That’s a dumb idea.
Where do I sign up?
by Brad Knapp
Oct 13, 2018
28 months ago I didn’t own a mountain bike.
21 days ago I completed the hardest mountain bike race in the country in 17 hours 35 minutes.
I still can’t feel my fingers.
Facts: Husband, father, collector of experiences
You hear about these people once in a while on the fringes of your attention span. At work. At the bike shop. Or in a muffled conversation two tables over at a restaurant. “ … it’s such a tough event that if you finish in under twelve hours, and almost nobody does, you get a belt buckle. Winner gets a dollar. It takes some people all night. Most people don’t finish.”
What? That’s insane.
My back story: Bicycles have been in and out of my life many times over the years. From the little bit of trail riding I did in college, to the year I decided to lose weight in my mid-30’s and got into road bikes, there’s always been a bike hanging in the garage. Some years it was used often, most years it collected dust.
A few years back I needed a kick in the pants. They (the pants) were getting tight and I certainly was not going to buy a size larger Levis. I had done that before and I did not like the results. Some of my old road biking buddies had moved to riding in the woods and that looked like fun. The problem was I had not been on a bicycle in a long time, but an appropriate machine was acquired.
I quickly discovered that I was way out of shape. So bad that when I attended the Broken Spoke shop group trail ride, the very last guy, the one who had recently dropped 100 lbs and still had another 100 to go, had to wait for me. Three times. When we caught the main group they had been waiting for so long that the sweat on their foreheads had dried. When the shop owner George looked at me he was probably thinking “we’ll never see that guy again.”
Around this same time some of that same group of old road bike friends, now mountain bike friends, that I missed were forming a weird little ironic “not a race team but some of us race, team” called “BIKE TEAM”. Sean B called me and said “It appears that you’re coming back to cycling. Join us.” I expressed my fear of public humiliation and told him about getting repeatedly dropped on group rides, I was told that it would be ok. “Our motto is ‘showing up is good enough’” Sean assured me.
I showed up. I rode. I quickly learned that a person who is willing to work, and is surrounded by the right people, will be accepted and encouraged. It’s tough when you’re in your mid-40’s and you want to achieve a fitness level that you’ve never had before. It’s even tougher when you look at Strava and realize that a 12-year-old has better segment times than you do.
But there was something about being in the woods with good people. Sure, they dropped me. Every. Single. Time. But unlike my roadie experience of the past this crew of fast men, women and teenagers waited for those of us that fell off the back at trailhead intersections. They made sure you were ok. In the parking lot after they treated you like an equal. Even some of the really fast people, the ones that have been racing at the highest levels for years and years, would offer you a parking lot beer or a word of encouragement after the ride.
The BIKE TEAM motto is “showing up is good enough.” Whoever came up with that deserves a big thank you because it got me through some dark times. To this day it helps me remember that I’m only there to have fun and improve my fitness. Nobody cares if I suck. So I started showing up at every opportunity.
New friends were made. Races were entered. Lessons were learned.
One of those friends that I made along the way, Robb, and I had the very bad idea to do the Marji Gesick 50 together in 2017. 50 miles? How bad could it be? “Those other guys are doing the 100. We could do the 50 and then hang out.” Seemed like a good idea. Time to get ready.
The family and I took a camping trip up to Marquette one weekend. I told my wife “I’m going to go ride the last Marji Gesick section, its only 15 miles so I should be right back.” Many hours later when I was finally able to receive cell signal again, I called my wife to explain why I had been gone all day. “I’m sorry I’m late. This trail is a lot harder than I was expecting.”
There’s something that they don’t tell you about the Marji Gesick 50. It’s the hardest part of the 100, and it’s really closer to 60. At first it seems difficult. And then you find yourself yearning for that same trail hours later and thinking of it fondly as “the easy stuff”. You get off your bike and push it up inclines. Again. And again. If you have a riding partner you’re in luck because you can get each other through the dark times.
