The Crusher - Redefining “Go Big or Go Home”
|The Route as seen from space|
I absolutely love riding in the Upper Peninsula, so I try to take advantage of any chance I can to get up there. Well, last year I heard about an event called the Huron Adventure Mountain Race, a 185-mile loop starting and ending in Marquette, MI designed to make even the hardest of men cry like babies, and thought I have to try that. The required gear list even had a snorkel listed; how insane must a race be to need a snorkel? Thanks to one of my amazing sponsors, Hammer Nutrition (who also happens to be a sponsor of the event), I was able to snag an entry last winter. But as winter turned to spring the race sort of bloomed right along with everything else. First the name changed (HAMR Vanguard). Then it changed again (The Crusher). Then the starting point was moved to Copper Harbor, MI. Then as the weeks moved on the distance slowly grew to 232 miles per the official GPX file. Though they still called it 225. Through all those changes the required gear list still had a snorkel and I was still just as excited to see what craziness I had signed up for. Did I mention this is an unsupported, no aid station, please don’t die because no one will find your body for a month kind of race? No, well it is.
|Right from the web site.|
While I am no stranger to endurance races, this one was a bit more than any other I had raced (understatement of the year) and required a bit more preparation. I would be required to start with a minimum of three liters of water, 3,000 calories and a whole list of other items I would never even think of taking to a 100-mile mountain bike race. So I did a little shopping and got myself a new hydration pack that doubled as a small backpack and a water filtration system, then I raided my backpacking/camping bin for a host of other non-bike related items; an emergency blanket, whistle, first aid kit, and of course I got myself the cheapest snorkel Family Dollar had to offer.
Now that I had everything it was time to make it all fit; and I was almost successful. I managed to get everything packed, but I did not have a good way to get to my supplements which I planned to take hourly. A quick trip to Spin Bicycle shop (www.spinbicycleshop.com) in Old Town Lansing to pick up a small top tube bag that fit right at my seat post and I was all ready to go.
|A quick stop on 2 so Macie (the dog) could swim and play fetch|
|My attempt at getting the sun set over Lake Michigan|
Since the drive to Copper Harbor is about 9 hours, my wife and I decided to drive about a third of the way up Thursday after work and stay in St. Ignace for the night. We got up early on Friday and drove to Marquette for gear check and packet pick-up at Forestville campground. Then we got back on the road to Copper. We arrived at about 4:00 so I set up camp and Laurie was able to go out for a nice ride on some amazing trails (www.copperharbortrails.org/trails#trailgenius-wrapper). After her ride we grabbed some dinner and went back to basecamp so I could do my final prep for the race and get in bed at a decent time, after all I was planning to spend 18-20 hours on my bike the next day.
|I passed the gear check|
I woke up at 4:00 am Saturday to give myself adequate time to get my GPS beacon which allowed for (almost) real time tracking throughout the day. (http://trackleaders.com/crusher19). The problem was the beacons were scheduled to arrive early Friday so racers could get them at gear check, but they did not arrive until sometime in late afternoon. The race organizers made a revision to the plan and everyone was to get them the morning of the race. Unfortunately, it took a while to get all the beacons mounted so the start was pushed back from 5:30am until 6:00am. To the race crew’s credit they did a good job of making sure everyone knew what was going on and keeping everything about the situation pretty light hearted; and the riders were very chill about the whole thing too. If anything, it made the day a little easier because we were able to start in the daylight.
|I'm ready to go|
At just after 6:00am and some slightly encouraging words from Todd the race was underway.
My plan for the day was to stick with the leaders as long as I could, but having done races and rides of this length and intensity, I also knew I would need to be smart about how hard I was really pushing if I wanted to finish and feel like I did the best I could. So when we started through Copper Harbor at a pretty leisurely pace I was cautiously optimistic that the group would take it easy for the fist 50-100 miles and let things shake out. I was wrong. We turned off the pavement and onto a small climb and someone decided it would be a good place to turn on the gas and split things up before the first bit of snowmobile trail.
