Easily the Hardest things I’ve ever doneby Matthew Webb
The MDH100 is arguably is the hardest single day MTB race in the United States. It runs along the Maah Daah Hey trail in North Dakota. The term “Maah-Daah-Hey” comes from the Mandan Indian phrase meaning “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” and the trail symbol of a “Turtle” comes from the Lakota Indian’s symbolic meaning of long life and patience. The trail is point to point basically from CCC Campground near Watford City, ND to Sully Creek State park in Medora, ND. The race uses approx. 105 miles of that trail. This race is separated from almost all other MTB races due to it being almost all Singletrack. Sparse gravel sections are only there to bypass washed out sections or to connect to more single-track. I would say 98% of the race is on tight, twisty, rocky, rooty, bumpy and cow pie laden single-track. Other riders Garmin recordings have recorded over 12,800 feet of climbing. My Cateye Adventurer recorded 12,650 feet. That’s more climbing than Leadville, CO’s LT100 race. There is no climb that ascends more 600 continuous feet, but there are around 20 climbs in the 200-500 foot range and the course has few and far between flat sections. The course is located almost all on grasslands and cows love those grasslands. In addition to trying to avoid wet cow patties, the cows stampede all over the trail causing large sections of the trail to be pretty bumpy. High Temperature is one of the leading reasons this race is considered “expert”. Last year, temps spiked over 110 causing only approx 18 to finish and the eventual cancelation of the race. This year, temps spiked over 100 and once again, claimed a very high rate of DNF’s of those who aspired to finish. Only 48 finished this year.
First reaction to this trail is awe-inspiring. I’ve never been anywhere so beautiful and I got to ride my Mountain Bike through it. If God created the world in 7 days, he must have spent at least one of those days only on the badlands. The trail is fantastic singletrack. The climbs are punchy and the descents are harrowing. There are spots on this trail that require serious focus or risk some grave injury. The cows cause some bumps, but with lack of rain over the last two weeks, the beef patties actually flattened out the trail as much as possible. The 10-15 man MDH crew was able to mow pretty much 100% of the trail from start to finish. Due to their super human efforts, this was probably the best shape the Maah Daah Hey trail has ever been in. Those volunteers are really the only reason the Maah Daah Hey can even been ridden. The mowed sections started to look like the Yellow Brick Road leading to valleys of happiness. With that being said, it wasn’t always such happiness. There were sections of this race that I (and everyone else) were in serious trouble. I knew I was taking a vacation to suffer-fest with a room reservation to stay in the basement of the house of pain when I signed up for this race. I knew I could ride 100 miles. I’d already done that back in Minnesota at Ragnarok, Almanzo, Westside Dirty Benji, Lutsen and two training rides already this year. I thought I could climb 12,500 feet,
although the most I’ve ever done was 8,500 at Ragnarok. What I did not know was how I was going to react to the heat. Everyone is different, but no one was exempt or could hide from this heat. We all suffered from exposure and I think almost everyone had some form of heat stoke out there…. Well, maybe not Kelly Magelky, but he is not human. He does not count. So, I got in my truck and traveled out to ND and recorded my travels here… http://youtu.be/W5DDv3Y5E4A.
My Gear: For those technical folks.
Bike: Niner Hardtail EMD setup RIGID with a Niner carbon fork. 29” Stans Arch EX laced to Industry Nine Classic Hubs on 2.10 Schwalbe racing ralphs tubeless with stans sealant. SRAM xx1 drivetrain 1×11, wolf tooth 32t front with 11-42t in the rear. Carbon Niner Bar/Niner Stem. Hope X2 brakes on 183mm/160mm hope floating rotors. Light: Primary Fenix BT20 and a backup tactical light mounted to a bike like holder.
Comments: Going RIGID for this race is really not advised. Folks with hardtails were getting “Badass” status, but totally Rigid was nuts. Other than fatbikes with cushy fat tires, I did not see another Rigid setup. A week after the race and I still have numb fingertips! Also, good brakes are advised. The downhills are scary. The Hopes have great actuation and plenty of power, love em. Tubeless is a great idea.. there are lots of little 3” cactus on course.
