The Day Across Minnesota Race Report
Race Date: Saturday, August 14, 2021 – 12 midnight
The title of this race tells you everything you need to know. A day. Across Minnesota. The subtitle includes: for 240 miles of gravel road racing. I had known about this race from Nick Nygaard, who finished the race at least a couple times with his dad and pal from college Ray Rolling, and Ray’s twin brother Race. Nick told Ryan Saline and I that this year was the last year they’re doing it and we might as well sign up with them, and that the race would fill up really fast. So, without too much deliberation, we did. Ryan and Nick and I had traveled together for Ironman Wisconsin in 2015 so I think Nick was reminiscing of that big trip and big race and it was great to be included in a new big one. After signing up, I immediately thought of how training would pan out. I had over 8 months to figure out and do the training.
Training was all over the board. I started trying to bike a hundred miler each month in May, June, July and maybe August. I pondered investing in a new bike, and found a frameset on the internet via Nick. Building that up took a lot of money and a handful of weeks to just collect each component. Then a week to build. Once I had built up the mostly-carbon Salsa Warbird by the end of June, I was almost scared to ride it! Or at least, ride it hard, like my old bike. I felt kind of scared because I built it myself, and also because it was so expensive and nice and fancy. But, I put miles on it. I had no choice, because of a hot training ride while solo in the Superior National Forest in early June, I crashed by old bike and had to finish my new one up and get right on it.
I got a 92 mile ride in in April with Ryan. It was a great ride – real cold at the beginning but we had a really fun time, I think. Over a month later, behind schedule, I planned another trip by myself in the Superior National Forest. I camped at McDougal Lake Campground and was planning two nights out there in the heart of some lovely gravel roads sprawling in all directions. The forecast was for record high temperatures for early June – in the 100s. With that in mind, I planned out a 60-miler in the morning and then a 40 in the evening. I didn’t think I could, or would want to bike 100 straight through the heat of the day. The first 60 was rough. It felt like a hundred miles, and the last miles were arduous. This was not a great confidence booster, that is 25% of the DAMn ride!! I hung out on the paddleboard for the middle of the day, which was really nice. Then I set out around 4pm with the goal to bike 38 miles to Norway Lake on the edge of the BWCA, and back. I picked some really rough roads and was tired. Luckily it was a little cooler with the sun lower, but still hot, sweaty, dirty. I made it out to a narrow road leading to Norway Lake, and the road got more and more narrow. There were lots of rollers. On one, I couldn’t get up the hill on the singlespeed, or unclip in time, so fell over. That was frustrating but I hopped back on. I was probably 18 miles out at this point. Down another little hill, up another one. The boulders in the road were huge – this would be a terrible road to drive on! Then, down another little hill and BOOM! I’m off. I had two flashes in my mind, one where my back tire is lifting off the ground and I’m being catapulted forward, then the other one where my body smashes against the ground, and my helmet ever gently taps a rock as a final landing. One foot was clipped still, and the other was unclipped and crossed over the other. I was a little dazed for a second. I turned back and saw a big boulder that seemed to be displaced. I got right up. Looked my body up and down and realized that I was OK. PHEW. Yikes. I had some scrapes, I was bleeding on my arm a bit, and really dirty as the sandy, dirty road grime just stuck to my sweaty skin. I essentially yelled “fuck this!” and turned right around and started walking. Forget Norway Lake. I was just over 18 miles in. This will be a long trek home. At the top of the hill I hopped back on my bike and knew something was wrong. My wheel was rubbing along the chain stay – it was crooked somehow. I couldn’t ride it. I hopped off and tried to re-adjust my rear wheel, and was immediately swarmed by mosquitoes and bugs unlike I’ve experienced before. I had to fix the wheel and get it back on. It was obnoxious. I glanced at my legs and could tell there was a thick layer of mosquitoes attached. They were flying into my eyes, my ears, my mouth. I got my wheel back on and it was really night. It worked. I rode down the back side of the hill and left the bugs behind. Then, up the next hill, and when I put any real power into the pedals, the wheel would rub or otherwise have issues. So eventually I just ran up ever hill, and soft-pedaled the downhills and flats. At this rate, I’d be back my midnight… and it was such a challenging ride to get out there. I knew that I could link up with County Road 1, though, and take it back. I had my phone, and plotted it out, and it was only 12 miles back home. Once I got to County 1, it was such a relief. I limped in, essentially, and that was the last time I road the Diamondback Haanjo. I was banged up with some road rash, a few sore spots on my thigh and hip, but the bottom line is that I was very lucky to walk away and ride away from the remote crash site!
