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Heath's story: Marji Gesick 2022

BaseCamper Heath Paukette shared his experience at the Marji Gesick race in Ishpeming, Michigan.

I wanted to share what I considered my A event ever since I signed up for it this past winter. We have a mountain bike race called the Marji Gesick in the Upper Peninsula and it's known as the hardest single day mountain bike race in the US. Their mantra is "Find your limits and destroy them." There's a 100 mile version and a 50 mile version that is more like 100k that I signed up for. The race organizers always say they give you more than you paid for. Beth Collins has done the 100 mile race and can attest to how difficult the terrain is.

The race itself is about 80% single track, 10% two track and some paved bike trails or roads with about 8,000 feet of climbing for the 50 miler.

Marji is more about survival, with about 25% of all entrants in the 50 miler texting "quitter" to the race organizers before the finish and almost 50% do the same in the 100. There are constant roots and rocks to contend with, climbs that even on fresh legs are impossible due to the terrain, and descents that are just plain scary.

So I came into the "race" as well as prepared as possible. I had been doing some long days on my full squish Yeti on single track, practicing fueling during those long rides, and getting my mind right for what was to come. I felt confident that I was going to do pretty well...until a few days before when I pre-rode some of the course. The trails were so much more technical than I had ever seen or trained on. There were definitely going to be some hike-a-bike sections. I had the opportunity again to pre-ride another section the day prior to Marji when it had been raining and we all knew the rocks and roots were going to be extra treacherous.

On the morning of the race, I and a couple other guys that I was staying with rode down to the start line. Tons of nervous energy and poor sleep from the night before. The first section of Marji is the easiest in the 50 miler with a category 4 climb that dumps you right into some gnarly single track with rocks and roots and bridges. It had rained most of the night and the bridges took their toll on a few riders. Some even slipping off the bridge trying to walk across them. Plenty of hike-a-bike sections with a lot of traffic, but about 10 miles in, everyone settled in and there was plenty of space. Took it as easy as possible during the first section, drafted off a group on some 2 track and kept the heart rate in check. Felt solid and right where I needed to be.

Going into section 2, I knew there was going to be a lot of getting off the bike and walking parts of it. Keeping it in my head to be daring but not too daring. Just about a 1/3 of the way into this section I had my first crash. OTBs on a steep downhill with some rock features that I just didn't navigate very well. Got myself up, checked my pockets to make sure I had everything, didn't hurt too bad and got back on the bike. Just 2 minutes later, encountered some ground bees and got stung on the knee. Some people were stung multiple times out on the trail and had to abandon. Those things were vicious this year. I really started to cramp up early and often on this section. I was thinking it was mainly due to getting off the bike to push it up and down sections and then getting back on it when I felt confident enough that I was going to be able to ride. Finished section 2 right where I thought I should, 6 hours into the race, felt OK-ish and ready to knock out the last section. Fueling and hydration still seemed on point.

Section 3 was where it all came undone. 18ish miles of the most difficult time I have ever had with or on a bike. I say with because it felt like I spent more time pushing it then riding. Throughout this section I had 3 crashes that if they would have occurred during a normal ride, I would have bagged it. But I wasn't about to text "quitter." I fell down a ravine and ended up with the bike over me and my head pointed downward. Kept my cool and eventually got untangled. Hit a tree with my ribs, which initially I thought just knocked the wind out of me, but either really bruised them or slightly fractured them, and then the grand finale on a rocky down hill: hitting my helmet directly into a tree, which slightly cracked it in the middle and broke the front of it (see finisher pic where the helmet is all cockeyed). I made sure that I didn't feel concussed and everything seemed to check out. But it got to a point where I got scared to get back on my bike. There are some dark places that your mind goes while in the woods.

I finally hiked my bike up to the last checkpoint, got my token (you have to collect tokens along the way, never knowing how many you are supposed to collect), and bombed the downhill to the finish. I'm not even sure what emotions I was feeling as I neared the finish. I think I just wanted to feel safe again and not worry about what was going to come at me next. Approaching the finish line, my friends were trying to give me a hand-up but I couldn't even comprehend it nor did I want one. Crossed the finish, had them check my tokens, and I was a finisher in 10:25, good enough for 54th place and in the top 15% of entrants.

During the next few hours afterwards, I was still a bit in shock. I didn't ever want to think of Marji again...until 3-4 days later when they announced that registration takes place October 14. It's now been over a week, and I want to take this on again, although my wife thinks I'm crazy. As usual, she is right, but regardless, I'm ready to find my new limits and destroy those now.

1 Comment

Jan 17, 2023

Wow, wow, wow! Love your tanacity!

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