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Heath's story: Marji Gesick

BaseCamper Heath Paukette shared his experience at the 2023 Marji Gesick bike race in Michigan.

It's taken me over a week to finally sit down and post my race report from the Marji Gesick 100-mile mountain bike race. This was my A and only event since May. Last year I was a finisher in the 50-mile event but had quite a few crashes that really made the event much more challenging. This year I thought why not double the fun and take on the 100? What's the worst that could happen between over 20 black diamond and double black diamond segments?!?

Anyone that has heard of the Marji know it's one of the hardest single-day mountain bike races in the States. Rocks, roots, minimal trail flow, big climbs, treacherous descents...the finishing rate can vary between 25% to 65%, depending on the weather and trail conditions. The organizers are notorious for playing mind games, from trying to get registered to sending out the trail map the Wednesday before the race (with incorrect elevation) to the checkpoints. One of their hashtags is "Find your limits and destroy them," and you definitely will during your time out there.

My buddy Chad and I were fortunate enough to get registered in the 100 last October and made a pact that we were going to finish this together. He's a strong tech rider, and I typically have a stronger cardio engine, so it was going to make for an interesting day staying together. We recruited a great friend of ours to run SAG for us, Kris, as this is a self-supported race, but if you have someone to help you, they have to offer help to anyone that needs it. This guy knows his stuff when it comes to bike racing and has helped me with other endurance events, plus he's a hell of a single speed mountain bike racer and completed his own 100 mile mtb race this summer. We met a week before the race, planned out our stops as well as we could, and made the trek to Marquette. We got to pre-ride some of the double black and black diamond sections the day before to give us some quick reminders of what we were getting ourselves into.

From a preparation standpoint, I had been following a training plan written by a coach that knows the Marji pretty well and has coached multiple athletes to finishes. The training consisted of running a couple times a week, lifting a couple times a week, long tempo rides followed by trail riding on tired legs the next day. I felt like the training was spot on for what we were going to encounter. I also worked with Namrita Brooke on a nutrition plan, as I had no idea how to fuel for what could be 25 hours. We had a plan of substantial carbs early and keeping up on the sodium and hydration throughout the day. I had never felt better training on the bike.

Race day, the weather is going to be perfect in spite of the race directors. Starting temp in the mid 50s F with highs throughout the day in the upper 60s and no rain. It's a LeMans start, where we have to run a 1/2 mile to get to our bikes and then start the ride. We hit the first black diamond section 6 miles in, and it's basically a massive rock that everyone has to hike a bike up and down. The best thing about this spot is the bagpiper at the top playing. What a way to start the morning. We get through the next couple of double black section unscathed and still pretty well packed together in bunches. We hit our first SAG stop around 2 1/2 hours in, refill bottles and food, and roll out feeling strong. The next segment has a couple of black diamond sections but is the most flow that we're going to see all day. It's a blast with one segment a jump trail that we just rail.

About 4+ hours in, we hit our 2nd SAG check. Everything is rolling well, fueling is in check for both of us, and minimal matches burned. We're going into the trails that we pre-rode the day before, so the confidence was there that we were going to clear most of the gnar. This section includes climbing up a ski hill twice, once on dirt road and another on a trail segment called Zueg's and Upper Zueg's. I don't think I've ever rode somewhere so beautiful and so well designed as Zueg's (although it's built to be rode downhill, not up). Still it was one of my favorite memories of the day, rolling up the switchbacks and beauty of the forest around us. The rock features that they had built on this trail were so well integrated that you just wanted to stop and take it in. This brings us to the first course checkpoint. Most years these checkpoints have a wooden token that you have to get and then turn in at the end. If you have all the required tokens, you get your final token that says you are a finisher. If you don't have them all, you can either choose to go back and collect the missed token or take a DQ. This year, just to mess with us, the first checkpoint was an atomic fireball (yes the round cinnamon candy). Chad popped one in his mouth, but I was on to the shenanigans and told him to grab one extra just in case we needed to turn it it.

About 6 hours in we hit our 3rd SAG stop. Fueling still on point, both of us feeling strong. Kris cooks up a quick tortilla for Chad, and we're off. This section finally jumps into the same trails as the 50 miler so we're relatively familiar with these. We roll in a group of about 8 riders just getting over the roots and rocks with minimal hike a bike sections on a long black diamond section. Somehow we lose the group and take off on our own through some sandy two tracks and into Jackson Park, the main stop for almost everyone.

The 4th SAG stop is about 9 1/2 hours into the race. We both eat some solid food (tortillas with potatoes and cheese), change socks and gloves, refill bottles, etc., and get rolling on the hardest part of the race, the dreaded RAMBA trails. By now we have 65ish miles on our legs and about 6k feet of climbing. In the next 40 miles, we'll tack on an additional 7k feet of climbing with the most Godforsaken hand-built trails anywhere. There is no free trail where we are going.