Ultimately, throughout the spring and early summer I felt I had logged fairly low average mileage, but was able to ramp it up for over 500 miles in the month of July when it really counts. My main issue was getting out every day. When I did get out, I would do 40 or 6o or 100 miles. I biked to work a fair amount, but definitely not enough as I should have. I got four 90+ mile rides in, which was adequate, and a 127-miler in early July was my longest yet. All on singlespeed. My old bike probably wouldn’t take gears due to a slight bend in the frame by where the derailleur hanger connects. I had kind of decided that doing the DAMn on singlespeed would be pretty badass, and I like riding without gears anyways. So, when I built up the new bike I kept it singlespeed. The 127-miler was at the cabin near Alexandria, MN, in one big loop all by myself, so to finish that was pretty relieving. But, on my two triple-digit rides, both on the new bike, I had knee pain on the left side, on different spots, but that both got progressively worse in the final 10% of the ride. I was pretty concerned going into race weekend with my training volume, left knee pain, and the singlespeed. I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to finish.
The plan was for Em and me to drive right to Gary, mull about until the midnight race start, she drives across the state while I bike, and then sleep in Red Wing hopefully after finishing the race. We set off in the afternoon with hopes to arrive in Gary, South Dakota, around nightfall. Em’s car was packed full of my bike, gear, and a bunch of food and drinks. We got to the race start area right at dusk, got my race bib and some fun goodies, and went back to the car to sleep a little bit. It was a nice little nap, just 30 minutes, and my phone was buzzing as my comrades arrived and started setting up. We met everyone and it was fun to see the nervous energy of Nick, Ray, Race, Ryan, and Dave. And, myself. And, our respective crew members. We got an updated crew guidebook that Ryan put together, although I had entered our stops into Emily’s mapping app on her phone. Then, we retired for another half-hour relaxing session in the car. (“Nap” is not a fully accurate description). With a half hour until midnight, I got changed, got my bike tires pumped up and right on cue, the rest of the boys rolled right up. We headed to the start line.
We kind of nervously just stood in the middle of the street in Gary as midnight approached. More riders conglomerated around. We shifted down the street a bit. The pack tightened. We all knew the start was near, and I saw it first. The bright flash of a firework, then “BOOM!”, the explosion a picosecond after. The crowd lurched forward. We were off! Yippee. The scary dark hours were upon us. The whole road was full of riders, and we exited Gary and entered a gravel road. Oh yeah. The road was narrow and loose. Oh jeez. I was gripping my handlebars tightly. I could feel gravel flicking up onto my face right away. I should have put on my glasses right away. The night was cool and clear, perfect conditions really. I couldn’t focus on a single thing except steering – I felt completely engulfed in the moment. It was an exhilarating start to the race.
After just a couple minutes of feeling gravel flick into my face from the hundreds of bikers in front of me, I decided that I ought to put on my clear safety glasses. I glanced down for the shortest time possible to orient my hand to my bike bag, and fumbled trying to open the zipper. I had to look down for a second – I couldn’t stop pedaling, though, because of the massive group of hundreds of bikers behind me! I got my bag open, and searched by feel for my glasses. I finally found them, hopeful that nothing spilled out of the bag, but on removal from the bag I realized they were totally entangled with a charging cord for my electronics. I shook the glasses in frustration, and it actually worked to get my spectacles loose. Nice. Now, to put them on my face without crashing my bike. They went on surprisingly easy, I zipped up my bag and was again hopeful that nothing of high value (which was every item in my bag, really. Why would you carry a low-value item across the state of Minnesota on a bike??) fell out onto the dusty gravel. Nice, time to rock.