Once on the trail the group kept up a pretty good pace over some moderately tough terrain. There were lots of rocks and small punchy climbs all while twisting and turning through what I am sure was some beautiful forest, if I’d had time to look at any of it anyway. The surface through about mile 17 kept changing between rocky, washed out, and some sand meaning there was not time to let down my guard. Except I did for a moment just as I rolled into a sand pit. My front tire sank in and I did a slow motion type slide out. I tried to save it, but after a few seconds of fighting for it I slid into some nice deep sand, just about burying my face. It was nice soft sand so it did not hurt at all, but my glasses came off my face and somehow my helmet came unbuckled. I got up, just happened to see my glasses in front of me so I grabbed them and jumped back on my bike to chase the group that had decided at that exact moment it would be a great time to attack. I was never very far from the group, no more than 30-40 yards back, but it took me about half a mile to chase back on, all the while holding my glasses in my hand and with my helmet unstrapped. Once I caught back on I sat at the back of the group to recoup a little from the effort and see about putting myself back in order.
|Checkpoint #1 - Note the missing nose piece|
I wiped my glasses off on my jersey, put them back on my face and noticed something was not right, but since the trail was still pretty rough I just let them be for the moment. About a mile and a half later we rolled on to a paved road where I strapped up my helmet and took off my glasses to see what was going on. Somehow, the nosepiece had fallen off. Oh well, there was not much I could do about it. I briefly considered putting them in a pocket, but I really do not like riding without glasses so I adjusted the temple arms to squeeze a bit more (hurray for Rudy Project sunglasses adjustability) and put them back on. For a little bit the lens resting on my nose was a bit irritating, but I quickly started to ignore it and focus on the ride again.
After some slightly relaxed miles along the shore of Lake Superior the course turned back into the woods and the pace picked back up enough to split our rather large group up and leave us with about 10-12 people. Not much of note happened for the next few hours. We all rode together as a nice group and took our turns pulling, we did somehow manage to drop a few guys and were down to 8 riders.
The first place I planned to meet up with Laurie was in Calumet for a quick bottle exchange. Somehow our group was just hammering the pace and we rolled into town over an hour before I expected to be there. Luckily for me, Laurie was able to follow us via Trackleaders so she got there just in time to meet me. I dropped my bottles about 10 yards before I got to her, grabbed my two new ones and was back underway in no more than a few seconds.
The ride into Houghton from there was pretty smooth going and we continued to pick up the pace. We only made one minor wrong turn in town, which cost us no more than a few seconds. After crossing the bridge we pulled into Chutes and Ladders park where the City of Houghton had a neutral aid station (mile 78). Our entire group stopped to refill fuel and water, use the bathroom and have some snacks before rolling out once again to start the climb to Freda to get to the second checkpoint of the day (the first was to get a selfie with the cliffs in the background on Cliff Rd).
|Resupplied and ready to go from Houghton, I even had time to grab a different pair of sunglasses|
The climb up Coles Creek Rd was pretty sizable but nothing that split up the group. At the top we were rewarded with one of the prettiest roads I have ridden. It is call Covered Rd. and it is very aptly named. The trees on both sides come right to the edge of the road and grow up and over it, giving it the illusion of being a really tall tunnel. I took a few moments to enjoy the road, but not so long as to fall off the pace.
|I snagged these from the Crusher Facebook page, If they are yours and you want credit just let me know|
The next stop was the Freda ruins (mile 91). I wish we had time to look around, but it was a race. Our group stopped so we could all take a selfie with an old smokestack in the background (I bet you're picking up a theme for the checkpoints) and we were back underway. The next hour or so was on some soft gravel roads, the kind that feel like they are actively sucking the life from your legs, but still working as a group we made it through unscathed.
|The Freda ruins smoke stack - Checkpoint #2|
Our group made a quick stop at Mosquito Inn where we met up with Laurie to refill supplies since this would be the last chance before the long haul to L’Anse. By long haul I mean just over 50 miles and just over 3 hours at our current pace. After our stop we had our first run in with the deer flies we had heard so much about. Lucky for us they found us on a road that felt like it was made of peanut butter while we were on a slight incline. I only got bit a couple of times, but they were swarming pretty bad.
