The CrusherEX - Because Adventure is Not Cancelled
Where to even start with this? I guess I will start with the premise and a little back story.
I rode The Crusher last year. It was a roughly 234 mile point to point race/ride from Copper Harbor, MI to Marquette, MI. The weather was just about perfect and the road conditions could not have been better. It was a spectacular day that took me just under 16 hours, even with riding the last 80 miles by myself. I finished 4th and was instantly ready to sign up and do it again. None of that, “I hated that, and I will never do it again”, only to change my mind two weeks later; like for Marji. If signup for 2020 would have been available at the finish line I would have thrown my money at them, then laid down on the ground.
Here is my Crusher write-up from 2019 if you are interested:
Fast forward a few short months and I found out I had a family wedding to attend on the day of the 2020 Crusher. Talk about being bummed.
Fast forward a few more months and we find ourselves in this strange new world without races or gatherings. So, guess what had to be moved? The wedding. Once I was sure the calendar was clear for that weekend, I reached out to Todd to see if there was any way I could get an entry for The Crusher. In short order I got a message back that said to give him a call. When I called, he let me know that Crusher was going to happen, just not in traditional sense. This is when I found out that CrusherEX had been born. Instead of a 234 mile point to point from Copper Harbor with a mass start, it was going to be “longer”, more difficult (read: enhanced) and a loop beginning and ending in Marquette. It turns out “longer” was about 254 miles and more difficult was an understatement. Also, riders would be able to complete the course on any day of their choosing between July 1 and Oct 1. The requirement was to record the ride on the riders GPS of choice, takes some selfies at designated points along the course and email it all to Todd as proof of completion to earn the 2020 Crusher cup.
|You know it is going to be good when this is the first thing you see|
Once Crusher EX was officially announced I reached out to a few friends who were registered to see if they were still planning to ride and if so what day. Suddenly there was a solid group ready to ride together on July 18th; Me, Trevor Gibney, Brett Miller, Joe Cantwell and Sebastian Stankiewicz.
As the day approached we kept a close eye on the weather and sure enough about a week out the forecast started calling for a 50% chance of scattered thunderstorms on ride day. 50%; scattered; to me that says we might get a little rain here and there, but chances are we were going to be fine. I like to be optimistic. Then again, we were talking about the weather along Lake Superior.
Over the weeks leading up to our ride date we made plans, changed them, made some more and changed them again. We had another rider for a while (who ultimately chose to go the day before us to miss the forecasted bad weather). But the day before our ride, with the five of us scattered in various locations around Marquette, we finalized the remaining details. We were to meet at the Forestville campground at 5:00 am Saturday morning (7/18) with the goal of setting out as quickly as possible and no later than 5:30 am. Our support crew for the day was set and we knew where we were going to meet them. We were all packed up and ready. The excitement of doing something really big and stupid was finally starting to set it as I went through my hydration pack the 78th time before finally going to bed.
When I woke up Saturday at 4:00 am I checked the forecast and it was pretty similar to the day before, 50% chance of scatter T-storms and rain in the morning and possibly more overnight. The radar, on the other hand, showed a massive red blob of storm heading our way. It turns out 50% chance of scattered storms meant 100% guaranteed torrential downpour. We were going to get wet, but there was nothing to do about it.
|Ready to Ride|
Everyone in our group rolled into Forestville pretty much on time; someone might have been a bit late (cough, Sebastian, cough) but we were still able to hit the g-road at 5:35.
We started off in high spirts with just a hint of trepidation. We were all excited to see just what was in store for the day, but we knew it was going to take some long grinding hours to get back to the Forestville. Our pace was pretty chill on some nice smooth roads until my Garmin beeped that we were off course. I didn’t think we’d missed a turn, but I slowed to check. Trevor, who was behind me slowed and started to turn as well but managed to fall over. The first crash of the day and we were only a mile in. At least we got the first one out of the way early, while going nice and slow with nothing injured but a little pride. We did however set the tone for navigation.
