Heck of the North Race Report
Race Day: Saturday, October 3, 2015 – 8am
A great way to quell the post-Ironman blues is to register for more races. I had this one in the books for a long time and was looking forward to do some casual training and participate in a fun-time, low key race. Little did I know, the Heck of the North Gravel Cycling Classic would be RAW racing. Pure grit. I didn’t predict that I’d be sucked in to the mix, only to be shot out the back and left alone to bike home with my thoughts and my useless, toasted quads…
The Heck of the North is a 100+ mile gravel bike race in the deep woods north of Duluth. The race starts and finishes a few miles out of town from Two Harbors, MN. The course is made up of mostly gravel roads, but also some pavement and some really gnarly and tough riding. I’m talking about rocky, rocky, bumpy logging access roads, ATV trails, soft snowmobile trails, and perhaps even a bit of singletrack mountain bike trail. The variability of terrain is what makes this race so cool, and also why everyone in Duluth needs a cyclocross bike. I had so much fun going on training rides because you can explore anything you want. Need to connect on the pavement? No sweat, you can haul ass at 24mph. Cut through on mountain bike trails? A little precarious, but it’s do-able. Then the gravel…. oh, the gravel. So fun.
Another super fun part of the race is that the course is a secret. Nobody knows the route until Friday night at packet pickup, when we received cue cards with turn-by-turn instructions. Some of the instructions were comical: turn left at the brown gate with the tall grass onto an unmarked gravel road. Then right onto an unmarked gravel road. Then right onto an unmarked gravel road. Then left onto an unmarked ATV trail.
Nick and his pops, Dave, were both registered to race, and Nick invited me to stay at their hotel in Two Harbors on Friday. Dave is usually the race photographer, so that duty was transferred to his wife Rhonda. We all went out to get pasta after packet pickup with Nick’s grandparents. Then to the hotel. I hadn’t really looked at my bike at all. In fact, it was still pretty dirty from a muddy ride the previous weekend. I had a knapsack full of spare tubes, tools, bike boxes, and sugary exercise food. Once we got to the hotel, I tried to sort everything and plan how I’d like to pack it all on. I seemed to get it all on… about 1,000 calories worth of maltodextrin, two spare tubes, a co2 cartridge and spare pump, plus one bottle of Gatorade. I affixed my number 182 to the front and was pretty much ready to rock for the next morning. The only challenge was water and the cue cards. I had won a weird vest water bladder thingy that was designed for skiing or snowboarding, almost as a midlayer to keep the water from freezing, but had been collecting dust unused. It definitely wouldn’t work for running, but was my primary hydration solution for this bike race. However, I was nervous get too hot or irritated with 2 liters of water on my back in this weird meshy vest. The alternative, carrying another 20oz water bottle on my frame, has its own challenges–running out of water and having to refill and the chance of ejecting the bottle on the inevitably bumpy ride. I attached my second bottle cage to my bicycle and decided to sleep on it. As far as the cue cards, I’d likely have to reference them, but I could also be in the pack the entire time and not need them at all. I figured I’d just throw them in my pants or something… I’d sleep on that, too.
We woke up the next morning at 6am or so. First things first, I went to get coffee and cereal. Lots of Raisin Bran. I had the vest bladder filled up from the night before and tested it out with my race kit. It felt fine, but the water was full of gross hotel tap water. But eh… this will work.
I looked down at my cue cards and decided to mount them on the top of my handlebars. With a pen, I punctured each one and laced a twist tie through each top corner of the stack. They were surprisingly well affixed, and I could simply rip the cards away as I progress through the course. OK we have to go because we’re late!!!
Nick and I drove out, following the rest of the Nygaard clan. I got my bike out and rode it down a little rocky hill to a big fire and tent area where people were beginning to congregate. I felt the chill of the morning through my whole core. My fingers were already frozen. Maybe fingerless gloves weren’t the best glove choice… Nevertheless, I didn’t question my choices. It’s bound to warm up. I forgot my sunglasses, though, and had to run back to the van to grab those.
After dawdling around for 20 minutes or so, someone started yelling and everyone moved towards the entrance road where the race was to begin. As the race director Jeremy was outlining some race details, a truck came roaring down the road and the bikes spread to the sides of the road like the Red Sea for Moses.
