It’s been a couple days since I completed my final race goal of the season, the Marji Gesick 50. The point-to-point event, which includes mountain bike races in four distances (15 miles to 200 miles), a 100 mile duathlon and 100 and 50 mile trail running races all happening simultaneously between Friday at noon and sometime on Sunday is a feat of organization masterfully executed by Todd Poquette and Danny Hill of 906 Adventure Team and an army of official and unofficial volunteers and community members of Marquette, Negaunee and Ishpeming in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Marketed using quotes from notable riders about how “hard” or “terrible” the course is is a clever device, which generates interest, registrants and for some an almost cult-like devotion to the event, which just completed its fifth year.
|Dan and Jill, Kit and Ozo at O&B start|
I use the other NUE races series races as comparisons to describe just how difficult the Marji course is, since it is part of the NUE series. The average men’s winning time in the NUE Open men’s 100 mile category this year over 8 races before Marji was 7 hours 12 minutes and the women’s average was 9 hours. Matt Acker’s win at Marji this year was 10 hours 20 minutes and Carey Lowery won it in 14 hours and 26 minutes. The DNF rate in the 100 was 63% for the men and 68% for the women. The 50 mile course is slightly “easier” reflected by the lower DNF rates of 28% for men and 37% for women. The men’s 50 winner, Jorden Wakeley, came in at 5:40 almost an hour ahead of second place. The women’s winner, Leia Schneeberger Rollins, came in 8th overall in 7:20 with second place almost an hour back. The female athletes represented 8% of the field in the 100 mtb and 27% of the field in the 50. The race organizers make a concerted effort to attract female athletes in the mountain bike races by leaving the registration open for them, while cutting off the capacity of the men’s fields. Other high profile distance races also use this method to encourage more balanced fields by gender ⎼ most notably the Dirty Kanza 200 and Coast to Coast 210 Gravel Race. I have not seen this method used or advertised to increase women’s participation in long distance mountain bike events.
|Diana - finished, soaked and filthy from the storm|
|Barb at the finish looking perky after 12 hours.|
|Mike and Linda - first tandem to ever attempt and complete the race|
|Marji 50 start with Barb, Erin and me|
806 athletes took the start lines this year. 426 finished all races combined. The DNF rates are high. In my very unprofessional opinion, that is due to a perfect storm of reasons. The course has back-to-back technical trail elements that make the course exceptionally challenging, even for the most fit and experienced athlete in any category. Is it the hardest single day race in America? Who knows ⎼ mountain bike trails are inherently part of the landscape where they are built and what’s difficult in Butte, Montana is different from what’s difficult in Marquette County. A quick review of the location and with its rich history of mining and timber should tell the prospective participant something about what they’ll face. The lay out of the course, which has the pit area (transition) at Jack Mine Park in Negaunee in the heart of the R.A.M.B.A. trail system that the course uses, offers the racer a particularly attractive excuse to throw in the towel and have a beer with the last 15 mile leg looming – ridden most often in the dark. The finish line is a 2.5 mile drive from Jackson Mine Park. Whether you’re racing the 50 or the 100, the second time you hit Jackson Mine Park you’ve put in a respectable day’s work. If the athlete doesn’t start the race determined to finish, the mind will begin to worm in and entice them to stop – despite the unprecedented shaming technique of requiring the athlete to text #QUITTER and their bib number to the race headquarters.
I entered Marji Gesick out of curiosity more than anything. After finishing another technically challenging (for me) race last year, the Dakota Five-0, I figured maybe I can finish the Marji 50 without significant injury and maybe with not too many hours of darkness. (the darkness part is big for me). I wanted to see what all the hype was about, who were these Danny and Todd people, etc. Their marketing prowess and social media buzz is impressive. The race seems to grow in profile each year. I live in Michigan, I’m not getting younger, so I better try it.
As part of my preparation, and because I’ve also wanted to try a 200 mile gravel race, I signed up for the Coast to Coast 210 this year. That got me more saddle time, figured out lighting set up (hours of battery), on-bike repair dialing, which was more in depth than I’ve done for my other 100 mtbs or gravel races. Plus, the race goes across my home state and was in its second season, so I figured all the kinks got worked out. C2C was great, a long day, but super organized and fun. One of my oldest friends, came from Minnesota to run support for me (not the nicest thing to do to your best friends btw). I got to see a ton of my biking buddies and heroes, and I even raced fast enough to barely need to use my lights ⎼ super-duper win!! With that over, I went directly to Marji Camp the next weekend. Finally, back on my mountain bike!!
