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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.
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?
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.
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.
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…
After reading another racer’s recollection of how the MDH100 went for him/her, I was inspired to jot some thoughts down and some details. It also sounds like more fun than working at the moment, so here we go. The race was held on August 2, 2014.
For some background, I’m your average rider. I don’t train, I just enjoy riding bikes, eating pastries, and drinking coffee. I consider myself pretty low key. I have a fair amount of experience doing endurance events as an everyday kind of guy. I’m not an endurance racer; I just try to do what I need to do to finish races happy, regardless of place. This tends to be pretty successful rather than putting everything on the line.
The MDH100 is 100 miles through the ND badlands. There are 3 aid stations at about every 25 miles. We had a great crew coming from Grand Forks to complete the race, (myself, Dave, Michelle, Kevin, Eric, Aaron, Jason, Justin, Okoni, Mark, and Marty). In preparation for the race I hydrated for almost 3 days prior to. I drank mostly water and Skratch (an electrolyte drink) and peed constantly for the 3 days before the race. Doing things like this makes you seem a little crazy, and I felt like a middle aged man with a bladder problem that I see commercials about on TV. Three days pre- hydration, regular eating. Reached Watford City on Friday and made camp at the CCC shelter, ate double portions at registration and pre-race dinner (which was delicious), and stayed up fairly late around the campfire with the crew.
Some details: I rode my Salsa El Mariachi (steel 29er hardtail). Front suspension (good), gears (good), tubeless tires at ~28ish psi (good). I weigh ~180lbs, 6’1”, 28 y/o. I had 2 water bottles on the frame and a 2L hydration bladder on my back. I also had a small Jandd ¼ frame bag to hold food and electrolyte mixes. I wore some bike shorts, a lightweight but long sleeve fishing style shirt (airy yet hopefully providing some sun protection), and a helmet with a visor. I grew up in Florida and I love love love hot weather, and I knew that the heat was gonna really be the deciding factor for everyone out there. It would make or break anyone and so I did the best I could think of to pay attention to it. I was surprised how many people I saw wearing black kits. I mean they look pretty badass, but I just couldn’t imagine the logic. It seemed like a lot of the other riders/racers were underestimating the sun and eat. Or was I overestimating?
I started in the back of the pack with friends wearing a light wind breaker. It was cool in the morning and I was concerned that I would be losing precious energy to stay warm in the morning. Precious energy I’d be needing for the next 12+ hours ahead of me. I think it was a good choice for about the first 30 minutes of the race. Of course I started sweating, but no worries I had all day, so I stopped and fixed what was wrong. This in the end was my motto and something I learned from snow biking in North Dakota: If anything is ever uncomfortable--ever--stop and fix it. This is generally my motto for endurance events, long ones that last many hours. I might have a bit of different logic for anything under 3 hours.
The first 25 miles were wonderful except for breathing dust the whole time from the racers ahead of me. Oh well. The climb of never-ending switchbacks to the top was tough, but I intended to keep things mellow all day so I took it easy and tried not to ever get my heart rate high. I made it to the plateau and enjoyed finally getting some speed, again not working too hard, but just enough to pass some folks. Nothing much more memorable for the first 25 miles. I knew I was coming close to the first checkpoint and was forcing myself to eat something every 30 minutes regardless of whether I was hungry or not (another tip from ND snow biking). I also encouraged myself to finish my Camelback (2L) before the first checkpoint. These two things pretty much got me through the race. I made it to the first aid station, refueled filled all my bottles and Camelback with water/drink mix, took an ibuprofen, and headed out in less than 10 minutes.
The race was finally starting to string out and I could appreciate the beautiful vistas and open spaces. Another 25 miles and 3 hours went by fairly uneventfully. Devil's Pass was awesome and I almost flew off of it when my front tire hit a patch of soft sand in a corner, while going downhill about 27+ mph. I found during the race that I descended better than most of the riders I came upon, but they climbed better (or were at least willing to put more energy into climbing than I was). Again, I knew I still had a long day ahead of me, and was saving previous energy. I drank my bladder dry again, and worked on the two water bottles. I ate a GU every hour and a Larabar on every half hour. Now’s the time to reflect on what happens when you drink a little more than 3 L. of water every 3 hours. Of course you have to pee. And I peed a lot. I probably peed 3 to 5 times between every checkpoint or twice an hour. This was of course a blessing and a curse. Staying hydrated like this really works best for me in a long event or I will absolutely get leg cramps. On the other hand, any time I passed someone, I’d almost immediately have to pull over, which made me feel like a jerk. I let a little more pressure out of my rear tire to soften the cow hoofprints and made it to the river crossing in good spirits, no mechanicals yet, and enjoyed the cool walk through the river. I wanted to lay down in it, but I was feeling a little competitive. It was great to get to the 2nd checkpoint. It was such a party and all the volunteers were awesome. Seeing them really made my day and was something I looked forward to at each checkpoint. I was amazed how many happy people there were scattered along the trail. All in all at CP2 I was doing fine. I changed my socks, filled all my bottles, took an ibuprofen, ate some salty Pringles (awesome), dumped electrolyte mix into everything, and headed out.