With gravel flicking onto my face and shielded eyes, and dust lingering about the air like an explosion’s aftermath, we sped through the night. It felt like we were going fast. The first five miles went by so fast, and the split was really fast. 16:59. Wowie. I felt like I was soft pedaling, just getting sucked along by all these other riders. The single speed was no issue. It was perfect actually, even for the fast speed. I zig zagged with my crew. I’d be behind Race for a while, then we’d get shaken up and I was out front. Then I’d realize that Dave was behind me and had been for a handful of miles. Then Ryan led out a long train of riders motoboating past me on the left while I was in the right line. There seemed to be two wheel ruts on the road that were the best path, and one was generally better than the other. The gravel was different than up outside of Duluth, but definitely not bad.
Eventually, the field seemed to thin out a little bit and we reconvened as a group. Someone yelled to pull over at the next intersection for a pee break. It was perfect timing because I had to go. I wasn’t really drinking water from my bladder… it was so cool and I wasn’t thirsty. I was ready for a bite to eat, though, and I grabbed a Twizzler and it was delicious. I got to stay up on eating. It was hard to do so in that mess of riders. I was pretty jacked up still, and the late night hours made it even more fun. We set back off and were soon consumed my more riders. Everyone was all over the place – a big train would pass us like we were standing still, then we’d just truck past other riders seeming to go so slow. The field was definitely still shaking out in the early miles of this long, long race.
I had been questioned by my outfit choices as the start line, as everyone else was in long sleeves and windbreakers, and I was in a tank top. Not a lot of running singlets at the start line. I felt good then, and I felt good riding. My fingers were maybe the only part cold, but really it was almost a perfect temperature for me. The air was definitely cool against my arms, but it felt really good. Meanwhile, Nick was getting cold. He said it just like that. I think everyone else was doing OK, but Nick mentioned it a couple times, and it made me think to myself that maybe I was a bit chilly as well. We turned onto another farm road – they were all named something in the high hundreds – 475th Avenue and 330th Street or something. When we turned, immediately the gravel changed from rocky with a firm wheel divot, to deep and soft sand. I might have unclipped and pushed a few steps, and Nick zinged up right beside me, his wheel turned sideways in the sand and dug right in, and he went down. As quick as it happened, I rolled by him and he popped right up and remounted his bike. Well, if he was frustrated about being cold before, he’s probably hating life now. He jetted out in front as everyone else struggled through the sand. I hopped right onto his wheel and stayed there for a while. It was nice.
My eyes were kind of irking me a little bit. With the glasses, and the thick dust, and being 2am, and the bright white lights shining in front, and blinky red lights dotting the horizon, and lots of shadows… it was intense. I tried to not think about my eyes freaking out. I tried to just turn my mind of and focus on the line I wanted to take and keeping into Nick’s draft. It was almost a ghostly setting, like what you’d see in a horror movie, in the scene with the graveyard. I don’t think I’m in this photograph, but it’s a good representation of the first four hours of riding.
I was excited to get to our first aid stop – our longest planned segment of the day at 50 miles. I know Nick was frozen and counting down the miles, and I was pretty excited to warm up a bit and recharge my light as well. I had forgotten what the battery lights meant, but there was a type of code (double green, a green and a red, a double red, and red blinking I think?) to denote how much battery life was left. There was some red in there. Red, BAD! I was so nervous I’d have to put on my headlamp over my helmet or under my helmet and it would squeeze my brain and I’d be so uncomfortable. I liked my setup! 43, 47, 49, 50 miles. Gah, I thought it was 50? Someone said it was actually 51. We eventually caught up to Ryan in there and he was by himself. So, we were all back together as we rolled into the aid stop with the three vehicles parked and ready to help us. I saw Emily with the back of her car open and the seat laid out. I told her that I wanted to sit in the car, actually, if that was OK. She was definitely OK with it, luckily, and I felt bad because I knew I was already filthy with dust and it would get everywhere. It probably will get everywhere anyways…
Em cranked the heat and it felt great. I knew I would be cold once I stopped, and I was freezing. I had felt pretty dang good the whole time, but I knew I was getting colder and colder and it would only get colder for the next three hours. I drank pop, ate one and a half donuts, which were so good, and had Emily fiddling with my bike lights. We plugged the front one in as-is, on my bike, and the back one was taken out and plugged in in Em’s car’s USB port. I was nervous that everyone else would be ready to roll and I’d be unprepared, but every time I looked out they were all shuffling about. Nick had put on a puffy winter jacket and stocking cap to warm up. I kind of scoffed at him since it was still above 50 degrees probably, but I was cold myself and had to put on the one long sleeve layer that I brought. Yeesh, good thing it’s not much colder! I would be screwed! I wasn’t too confident that the long sleeve would provide any warmth, really, since it was super thin. But, better than nothing. I was so cold getting back out of the car, and I didn’t stock any foods or drinks with me – just plugged the lights back in and we set back off from the first aid stop. Two more to go.