Next thing I knew, we are starting off. I was kind of far back… perhaps the middle of the pack. I wanted to be in the mix for sure. I was biking faster than ever on the TT bike and I knew I was very aerobically fit and had the endurance to complete a 100 mile bike ride. Then again, I knew that some of the people up front were no joke. Arrowhead finishers, beasts on the mountain bike circuit, and former winners of this race. Pretty much, I’m a tri dweeb and a chump. But I heard a funny piece of advice about how to race the Heck: a local enduro mountain biker Dave Cizmas told me to go with the lead pack until you completely explode. Then, eat a lot of food and just have a fun rest of the day. I went into the race with this mentality. Maybe I could stick with them until the end!
The first 9 miles of the race was a loop back to the start/finish area. It was mostly gravel road. The pack was manageable. It was a little sketchy at times to be so close to so many other people. Especially on the gravel, sometimes you’d hit a rough spot or washerboards and there’s nothing you can do except ride it out. I stayed pretty far to the right side of the road right off the bat. When the gravel turned off into an ATV trail, I realized my hands were so cold I couldn’t feel them. Ouch. A guy behind me was yelling at me. He said that my spare tube that I shoved in between a strap on my flat kit was dragging. I looked down and it was flapping around in the wind. I scooped it up and held onto it. The same guy informed that if the tube got caught in my derailleur, it was be a very bad situation. Yes, that would be bad!!
We did that first loop and I was feeling pretty good. I don’t know where Nick was, but was happy I didn’t get straight up dropped.
I didn’t know what this race was going to be like, and things were looking smooth! I stopped to shove this dumb tube into my bike shorts, then got back to it. We crossed a main road, Hwy 2, and got onto a small access-type road. I think it was Alden Grade. Essentially, it was a two-track trail. It was hard to pass people, but everyone was cruising at a pretty good clip. We jetted onto a more standard gravel road and I got an idea of what the main pack was like. It was large. There was probably 50 people all jammed together. It felt like we were going so slow. Why wasn’t anyone making a break? Well, it’s not going to be me! I hung in the pack and was feeling good. Then, I saw Nick come up on my side. Yeah baby, we were in the mix!
After a few more miles, we turned into a really chunky road. The pack quickly split up. This road was clearly a logging access road. There were two divots on either side of the road for tire tracks, and the road was littered with large rocks. Signs of logging activity were all around us–forested land, large stacks of tree trunks, and equipment. Plus the sign that said “logging activity”. The road was windy, up and down, and pretty technical. I was zinging by guys with flat tires. You’d hit a rock and bounce into the air. I was trying to crank as hard as I could and kept pedaling through the divots and bumps. It was this section that I noticed that my hands were hurting. The frozen fingers had vanished, but I was squeezing so hard on my handlebars. I couldn’t let up, though. A guy in front of me flipped over his handlebars and was down. We were zinging through muddy puddles. This technical section was taking its toll. When I thought that I couldn’t take it any longer, we popped out to another gravel road. This felt like biking on glass compared to the logging road. A pack of the five or so people around me formed and we were off. Quickly, we realized we were going the wrong direction as we passed two or three other cyclists going the other way who had made the same mistake. The group grew to 8 or so, and when we re-passed the logging road, finally on the right path, a group of 4 or 5 latched on as well. And there was Nick, back in the mix! A tandem bike was hauling us along and we were off on a pretty good clip. At this point, we were probably 3 hours in.
A few miles of gravel and we got into the first section of State Trail snowmobile trail. Our nice little pack broke up once again. I was excited about the State Trail sections because I loved training there. Trying to go fast is a different story. The soft grass just saps one’s energy stores. Nick jammed his nuts bad on a culvert. We were making our way along, though, and before long we turned back onto another gravel road. To my surprise, there was the main pack. Everyone was stopped. Some people had their bikes upside down, some were maybe peeing or eating. We rode up to them and this big main pack started up again. It was another 10 miles of gravel and pavement until the half way point.
