Christian sent us the story about riding in the Maah Daah Hey 100 this year on his Surly Ice Cream Truck.
The Maah Daah Hey 100 has been around as a race for
The trail itself is described on Wikipedia thusly:
The Maah Daah Hey Trail is a 96-mile (154-kilometer) trail that connects the northern and southern portions of Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and winds through the Little Missouri National Grasslands in North Dakota’s Badlands to form the longest continuous singletrack mountain biking trail in America.
Maah Daah Hey is a phrase from the Mandan Indians meaning “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.”
With that background…take it away Christian!
On August 1st, I rode in the Maah Daah Hey 100. I’d wanted to ride the Maah Daah Hey since stumbling across its existence back in the fall of last year, and figured the MDH100 was the safest and all-around best way for me to go and ride the trail on my own. Drove the 9 hours from the Twin Cities Metro to the CCC Campground the day before the race, arriving around 3 p.m., and set up my tent in one of the numerous camp sites which were, thankfully, still available. After paying my camping fees (a reasonable $12 for two nights), I cycled over to the big, shady pavilion where a few racers were assembled and relaxing. Turned out to be a bunch of guys from Grand Forks, and I carpooled into Watford City with them to register and get some dinner. Resisted the temptation to go for an evening ride, deciding instead to save my legs and just walk for a few minutes on the Maah and Long X trails, which both start right out of the campsite. The scenery was just beautiful, and I was overjoyed to be there.
CCC Campground viewed from the Maah Daah Hey Trail
Tried to get an early night and slept fairly poorly, along with being woken a couple of times by the sound of a veritable swarm of cayotes moving through somewhere nearby. Felt like I was in the middle of the cinema scene in Gremlins. Got up at 5:30 and was able to hit the head before the big pre-race-poop queues started. I had brought my Surly Ice Cream Truck to ride, and adjusted the tire pressure in the cool (approx 60F) morning air to 7.5 psi front and back. I ran 100mm Clown Shoe rims and 4.8″ Knards with 0.8mm Surly Toobs, each one filled with 8oz of Flat Attack. Figured that should guard pretty well against any cacti and horny toads I may run over. Lubed the chain with soy lube. I had my 3L Camelbak Lobo (filled with lemon Tailwind mix) crammed full with a spare tube (also loaded with gloop), a puncture repair kit, two spare chain links, a multi-tool with chain-breaker, needle-nose pliers, zip-ties, a camera, a cell phone, a knife, pocket tissues, cash/cards, a mini cable combi-lock, spare contact lenses, Okele Stuff chamois ointment, and some portions of Tailwind powder. I carried no bottles, as my plan was to top up with water at pretty much every checkpoint, as well as at the aid stations.
Made it to the start line about 6:55, and headed to the back of the pack. After a rendition of the national anthem and a motivational quote of Theodore Roosevelt from Nick Ybarra, the race organiser, we were off. I overtook maybe fifteen people on the way to the gate, and then came the slow pootling through the opening section of trail. My only goal was to attempt to finish the race, so I was in no particular rush, but the slow pace in this opening section really started getting to me. I don’t mind going slow on uphills, but having to brake all the time because of other riders on the descents was getting me pretty frustrated. About 10 minutes in I decided to pass a couple of people on the overgrown edge of the trail, and promptly hit a large hidden rut and had to get back on the trail in the same position I’d been in. Lesson learned! I chastised myself for losing my cool and wasting energy like that. After getting to the top of the neverending switchbacks, the trail turned into flat doubletrack. I was excited to get past some people, but it seems everyone had decided to pick up the pace now it was all easy going for a bit, so I was content to just spin away at a decent speed. Made it to the first checkpoint and added a bottle of water to my Camelbak, along with 3 scoops of Tailwind shortly thereafter. The rest of the first section went pretty well, with some great views and fun descents. You’re never exactly sure what you’re going to get with the descents on this trail; you can be bombing along and then come to a big unexpected dip or trough to navigate your way through. Keeps you on your toes! Or possibly flying through the air, slightly tangential to your steed. Made the first aid station in 3 hours. Changed socks, topped up with water and Tailwind, applied more suntan lotion, and moved on out. The day was warming up pretty well.
