With all the rain in the region I was curious how no changes to the course had been announced. Upon arrival and check-in on Friday at Lutsen Mountains we were greeted with course maps showing very significant changes to the 99er course. After mentioning to Peter Spencer that I'm on a singlespeed and geared for the old course he quickly smiled and said, "You're going to want to switch to a harder gear." Being my first year ever racing a singlespeed—and 99 miles on one gear at that—I was already on edge and had to change again. Singlespeeding is not exactly "simplistic".
7:30 a.m. Starting by the main chalet, over 400 riders for the 39er and 99er rolled out down the mountain behind a fire truck holding us steady at around 20 mph before we turned onto Hwy 61 and the race was on, though it really didn't feel like it. I was sitting comfortably in the top 20 or 30 with my two teammates, John Reinan and Jon Sigerud, all the way up the first, and longest, climb on Caribou Trail, a paved CAT 3 climb. I glanced back a couple times and could see the rest of the field strung out for miles, but I was still holding steady in the top 30 pushing the heavier 34x15 gear. We ducked off into some tough and rough—but FUN—ski and snowmobile trail combinations around mile 12 for about four miles before we were back out on the road. Then any hopes for a singlespeed podium went out the window.
I was in the middle of a group of about 10 or 12 that turned left a few miles before the first aid station. We got about two miles down that path and the leaders of this group stopped and realized we weren't supposed to be on this section of the course yet! I had my head down and was focusing on staying with the geared bikes I was with so I had no idea! We turned around and blasted back to the road where, indeed, we'd misread the arrows. The course was marked very well, we just needed to pay attention and not second guess the direction! Who knows how many spots I'd dropped by now. it was disheartening and frustrating, being so early in the race and having held such a good position.
It was obvious by mile marker 30 (34 for some of us) that I had pushed too hard to get back on track as I already had to battle my first leg cramps! I stopped at the next pass through the aid station (we all passed through this one three times with the new course layout) and I nearly pulled myself out. But, without telling them my mental battles at the moment, Jon Sigerud's wife and three kids (Renee, Caiden, Katie and Cody) gave words of encouragement and handed over the next round of bottles. Without thinking, I headed out for the second lap of this loop, waiting to see what would happen. I started pedaling the bike in different positions and paying more attention to my efforts as some sections had me riding for several minutes at a time in a 30-40 cadence going uphill—my legs were so pissed!—but I was able to stave off the cramps for that lap and pass several riders, so I blew by the third pass through the aid station (mile 59 of the race) and headed out to finish and make the best of this!
Luckily, I did. Up until mile 95 the race course was perfectly manageable, and changing up some riding styles and my gear choice paid off big here. It was mostly fast but rough-and-rolling backwoods four-wheeler and logging trails, dirt roads and lots of mud-water holes (all rideable, but deep!), with some nice little climbs mixed in there too!
Passing the mile 95 marker gave me a boost of energy knowing I was almost done . . . but I did not know that some of the hardest—and most fun for me ;)—riding was yet to come! The single-track of Lutsen was up and it was raw, rooty, muddy and just some of the gnarliest stuff I've ridden since the Sawtooth Challenge race in Grand Marais last August. It was a blast to ride and I made up three more spots in the mile or two of it.
Then came the final test, the last climb from the very bottom up to the chalet, which was also probably the toughest climb of the day regardless of whether it was at mile 98 or mile 10. My legs went into full-on cramp mode and forced me off the bike for a few sections of it. One foot in front of the other walking and attempting to run—screaming "Go-go-Gadget-legs" and starting to run didn't even work (in fact I almost fell over and died)—I had spent everything.
I hopped on the bike for the last time towards the top after seeing the spectators lined up along the course and over the bridge we cross under. I heard someone say, "Look! He's on a singlespeed!" followed by a few extra cheers! Yes! Thank you, that was the little bit more motivation I needed to muscle my way up riding the bike the last 200-300 yards to cross the line under the banner. I got some "congrats" and was handed a medal, but my legs couldn't move anymore, ha! I sat there for about five minutes before my legs settled a little and I was able to move without any severe muscle cramp.
I met up with my friend John Reinan who finished about 11 minutes earlier and we headed back to our basecamp in Grand Marais muddy and totally exhausted. The bike was making all kinds of funny sounds—so was I, for that matter—but it was a full and fun day on the bike and I felt accomplished. I had almost forgotten the frustrations early in the race.
The feeling of finishing races like this, that are truly a battle to the end, can only be understood by those that have experienced them. Not necessarily 100 miles, but just a true battle with other riders and yourself, when you reach that part of your brain that says at some point, "Okay, we've done enough. It's not going the way you wanted, let's pull off and go another day" but you keep going. This was one of those days, and in the end it's why I love mountain bike racing. I finished with a time of 7:44:13, 51st out of about 240 that started the race, and 5th out of about 20 that started in the singlespeed class! Just finishing was great, but to get those results after a four mile detour with indecision efforts there I was pleasantly surprised. The race had some strong riders!
Bryson Perry took the "W" with a fast time of 5:52:44 followed by Adam Froeming (6:04:57) and Michael Woell (6:14:16) for the men and Lynn Cecil (7:52:05), Danielle Coffield Ness (8:10:53) and Patti Schmidt (8:20:27) for the top three women. In the 39er, Patrick Sheedy brought home the win for men with a time of 2:20:40, followed closely by Stuart Benson only seven seconds back, and Nathan Mielke six minutes behind them. The womens 39er top three were April Morgan (2:38:16), Kerrie Fabius (2:39:16) and Maria Benson (2:54:38).
As usual Life Time Fitness put up a great event—anyone who has not participated in one of their events, you should. Everything worked so smooth from the packet pick-up to the assistance at the aid stations during the race. Peter Spencer and Adam Harju did a top notch job, especially having to deal with such major course changes in a 99 mile event literally the day before the event. I will race this one again.
Another course note: I was contemplating using a cyclocross bike for this, hearing about all the gravel roads. Tthank you Adam Harju for talking me out of it! That would've definitely ruined my day, total mountain bike race for sure!