I was trying to eat a lot of food while in the pack getting strung along. I was feeling pretty good except my hands. I shook my hands out and was doing everything I could to grip softly. All the sudden, it was hard to keep up. I was towards the back of the pack. Then on the back of the pack. Then, the pack dropped me. No, no, no. My worst fear was to be literally left in the dust. Ok, I’ll just keep them in sight and they’ll maybe slow a bit, I thought to myself. A solo guy behind me was gaining ground, and he caught me. He told me that we’d work together and catch the pack. We took turns surging ahead and sure enough, it worked. I burnt a few matches on that one, though. I stayed in the mix and recouped some energy stores. Then, I made a few moves and was up towards the front. Then, I took the lead. It was fun up there! We turned onto Lester River Rd, and it was just this pavement section and what sounded like a little bit of mountain bike trail until the halfway point.
We were cruising in a large pack down towards Lester Park. Then pandemonium. Yelling, people turning, stopping, skids, and I slammed on my brakes. They weren’t stopping me fast enough and I thought I was going to crash hard into a tree. The turn off of the road came up quicker than anyone thought or saw and it was a traffic jam. Luckily, I was towards the front and didn’t get to jammed up. More luckily, I somehow made it onto the trail quickly and without incident. I could hear the chaos from behind me and something told me to just go. I tried to jet through this woodsy singletrack as fast as possible. I’d have the upper hand going into the halfway up front. I could hear cheers ahead, rode down a hill and saw a table with goodies and Rhonda and the Nygaard clan.
I chatted to Rhonda for a second and turned around to see Nick coming in. I grabbed some Mountain Dew, threw away some garbage, and grabbed some food to shove in my bike bag. Rhonda took my second tube that had fallen out so long ago, too. Nick said that we’d have to dip out quickly after he filled his bottles. I had to pee, so went ahead to do that in the meantime. I peed in the trees and saw Nick bike away in my peripheral vision. I must have evacuated a liter of pee! It took forever and was a heavy stream.
I hopped back on my bike and started the ascent out of Lester Park. I was feeling tired. This was the first time I really felt fatigue in my legs. There were a few guys up ahead of me and I wanted to get in with them and then rejoin the main pack. Out of Lester and onto some gravel roads, I wasn’t making up any ground. In fact, I was losing ground. I didn’t want to blast myself trying to get up there, so I started just riding at a comfortable speed. It wasn’t fun being alone! The pack is so key.
I was by myself for a long time. The guys in front of me were long out of sight. After a good 45 or 60 minutes, I finally got in with a group. I heard my name “Mike Ward!!!” and was joined from behind by Ross, a Ski Hut mechanic, a coworker of his, Matt, and another guy. Ross had just won the Heck Epic, a two day gravel biking event a few months prior. I was in good company here, I thought to myself. Hopping on the back of their pack, it felt so good. So, so, so nice. I was able to let my legs rest a little bit. I got amped up and took the pull for a while. After a few minutes, I was spent and went to the back. We were together for another 45 minutes or so until another section of State Trail. We made it through just fine, but lost the last guy. Also, I lost a lot of food. Somehow, three Stinger Waffles and a gel were ejected from my bike box on the State Trail.
We didn’t wait for him and kept trucking along. After a few miles of gravel, we bumped onto Pequaywan Lakes Road, a paved road. Still trading pulls, we swallowed up another guy and he latched on. Another few miles and we entered Fox Farm Road, which is pure gravel. I glanced at my cue cards and saw that we’d be on Fox Farm for a good while. Then, it’s a quick 15 miles or so back to the finish. The end is in sight! I was feeling decent, but it didn’t take long to realize that I was falling apart. I’d pull for a minute or two and get spent. When I was on the back, it was so hard to stay on the wheel in front of me. I’d fall of ever so slightly, then have to dip into the hurt tank to get back. I’d fall further and further back and it would hurt more and more to get back with the guys. Then, I gave up. I stopped pedaling and watched the guys ride away. They realized I was off and actually turned around and yelled at me. I told them to go on without me. I was done. This is what Dave was talking about. When you blow up and get dropped, just eat a bunch of food and have a fun day. Except my food fell out. I ate my last few gummis and was completely out of calories. Ok, I could still have a fun day. Except my legs were totally shot and I was out here on damn Fox Farm Road alone. I looked both ways. Behind me was nobody. Ross, Matt, and the other guy rode out of sight. It was like a light switch. A marathon run is like slowly chipping away at your energy stores… falling apart slowly. Today, I hit a point where I was dead. Toast. I couldn’t pick it up at all and had no energy. One minute, OK, next minute, done. I don’t think it was a food thing or really bonking–my legs were simply out of energy. I burned too many matches and was out.