The second section started getting pretty tough, and I was walking up a fair amount of the uphills. Topped up with water and Tailwind again at the next checkpoint, and took a break in the shade for a couple of minutes on one of the many steep ascents. The heat and exertion were starting to get to me, and I found myself longing for the Little Missouri River crossing, situated just before Aid Station 2, so I could have a little swim. I had hoped to be able to cool off at the many creek crossings throughout the race, but it turned out they were either dry or the water was so low and grotty looking that I had no desire to start splashing that grody stuff all over me. So I just got hotter. I feel I should mention at this point how stunning the scenery is on this trail. You’ll be biking along and glance to one side and see a jawdropping vista of the badlands, and then have to look right back at the trail to make sure you don’t fall off down the side of a butte. Made me wish I had some time to stop and take pictures, but with the pace I ride, I knew that every minute would end up counting when it came to making cut-offs later in the race… so I just kept on going. Made it to Devil’s Pass around Mile 43, and it was just as magnificent as I had hoped. Before starting the race I knew I may well not make it all the way, but really wanted to make it at least halfway so I could experience that bit of the trail, so I was pretty happy to be riding it. The Little Miss River crossing took some time to roll around, but when it did, I was hot as a sumbitch and completely ready for some swimming. Took off my shoes and carried my bike across to the other side (didn’t want to try riding it and have water get in my BB), then waded back into the knee-high-ish water, held my nose, and lay down and completely submerged myself. It felt incredible as the current started to pick me up and gently inch me downstream, cooling me all the time. I couldn’t understand why no one else was laying in the river, but to each their own. After maybe 5 minutes of laying there and dunking my head, just fairly having the time of my life, it was time to get moving again. I was something like 7 hours into the race, and I had to make it up a nice steep climb before the second aid station. I wrung out my sopping, gritty socks, popped my shoes back on, and got going. Walked up the climb to Aid Station 2, and arrived around 7 hours 15 mins in. The cut-off for that one was 8 hours, so I was still good. Ate a couple of chunks of lovely looking watermelon, filled up the Camelbak with water/Tailwind, changed socks, applied suntan lotion, added chain lube, and decided I should just hope my chamois ointment kept on working after my little swim instead of wasting time applying more. Got back on the trail around 7 1/2 hours into the race. I had 5 1/2 hours to make Aid Station 3 before the cut-off. I had heard this next staged flippin’ sucked. Time to see if that was true.
Quick selfie at Aid Station 2
The third and penultimate section of the race is the longest at close to 30 miles and – as I already mentioned – somewhat notorious, but at first I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about. Sure, I was going slow and walking up climbs, but I was feeling pretty good. It may have been here that I saw a couple of horny toads scurrying out of my way. Cute little guys. Reached the first checkpoint and added a bottle of water to my Camelbak and kept going. This, it transpired, was a terrible mistake. I should have completely refilled my Camelbak, but I figured I could make the 9 or 10 miles to the next checkpoint just fine, what with all the water I still had left in there when I added that extra bottle. At this point some of the ordering of the details gets a little fuzzy, but I’ll try to slot my memories together as accurately as possible. There were still three checkpoints to go before Aid Station 3, which was at around Mile 79. The temp was in the 90s or 100s somewhere, there was not much shade, and the sun was beating down as merciless as Ming himself. I was drinking plenty of water, but feeling just exhausted from the exertion and heat. I believe it was somewhere around Mile 63 that I slumped down in the shade of a tree, breathing hard and staring, and admitted to myself that I was done. It was tough to do, but I was just beat. I sat there for maybe 5 minutes, in a mind-numbed state, then kept on going. It was not long after this that I sipped from my Camelbak and felt the dreadful resistance of a drained and empty bladder against my mouth. This has, of course, happened to me before in less pressing circumstances, but I had been resolved before starting the race to make sure it did not happen to me on the Maah Daah Hey. I knew roughly how far I’d come from the mile markers on the trail, and figured it couldn’t be more than about 3 miles to the next checkpoint. I also knew that I had no