This is where things start to unravel for me. We're about 30 minutes since our SAG stop and I start to encounter GI issues. My stomach just couldn't handle all the carbs that had been coming at it over the last 10 hours. I couldn't eat nor take in any more superfuel. I tried to force myself to drink some higher electrolyte mix from my pack that did have some carbs, but deep down, I knew it wasn't going to be enough to keep my energy at the levels I needed. The positive part of this was that I rode stuff that I would have walked last year thanks to some tech training I did over the summer. This gave me a nice boost, and Chad definitely was cheering me on when I would just send it.

Stop 5 gets us to 13 hours in. I let Kris know that I'm going to need some ginger ale and some chicken bone broth at the next stop, and of course he's incredible and will have it at the ready. Chad and I get our lights on the bikes, as it will be dark on the trails in the next 15 minutes and this next 1 1/2 hours will be through the toughest trails of the day, including the notorious Double Black Diamond Sissy Pants. We hike a bike when we need to, ride what we can, and my buddy is starting to have to wait a little more frequently for me to catch up. The energy levels are starting to wane, and combine this with darkness makes for a slow trudge. At one point, my front tire catches a root and slings me to the left into a 6 foot hole. Somehow I grab a hold of a tree with my left hand while holding onto my bike with my right hand. Chad comes to the rescue, not for the last time, and grabs my bike and wondering how in the hell I ended up in that position. Beats me! We see checkpoint #2 and get our first dum dum sucker to go with our atomic fireball.

Stop 6 back at Jackson Park: ginger ale and chicken bone broth on the menu, plus a potato and cheese tortilla. Put on some warmer clothes as the temps are dropping, but Chad continues to go the minimalist route and continues rolling in bibs and short sleeve shirt. We're about 14 hours in at this point, with around 18 miles to go. We roll out knowing that there is a ton of climbing left and the trails do not get any easier. I let Chad know that I'm going to hike a bike more frequently as my energy levels are pretty low. My GI issues have somewhat subsided, but the prior 5 hours of minimal fueling has put me in a major deficit. We can hear the finish line and a band playing below us as we continue to climb up what's known as the luge climb. Man, I just want to be down there with a beer in my hand instead of pushing this 30lb bike. Chad continues to push on, then wait for me. I don't know how many times I apologized, but he finally had to tell me we made a pact and he's going to be there for me no matter what.

The dark woods are so mesmerizing. You can see lights all over the trails, some above you, some below you, and you're not sure which direction you came from or where you're going. You walk your bike through a gnarly spot, try to look ahead to see if you should get back on the bike, then jump back on, only to pop back off in 50 feet because there's more rocks that are ready to wreak havoc. Some stuff you just throw the bike at, as it's easier than getting off, sometimes you continue to walk your bike as it's easier than getting on. Checkpoint 3 and another dum dum sucker, but this one with a black handle.

This is where the trail angels part of this race come in. As I mentioned, it's self supported, but the community comes out and makes sure riders have water throughout the day. It's crazy to come across a guy in a duck suit in the middle of the woods at 12:30 a.m. offering water, snacks, etc, or another spot where they are offering cokes, rice krispy treats, gin and tonics, beer, and other substances. I felt like a sailor trying to be tricked by sirens in Greek mythology. Our last trail angels were Kris and Chad's wife one last time. They built a small fire, made sure we were okay, and sent us on our way for the last 10 miles.

About 10-20 minutes later I reached probably my darkest place. I had zero energy, and even though I was going to finish this, it was going to be at a snail's pace. I talked it over with Chad. and he gave me a few instant energy snacks (rice krispy treat, bread with PB and honey) that miraculously went directly to my legs, and I felt like a new person. We managed to focus on the trail as much as possible, and I finally got some climbing legs back. Finally through the last black diamond section and on to the last climb and checkpoint #4, a dum dum sucker with an orange handle. We send it back down the climb we just came up and head to the finish.

I don't know how to describe the feeling I had coming down the stretch with Chad. So much gratitude for Chad and Kris and all the support and sacrifice to get me to the finish. So much that my family sacrificed during the summer to allow me to train for this. I was just hollering all the way down. I don't care if I ever win a race; this felt like winning to me. Chad and I crossed that finish line together at 19 hours and 50 minutes (3:20 a.m.), and Kris was right there waiting for us. A person couldn't have two better friends to share this experience with. Kris even mentioned that he might have shed a tear watching us as we finished.

After you cross the line, the volunteers come and check to see if you have hit all the checkpoints. I give him my 3 dum dums and the atomic fireball, and he gives me 3 wooden tokens and then the most important one, finisher.

I had every emotion throughout those almost 20 hours, but I think the thing that will stick with me the most is that I was able to be vulnerable with my friends and that they didn't judge me that I was weak or not worthy of their help. For this I will be forever grateful. It's kind of funny, as this year I've started to tell these guys that I love 'em when we're out on the trail, and I think that's a habit I'm going to keep up.


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