Marji Camp was awesome and intimidating because of the riding – knowing my technical ability is low. I am also intimidated by group rides as opposed to riding solo or racing. But my friend, Jill Martindale was my co-group leader with local, Tara Anne who was great, which made me more relaxed and by the second day I felt better about it. I got to spend 3 days with biking buddies I know and met new ones. I was in a beautiful place with epic trails that have lots of nicknames like The Hamptons, Sissy Pants, Top of the World, Dirty Mary, F&M, Deer Trail, Rusty Bike etc. Hills are called “knobs” up there and for every knob there’s some sort of scary descent that I mostly walked down. The camp was a good intro and provided more technical tips like tires, nutrition, lights and inspiration – the “why” (my favorite part). The Marji hashtags abound - #blamedanny, #blametodd, #findyourlimitsdestroythem, #freshmeat, #unfinishedbusiness, #quitter, #dohardthings and on and on. But what I learned from Marji Camp is the organizers and the community are real humans who value what taking on challenges provide to the overall fabric of the individual experience. They are transparent about the potential hurdles the athlete will face and their number one recommendation for preparation is to go up there and ride the trail. The event is 100% non-profit and supports 906 Adventure Team’s mission; “Empowering youth to become the best version of themselves through outdoor adventure.” My top highlight of Marji was watching the 906 AT kids racing. Their comfort and skills on the trail were astounding and kept me going. Encouraging adults to become a better version of themselves is what Marji provides - intentionally or not. It’s more than a race, it’s an adventure, a journey. It doesn’t end with a medal or money. It’s just the athlete out there on the trail in this exquisite location doing something “hard”.
After camp, I dialed my bike some more. I tried different tire combinations and I went to Marquette two more weekends to put the race course together in my head. Marquette native, Liz Belt hooked me up with a friend of hers who guided me one day on the first loop out of Negaunee. I sucked at it, but I got the flow of the course, got to watch someone who can ride the trails and was as patient as you'd expect an elementary school teacher to be. It was awesome. The next day I tried to follow the “last 15” by myself, failed miserably, cried a few times and ended my day, 19 miles and 7 hours later. When I went up the last time, two weeks before the race, I didn’t train on the last 15 and maybe in hindsight I should have – in the dark. I knew I wasn’t going to get good at all of it or even serviceable at some of it, so I decided to focus on the Negaunee loop. The last 15 miles took me 5 hours and 15 minutes to walk/ride on race day. But those 15 miles don’t define my Marji. I left it all out there, I nailed sections 1 and 2, riding through 40 miles in 8:44 and as it turned out I had just enough energy to get me to the finish.
I was joined at Marji this year by many Traverse City folks who had #unfinished business or had set new goals for #findingtheirlimits along with many #freshmeaters, most of whom had not raced a “long mtb” before. They inspired me and kept me going along with the many TC friends who went up to cheer and support. They all found their limits on Saturday from amazing first-time finishes to, solid 40s and literally gut-wrenching 100 miler quits due to the heat that day and epic father/daughter 100s. There’s only so much we can control on race day and for me at least – race day, regardless of how it goes, is the dessert of the long meal that the training months provide. From the time I trained for my first marathon, only to sprain my ankle the week before – I’ve always loved the preparation that endurance events require.
My biggest take away from this Marji thing is I fell in love with that place – that Upper Peninsula, Marquette County, the water, the rocks and trees and the people ⎼ a true sense of place. The community in Marquette, Negaunee, Ishpeming and beyond come out in droves. I could not believe it. I thought Dakota Five-0 could not be topped for a super cool community-driven event ⎼ but Marji is community-driven on steroids. There are people everywhere – from folks with 50 gallons of water sitting in the back of their SUV on some isolated two-track to full on “stations” with hot dogs and grilled cheese (unofficial) – this “self-supported” event is supported in every way imaginable down to keeping the finish line open for more than 24 hours. The only official cut-off for all races is leaving Jackson Mine Park the 2nd time by 2:00 a.m. Sunday. It’s generous and leads to athletes pushing themselves to up to 28 hours to finish the 50 mile mtb or 42 hours and 40 minutes for the last finisher of the 210-mile Out and Back. Finding your “limits” are purely individual at Marji. Danny and Todd leave that up to you to figure out. That limit might not be the finish line in Ishpeming. It might be South Trails or Sissy Pants, or Cry Baby. I’m not implying a “just do it” strategy – that’s dumb and could harm other athletes including yourself. I’m 62 and I finished the 50 in 13:49, I rode a lot and hiked a lot too, I kept my transitions tight, organized and fast – I also smile and chat with folks, let riders pass liberally, enjoyed my time out there – it’s always “my race” – I own it. I finished Dakota Five-0 last year in 6:26 – I thought that was the hardest technical type trail I’d ever ridden - now I think R.A.M.B.A trails are. Every trail has its persona and requirements. It’s apples to oranges comparisons. Just prepare well, know that Marji fever will consume you – like maybe from the first moment you decide to do it (unless you are completely off social media). I recommend training for the 50 like it’s a tough 100 mile mtb race and don’t skip strength training. I don’t think I’ll ever attempt the 100 (never say never) but if I was going to do that – night riding, night riding and even more night riding on the course, planning for beyond 26 hours. If you are a young (under 55), super experienced technical rider, with ultra-race experience, with super great endurance and durability – it’s different. But every athlete will have to be able to hike/push some stuff regardless of skill. It’s hard, it’s an adventure – but go to the start line to finish and you will. Next year, I signed up for The Crusher 225. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll check in with the blog world next summer, if I’m still kickin’.
Over and out – XO, the Old Bitch
|Me at the finish|
|"Race with Heart"- Alexandra Houchin|