choice but to keep moving until I got there. Rest had now been effectively eliminated as an option. The mile markers came and went as I cycled and trudged on, looking ever onwards in the hope of seeing the checkpoint. At last I saw a road, and after skirting around it for a while, the trail eventually lead down to the next checkpoint. It had been about 3 1/2 miles since I’d drained my pack. I filled up my pack with water, loads of ice, and some Tailwind… and then sat in the shade in one of the waiting chairs. One of the fellas from Grand Forks who I’d met the day before was lying behind my chair in the shade, cramping bad. The guy at the checkpoint said I had about 30 minutes before continuing from this point was no longer an option. It was about 4 1/2 miles to the next checkpoint, then 4 1/2 miles to the one after that, then about 3 1/2 miles to Aid Station 3. The exposure and lack of water was swimming around my head, and I felt decidedly woozy and spaced just sitting there. Then I took on a notion to get up and keep going. I think I was around Mile 67 at this point. During the first 2 stages of the race, I’d been able to bomb down the descents… but as the heat had upped the pressure in my front tire and the trail had maybe gotten rougher, the descents were now shaking the hell out of my biceps and forcing me to slow down. I knew that at this stage, bombing the downhills was my only chance of keeping my pace fast enough, so not long after leaving the checkpoint, I let a bunch of air out of my front tire in the hopes that it would absorb enough of the bumps. I didn’t have my gauge, and wouldn’t have wasted time measuring it if I did, but I’d guess I dropped it to about 6 psi. This, it transpired, made a world of difference, and from then on I approached every downhill section with the mindset that my entire race depended on it; which it clearly did. I gritted my teeth, tried not to use the brakes unless absolutely necessary, and carried as much speed as possible into every fresh ascent. I was taking a few sips out of my Camelbak every minute or so to try and make up for my period without any hydration. I made the next checkpoint in time, topped up my pack, and kept on rolling. The approach to the last checkpoint before AS3 was a ridiculous climb, and the volunteers whooped and hollered as I pushed my bike up it. When I got up top, one of the volunteers told me she’d given me line-of-sight clearance to keep on going – apparently meaning that as she could see me at the cut-off time, she was giving me a pass – so I was still just in the race. She told me how easy the following piece of trail was to get to the aid station and that she knew I could do it. I got more water on board and kept going. The switchbacks into Wannagan Campground were a lot of fun, and I arrived at Aid Station 3 at 12 hours and 45 minutes into the race. I had 15 minutes to keep going if I wanted to. Stopping moving and sitting down made the wooziness catch up with me. A volunteer filled up my Camelbak. At the start of the race, Nick had said that if you made it to AS3, it was all downhill from there. I asked a volunteer if that was true. She laughed and answered in the negative. I picked up my lights and rolled out with 3 minutes to spare. I was now on the fourth and final section of the trail. The sun was getting lower, but it was still plenty warm. My mind was numbed. It was quite a decent haul to the next checkpoint, and during this time I admitted to myself again that my race was over. It was a shame, but I was done. I was still moving, though. When I got to the next checkpoint, I was surprised to find out I was still allowed to continue. The volunteer said from here on out there were no cut-offs. One of the volunteers helped me with filling my pack and adding some Tailwind. By this point I was finding too much nutrition in my water to be unpalatable, so I was mixing it way too weak. It was 7 miles to the next checkpoint, then 7 miles to the end. On I went. This was, in retrospect, one of my favourite parts of the race. I turned on my lights as I was leaving the checkpoint, and as darkness descended around me, I bombed through the most descents I think the entire trail had to offer in such a short space. By this point I was on the Buffalo Gap Trail, as bikes aren’t allowed on the Maah Daah Hey through the Teddy Roosevelt Park. I was having a blast descending so much as the stars started to come out and I passed by largely unconcerned cattle, grazing by the trail. I crashed a few times in the last half of the race. I don’t know where. It was part-and-parcel of my descent-bombing game plan, and I just climbed back on the bike and got going again. I passed under I-94 at some point. It may have been before the last checkpoint. I really couldn’t say. When I made the last checkpoint, someone lubed my chain, and I got water, and I was off for the last 7 miles. A volunteer