Rider: 180lbs, 39 yrs old, decent shape, was training for Leadville this year, went with MDH100 instead due to some last minute changes. I’m all registered for Leadville in 2015.
Jersey: Black MORBID jersey made by belch, compliments of http://www.morbidmtb.com/. Ohh, and that means Minnesota Off Road Bikers Into Drinking, but it also means MORBID. Thanks Pete Ryan and Mike Boehnlein for the jersey!
Hydration/Nutrition: Camelback 70oz, 2 water bottles. Mostly liquid/gel diet due to anticipation of heat. Water bottles full of GU Roctane (1 bottle an hr) and camel back 70oz full of Skratch labs hydro mix. At least 1-2 GU roctane gels an hour. All my drop bags at each aid station had enough for the next leg. I also had bananas at aid stations and some apples and fig newtons in my drop bags. I consumed 51 Hammer Endurolyte Electrolyte pills during the race.
The Race: 7AM, CCC Campground. Not sure what CCC stands for. It was a beautiful morning. Even a little chill in the air. Race Director Nick Ybarra stood on the back of his F150 truck (which dies every now and then when under power… more on that later). He gave final prep, cautions and directions. Combine that with the great prayer the night before asking for protection for all riders and thanking god for giving us such beautiful land to race on, we were ready to go and the gun sounded. Everyone took if safe going up the singletrack and the “Never Ending Switchbacks” that marked the first climb. Finally, I got on top for some fast plateau riding and had to get of my bike for what seems like the
first time of 250 times I had to hop off. The reason? To pass through one of the some 30-35? Iron Black gates that litter the Maah Daah Hey trail to keep Cattle in their appropriate sections of land. A bit heavy are these, just be sure you get fully through and don’t drop that spring loaded gate on you, your bike or the guy trying to get through behind you. A couple vexing descents, a few more climbs and before I knew it, I was rolling in quickly to Aid Station #1 25 miles in at 9:58am, 2 hr, 58 min into the race.
The Story of Chris Skogen: Chris Skogen, the man responsible for all things Almanzo made the Trek to MDH100 this year to support all the
riders and to quote him “to find a peaceful and aweing place to get a handle on what the future will hold for me”. Chris made a couple fun videos and put it on his Almanzo Blogspot page and can be found there or on Vimeo at http://vimeo.com/98236925 and http://
I kept seeing Mr Skoken throughout the course in strange various places on the back roads that intersect the Maah Daah Hey Trail. The MDH100 officially has 4 wonderful Aid Stations at mile 25, 51 , 78 and the finish; however, folks with support vehicles and supporters who just want to give good will to riders can cheer for and assist riders by parking on some of these back roads. I fully think that some of these saviors have allowed racers to continue and for some folks, maybe even saved their lives. Mr Skoken, thank you for the well timed Coke on the climb to Devils pass and the great conversations we had the morning after the race.
Best Part of my Race, Feeling Strong:
I stayed at Aid Station #1 a total of 5 minutes. The awesome volunteers refueled me and had me on my way in no time. I knew the heat was coming, so wanted to get in as many miles before that eventuality happened. Section 2 was awesome. Maybe it was awesome because I felt great, or maybe it was awesome because the Maah Daah Hey Trail is amazing. Probably more the second than the first. Some of the best sections of the race are here from Aid station 1 to aid station 2 or mile 25 to 50. The climb up to Devils Pass through Magpie Campground was awesome mowed Single-track heaven. Then Devils Pass, my best part of the race.