After Trevor’s little snuggle with the ground we determined we did not miss a turn and got back underway. After a short bit of singletrack we found ourselves at the first, and probably the most difficult, obstacle of the day. We had to climb up and over Hogback Mountain. Laurie and I had come out the day before to check this out so I had a good idea of how to get to the top. It started with a nice hike-a-bike up a rock covered trail, about halfway up this someone said, “Hey Mitch, does it get harder than this?”, I just laughed and said “oh yeah”. As we got to the real tough part we caught another group and waited our turn to climb. I want to try and describe this, but I think some pictures will do a better job. (Some of these are from the recon ride Laurie and I did the day before)
At the top we took our selfies and enjoyed the view for a moment before starting the descent, which turned out to be a bit trickier and somehow the five of us got split between the other group. We picked our way down, slipping here and there, and regrouped at the bottom. Happy we made it through before the rain we set out in search of Top of the World. A few more wrong turns and a couple miles later we came back out to Forestville Rd. There is a small parking area here and a few people were there to cheer on riders, except one of them was standing right in front of the trail we were supposed to take so we made yet another wrong turn. We made it about a ¼ mile down the road before we figured it out, so we turned around and back in the parking area the person moved and said “oh, I was standing in front of the trail, sorry”. Oh well, it wasn’t the end the world. Back on course we quickly made it to Top of the World and made our way back to some nice gravel roads.
At 10 miles and just over an hour and a half into the day we heard the storm approaching, at least we made it past Hogback. As soon as we turned on to Big Bay Rd the sky let loose. It absolutely poured. To be completely honest it was pretty fun cruising down the pavement in such a hard rain, other than the fact the drops were so big they were starting to hurt. Even better for us, the rain stated to let up just as were turned off Big Bay and onto the jeep trail. Here is a video Brett took, he might say a swear.
The downside of getting over an inch of rain in about 20 minutes is what had been a nice fast track was now more of a mix of small ponds and rivers. Okay, a slight exaggeration, but the trail was covered in huge puddles and in some places still had water flowing as the rain drained off. We tried going around most of the puddles but some of them were so big there was no choice but to put on a little speed, lean back and hope for the best. Most of the time this worked well, but every once in a while, we would hit one and just stop. Stuck in the mud. A second, and more costly downside, all the tree branches were soaked and hanging very low. During one of my numerous attempts to skirt puddles a tree reached down an grabbed my glasses off the back of my helmet. Went I noticed I stopped to look for them, Brett even fished around in a particularly large puddle we had just ridden through but to no avail. My new Cutthroats were gone forever, claimed but the vast wilderness.
|It looks smooth, but at least it is wet|
There was one upside to the storm rolling through. Going into event day we had the goal of really pushing the pace to see how fast we could complete the course. I really enjoy this type of riding, it is a great way to find one’s limits, or at least get closer to them. Conversely, you do not really get to see much of anything and part of CrusherEX is experiencing just what the U.P. has to offer. So, as our group was slogging along through mud and wet, soft sand, without really having a discussion we came to the decision to make it more of a fun day than a fast day. We still planned to ride fast when we could, but this would give us the freedom to take a few extra minutes at check points or other cool stuff along the way and not try to hammer though conditions that were energy sapping enough at lower speeds and downright exhausting when tring to push fast. With that weight lifted we kept on moving until we hit the water spring on 510. Check point #2.
|Trevor taking a selfie|
We stopped and took the obligatory selfies then topped off water bottles and fooled around for a minute. Someone stepped off the platform into a few inches of mud and the rest of us laughed, were nice like that. No rush, no fuss, just some friends out for a fun ride.
We set back off with our sights set on an old abandoned snowplow. We were told it would be hard to miss so we were all pretty carefree.
For a few minutes.
A few more miles of sand and mud brought us to AAA Rd and some more beautify pavement. But that’s when we heard it. Trevor’s brakes were eating themselves. We stopped so he could check them out and his front pads had worn enough the spring that pushes them apart had been bent out of place by the rotor and was now mangled beyond recognition, and his rear brakes were locking up. We stopped and took the pads out of the front rotor and Trevor pushed on with his rear brakes dragging, making everything even harder. We all thought that was the end of his day. No front brake and a rear that required 10-20 extra watts. No one wants to end their day at mile 43 (4.5hrs into the day)
We kept on moving anyway. There was nothing to do until we got to our first planned SAG stop at mile 55. Luckily by the time we made it to check point #3 (the snowplow) Trevor’s rear brake had started working nearly right and he was able to keep moving without too much trouble. We stopped and took our pictures then continued riding.
