Tuesday, August 12, 2014

They're Called the Badlands for a Reason

‘If it’s going to happen, it has to be today.’

I was telling myself this as I was racing through the Badlands of North Dakota in the Maah Daah Hey 100 just over a week ago. This was in reference to finishing the race in under 9 hours - something that doesn't seem that difficult to most pro endurance racers when compared to other 100 mile races. This, however, is no ordinary 100 mile race. The roughness of the course, the cattle gates, the nearly 100% single track, and the brutal exposure make this race a very special one. For those who aren’t familiar with the Badlands, I’ll let the words of early Americans describe them: ‘Hell with the fires put out.’

To me, the Badlands are one of the most beautiful areas in the US. I loved visiting them when I was younger and I love visiting them now, usually with friends in tow to go ride bikes. ND is home to the Maah Daah Hey trail - a (roughly) 100 mile single track trail that runs North/South through the Badlands and includes a river crossing through the Little Missouri around the halfway point. The trail has received rave reviews from around the world - and rightfully so! There’s truly nothing else like it. And, this trail wouldn’t exist today if it wasn’t for a true steward of the land, a fellow by the name of Nick Ybarra.

For the past few years Nick and his wife, Lindsey, have taken it upon themselves to host, acquire permits, promote, and procure the trail so that a group of us racers/riders can come race/ride the entire Maah Daah Hey in a day. I rode with Nick a few days ago when he came to CO for a wedding and after asking him all about the process of getting the trail ready he told me that he pushed a brush mower a total of 132 miles to make the trail rideable on race day. 132 miles!

And this doesn’t include the other volunteers that were out there mowing and weed whacking either. We’re talking a month of back-breaking prep work to get this course race-able. (In fact, Nick threw his back out on the very last mile of mowing and was unable to ride the trail after all of that work…) There are no words to describe how grateful all of us are to Nick and the crew for preparing the trail and creating such a fun event.

A few years ago, Nick and Lindsey came through Denver and stopped by for a visit. I told them that I believed that the trail could be ridden in under nine hours with good weather, good luck, and a strong group to help one another with pace-setting. (Lindsey reminded me of this visit just after the race last week) As race day neared, the weather and trail conditions were looking to be perfect and there were some texts back and forth between Nick and I regarding someone riding a sub-nine hour day out there.

I’ll admit that showing up to this race in the best condition was very important for me. I trained specifically for this race and I wanted to have a good day out there knowing that my wife, family, and friends would be cheering me along. I also wanted to honor all of the work that went into this event. My lead up to this race included a lot of long, high-country rides in the CO mountains. I knew I needed that endurance base and doing 4-6 hour rides at high elevation was a good way to do that! I found myself very tired at times and unable to do much more than ride/work/eat/sleep. Social activities gave way to crawling in the door and plopping down on the couch after a long day of work and riding. When I would travel for film shoots, I would get up very early and sit on trainer bikes at the YMCA for a couple hours. Sorry friends… Even emailing and texting becomes laborious during these times. I know, that’s kind of ridiculous!

When I got to ND, I was lucky enough to be able to be a part of an upcoming (still secret) project  where we got to go do some filming. I also just got my brand spankin’ new custom bike built up that ultimately became the best bike for the job of racing the MDH 100. It was sweet to have the Trek Superfly 100 built up for the shoot. (with a SRAM 1x11 drivetrain and Bontrager XR2 2.35 tires added after this photo - the ultimate setup for the race)

Some details regarding the race…

The Night Before the Race

I eat an ungodly amount of food the night before big endurance events. Especially when they start very early since a big breakfast really isn’t an option. So, what did I eat? I ate a huge cheeseburger, big plate of fries, a bunch of bread that had been fried, half of the pasta that my wife, Rachel, ordered, and then some sort of desert back home. DISCLAIMER: I think the one talent I have as an athlete is a relatively cast iron stomach. I know for a few of my friends, that amount of food wouldn’t sit well.