Robb and I had fun. Until we didn’t. Mechanical. And then another one. And then another one. I got tired. He got hangry (when you are so hungry you are angry). He towed me all around Marquette County. I was wondering what the heck we were doing. It as 93º. I had drank 10 liters of fluids and had not peed once. Eventually we finished. Robb did an wheelie as we crossed the finish line together. We vowed never to do something so stupid ever again.
A handful of our friends that were not riding made the 3.5-hour drive from the Green Bay/Appleton area to support those of us that were racing. Seriously? Who does that? Who are these wonderful people that they’ll spend their weekend just to say thier friends “Good job. I’m proud of you”? Together we waited for our friends that had signed up for the 100 to finish, or worse yet, come limping into town after a DNF. The heat was taking many people out. We stayed up late until Sean, Mark & Ted rolled into town before midnight.
Three weeks later, after the Marji Fever had dissipated, Robb and I peer pressured each other into riding the Marji Gesick 100 in 2018. After that The Marji was in the back of my head every day (it still is). It nagged at me. It woke me up at night. It forced me to get on my bike at every opportunity and ride. I started reading about motivation, commitment, meditation, anything that might help me on the big day. I feared the weather of the Upper Peninsula. I tried. I did not want to let Robb down. I was filled with anxiety over being a weight around his neck on race day.
Mid-summer arrived and Robb found out that a family commitment was going to keep him away from The Marji. It happens. Family comes first. I was bummed, but also relieved. And a little freaked out. While I wasn’t going to be holding him back anymore, how was I going to survive the dark times without him? What was I going to use as a carrot to keep me going?
My obsessive nature guided me. I made repeated trips up to Marquette to ride as many of the sections of the course as I could. I actually got on a training plan. I doubled my mileage from the year before. I learned about endurance and how if you keep your effort in check you can work for a much longer time. So when it came to the day of the event I decided to keep an eye on my heart rate monitor and every time I saw it at over 70% max heart rate I backed off.
The race start was way faster than I was expecting. “What the heck are all these people sprinting for? We’ve got all day! Oh well, follow that wheel.”
17 miles into the 100+ mile race a spoke on my rear wheel broke. Wrapped it up and kept riding. I’m not going to lie, there was a long stretch of the day where I was listening to that rear wheel creak and just praying that the thing would finally break so I could claim “mechanical” end this stupidity, train harder, and come back the next year. But hour after hour the wheel held true, dammit.
I was planning on meeting my wife at the NTN trailhead when who should I see but my buddy Robb. He couldn’t race, but to my surprise the guy drove hours to support me. Wow, that was fuel in the tank all the way through scary trail and all the stupidity that is the section between the trailhead and the ski hill.
As the fatigue set in, and trail section after trail section passed by I learned that The Marji is 60% mental and 40% physical. I repeated stories and quotes to myself such as Henry Ford’s ““Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t-you’re right.” And “if you stop you’ll regret this day for the rest of your life, but when you finish you’ll be proud of yourself.”
I saw a guy fall off of Pipe Dreams while yelling “I’m ok!”
A guy told me “I’ve done Leadville twice, and this is much harder.” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that we hadn’t hit the really hard stuff yet.
At some point I started riding with brothers Alex and Max. These guys were great. They DNF’d the year before (the hot year) and were determined to redeem themselves this year. We rode into Negaunee together, did all the RAMBA loop, back to Negaunee and got separated sometime during the night during the final 15. Those guys got me through the tough stuff as much as my buddy Robb did the year we did the 50 together.
Then the rear wheel started making noise.
Crap. I made it this far, I can’t get a DNF because of a mechanical now, even though I prayed for it a dozen hours earlier. While fixing my helmet from a crash on the way back to Negaunee, I saw my wife and told her that my wheel might not make it, which meant that I would have to walk the brutal final 15 miles. Finishing was the only answer, even if it meant on foot.
The wheel held. I connected with some friends, we had some mechanicals, it rained a bit. The rest was a blur, I put my head down and powered through knowing that I was about to complete the hardest mountain bike race in the country.
Friends and family were waiting for me at the finish line.
Next year I’ll be there for them.
Maybe I’ll do the 100 again.
As soon as I fix that wheel.
The fast group still drops me.
Showing up is still good enough.