The next 12 miles were pretty uneventful other than more mud and puddles and water. Oh, and a new noise; Trevor’s rear brake was not just barely rubbing enough to sound like a cricket. But we made it to our SAG stop. And here I have to give Trevor a huge shout out. He made the decision to keep riding. His rear brake was working (ish) and without the front pads in it was only mildly dangerous, but he figured if he’d made it that far he could make it at least to our next SAG stop at mile 115 where his wife was going to meet us. Talk about overcoming obstacles.
Back underway we all felt a little weight lifted off our shoulders since Trevor was able to keep riding. Spirits rose as did the temp, but at least some of the roads were starting to dry out. The only thing we had in front of us for the next 18 miles was about 1,000 feet of climbing to make our way to the top of Mt. Arvon; checkpoint #4. Along the way we were passed by Nathan and Richard, who had started about a half hour after our group. Brett instantly yelled out “Bad Mitch”, I’m really bad at not chasing when I see someone, but that was not the day we were going for. And it was probably a good thing we kept the pace down because shortly after Joe hit his wall. He started cramping and had little power left in his legs. We soft pedaled for a while hopping he could work through it. After a few stops Joe made the call that we should keep going and he would slowing make his way to Mt Arvon where he could call for a ride.
|It wasn't all bad|
Talk about taking the wind out of your sails. We had plans to ride together as group all day. Unfortunately, that plan went out the window somewhere between mile 60-65. It was hard to ride on without Joe, but it was the call. Joe did manage to keep riding and made about 115 miles, unfortunately he was well over an hour behind us at that point. He called it a day at our SAG stop #2.
Our group of four kept plugging along though. On the climb to Mt. Arvon we spread out a bit and we caught back up with Nathan. I rode with him for a minute or two and we chatted about how our days were going and just how much the early morning rain affected the roads. At the top of Mt. Arvon we regrouped and took our selfies before heading back down and making our way toward the Huron river. 74 miles covered in the 8 hours since we had started our day. This sure was proving to be a long, hard day.
|Back at Mt. Arvon|
The descent of Mt. Arvon was a blast, even if we thought Trevor had died a few times. Turns out was fine, there were just a few sketchy sections of trail where having both brakes would have been very convenient; but there is no reason to let something like that get in the way of a good ride. Five miles later we again found ourselves off course. It turns out we missed a turn off a perfectly good two track and into a small stream. We went back and though, “really Todd, you are making us ride down a river. This may be a new definition of “Enhanced”, too bad we all forgot our boats. I did have my snorkel though.
It was now mid-afternoon and the temp was touching 90. We were feeling the heat and really looking forward to the Huron River crossing at mile 113. After some more good climbing, a few bad jokes about lube; chain lube that is, and Brett telling us how wonderful it is to swim mid race we finally made it to the river crossing. I stopped and took my shoes off and walked along the shore for a bit as Brett, Trevor and Sebastian rode on. They rode right through the knee deep river as I stood there in the middle cooling off my feet and laughing at the site, not to mention the strange looks from everyone else who was there who had no idea what we were doing. We had passes Nathan and Richard somewhere along the way and we were the first people to pass through.
|My bike impersonating a boat|
On the far bank of the river everyone took of their shoes and socks and went for a quick dip in Lake Superior. The water felt amazing and gave us all a boost of energy. It turns out Brett was right. Just a few minutes in the cool water brought the body temp down and I felt ready to ride on, not to mention the added bonus of washing what felt like five pounds of sand and mud of my kit and legs. And to make matters even better, as we were getting ready to head out we met up with a trail angel who offered us some coke (the drink) and chips. Trail angels are awesome.
The roughly 33 miles from the Huron River to L’Anse is probably the only easy riding. It was a mix of nice gravel roads and even some of this really strange, super hard and smooth stuff; I think it’s called pavement. It turns out Todd isn’t pure evil after all. We had our second SAG stop of the day in this stretch. Trevor’s wife met up with us so we could refill water and such. We even took a few minutes to see what we could do to fix Trevor’s brakes. The answer was nothing, but we figures the worst was over so Trevor kept on riding. No front brake and a rear that was getting worse by the mile. Again, safety is very over-rated on a day like Crusher day.