Rachel and my mom made a bunch of rice bars from a recipe that our friends gave us. This would be the first time I tried anything like that in a race. My goal was to eat 250/300 calories per hour during the race. Rachel had just written a story about what cyclists in the Tour de France eat and what they can digest each hour - so I was shooting for that. This is something I have always tried to shoot for, but I’ve historically been terrible at eating enough during races. I promised myself I would force it to avoid the catastrophes I’ve endured in the past.

I’ve also realized that I try and sleep as much as possible the night before a race, but in reality - no one sleeps very much with such an early start! I actually feel the benefit of the sleep two nights before the race. I slept for about 5 hours the night before the MDH 100.

Race Day

This is the only race where I can stay at my parent’s house the night before! I woke up at 3:00AM and my cousin, Ryan, came and picked me up. I ate a bagel with peanut butter and drank a ton of water on the 1hr15min drive to the start. We went over the plan for the aid stations during the drive and I tried to calm some of those pre-race jitters. I would start with two bottles of straight water since you always (or should!) start very hydrated. Starting in cool weather also means you don’t quite need to overload on the water. I was planning on getting to the first aid station in around 2hrs15min. The plan looked something like this:

Start: 2 bottles of water / rice bar / energy bar / treats + gels just in case

Aid 1 + Aid 2 + Aid 3 all looked like this: I’d get one bottle of mountain dew on the bike / hydration pack with 2 liters of water / same food as above

I try and always carry: one spare tube / CO2 / hand pump / multi tool with chain breaker / little bottle of chain lube

I had actually done all of my prep the night before so I could literally just roll out of the jeep and jump on the bike to go loosen up the legs. It was great to see everyone and have brief chats before the start.

As we lined up, no one wanted to take the front line! One thing about people from the Mid-West/Canada is that there is a general ‘politeness’ among everyone. I think the fact that this race is so tough, most decided (intelligently) that they would stay within themselves and not go too hard off the front right away. It was myself, John Paul Peters and Jason Wiebe that went off the front initially. JP was setting a great pace and a little ways into the race I thought I’d go to the front and do some work for these guys. I ended up feeling really good and decided to lift the pace and see how I responded. I realized that JP and Jason were playing it smart and gauging their effort and backed off a bit. I was about to be in no man’s land for the next 8.5 hours…

I knew I was going to have to keep extremely focused. I would constantly tell myself to keep pressure on, but not too much. I forced myself to eat a rice bar one hour, an energy bar the next, and then I’d just rotate very hour. Rice bar/energy bar/rice bar/energy bar - and so on. I also made it a habit to drink constantly.

It was at the first aid station when I heard that my future sister-in-law was in labor, about to bring my second niece into the world. This was a huge energy booster. I thought, ‘I might be suffering, but I bet Mariana will have a much more difficult day!’ I would find out shortly after the race that my niece was born at 5:30PM. Mariana definitely had a much longer day than me!

No one brought up the fact that I was on pace to ride under 9 hours. I’ve learned my lesson over the last couple years. I wouldn’t speculate. And honestly, I wanted to enjoy being out in the Badlands and not stress too much about the time. In 2010, I attempted to ride the trail in a day with a good friend and we didn’t finish. I tried again last year and was in great shape, but completely cracked at mile 65 and barely finished. This trail commands respect. I learned to give it just that.

I think crossing the Little Missouri River in the middle of the race is spectacular. There’s just something about that which gives me great joy. Maybe it’s just a reminder of how rugged and wild it is out there. The river is about 2 miles shy of the 2nd aid station and I decided that I’d skip the shoe change after the river in order to save time. Most of the races I’ve done this year in Colorado have included rivers and I haven’t changed shoes for those!

I went in and out of the aid station quickly as Ryan switched out empty wrappers for fresh food and another Osprey hydration pack. (Osprey has been a sponsor of out team for a few years so I fortunately have a few of these lying around!)

