint and I only had minutes. I pushed forward, almost wiping out at one point on a rut and I reached the point when I watched the gps time change to 10:59 AM. One minute to make the checkpoint. I gave up on the math at this point and focused on peddling. My right hamstring was pissed off and near cramping, but it didn’t matter. I thought of those “shut up legs” slogans and realized just how appropriate it was. I crossed the road for the second time and into the checkpoint. I had made the checkpoint by seconds!!!! I have won the race!!! That’s what it felt like at least- in reality, I had just completed the first quarter of the MDH100.

The Race – the second 25

Checkpoint 1 was a blur- I chatted with a few others… until everyone had left. My water bottles were topped off by the amazing volunteers, my supplies were restocked, I took a dump, and I borrowed a floor pump so I could at least make sure my tire was seated properly. I probably wasted 30 minutes all-together, but I needed the bit of recovery so I could focus on the next 25 miles. I was the last 1 into the checkpoint to make the cut-off and I was the last to leave for the next 25. Now that’s the definition of back-of-the-pack racing.

The next 15 miles or so I spent in isolation. I recovered on the bike, not taking hills to aggressively, and focusing on getting calories, salt, and hydration in control. The day was quickly heating up and it was key to keep effort levels in check. Despite the heat, many sections had a nice breeze, which made the riding tolerable. I took in the scenery and wondered if I would ever run across another rider. As the miles (and hours) ticked by, I finally saw someone on the horizon! My hopes were restored and I pushed to reach the first person I had seen since checkpoint 1. As I approached the rider and prepared to boost my self esteem, I realized the racer was on a singlespeed… fatbike. Nevermind. I passed the fatbike after a brief chat, and met one other rider from Grand Forks. He was in a bad spot- continuously cramping. I let him know the next road wasn’t too far ahead (a few miles?) and he stated he was pulling out there. I wished him luck and kept on.

As time wore on, my right hamstring still bugged me a bit on the climbs. I knew the rough layout of the remainder of the last half of the 2nd stage… ride around some buttes, drop back down in a forest and climb up to a gravel road… that was really the only work involved. After that point, you are practically at Devil’s pass, and from Devil’s pass to the river, the ride is quite fun, even with a few climbs thrown in on gravel roads. I traded positions with the fatbike rider a couple of times and passed/was passed by a few recreational riders. It wasn’t till the forest climb at ~42 miles or so that the riding and heat wore me down. I was left with very little climbing before the hamstring risked an all-out cramp. My pace slow, and somewhere in there, I switched positions back and forth with the fatbike rider. I made it to Devil’s pass and shortly after, myself, the fatbike rider, and the two recreational riders chatted for a bit. It was around this point I realized the numbers weren’t in my favor and I wasn’t going to make the 2nd checkpoint cutoff time.

Where did the time go? Good question- I’ll have to look back at the gps log, but other than that forest climb, I felt pretty darn good. Devil’s Pass – gravel roads- to river went quickly, and I made it to the steep climb before checkpoint 2. Knowing that my day was soon over, I made it a point to make that last climb. Other than the initial steep incline, I cranked away, swearing off the hamstring and riding up to the checkpoint. There I met up with a half dozen other riders or so that had called it a day. The time? 4:30pm. The same as last year, but 2 hours faster than last year given the change in race starts.

Epilogue

As I think back, I was proud that I bettered my time by 2 hours, but at the same time, disappointed I missed the cut-off by a half hour. Realistically, even if I did make that cut-off, I don’t think there was a way I would have come close to the checkpoint time for the 3rd stretch. That section of the MDH is constant up/down and is nearly 29 miles or so. Easily the toughest stage of the course. That said, I knew I had at least another 25 miles in me… just at my own pace. Being done before sunset was frustrating as I still felt like the day was only half over and I still had juice in the tank- hamstring be damned.

I also wonder about the tire fiasco early on in the race. If the tire would have stayed tubeless, and I didn’t lose time… would that have kept my hamstring in better shape? It wasn’t till after that wreck that the hamstring acted up- and historically, my calves or quads are the first leg muscles to complain.

In the end, I’m still happy about my performance, and like any racer should do, I’ll take my experiences and add to the lessons learned list. What I can say for certain is I’ve been faster in every race this year over last, the hills bother me less, and I’m getting closer to my fitness goals… now if I can just lay off the beer…

 

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