After some more long miles we found ourselves on some hardpack gravel roads with some bigger rocks strewn in and were making very good time again. Until my front wheel hit the edge of a rock that was buried that sent my bike flying out to the left, and before I could even react, me into the ground at well over 20 mph where I slid on what I was sure was a cheese grater (somewhere around mile 118-120). At the time I was second to last in line so only Mark had to worry about not running into me, which he managed rather well. I jumped up, told Mark I was okay, and got back on my bike to give chase so as not to lose the group.
It only took a few seconds to catch back on, then I assessed the damage. My knee and elbow were bleeding, my right brake lever had twisted to point down, and my shoulder hurt. My head felt fine. I could still see straight, I knew my name and what I was doing. I was good to keep going. With a little force I was able to turn my brake lever back to the right position and I had enough dirt and gravel on me to soak up any blood I was losing. There was not much else to do except to settle back into the race.
|A bit of my road rash a few days later and nicely cleaned up|
The thing about a hard crash is that it really gets your adrenaline going. Which can be a good thing, for a while. But eventually it is going to come back down. About 30 minutes after my crash I could feel an almost instant change as that excess adrenaline flushed out. My heart rate would not stay steady and I had a hard time keeping my breathing under control and my energy levels were just “off”. On one punchy climb I dropped back from the group (which had been whittled down to 5 of us by now) to try to keep everything in check then caught back up on the flat. I thought this might help, but it did not really.
We reached another slightly steeper climb a few minutes later and I discovered another issue created by the crash. My derailleur was no longer working right. It seemed to be fine in most of the higher gears, but when I shifted into an easier gear it started jumping all over the place. I stopped at the top of the climb to try and adjust it then I attempted to chase back on, but my body was just out of whack.
At that point I made a very deliberate choice to back off and let the group go. I could probably catch back on, but unless I let my body get itself right I was not going to have a good rest of the race, if I would be able to finish at all.
It is always hard to watch the group pull away; it is even harder when you have been riding with them for the better part of 150 miles and still have over 80 to go. I watched them slowly gap me, wishing I didn’t have to, dreading spending the next 80 miles on my own, but knowing it was the smart decision. I spent the next 15-20 minutes cruising at a pretty relaxed pace and letting my body settle down and about 2 miles outside of L’Anse I could feel everything start to fall back into place.
|Restocking at L'Anse|
|160 miles worth of dirt|
I pulled into the neutral aid station in L’Anse (mile 159) as the lead group of 4 was just about to head out so I knew I was not really that far behind. Laurie met me once again and helped me refill all my supplies for the final leg to Marquette. I took my required checkpoint selfie, complete with bagel in my mouth, and was back underway. There were a few times just outside of L’Anse where the road was straight enough, I could catch a glimpse of the lead group, and at one point I could see a rider behind me. When I saw him I really considered backing off and letting him catch me, thinking two of us working together stood a better chance of catching back up. Then I had the thought, what if he is too tired or does not have the legs? I better just ride my pace, if he catches me we can work together and if he does not I made the right choice.
|L'Anse - Checkpoint #3 selfie|
At mile 175 I started the long climb up Mt. Arvon, the highest peak in Michigan; and considering L’Anse is on the shore of Lake Superior, that meant I was in for one of the bigger climbs Michigan has to offer (from about 500’ up to just under 2,000’). I know compared to other climbs I’ve done it is not really that big, but after riding 175 miles it felt as big as anything Cohutta had to offer. On the climb my chain came off my cassette and dropped between it and my spokes three separate times. Each time I had to stop and gently pull it out then try to adjust my derailleur. After the third stop I got it adjusted close enough that I was able to make it to the top and take a selfie with the mailbox register; another checkpoint complete.
|I kind of look happy about this|
|A little extra proof|
Now for some descending. I’m a pretty good descender; I like to go fast, except twice on the way down my chain dropped of the smallest cog and got wedged between it and the frame, this is not a place a chain should be. Again I was able adjust my derailleur to good enough but at this point I figured out I could make either the hardest 2/3 of my gears work or my easiest 2/3, but not all of them; something was very wrong but I did not have time to figure it out right then. When I got home I checked everything out and what I thought was a bent derailleur hanger turned out to be a loose hanger and a loose derailleur. Five minutes with a couple of allen wrenches and everything was fixed.