Section 3 of this trail, (miles 52 to 79) is generally the toughest. It’s very exposed, it’s rough, it’s hot, and usually you’re very fatigued by now. This is where I fell apart last year so I made it a mission to control myself through here and not let the wheels come off. I had an uneventful and solid run into aid #3. I made another time-saving decision to not throw my music on. I would have had to run the headphones in my jersey and pick a playlist, etc. I felt that I was staying nice and focused and I should just keep rolling with it. At this point, I still felt very motivated and strong. I raced smart and aside from a few small crashes, was riding very smart.

The Finish

Leaving the 3rd aid station, I let the idea of a sub-9 hour day enter in my head. I started calculating the time it would take and it looked like it would be close. I told myself to limit bathroom breaks (if I could!) and to start taking some more risks. This is where I started to feel the fatigue. I started riding a little harder and I had a couple small crashes (one in front of the photographer) but nothing more than a bruised ego resulted from any of them. There was one point after I crossed I-94 that I thought I could go under 9 hours if there were less than 5 miles to go. I couldn’t remember exactly how far out I was. That was when I saw Nick and asked him how much further. He said 7 miles and I believed at that point it wasn’t going to happen. That’s when I had ‘the talk’ with myself. I wanted nothing more than to have a straight forward finish to the race. I’d been out for nearly 9 hours and didn’t want to suffer and stress all the way to the line.

Well, this is bike racing. And I felt I owed it to my family and to the people at that race. I dug deep for the last 7 miles. I knew that you can’t ask for better conditions than we had that day. I knew it was going to be close and I knew I had done the work to be ready for the final 7 mile battle. ‘If it’s going to happen, it has to be today.’

When I got to the barbed wire fence where you can see the highway, and essentially the finish, I thought there was a chance. I kept going hard and when I saw Nick near the end of the trail and the start of the bike path, I saw it was likely I would finish in under 9. Nick yelled some words of encouragement - as he’d been doing all day when I’d see him - and I went into the pain cave for the last half mile or so. I saw my mom come out to greet me at the finish, but I was a little worried there would be a discrepancy in my time vs the race time so I had to keep going until I hit the line. 8hrs56min. Luckily for me, I didn’t change shoes or put my headphones on. I think that would have put me over 9 hours!

Everyone has been so complimentary regarding the race and it’s humbling to be in such a group of truly great people. I’ve said this all along - everyone that was out there that day is a hero in my book. No one knows how hard the trail is until they ride it. I’ve enjoyed reading everyone’s race recaps and my only regret is that I didn’t get to meet a lot of the other people out there. My wife and I did double-duty that day and celebrated our wedding that evening with family - so I wasn't able to hangout longer in Medora. To all of you who were out there that day - my hat is off to you! To the volunteers and everyone who made it possible - thank you so, so much.

Thanks to the photographer, Chad Ziemendorf, and the filmmakers out there and to the people I owe photo credits to. (Kathy Taylor, my family, MDH 100 FB page, someone on the internet for the Badlands photo...)

I was only able to race the way I wanted to because of the effort my family put into the day to help. The time and effort is so appreciated. I owed it to you guys to keep fightin’ at the end there!

The new record will be broken. Whether it’s next year or years from now, I think it will be broken. I’m sure I have some friends salivating at the chance to come up and give it a run. However, I’m very proud to say a native North Dakotan holds it for now!

I believe the spirit of that race isn’t held in times and records, though. I believe the people make it what it is - and that’s a great life experience.


Perry F. said...

Thanks for sharing your experience.



Shelli said...

Fun read! Congrats, Kelly!

Lee Johnson said...

You rock!!! Great details, thanks for sharing all that. Well done out there!

Dollhouse said...

Hi Kelly,
Cheers on the MDH 100 race! I'm racing in 2015. Curious what your tire set up was? Thank you.
Jesse Doll
Missoula, MT