A narrow, nerve wracking spine with only 5 feet clearance on either side at heights that will make you dizzy. Then, the decent down devils pass all the way to the little Missouri River was scenic and flowing mixed in with tight downhill switchbacks that will challenge even the best bike operators. Continuing down to what is probably the low point of the race, I reached the Little Missouri river. In the spring, this is a turnaround point as the river is impassable due to height. This time of year, it lowers enough to allow MDH100 riders the opportunity to cool off. I was feeling great and figured I would try to ride across. Not sure if the camera man filming me got the photo of me failing miserably and taking a nice cool drink head first into the Little Missouri river, but I’ll be looking for that photo and remembering it as the first of three times I’d be unintentionally separated from my bicycle. Fall #1, but rewarded with cool temps of the river. Coming out the other side of the cool Missouri, I felt refreshed, cool and generally fantastic. I knew CP2 was coming up. Ran into Gord (more on Gord later) again on the other side of the river and he warned me of the impending climb just prior to CP2 and told me it was probably the most demanding on the entire race. Feeling fantastic, I looked around every corner for the start of the climb. Only thing I saw was a cliff in front of me. Certainly, we can’t go up that? Can we? You can if they switchback all the way up with tight uphill corners and steep cliffs on the downhill side. I eyed it up and went for it. Up and up I climbed determined to clean it. Clean it = Don’t put a foot down during the entire effort. The climb is a steady 8-14% gradient according to my altimeter. The switchback corners are steep, tight and technical. Before I knew it, I was rolling into CP2 after cleaning the climb. Cyclists refer to their energy reserves as having a box of matches. You only get so many of these matches before you deplete your reserves. I was pretty stoked after climbing that hill rubber side down the whole time, but after sitting down for the first time at CP2, I immediately knew I burned through most of my matches in doing so. It’s definitely something that would haunt me with still over ½ the race yet to come.
The story of Gord and Kelly: Before I get to the dreaded section that is CP2 to CP3, I’ve gotta tell you about two people. Not sure if Gord and Kelly (actually spelled Kellye,
but I’ll keep it American with Kelly) are actually real or just a mirage or a figment of my imagination. They might have been angels? On Friday afternoon (day before race), I was scoping out the trail for the first time by driving in off Hwy 85 into Magpie Campground. I parked at the Magpie trail head entrance, which I later found out was around mile 40 of the race. I rode in about 2 miles to to Magpie creek and turned around and came back. I setup my camera on a rock to get a selfie only to hear a noise coming from beneath me that I’ve never heard before, like a baby shaking a toy rattle. I dismissed the noise and did a little video of myself. On the way back to get the camera, the baby started up again, only this time, I got a good look at the first rattlesnake I’ve ever seen. I grabbed my camera from the other direction, checked for any siblings and got out of there. Wheew, that was close. Getting back to my car, another car pulled up. A Canadian jumps out and introduces himself as Gord. Gord was stashing bottles and food up on the hill for the race the next day. Someone told me this is Gord’s third attempt at a MDH100 finish, having to abandon the two years prior due to heat. Kelly was there to support Gord to get to the line, you know, one of the saviors. I would later question if these merciful folks of kindness actually existed and I hadn’t actually gotten bitten by that rattler and was hallucinating in some ditch, and may still be there now…. Hmmmm.
The Valley of the Heat.
Section #3… The space between CP2 and CP3 is the longest at 28 miles. Everyone tends to say this is the hardest in the race due to heat, intensity of the sun, lack of wind in the naturally occurring Valley and length of the section. They are all right. Maybe all those bikes loaded up at CP2 going home and calling it a day knew it too. After spending 20 minutes at CP2, I headed out with Gord. Gord is a stronger rider than I, usually dropping me while riding and I catching up when he stops or hits a CP. We rode out together and climbed up a gravel road for about a mile due to that section of MDH trail being washed out. It’s the longest section of gravel in the race. As soon as we hit MDH single-track again, Gord once again paced me off his wheel. The next time I saw him, I’d be in trouble. I felt great coming into CP2, but after burning those matches and a general crappy type feeling coming on, I slowly digressed. I’ve never experienced cramping before, ever. At mile 55, that would be no more. At first in my calves, then my groin and then my shoulders and back. The bumpy terrain contributes. I start to question my Rigid setup for the first time. Pulling over, I consumed some more electrolyte hammer endurolyte pills. I kept