It seemed like the pack at large had left us as we stopped. The road seemed much lonelier once we set back off, compared to the frantic, dusty, eerie start. Nick had put on pants, jackets, layers. I had my long sleeve on and was pretty cold once we got up to speed and the cold night’s wind was breezing past me. And we just kind of kept trucking away. I was feeling pretty good. I hadn’t drunk hardly any water, or eaten much food, but stocked up at the aid stop. We stayed together as a group really well, and the road conditions were great. The miles flew by until a winding road near the Minnesota River. We were aiming for Morton, a planned self-supported stop around mile 85. The first sign of dawn came to the left on the large bluff opposite of the river. That was nice. We made it through the scary night. It got lighter and lighter and lighter until I flicked off all my lights. I was pretty excited to get into the next stop. I could feel myself getting a little uncomfortable, a little tired out, excited to sit down on anything but my bike seat. I started counting down the miles to 85. I knew we were close, and we zipped down a big paved hill right to a gas station. Oh, that was a lovely sight.
The probably-normally-sleepy gas station in Morton, MN was teeming with dirty cyclists. It was great to stop. I went inside, and the glory of all the gas station food was overwhelming. I went right to the coffee. Then I saw breakfast sandwiches. I had to have one. I got the goods and waited in line to pay, but then second guessed myself. Maybe I should stock up on candy, chocolate, chips, pop, fizzy beverages, ice cream. Oh well, I just got my sandwich and coffee and sat down and ate it. It was nice to sit next to the Holaks from Duluth, fellow competitors, and hear their story. It was funny seeing some of the presumed “regulars” drinking their morning Saturday coffee and then here are all these cyclists walking around in their spandex shorts. It was maybe a 10 minute stop and we got back together as a group and kept biking down the road. On the way out, we somehow saw Emily driving to the gas station! It was like a mirage, we just goofily waved and she waved back.
We rode on the paved road for a bit, feeling rejuvenated from the stop. We started chatting and talking, and I was eager to hit a few milestones – 100 miles and the halfway point around 120 miles, which was about where our next aid stop was planned to meet the crew. The morning mist was heavy on the leaves and bushes as we turned onto a gravel scenic byway. I started drafting on Dave and we made a bit of time on the group. I requested to stop to take a leak and grab some food, and my bike bag zipper got jammed up while I was fiddling around in there. I tried to inspect it as the rest of the crew biked up and stopped. Without holding up for too long, I was able to jam the zipper into place halfway through the bag. I was worried my stuff would fall out – my food, my cell phone with money inside. That would be pretty detrimental if I wouldn’t be able to notice that and bike away. I looked down repeatedly and all looked safe and sound. The boys started chitter chatter about a hill coming up. I was excited, because the chitter chatter before this was all about the hilly final 60 miles, and we haven’t really had any big climbs yet. There was a bit of questioning of me, on how I’d make it up the hill. It was exciting. We turned onto a minimum maintenance road, and I jetted ahead, trying to get some momentum. I could see the deep crevasses where water had cut into the dirt and drained to the Minnesota River now behind us. I could see the boulders and loose sand dotting the areas of packed dirt and gravel, where I aimed my bicycle. I stood up and pushed hard on the pedals, my heart rate skyrocketing. The dirt path curved to the right and I could see the top. I passed another cyclist spinning out, and got to the top, gassed. Nick was behind me, and we pedaled a ways out and I stopped to address my zipper.
One of the guys exclaimed that if the zipper was busted it wouldn’t go back together. I wouldn’t accept that. I kept trying but to no avail. I couldn’t close my bike bag, and we set back off. We seemed to be atop a plateau, now away from the riverbed roads that we were on for the past several hours, since dark. The sun had risen and it started to feel more like the actual daytime. It was about 7:30am at this point and we were in the heart of farm country. There was either corn or soybean fields as far as the eye could see. The roads seemed designed specifically for farm vehicles, and were essentially one-lane, sandy and loose gravel roads. Once we got back going we made good time. It was a nice mix of cyclists sharing the morning with us, some groups passed us and we overtook and passed others. There weren’t too many solo bikers out there – mainly groups clumped up. Some of the roads up here were really sandy and soft, and that killed the momentum immediately. It was sometimes a struggle to turn onto a different road to find that there was just barely one line to take that didn’t involve fishtailing and sliding around like crazy.