L’Anse. Nearly 14 and ½ hours after we started. My Garmin said we had covered nearly 147 miles (including all our wrong turns). Guess who was the first person we saw as we rolled into town? None other than Todd himself, out to heckle the mass of riders on course. We chatted for a few about how the course had been, what we had to look forward to and just how many people were out riding (as the originally scheduled day it was the most popular by far) then we set of in search of Subway and the first solid food I’d had since eating a small bowl of cereal at 4:15am.
Food, glorious food. (time to sing the song from Ice Age if you know it). The trick is not eating too much. I’ve gotten very good at fueling with just drink mixes for long events, but there comes a point where I just want to eat something. I new this was going to be the case and planned a small wrap into my fueling plan for the day. It did sit like a brick for the next ten minutes, but it was worth it for the taste and the texture.
Anyway. After the food stop we set our for what was probably the most tedious part of the day. 20 miles of basically continuous climbing. It was not straight up, but it just kept going. Every time we came around a corner or out of some trees, there was more climbing. And deer flies. Millions of them. And they all wanted to bite us. At one point Brett stopped to do something with one of his lights and they absolutely swarmed him. They even flew inside his helmet. There is nothing worse than a bity bug in your helmet (ask me how I know). Once Brett was done messing with his lost light that was not actually lost he took off like a bullet, trying to out pace the flies. It didn’t work though. No matter how fast we rode they were always there. For the 30 or so minutes around sunset they were horrendous.
One of the many, many treats of the course was riding along and all of a sudden, my Garmin would say I was off course. I would think, how am I off course there was nowhere to turn, but everyone else’s Garmin’s said so too. We’d ride back only to find where a ditch had been dug and the dirt piled to block a “trail”. Right before it got fully dark we came to just such a spot. Except this ditch was full of water. I thought I saw a shallow spot and tried to ride through, only to find it was well over knee deep and too steep to ride back out of. I stopped and was once again soaked. And I was just staring to feel dry for the first time since 7:30am. I was very unhappy. Everyone laughed and rode through a spot a few feet to my right and only got a little wet.
On the other side we were met with the thickest woods we’d ridden through all day. It was not quite dark enough to need our lights on the road but within a few seconds we couldn’t see a thing. They we started joking about there being witches and trolls along the trail, it was just that creepy. We were also starting to get a little loopy so it seemed really funny at the time. It only lasted 100 yards or so and we came back out to basically the same road we had been on a few moments before. Yes, I we could have stayed on the road and I could have had dry feet, but that is not the way of CrusherEX. If there is a choice of two way and one is stupid and the other is nice, you can bet you will take the worse of the two. That may sound a bit negative and like a bad thing, but it is what makes CrusherEX what it is. If it were easy everyone would do it and this recap would be an exceptionally boring read.
Then it got dark.
But for a while the gravel was on the nicer side of things, maybe even some of the best we rode all day. We were making pretty good time as we met up with Joe’s bother, Wayne for our third SAG stop of the day at mile 170. We were just over 17 hours into the day with a long way yet to go.
|Who needs the Outhouse|
|I have no idea what is happening here|
More gravel, more dark, my memory of this part of the night is a bit hazy. Or possibly the course was not that crazy. We made it to the McCormick outhouse for another checkpoint selfie, then rode down a paved road that was in worse shape than the gravel roads we’d been on. It was almost like when they paved it, they just went out and put a layer of asphalt on whatever was there; rocks, tree roots, potholes; “don’t worry, just cover it and it will be good enough. It’s not like anyone ever drives out here anyway”.
Then we turned off Dishno Rd on to what I can only describe as a bad level in an old video game. It felt like we were riding the same think over and over. Small climb, a couple turns, small descent, over a precarious bridge back up another small climb. Rinse and repeat. It would have been bad enough during the day, but it was just after midnight and it really played games with us. Someone even checked their Garmin to make sure we were not infact in the same spot of a second, of third, time.
Then things got worse. Much, much worse.
Remember when I said the forecast was for a 50% chance of scattered showers in the morning with the possibility of more rain overnight. Well, at the time I didn’t until we saw the lightning; and this was lightning like I’ve never seen before. It was nearly constant. With thunderclaps to match. It was cool to watch until the wind picked up and the monsoon let loose. I thought it rained hard in the morning. That was nothing compared to the storm we were now in. Total rainfall for the time on course was now somewhere near 3 inches, from what I can gather on the inter-webs (and we all know the internet is always right). I can say it was way more rain that the ground could handle, and everything was wet for the rest of the ride.