Another small climb and a lot of soft gravel. That was the next hour and a half. I was able to ride along with no problems to speak of and a neutral support person in a side-by-side caught up and we chatted for a minute before he sped off. At mile 202 I found the secret trailer in the woods and refilled my water bottles. I thought the bladder in my pack was still quite full so I did not bother with it and set out to see how bad Mosquito Gulch really was.
|There is a trail somewhere, I think|
Immediately after the trailer was a knee-deep river crossing that really felt nice on my feet and legs, I could even see some skin on my shins since it washed away the accumulated dirt and grime from the day. Next was a small rock-strewn gully that was rideable, but the only line kept going back and forth across it. Then the course made a hard right turn and went what appear to be straight up. It was a washed out raving full of sand and roots that according to my Garmin was well over a 20% gradient. I’ve never been so tired while pushing my bike before. I even considered stopping for a minute to catch my breath. But this was a race so I couldn’t really do that. Then it got really stupid.
|Another photo snagged from the Facebook group, guess where we had to go|
The best way to describe the next two miles is to call it a boulder field strewn with mud pits. The good news is I was able to pick lines though just about everything, the bad news is it was super slow going. At one point I was riding on the edge of what I thought was a puddle only to have my wheels sink in mud up to the axels and I came to a complete stop; instantly. My bike stood up on its own, supported by the mud. I grabbed the saddle and handlebars and heard the not at all pleasant sucking sound mud can often make when you pull something out of it that should not be there. After making it through and out onto a gravel road again I said to myself (yes I was talking to myself, after all I had been on my bike for nearly 14 hours, the last 4 of which I had been riding by myself) I’ve ridden some pretty stupid stuff in my life—yes I’m talking to you Marji—but that was about the stupidest I’ve ridden. Then to keep myself positive I remembered everyone else had to ride that too and at least I was on my full suspension mountain bike so I probably made better time than most. Which turned out to be true. After the ride I checked Strava and I put up the second fastest time of the day on that segment. Only Mark Kransz, who has had the pleasure of riding it before was faster.
|Guarding the end of Mosquito Gulch|
208 miles done, 26 to go; and all of them on roads. No more snowmobile trails, not more rock gardens, not even roots; just roads. I can do this; I am going to crush this. Wait, where is the Red Road sign I need for my final checkpoint selfie? Did I miss it? No, I’m sure I did not. From my conversation with the neutral aid person I think I should get to it with about 24-25 left. I should probably mention if you don’t have all the checkpoint selfies you get DQ’d; hence the momentary panic. I would really suck to spend all day riding 234 miles and not “finish” because I rode past a checkpoint. I calmed myself down and kept riding, looking at everything that even remotely resembled an intersection, still a bit paranoid.
A few miles later I passed a 100-mile rider and asked if he had any idea where the Red Rd sign was; he did not. I then asked if he needed anything because he was pushing his bike. It turns out he had broken a couple of spokes so there was not much I could do except offer to tell someone at basecamp to see if they could go pick him up. Then luck changed for both of us. A local in a truck came along and offered him a ride to basecamp and told me where the sign I needed was. He said I was on Red Rd and to just keep riding, I will eventually come to a “T” intersection with the sign I needed. There was no way to miss it.
|I couldn't be bothered to take my phone out of the ziplock bag it was in at this point in the day|
219 miles done and I reached the sign. I stopped, took my selfie and got some water from a couple people who were there waiting for some other riders. After a little encouragement and assurance that it was mostly down-hill I put out all the power I could; I really wanted to catch back up to what turned out to be the lead three riders.