Before long, as we surpassed 100 miles, I started thinking about the next aid stop. This would be half-way. I was feeling good – really good. I had concerns about my left knee, that had given me grief once hitting triple digits in my only two triple-digit rides. I could feel a bit of a tinge, especially if I stood up and cranked on the pedals. Maybe it was in my head. Really, it was great to know that my whole body was feeling pretty good. Hands, neck, nether-regions. All good. I figured I’d tape my knee up. Also, take off my shoes, put on sunscreen, and eat some food. I didn’t think I needed a refill yet – but maybe I’d get a top-off of water in my bladder. I still hadn’t drunk much of it and was peeing pretty frequently. I think everyone was feeling pretty good, as well. It sounds like Race maybe was struggling a little bit, or his knee hurt or something. We had a long way to go. The miles clicked away until I knew we were close. I kept looking at my watch. There were crews at every intersection, and eventually, ours came too. It was great to see Em, and she seemed to be in great spirits.
I first taped up my knee. I had to wipe away the dust and dirt first. I took my shoes off, and Em had a platter of food and drinks for me to pick from. Ray and Race’s crew guy came over with a large sack of McDonalds breakfast sandwiches, and those were great. Also, Em had made some coffee on the side of the road. I divulged in a little bit of everything, and took time to relax in the chair. I put on the sunscreen, and pondered what else I’d forgotten. Elizabeth walked over and chit chatted, and I only tuned back in momentarily to make sure I wasn’t holding up the group. I took a leak in the corn fields behind Em’s car, and eventually stumbled back onto my bike and rode around to find everyone else gearing back up to get out. The tape on my knee was pulling at my leg hair uncomfortably. We set back off, and unlike the other couple stops, it was a little bit laborious to get back going. It wasn’t nice to sit back down, and I finally started feeling the miles. I’d ditched my shirt, and it was starting to get warm as the sun rose higher in the sky.
The miles flew by, and the roads seemed to get bigger and wider as we got closer to our next stop, 30 miles away, in Henderson. We criss-crossed a couple paved roads and generally stayed together as a group. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits. The heat was certainly starting to take its toll, and the vets started talking about some big downhill bombs. They didn’t mention the big uphills. We started climbing. Up and down. There were a few big gravel roller coasters. On one of the bigger uphills, I was up ahead. On singlespeed, you can’t really go that slow. Nick started to catch up to me, and I pushed hard to show him that I wanted to beat him up the hill. He got wind of my competitive spirit and shifted down to zoom right past me. I let out a yell of exasperation. I probably shouldn’t be doing that stuff 150 miles into the race.
Up, then back down. Ray was bombing the hill. His bike had broken somehow. He said he back brake wasn’t operating correctly. I couldn’t imagine going down some of these hills without a rear brake. Water was more and more desirable, yet less and less tasty as the water touching my back was lukewarm as I sipped it out of the tube through my backpack. I starting thinking about the tasty things I’d get at the gas station. I thought I’d eat my pizza. Oh, the ice cream! Ice cream sounded so great. And something cold and fizzy. One last bomb, then a couple turns onto paved roads and we were clearly into a town of some sort. A glance at my watch – getting close to 150 miles – it must be Henderson. We planned to stop here for our second self-supported stop. So, after this we’d have one more crew stop at 180 and then another gas station town stop at 210 before bringing it home. We were getting close. I thought that 90 miles is still a really long way, and it was going to be a struggle from here on out, for sure.