drinking, eating and popping pills. This strategy has always worked for me when I started to feel crappy. It wasn’t working now. My pace slowed to 5 mph average over the next painful miles filled with cramping, stomach irritability and headache. I continue to drink more of my Skratch and GU Roctane and pop more pills. I find myself in my 36t and 42t rear cogs most of the time spinning on even the flats. Almost every hill is walked. Every tree, spread out only every couple miles, I stop and try to cool down in shade. Miles will not tick away on my computer. I start getting a little confused and dizzy. I stop and suck down some GU Roctane Gels with Caffeine. Why do I feel so crappy? Is it hydration or nutrition, No. In a haze, I realize it must be the heat. I didn’t know how I would react to the heat, remember? Well, this is how. I click my computer over to the temperature. 102 degrees. Ohhhhh, my… that’s why. I gotta fix this problem or I’m done. I remember I have a cooling headband that is supposed to cool when applied to water. My wife Connie, bless her heart, supported me by stopping off and getting some stuff for me just before I left. I put that on and began to pour water over my head. It seemed to sizzle and evaporate before it got to my jersey! This seems to save me for a while, but I continue to digress. I stop sweating and actually feel a bit of a chill. I know this is not good. I continue. I endure. I suffer. My Niner Frame says Pedal Damit. I follow the instructions. I’ve learned over the last two years that a positive mental outlook is in the top 3 requirements of finishing these types of races. Other top reasons include proper Hydration/Nutrition and training (many hours on saddle). If you are fit, stay hydrated, keep energy levels up and have a positive mental outlook, you tend to stay on bike. This race adds a new #1 requirement, to stay cool and not to cook your brain! Most DNF’s (Did not Finish) start with Hydration/Energy and/or being fit and lead to a negative outlook. Once you go to the dark side, it’s over. My problem is not any of those, it’s my body shutting down due to heat. My brain is cooked. I’m no longer sweating. I’m delirious. I’m still positive. I enjoy the suffering actually; it reminds me that I’m very much alive…but….. I start thinking about long term effects. I start thinking about the guy I sat next to during last night’s pre-race dinner. This guy dropped from last year’s race due to heatstroke. Ever since, he hasn’t raced and needs two extra covers at night because he constantly shivers. I start thinking about my family. I’m done.
Mile 71 crosses a road. This is where I can get out. There are angels here. You know, the saviors, the people in support vehicles for other riders. They are very strategically placed. They know about the suffering. I spot Gord and Kelly. I ride up with head down and say, “I’m not going to lie, I feel pretty miserable”. Gord recognizes this look. He saved a guy last year from what was probably an ambulance ride. He comes over, sits me down on a camping chair and pulls out what looks like Golden nuggets from a cooler filled with ice. Is that chilled cantaloupe? I sit down shaking and immediately spill the gold all over the gravel road. I have no reaction, it doesn’t matter. I scoop them off the gravel road and start throwing them in my mouth. The now crunchy morsels of relief go down easily. Gord comes over, gives me some serious shit about my pathetic condition and says, “You know you’ve got a bottle of water right next to you to wash them off with, right?” I deserve this, I am a pitiful mess. I drink some cold water. I dip my cooling headband into their icy water and throw it on my head. That feels like a shot of adrenaline to my system. I take to the shade of the hatchback on Kelly’s car. Kelly comes over and throws ice down my back. I cool the core and brain and recover a bit. For now, they have saved my race. Many more bikes are being loaded on the SAG wagon headed for Medora.
Kelly and Gord are waiting again at mile 74 at another road. Rinse and Repeat, same stuff, this time with chilled pineapple. Gord explains how the natural fibers in these fruits give life. He tells me a story of saving a guy at this very spot last year with heat stroke, dehydration and a case of the 1000 yard stare. More bikes on trucks headed home. I’ve got a little mojo back.
My speed increases. I pass a few people. One grouping, Phil Hanlon and Kelly Helfrich, yell as I go by them, “You’re back”. Yes, I am. I stop at the top of a climb and come across Amy Oberbroekling, one of the few women who attempted this race. I’ve been keeping track of the standings for the ladies. Kelly Helfrich was in fifth, Amy is in fourth place. She is rocking out with her headphones, trying to stay positive, but is severely cramping. I dish out 3 of my last 5 endurolyte pills to her. I’ve already consumed 36 of those things, trying to feel better. About 20 minutes later, she breaks away and attacks our 3 person group. As she speeds by me, she says those things did the trick. I navigate down the tight downhill switchbacks with speeds not recommended and pull into CP3 at Wannagan campgrounds with a smile on my face.