For the next hour and a half it would rain so hard for 20 minutes we could barely see the ground in front of our wheels; then we would get 10 minutes or reprieve, followed by 20 more minutes of rain, 10 off, 20 on. There were times it was raining so hard with so much wind the rain looked like it was coming at us from every direction, even back up off the ground. Hands down it was the craziest storm I have ever seen; and I would say that even if I had not been riding my bike through it. Once it stopped, we talked about if it would have been smarter to stop and wait it out. The consensus was no, because then we would have been wet and incredibly cold, instead of just wet and really cold. It’s not like there was anywhere we could have gone to get out of the rain.
As the rain subsided, we made it to AAA road and found some pavement, nice smooth pavement. We could still see lightning, but at least it had passed us. Although we would be chasing after it.
At mile 200 we met up with Joe and his family for our last SAG stop. I changed my socks, which felt amazing until I put my wet shoes back on, and we joked about how we were glad no trees fell on us. We then set off with the Yellow Dog river crossing and Mosquito Gulch just ahead.
|Yellow Dog River Crossing|
The river crossing was a nice chance for me to clean off my drivetrain. During the storm everything had gotten so packed with mud and wet sand my bike did not want to shift out of the first three gears. It was fine on the climbs but sucked on the flats. With a little playing and about 38 attempts at shifting it would eventually start to shift but it was a very mentally trying experience. At least I had both of my brakes though. Poor Trevor. At this point Sebastian started telling me how I need to switch to AXS. Since he was the only one of us who didn’t experience some sort of shifting issues he may be on to something.
Back to the real story. I stopped in the middle of the river and washed all the junk out of my derailleur, which helped considerably. Then it was time to go up that same sandy “V” I loathed so much last year. The rain did manage to make it worse though. Now the bottom was washed out and had a groove just wide enough to roll an ankle in, but not wide enough to actually walk in. Push, push, push. Up, up, up. Thank goodness it was not raining anymore. Now for the real fun. The rock strewn “Jeep trail”. Last year I said I have no idea how any jeep could ever drive on this thing and this year much harsher; it was actually a river. No joke, water was flowing down the trail. There was no point in even trying to ride most of it. When it’s dry and daylight it is possible, but not in the dark with inches of water flowing. It was another one of those experiences you can only get here.
We made it through. Everyone still had all their limbs, no flats, no falls, just four soaking wet guys covered in mud and wearing bibs with 23 hours’ worth of sweat in them. It’s worse than it sounds.
After this my memory goes very fuzzy until sunrise. I do remember getting sleepy and feeling like my head was starting to float off my shoulders for a while; but I kept the bike rubber side down and the pedals turning.
24 hours and 227 miles in, my energy levels were good, I didn’t have any stomach issues, my fuel plan and hydration were spot it. Only 25 or so miles to go and the sun was on the rise. What a glorious site. Not the sand covered roads we were climbing, but the sunrise. We made our way around the Dead River Storage Basin and up the monster hill on 510 to be met by incredibly soft roads. They kind that suck the life out of you. But there is no giving up.
Brett had fallen behind a bit over the 10 minutes prior so when we reached the turn for the trail to Chunky Summit we stopped and waited for him. It only took a few minutes, but it was a great chance to take my shoes off. My feet were aching, mainly from being wet all day. I joked that I was started to get trench foot from being wet for so long. Brett flew by the turn and we yelled for him to come back. I had my shoes back on by the time to turned around and joined us. Time for the final push.
The trail to Chunky Summit was covered with rocks, more rocks and lots of water, it was all ridable, but still a bit on the miserable side. After a while we realized we had no actual idea where the sign we needed for the selfie was. When I mapped it out using the provided GPX file it was around mile 240, but we were 245 miles in. We stopped, and luckily, we had enough cellphone reception to pull up my RideWithGPS app so we were able to get a good idea of where it was. So we road slowly on. And on. And on. With no sign in sight. We eventually found Nate and Richard looking for the sign as well (we’d been leap frogging with them all day). We looked all over where we thought it should have been. Eventually we gave up, assuming the storms overnight had ripped the signs off the tree, yes the wind was that crazy. It seemed like the only logical explanation.