It was again almost overwhelming to get into the gas station. It was a pretty small and crammed store, with shelves of merchandise with barely a walking lane between. I had pizza in my bag, and noticed an Icee machine. Oh, I got that for sure. Then I noticed a gummi pizza at the checkout and I walked out. I ate my pizza with the Icee, but ultimately couldn’t finish the cold drink by the time we wanted to leave. Ray’s rear brake looked really messed up as he was fiddling with it. If he pulled the brake lever, it would move the whole caliper backwards. He seemed hopeless on a fix from the field, but surprisingly hopeful to continue on. There were all types of people in the streets of Henderson, all minding their own business and enjoying the perfect summer day. What a nice quaint little town! They said that we had to go up and over that hill, beckoning to the bluffs straight ahead in the distance. We biked through the little main street and then took a sharp right into a small parking lot, then into the woods. What was this? Definitely not gravel. It was a sandy singletrack trail through a creek bed. I figured it was a small detour to get out of Henderson. We had to walk our bikes through a bit of it. I saw Nick mount his bike up ahead. It was rugged terrain. Tall weeds, tree roots. It took almost 15 or 30 minutes to get through. That was rough on the singlespeed, and I was wishing for the nice riding, cool gravel roads of the morning time next to the Minnesota River.
When we climbed the famed bluff back out of Henderson, everyone seemed to be dragging. I got up top and waited for my comrades. It took a while. The next handful of miles were in the baking hot sun, a mix of wide gravel roads and rolling hills. I got going with Dave a bit and we made big time on the group. After a couple turns, we realized we couldn’t see the group. So we eased back and soft-pedaled for a while. The group eventually came back with Nick at the rear. He kind of recommended that we stay closer together as a group. We set back off. It was so easy to get on the tail of someone, usually Dave, and just ride with my head down, staying in the draft, only to look up minutes or hours later to see that we were way off the pack again. So then we’d recognize that, and soft pedal for a while until the group caught up. We passed a few other racers and it was clear that we were getting into the hottest part of the day. The sun was straight up above us beating down, with no shade and hardly a cloud in the sky. The breeze seemed to kick up a little bit, which was great. Endless countryside. We kept pluggin’ away, seemingly playing leap frog over and over and over, except I was never in the back trying to keep up. It was hard. It made me expend less energy, though, and I almost started feeling anxious that the clock was ticking and we were going so slow. The group behind was making their way, and eventually we stopped ahead at a big tree that was providing shade and everyone grouped together. There weren’t many word spoken. We just all took a little break, then got right back to it. Then, the hills came.
In a past Day Across Minnesota event, Race had had a physical meltdown and had to drop from the race. He knew exactly where the spot was and that we were edging closer to it. It was a fun milestone to bike past that. We had some other milestones during the ride – I hit my longest ride hours before at 128 miles. My watch was about 2 miles behind everyone else’s, somehow. We hit Ryan’s longest ride at about 145 or so. Then Race’s somewhere in the Minnesota countryside. He seemed to be struggling once again. I was lucky that my knee was holding up, and actually felt much better with the tape on it. If anything, my right knee was getting a little sore. Perhaps, I should tape that one, I thought.
The thought of getting to 200 miles was daunting and just kind of crazy to think about, and then several hours of riding to get to 240. We were inching our way. The roads we were riding seemed to be dead straight and rolling, so you could plainly see the impending hill climb right ahead, then once atop, the screaming downhill and series of hills beyond. They came one right after another. I got more and more comfortable with the downhills, but still nervously clutched my brake lever as my momentum picked up right after the hill’s crest. It was pretty exhilarating to see big nasty washerboards pass right by as you hit the perfect line down a tear-inducing descent.