The next section sucked. That’s really all there is to say concisely. It got very hot. I had been on the bike for 6ish hours, had covered 50ish miles and knew that after CP2 the real race had finally started. The first part anyone could do. The second half was what makes or breaks all endurance events. Knowing this goes a long way for controlling confidence and staying positive. I kept riding at a moderate pace and trying to go as fast as possible on the downhills. My motto on the down hills was “easy miles, easy miles” and I said this repetitively to myself over the next 4+ hours. I was now in the heat of the day and was finally starting to feel pretty crappy. My brain felt like it was baking and this sectioned seemed like it went on forever. It was lots of long open sections, little shade, and little breeze. I remember seeing many riders during this section who were stopping and resting in what shade they could find. I probably passed 10 people doing something like this. I eventually ran into my friend Jason. At this point I wasn’t very happy and I don’t think Jason was doing so well either. We were both happy to see each other and we chatted a bit, but I knew we were both overheating (he more than I, though he wouldn’t admit it). He told me I was doing great and if I felt up to it I should try and finish the race. And I thought to myself “shut the hell up Jason, don’t jinx me, I’m in a silly spot, I’m angry, my brains feel like mush, and you’re not helping.” Then I apologized to him for my thoughts, told him I was in a bad mood and that I don’t mean anything I say or do. I think he understood and he let me leave as he stopped to break in the shade. At this point I touched the top of my helmet and it had to be at least 100 degrees F. I was seeing the Devil and I decided I had to finally for the first time in the race, take a break. I stopped in some shade behind a bluff, keeping my legs straight to avoid any possibility from cramps and decided to pour some electrolyte drink on my head (something I avoided doing earlier, since I didn’t want to become sticky). It worked I cooled down in the shade pretty quickly and immediately knew I was in a much better place (physically and mentally) than I had been 10 minutes ago.
I jumped back on the bike and headed up what seemed like tons of open climbs. I don’t really remember many details about the trail. Most of the time my head was focused on staying in the ruts, not cramping, and avoiding using energy to keep balanced while riding slowly uphill in the ruts. It’s very easy to overcorrect in this situation and use lots of energy from your core to stay balanced. I knew this, and many times I walked up long hills. My feet were beginning to sting as I walked and I knew I had blisters by now, but oh well, I (the collective we) could push through it. I didn’t see anyone until the third checkpoint and by the time I got there it was a little before 6pm. My spirits rose instantly again seeing friendly people. I took another small break, sitting down in a lounge chair, filling all my bottles again, eating more, taking another ibuprofen, and preparing for the final push. By now I knew I only had 25 more miles to go and I was on a great schedule, regardless of what happened I could practically walk to the finish.
The last 25 miles were great. The trail was super smooth and surprisingly fun to ride. It would be much more fun if I wasn’t exhausted. I passed a prairie dog village, and flushed 15 turkeys from some tall grass. I smelled a dead deer carcass, and biked through a couple cow herds. I was tired and moving very very slowly. I was walking my bike around 2.5 mph on the slightest uphill’s. I knew I was running out of energy and just needed to eat. Quite like writing this long race recap, my desire to finish strong had dwindled and I didn’t care about the details anymore. By this point in the race I was in all cases pretty good. No mechanicals, bike was working almost perfectly, hints of leg cramps but the mtb gods kept them away, and no major crashes! Everything at been about as close to 100% as possible. If you’ve ever done a race you’ll know how unlikely this scenario really is. Inevitably something will go wrong, but for me the race was nearly perfect. I don’t think there would’ve been a way to prevent getting cooked by the sun short of an umbrella tied to my handle bars.
I rode to the finish line with the best welcoming crowd I have ever had ever. It was amazing, the sun was setting, I got cheers, high fives, and pictures. I was amazed. I guess that’s what happens when you finish before everyone goes home. I had no idea. It was great. I was salty and covered in cow poop but I had finished in just under 15hrs! I’m pretty confident this was the hardest race I’ve done (and completed). Thank you to the race organizer, the volunteers, and the GFK crew (who drove my van into a ditch). Thanks for reading if you made it this far. I hope the Devil wasn’t in the details.