Fox Farm took forever and it was tough. When I turned off onto Laine Road, I was at least in somewhat good spirits. I wanted to just enjoy being out here. It’s OK to pedal an easy gear really slow. I wasn’t going to win. My race was really over at the halfway point. Just finish and have fun, I thought. Soak it in. What else would I want to be doing right now!?! I was about 5 or 6 hours in and at mile 90 or so.
Eventually, the dude we lost on the last State Trail section came speeding up behind me. He was the first person I’d seen since Ross and Matt dropped me. He told me he fell on the State Trail and I could see his face was bloody. He told me that we could work together and get through the remaining miles easier. Yes, I thought, I need to work with this guy. Being alone is terrible. I took the draft for a while. It didn’t last long and it wasn’t very strong. He took his turn and dropped me almost instantly. I sped up, he slowed down and I caught his wheel. A few more minutes of struggling to keep up with him, and I gave up again. Nope. I told him to drop me. Alone again. I turned off onto the State Trail for the final snowmobile section. This was fun and I was in good spirits. I could stand up and just push through the soft and slow grass and it was a welcome relief from the relentless gravel. It was really muddy through there and I thought it was funny go get a fresh coat of mud. I was laughing at myself thinking that the mud was getting old and I needed some new mud. I felt positive because I knew I was close…
The final section was on a gravel road that turned into an ATV/ horse trail. We cross the Knife River with no bridge and it’s just a hop, skip and jump to the finish. I looked at my cue cards and realized it was just a few more miles of pain. I didn’t think those final miles would be so terrible. The terrain was impossible. It was flat but rocky. It jumbled up my already shredded hands. My finger tendons were screaming. My triceps were done holding my torso up over the handlebars, and my quads simply wouldn’t work right. I could get more power by pushing my knee down with my hand. I was mercilessly passed by a few people in this last bit. I was looking down and didn’t even acknowledge them.
It was going on forever. It was pretty mental at this point and I was getting hungry. Not that exercise food sounded good, but it probably would have been beneficial. I was strung along by the idea of going straight to Culvers with a “no limits” approach to ordering food. I daydreamed about what I’d get. Definitely a Butterburger. Definitely ice cream.
Meanwhile, this fricken path wouldn’t end. Did they get the miles wrong? I thought about sitting down on the side for a second, just to recoup. Maybe I’ll walk my bike for a minute, I thought. No! I biked it in. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t fast. It surely wasn’t comfortable. But finally, I saw County Road 2. This was the road we passed way back in the morning after that initial 9 mile loop. I knew the finish was right there. So, I picked it up! I saw a volunteer and started smiling uncontrollably.
I saw Rhonda and was so happy to finish. A left turn and I saw the finish line.
I was so happy to coast on in, but there was a car exiting blocking the way. Gah… I weaved around and crossed a line of tape in the gravel. A girl ran up to me to get my race number and I confusedly hopped off my bike and stood there. I felt so exhausted in every way. Nick came over the hill and had a very funny mud line from his glasses. I’m not sure how his entire face got caked with mud. Rhonda snapped a few more pictures and I loaded up my bike.
I chatted with Nick for a second, but had to hit the road.
I spent $17 at Culvers. On the drive back to Duluth, I nearly fell asleep repeatedly. I hit the rumble strips a few times. Just completely tired.
I was very quick to forget how terrible the race was. In fact, the next day, I was jacked up and I want to do another gravel race. There is something weird about endurance events. It’s definitely an addiction. I’m a compulsive biker and runner. An endurance freak. I am who I am.
Bike: Diamondback Haanjo Comp
Food: 1 package of Trolli Britecrawlers, ~1 package of Honey Stinger Chews (Cherry Coke and Cherry Blossom), 1 Bearded Brothers Bar, 1 Honey Stinger Waffle (chocolate), 1 bottle blue Gatorade, ~2L water, some Mountain Dew, a quarter of a peanut butter and banana sandwich, a half a banana, 2 squares of caffeinated dark chocolate