CP3 seems like a party, mostly from the folks who are calling it a day and are happy about it. Gord and Kelly are there. He once again asks if I need anything. I thank him and reassure him that the well-stocked checkpoint has everything anyone would need. Gord got back on bike and headed out around 7:30PM or so, well ahead of the cutoff time that requires you to leave CP3 at 9:00PM. Otherwise, you’re held up and your day is over. The CP, once again, was great. One volunteer even dished out some more endurolyte pills for Amy and me. What, 40 wasn’t enough? I spend 35 minutes at CP3, re-gathering myself for what would be the long haul home. More riders are coming in behind me, few of which have any intentions of going for the 4th segment. Sara Bisso comes in, 6th place lady looking to charge her phone to call her husband to tell him she’s safe and done riding. She is a strong rider, she will be back. I’m getting my gear ready to go out among all this going on. I receive more than a couple words of encouragement and looks of respect. Last minute prep includes mounting my primary and backup light. Leaving at 7:55PM, I’m in for some night riding after already being on the trail for almost 13 hours. I call out my number loud and proud to the race timer, “Rider #173 Out” of CP3. More words of encouragement and cheers behind me. Just awesome.
The Buffalo Gap
Rolled out of CP3 right into a fairly good climb. Computer has me at almost 10,000 ft ascended already, only 2,000 or so left. I’m all alone for a while and left to my thoughts during sunset in the scenic badlands. I’m feeling good again…and a bit spiritual in awe of the wonders of this land.
I make the turn onto Buffalo Gap trail as MTB riders are not allowed in the Theodore Roosevelt National Park section of the MDH. This section is gorgeous and the trail is fast rolling single track and rolling hills. At the apex of most hills, I dismount, take in the sunset, say all my thanks and continue on with a grin.
One of my favorite creatures in this world apart from my wife Connie, Son Riley and Dog Cosmo are Prairie Dogs. I love them. At Mile 83 or so in the waning light, I come across a natural prairie dog town. Prairie Dogs, thank you for cheering me up and thank you for letting me know that you know… that I’m coming. Bark, Bark, back into your holes. Just before I need to turn on my lights, I go through one of the more confusing parts of the trail due to cow paths leading in every direction. I stop, find the trail again and start the next climb confident I’m going the right way. I love the 4×4 posts that line the MDH every ¼ mile or so.
See picture of 4×4 post at mile 58. They are so handy and if not for the mowed single track, one would surely lose their way.
During my climb, I saw a rider going the wrong way right where I myself got confused. I whistled at the top of my lungs. The echoes bounced off the canyon walls and “RJ” John Byrd from Frisco, CO immediately stopped and looked up my way. I used my strobe flashlight to point him back on trail; otherwise, he would’ve ended up in who knows where. I waited the 5-10 minutes for him to get back on trail and up the climb to where I was. I’m really glad I didn’t have to go get him and do that climb twice. We introduced each other and decided to try to ride in together as darkness brought inherent dangers that are better traveled in numbers. We noticed this was the trend as darkness fell, riders grouped together in safety, more concerned about finishing than time on the clock.
RJ and I rode for another couple miles and saw lights and cheering going on ahead. More support vehicles at mile 87. I had already turned on my lights, but it was a good place to stop and get RJ’s mounted and up and running. Sun was down and it was getting dark quickly.
I roll in and decline help from one of the saviors, the back road angels of mercy. Looking around, there is Kelly. She is standing with her camera. I’m sure she got some great photos and according to her, got through a couple books that day while waiting for Gord and I. I knew Gord had a good lead on me, leaving CP3 almost 30 minutes prior to my departure. I asked Kelly when he had gone though and she pointed toward the car. I pass by a beautiful bike owned by the Canadian, a Salsa Titanium El Mariachi Hardtail. I poke my head into the car to find Gord trying to recover in the passenger seat. He’s got the look I had a couple hours prior when he saved me. I try to provide words of motivation and encouragement to continue, but you need to be careful about pushing a man who has already been pushed too hard today. Thank you Gord for the companionship, gravel cantaloupe, lifesaving pineapple and sharing the MDH100 with me. If you need vehicle support next year, I’d love to repay you back. Just don’t schedule a fire next year August 1st, 2015. I stopped short of a Bro-hug and continued on with RJ.