We eventually stopped at a different trail sign and took a picture with it so we could prove we were where we were supposed to be but the sign wasn’t, then rode on, half looking more, just in case. Then we heard Nathan yelling that they’d found it. They Chunky Summit sign was not on a summit, but just beyond it where the downside leveled out a bit. We turned around and rode back to Chunky “partway down a down hill on a slight flat” Summit and took our last selfie of the day. Stupid sign. It was even the same color as the tree is was attached to. Remember when I said Todd wasn’t pure evil, I may have been mistaken.
|Brett's look says it all|
Picture taken, there was nothing left but to make it back to Forestville. At mile 250 we were directed on to the Noquemanon Trail and started to see the “K to go” signs. 13K, 10K. I could hear Brett doing math. “10K, we still have 6 miles to go”. Just before we made it to mile 254 Brett said “I have to stop and get something to eat so I can make the last 5 miles” or something to that effect. We slowed a bit but kept moving, thinking he would have plenty of time to catch on once he got his fuel out of his pack. Little did we know Forestville Campground and the finish was 1/3 of a mile away. All of a sudden, we were there. Sebastian and I rode in right together, Trevor was about 10 seconds back, he had stopped for a moment with Brett, then 30 seconds later Brett rolled in. We were all a little confused for a moment. We thought we had miles to go.
Then it finally hit us. We made it. 254.3 miles. 27 hours, 6 minutes, 38 seconds. Green Dots. Finishers. I want to say we Crushed it, but that would not be true. We were met by friends and family who congratulated us on the accomplishment of finishing.
|Happy and Tired|
What did I forget writing about?
So many things happened on course. We saw amazing things and some pretty mundane as well. I mean a 254 mile ride can’t all be glamorous. The hour after sunset I saw more frogs on the road than in the rest of my life combined. Bad movie quotes abound as well as a glut of Dad jokes. In all it was a great day, with some great guys, on a great course during some not so great weather.
The weather really was the story of the day. It is hard to say just how many hours longer it took us than if we’d ridden the weekend before, between road conditions, mechanical maladies and feeling like I might drown while riding. Who’s to say, but in the end does it really matter? We set out to push our boundaries, have an adventure and overcome any obstacles we were to encounter. And we succeeded. And that, I believe, is the whole point of CrusherEX.
Fuel for the day:
I took in about 5,000 calories on the day, most of which were Hammer Nutrition Perpeteum (https://www.hammernutrition.com/perpetuem). I also had more Fizz tabs (https://www.hammernutrition.com/endurolytes-fizz) than I could keep track of. Add to that a couple mini cans of coke, a mini bagel with PB, a turkey wrap from Subway, some gummy bears and two pickle slices somewhere deep in the woods just before the second storm.
I can’t end without thanking a few people and organizations
I have to say a big “Thank You” to Todd and the 906 Adventure Team. With so few events happening this year it was an absolute blessing they were able to find a way to keep adventure happening, keep people motivated, and as always, find a way to get people to do hard things.
Laurie, thanks for dealing with my strange desire to spend more time on my bike in a day than most people do in a year.
Brett, Joe, Sebastian and Trevor, it was great riding with you guys and I think we did a great job riding together. We all managed to ride (mostly) together and somehow no one got thrown in a puddle or intentionally pushed off the trail. The mental game was strong out there and having our group together was a big piece of that.
Our SAG Teams for making sure we (and anyone else they saw) had what they needed to keep riding and stay safe.
Spin Bicycle Shop for making sure my bike was up to the task and completing some last minute parts swapping for me.
Hammer Nutrition, ESI Grips, Rudy Project NA and Kenda Tires. The support you provide as sponsors is invaluable to keeping me riding and making these big, crazy rides possible. Amazing companies, providing amazing products, so I can do amazing things.
My final thoughts:
If you can spare a weekend get up to Marquette and ride or run one of the CrusherEX courses, you won’t regret it.
Trying to compare CrusherEX to Crusher 2019 is not possible, so don’t even try. It is it’s own thing
On the Dirty Chain Podcast I called CrusherEX the Marji of gravel and I stand by that. It does not have the technical single track of Marji that wants to do nothing more than eat your soul and end your day, but it just keeps coming at you. Turn after turn, climb after climb, obstacle and ovstacle; it makes you work, it is relentless, it is hard. Do Hard Things!
Time for some random pictures