The next ten miles went by in a bit of a blur. All I was thinking about was turning my pedals as fast and as hard as I could. There were a couple of good descents on paved roads and I crossed a bridge that said it was closed and to enter at my own risk. With less than three miles to go the route turned off the road and on to a two track that I believe followed some sort of pipeline (you can correct me if I’m wrong). I crossed a foot bridge that was just a bit too narrow for my handlebars to fit on, so I had to hop off and push my bike across.
At last I turned on to Forestville Rd. Less than half a mile to go and all on a road I had driven on many times before. The only thing between me and the finish was a small hill up to the parking lot of Forestville basecamp.
I rolled across the finish line in 4th place at 15 hours, 53 minutes, and 42 seconds to cheers from the crowd and was met by Laurie, and some other friends; Jameson who had done the 50 ultra-run and Chad and Nicole who were in Marquette for the weekend, who all congratulated me on an amazing race. I checked in with the race crew, showed them all my checkpoint pictures and was given my Ti Crusher cup to commemorate my accomplishment. Next I found Mark and Nick, I couldn’t find Tinker, to congratulate them as well. The Crusher had been crushed.
But then again, so had I. I was spent, out of gas, and everything hurt. Time for a shower and bed. I should probably add, the water from the shower hurt and even laying down in a rather comfortable bed hurt.
The next day I had a chance to check out how things unfolded in the last 80 miles of the race thanks to Strava flyby and the Trackleaders site. It turns out Mark attacked at about the 200-mile point and finished roughly 30 minutes ahead of Nick Stanko and Tinker Juarez. At mile 170, Tyler, the fourth rider who had been with them made a short detour down a side road, I passed him at this point without knowing it and continued to pull away for the rest of the race. Now what I am probably most proud of from the day; at 200 miles into the race I was nearly 20 minutes back from Nick and Tinker, but over the next 34 miles I was able to get back to within 4 minutes. They finished just as I was turning on to Forestville Rd; less than ¾ of a mile ahead of me.
|Way better than any medal|
Now for some post racing musing. Could the day had turned out differently if I had not gone down; maybe. But then again maybe not. Would I have done anything differently given the chance? I don’t think so. My decision to back off after my crash was the right one. It allowed me the chance to not only let my body get back into the rhythm of the race, but I was able to get my head back in the game too. On a day as long as this, the mental aspect is just as tough as the physical. Not slowing down after the checkpoint in L’Anse was also the right call. I’m not sure who the rider I saw was, but I know he did not catch me and the next group of finishers came in nearly 30 minutes after me.
My nutrition for the day was spot on and mainly consisted of Hammer Nutrition Perpetuem and Sustained Energy as well as countless Fizz tabs. My hourly supplements (that I bought the special bag for) were BCAA+, Anti-Fatigue Caps, Race Caps and Endurolytes. I also had a couple of servings of Hammer Gel, two Hammer bars, two peanut butter and honey sandwiches made on bagel thins and one mini can of coke. I consumed somewhere between 3,500-3,700 calories and burned nearly 11,000. Needless to say I could not stop eating for the next two days as my body tried to repair all the damage I had done to it. In fact I’m hungry now just from typing this. (snack break).
|Soaking my feet in Lake Superior the next day|
Shout out time:
First, a huge thank you to my wife Laurie who not only dealt with me in the weeks leading up to this and all the crazy antics they entailed, but she spent the entire day driving around the U.P. just to make sure I had everything I needed. Thanks to all the guys I spent any amount of time with during the race, there is no way I could have put up the time I did if not for our joint efforts. Thanks to Jameson, Chad and Nicole for hanging around at the finish line to cheer for me and maybe give me a little bit of a hard time about taking so long to finish. And thank you to Hammer Nutrition, ESI Grips and Rudy Project North America for all the support they provide which helps make these crazy adventures possible.
Lastly, thank you to the 906 Adventure Club and all the volunteers. I can’t even begin to imagine all the time, effort and energy that went in to putting on an even of this scale; and to do it so well. It was an amazing day and an amazing adventure I will not soon forget. But then again, maybe I will forget enough of it to sign up again next year.