My equipment was working out perfectly. I hadn’t adjusted my bike even once, which wasn’t the case with hardly any rides on my previous bike. That was great. The bike bag was still open and flapping in the wind. Nothing had fallen out, to my knowledge, and I was continuously pulling gummis and twizzlers and chex mix out of there to much on. Phone was still there, that was the important one. And, my body was holding up great. There was a point before the final crew checkpoint that I had a realization. I think I was thinking about what to tell Em. I would tell her that I was feeling great. Yeah, I was tired, but just sheer fact that we were closing in on 75% of the race completed, through the night, through the heat of the day, up and down some monster hills in the past couple miles and I was feeling good – that made me feel great. As I cranked up another hill, dedicated to stomping up every hill and not walking my singlespeed bicycle up any of them, I looked back and noticed Dave right there, Nick right there, Ray a bit back, then Ryan and Race way back. The trend continued up and over each hill. It seemed like the hills were taking a toll on those two more than the rest. From biking with Ryan, I knew we was kind of a watt-weenie and would limit his power output on uphills. Even in training rides, he wouldn’t push at all, he’d down shift and spin up any little hill. So, this was normal. Race seemed to be hurting on the uphills, as he told us. He told me at one point he’s not an athlete like us guys, or he’s not built for this type of thing. I was shocked to hear that. We’re out here, nearly 200 miles in. Yeah, you’re cut from a different cloth that most people, dude!! The difference in fitness or grit, or whatever it takes to finish a ridiculous race like this, in any of us compared to the general population is probably 1%! But, it made me realize that we were in this together, and I had to do whatever I could to boost the morale of the group and not focus on my own physical status or how I’m feeling or anxiety to finish the race. I thought about Nick telling me that he thought I would be one, of any of the group, to not stay with the group and go at it alone for the time and for the glory. I had told him that I really considered that, but ultimately, I did promise him that I’d stay with the group. Not for him or anyone else, really, besides myself. I needed the group, and the trust dissolves if I were to go off now, just because I thought I felt good. The group has brought me this far. They’ve provided a draft, and directions. I hadn’t even pulled out my cue cards! So I had to show my squad some respect, and crank away as a unit. At the next hill, I was up and over it and out of sight. What the hell is wrong with me.
Nick had told me that the next checkpoint was typically kind of hard for the crews. In the heat of the day, now they’ve been at it for hours and hours as well, and at this point the boredom starts to set in, and the feeling of “c’mon guys, just go get it done so we can shower and eat and sleep”. I was expecting that, and otherwise really excited to sit down in the shade, take my shoes off and drink some cold beverages. I started planning it all out – I’d drink a lot of gatorade, drink some delicious pink mountain dew, and fill up my bladder one more time with ice cold water. We got to the checkpoint and just like I planned, the first thing I did was tell Em that I was feeling great. Once it came out, I don’t know why I felt the need to profess that to her. She said she was glad, though, and was buzzing around like the bees to my pop. There were terrible bees around where I was sitting. Em grasped the can of pop from my hands and poured a bit across the roadway. She gave it back to me, and said they’d go after that splash now, instead of my pop. Interesting logic…
We had lots of time. As I sat, the updates came in. Dave came over and said that we really can’t be biking ahead like we have been. It was serious. I agreed with him, and said I’d focus on staying with the group. Nick came over and said Ryan was thinking about dropping. He was in rough shape. Hmm, that was a big surprise to me. I thought he was in control. I finally loaded up on some snacks that I thought might be appetizing as we started to gear up to attack the final 60 miles, allegedly the hardest part of the entire course with lots of steep hills. The consensus was that Ryan wouldn’t be coming with us. He had heat exhaustion and was in the AC-blasted car. If he could recover, he’d be behind us. Oof. That was a blow. I wanted to shake him up. I wanted to rally him. I decided that that’d be inappropriate and I just biked away. I told Em I’d see her at the finish line. She was doing so well – chipper, happy, excited. She was going on and on about the dead animals she’d seen on the back country roads getting to these remote checkpoints. I was looking forward to seeing her next more than anything.
We immediately started a slow roll, and the pace never really picked up. There was lots of talk about the impending hilly section after we crossed I-35 then Highway 52 a while later. The hills got pointed out several times, and it was kind of a feeling of anticipation – “we’re almost there – to the hilly part” – for hours. Either way, the end was in sight. We were riding together as a pack and I really didn’t want that to change. Luckily we hadn’t hit any big up and down hills yet so I didn’t feel the need to mash my pedals. I could just tuck in behind one of the boys, get sucked along in the draft and just pedal a few strokes at a high cadence whenever I started falling back slightly. We were kind of feeling goofy when a local landowner erroneously told us that we were on a private drive and to get off. We told ourselves that he was going to have a long night! I wasn’t feeling appetized by any food I had on hand. A handful of cheese-flavored chex mix did the trick. Gels, oh hell no. Gummis, nope. Anything with excess sugar sounded pretty foul. Warm water will have to do. The sun was getting a little more angular and it felt like we were out of the heat of the day, which was nice. It had been really an ideal day for biking. If it wasn’t really hot in the middle of the summer in the middle of Minnesota I’d feel jipped!