Riding away from the road where Gord dropped out, RJ and I start to put the hammer down. The sun is down, we are cooler, we are motivated, we are moving quickly. We spotted 4 other lights back on the road, but since have dropped them and don’t even see their lights anymore in the vast distance behind us. We try to calculate how many are behind us. I calculate 5-6? 7 if Gord gets back on. RJ and I are determined we are now in a race to potentially not finish last.
Lights from Trucks up ahead and I realize it’s the I-94 Bridge Undercrossing. It takes forever to get there it seems. Last year, one of the strongest riders in Minnesota, Brendan Moore drops out of the race here due to heat. He talks about the MDH100 in 2013 (a brutal, brutal race last year due to heat) and speculates that he could go around 9hrs with lower temps and a bit of a different strategy on his blog site at http://brendansbikeblog.blogspot.com/2013/08/making-tough-decisions.html
RJ and I meet up with Nick Ybarra (main race organizer) at the Railroad undercrossing about 7 miles from finish. I give him my backup light to give to a guy behind who was basically riding in the dark. I found out later that guy’s name was James Rosenburg and he did not have any light out there except for what his riding partner had, which was just a Camping Headlight. I saw a facebook post on the MDH100 page from James crediting his finish to Nick Ybarra delivering him my light… So that made me feel pretty good being able to pay if forward after Gord and Kelly saved me about 8 hours earlier in the valley of the heat.
RJ and I take off again under the Railroad crossing right when a train is passing overhead. We connect again with the MDH100 trail off of the Buffalo Gap trail and start making bets. Will that be that last cattle gate we go through? Will that be the last climb we have to do? Time and distance seems to pass slowly. We start to bonk a little in our craze to get to the finish line and stop to take in some calories. We see I-94 again and a truck on a side road. This is a good sign and our hearts race! Nick Ybarra in his blue Ford F150 again taking good care of the last 5-7 riders still out on course. This man is a true Christian. He shows us his Coyote Spotter light, which seems like a million lumen light that can put a spot on the moon. He shakes our hands, says we are going to do it and tells us how to navigate the last ¾ of a mile to the finish.
RJ and I speed off down the bike trail at what seemed like incredible speed. I realize I’m going this fast since this is the first time in the entire race that I’m on pavement and it rolls much better than MDH100 single-track. RJ and I thank each other and agree that beyond a doubt, this is easily the hardest thing we’ve ever done just prior to rolling through the finish line at Medora campgrounds to a cheering crowd at 12:19AM.
I told my wife that a 9pm finish (14 hr) would be ideal, but I was expecting more of an 11pm finish (16 hr). I said she could start worrying at 12am (17 hours). So at 12:01am, bless her heart, I love her so much, she gave Nick Ybarra a call on his cell phone and asks if her husband is still alive. Nick assures her that I’m one of the remaining 5-7 riders still on course and that I was still coming in only 4 miles out or so, just before he showed us that coyote spotter. Thank you Nick for sharing your personal cell number and re-assuring my wife, you were great! Thank you for the personal ride back to CCC and the great conversations we had on the ride back. Thank you and all the MDH100 folks for a great event. Thank you to my wife, Connie, who has been so supportive. 19 minutes after the phone call to Nick, I crossed the finish line and gave her a txt message followed by a phone call. Here is the Proof, cause you’re going to need it when you tell people you finished this race, can be found at WYO Race Timing, racer #173.
So at 12:19AM, 17 hrs, 19 min after starting this amazing race, I finished. I endured. I was exposed. I became more aware. I was changed; changed in a way that only finishers of this race can understand. I’ve become part of a very small group (less than a 100 people?) who have ridden the Maah Daah Hey in a day. The MDH100x1 group.