had told me the race cut-off was in 50 minutes. I commented that if I didn’t make it in that time I’d be a DNF, but no one seemed to think that really mattered. On I went. I never expected the last 7 miles of trail to include so much climbing. As I trudged up the ascents, I knew I wasn’t going to make the 8-or-so mph pace I needed to finish before the 17-hour race cut-off time. But I wasn’t really fussed. I was giving my all, and that’s all I could do. Besides, I’d seen people’s times listed up to 18 hours for a previous year, so I figured it was still a fairly legit time. But my more pressing concern was just finishing at all. So much climbing in the last 7 miles! I suppose it wasn’t really too bad and was all just relative to my condition, but I’d been hoping these 7 miles would be more like the 7 I’d just done – flippin’ awesome. It was surprisingly warm yet, and I had my sleeveless jersey completely unzipped; still every now and then there’d be a patch of refreshingly chilly night air hiding away in a low spot. At some point the Buffalo Gap Trail fed back into the Maah Daah Hey, and the trail post markings swapped from a buffalo head back to the distinctive MDH turtle. In the end I saw a road sign, and before long was out onto tarmac. I went down the road and saw some pink flagging denoting the home straight. As I rode through the night down the tarmac, I started to wonder if this wasn’t actually the right road. Would I have to turn around and search for another route? I felt close to all in. Then I saw something ahead, and heard hooting and clapping. And the chalk on the road saying
YOU MADE IT!
and I was there. People congratulated me. I asked someone the time. It had taken me 17 hours and 20 minutes to get through the 106-mile course. Cool.
At the finish line
Now that I’d stopped I felt woozy again. Very woozy. I leant on my bike. I sat or squatted. Someone told me how to get to the shuttle, which would be leaving from somewhere over the bridge, but I realised I couldn’t make it. I asked if someone with a pick-up could give me a lift. Someone started riding my bike to the shuttle pick-up point for me, and I walked to a racer’s truck. Then I woke up with my chin hurting, lying prone on the floor, with voices around me and someone saying they should turn me over. I was dazed and eventually flopped myself over. Someone gave me a coke and an energy bar. I tried to nibble the bar and drank some of the coke. Sitting up didn’t feel right, so I stayed laying down, my head propped against the wheel. The ambulance arrived and I decided that, rough as I felt, I should probably go in. 40 miles to the local hospital. I threw up on the way into the rig, so they pushed some Zofran and started a drip. I was able to spend the night in the ER room, where they threw a few more bags in me while my whole body repeatedly cramped. Blood work came back showing my kidneys were fine and I was just dehydrated with hyponatremia. Around 2:30 a.m., I was coming to and realising the bewildering situation I was in… in a hospital about 70 miles from my car and not sure where my beloved bike had ended up. The racer who was about to give me a lift in his pick-up when I fainted had given the medic his business card and had told her to give it to me in case I needed a ride. I called him the next morning and he and his buddy drove all the way from Medora to St Joseph’s Hospital in Dickinson to pick me up and take me back to the CCC, where my Ice Cream Truck was waiting for me by my tent. He wouldn’t even accept any gas money. Just amazing. Turned out the race organiser’s wife had gotten my bike on the shuttle back to the CCC, and one of the guys from the group I’d met on Friday had moved it to my camping spot for me. I was overwhelmed by the kindness of these strangers who had turned a potentially very stressful situation into an absolute breeze. I was even able to get my drop bags back from by the pavilion at the campsite. Then I packed up camp and headed home.
Safely back home in MN after his adventure. That’s red ND dust on the chain and cassette, not rust!
Now the dust has settled and I’ve slept and drunk and eaten myself back to a feeling of normality, I look back on this experience as a wonderful one. If I’d quit at the checkpoint after my little water-free section, I may have saved myself a trip to the hospital… but whilst common sense and determination are both important traits, I’m glad the latter won out on this occasion. My gratitude goes out to all the people who volunteered their time to make this event possible. It was far-and-away the most physically demanding day of my life so far, and I’m very happy to have had the opportunity to take part in the MDH100 and very grateful to those who had my back when the day finally caught up with me. Good times!
Ed: Thanks, Christian! I believe that ride can certainly be called “epic” in the truest sense of the word!