We rode through a couple round-a-bouts, through a developed area across Highway 52. Then it was up into a frontage road and up, up, up. Here they were, they said. I just pedaled normally, my normal mash to get to the top. I was the first on to the top of the first hill. Then, many more to go. The world closed in. This area had more trees and houses along the roads, which was a bit of a change from the wide open fields with sparse farm buildings that was pretty similar throughout the entire day. However, up one, down another, up one, down another hill and it opened up to more farm country. Then up and down another hill – a steep hill – and there was a cool little house at the bottom of a creek gorge where they were offering granola bars and water and maybe beers. Then right back up. I would stop at every top of the hill to wait. The last one was huge and we cheered on Race when he got to the top without walking. He made it – we were all still riding well. We didn’t know about Ryan. If he rallied, he was going to have to make up ground. We weren’t that fast but we were moving consistently. We decided that we all had enough supplies and we’d skip the last planned stop at 210 miles.
I kept plugging away and got ahead of the group. I had to stop. We were going at a pretty slow rate, and I was starting to get antsy to finish the race. We were well over 200 miles at this point and just chugging along. I passed a group of two guys. The one was on the side of the road but he said he was OK. At an intersection, I stopped, and the two guys passed me. I waited a few minutes for the rest of my squad. They caught up, and we kept rolling. We had a nice section of road and we clumped together and drafted for a bit. We seemed so close, but we still had hours to ride when I thought about it critically. Dave had mentioned finishing before dark. We crunched the numbers and it was a good goal. I had a sense of urgency, but I couldn’t speak or think for the whole group. The good part was that I felt good, and I was going to finish. It was such a group effort but all to prop up my own personal goal of finishing the race. Kind of selfish… and I wasn’t helping things by leapfrogging and waiting for the group to catch me. We bombed a huge hill and for the first time it felt like dusk was near. The sun was below the tree line. I couldn’t imagine the fear of Ray riding down this winding, massive hill with no back brake. Nick zoomed down with no brakes at all it seemed. Toward the bottom there was a guy getting off the ground. His shirt was bloody. Woof, bad time to crash. Maybe the best time… if that was 200 miles earlier it’d make for a long, long day. We were near that couple for a couple miles, and it sure seemed like we were getting into Red Wing. There was a cool road along a state forest or management area, then right into neighborhoods. We were spread out as a group, and I stopped with Ray on a curb to let everyone catch up. We didn’t wait long, and we agreed that we would be riding in together, side by side. We zinged around the city. There wasn’t a lot of excitement between us as I sensed the bridge to Wisconsin nearing. We turned off a road onto a sidewalk adjacent to a Do Not Enter one way, and onto the bridge. The bridge! The view was astounding. It was the golden hour. We has just hit 20 hours, 8pm. I was almost at 240 miles on my watch, certain that my pals had more logged. I was hoping I’d get there, just for… I don’t know why. Strava? We went down the backside of the bridge and into a park entrance to the finish. I knew it was right there. I hadn’t studied the maps, but new we were there. Yes. I was so excited for a finish line beer. We rode 5 by 5 down the little road next to all sorts of fans and racers. Then, there was a left turn into the finish chute. It was right there! We couldn’t ride 5 abreast, so we just kind of clumped into the finish. It was over.
I barely muttered to the race director that I was a single speed rider. He didn’t hear me. I told him I was singlespeeder. His mind was blown, I’ve never seen someone more excited! He said I was the last one – the 6th singlespeed finisher to get the last gin bottle. Oh, that was so exciting. I was pretty pumped. I took my bike and my gin and my beer aside to the ground and wanted so bad to take off my shoes. My big toe on my right foot had been numb for hours and hours. As I rested, I saw a guy walk up to the finish line. It caught my eye, especially when he pointed at me, then pointed at his friend in a little huddle nearby. They were talking about something, I knew it. I went up there. It turns out, I was the seventh singlespeed finisher, and they missed a guy right before our group finished. I said I’d give the gin back. They said I couldn’t, I had to keep it and they’d get the real 6th place finisher another bottle. It was a little disenchanting.
All in all, it was an incredible experience. It was unlike any other race I’ve ever done, due to the nature of the teamwork that we experienced out there. That was special. I don’t know if I’d do a bike race that long again. 100 milers are maybe a bit more enticing. Weeks later, my big toe is still kind of messed up. It took me a long time to clean my bike off, and even longer to write this story.