The Marji Gesick 200
Every year I pick a top adventure goal, 2019’s A adventure was the Marji Gesick 200 mile edition. The Marji Gesick 100 is the original “dumb idea” that has now added a 200 mile out and back option “dumber idea”. Touted as the hardest 100 mile mountain bike race in the country has now doubled the fun factor with the Out-and-Back option so I had to see what all the hype was about. Even though the race is held in the UP(upper peninsula) of Michigan they have found some way to put around 14,000 feet of climbing into a 100 mile course that is %90 intentionally built mountain bike single track trails. But how bad could it really be? Here is the run down of my Marji Gesick 200 experience.
I caught a ride from Jonathan, another southeast bikepacker and leader of the Mingle Speed revolution who was also headed to the UP to race the 100 so we linked up for the 18 hour drive. Jonathan had attempted the 100 the two previous years and gave me a lot of insight about the race and confirmed how tough the terrain was. In his opinion the tech level was comparable to Pisgah knar. We arrived in Marquette, Michigan just after packet pick up opened so we dropped in as soon as we got into town. There are only 30 racers in the 200 mile category so the pick up location wasn’t too busy. On the way out I bumped into Neil, another 200 mile racer who had come out to see what the Marji Gesick was all about. Having drop bags was unusual for me because I usually race unsupported ultras so I had some planning to do to dial in before the race. I must have packed and repacked 10 times that night trying to figure out what would be the best options to have at each of the drops. Nerves were really kicking in!
Since the race didn’t start till noon I got to sleep in a little and double-check my bags one more time. During the last look over my bags, I felt that I hadn’t packed enough calories so I hit up Walmart for more snacks and subway for a sandwich. It was now time to kit up and head to the start line. There was a surprisingly large gathering of spectators and more support than I had expected since we were only 30 deep. I was so stoked to be on the line with some really accomplished ultra-distance mountain bikers. Todd gave us a little talk and run down then it was go time. The front of the pack took off like an XC race ripping out of town and into the forest. I tried to remind myself in the first 5 miles to not go too hard and blow up but I couldn’t help to crank to try and hang for just a few. And then the Blame Danny signs started to appear. Throughout the entire course, there were signs saying “Blame Danny” or “Blame Todd” the two co-developers and avid trail builders responsible for the race. The first 15 miles were littered with steep rocky climbs that at times required to shoulder the bike then hop back on until the next scramble. Coming through Jackson Park for the first time, I was surprised to see the amount of support that was there and it would be there when I made it back around the second time at mile 40ish. With the assurance of being able to refuel again at mile 40 I kept a steady pace and I was now settling into the race. I was riding alone now and this would be how most of the ride would be. The next 25-mile loop was a lot flowier with one terrible hike a bike that made me a little frustrated with my fitness. The hate/humility was kicking in. I was hating Todd and Danny a little bit but it was only because I was being humbled by the terrain. From mile 40 to mile 60 put me in a little pain cave. Watching the sunset meant the long night was coming and my body was feeling the effects of being rattled for over 12 hours. My hands and shoulders ached and my legs felt heavy. When I reached the last 17-mile loop I had been told that this was an easy section. Lies, after 80 miles of banging the last 17 miles into the Starting Line for the 100-mile race seemed to take forever. I rolled into the race starting line around 5:30 in the morning and needed to get out of my soggy kit. In my drop bag, I packed wool socks, thermal top/bottom, and a vest so I could keep warm while taking a 90 min nap. I continued lay on the ground as the darkness as it turned into light and the grand celebration began at the starting line. Not even an electric guitar playing the star spangled banner while a horse dressed as a unicorn road followed by fireworks could disturb me after taking 17 hours to make it halfway.
One of the rules for the Out - n - Back racers was that we had to turn around and head back out by the time the 100-mile racers had taken off at 7:30 am. Talking with Jonathan a little before the start of the 100-mile race and I decided that I would try and ride with him for a little while. The nap had given me enough rest to stay awake and alert but my legs were feeling really heavy. I could barely keep up with Jonathan or any of the other 100 mile racers. I knew it was going to be a long day and I would be walking much more today than I had the previous day. I lost sight of Jonathan for a while before bumping back into him around mile 125 and decided it would be a good idea to just sit and let the legs take a break for a few minutes. We talked to a few other racers who were already in the pain cave and cussing Danny and Todd. The course continued its symphony of smooth flow and steep super chunk rock until we dropped the jump line into the South Trails Parking lot. There we were greeted by a volunteer aid station that had all of the yummy things! I put down some cookies, potato chips and all of the other things available. After getting some much-needed calories in I layed down on a park bench for a few min to decompress and get mentally prepared for the next big push. The volunteers packed me up some salted potato wedges, chocolate chip cookies and some gel packets to go. Fully reloaded I was starting to get a second wind. Jonathan and I pushed on up the next section which seemed to wind through the hills with no end. By the time we popped out at the “Worst Aid Station” I was great again and ready to kick up the pace. Jonathan now lured into a comfy seat and cold beer at hand, I knew he wasn’t getting going anytime soon so I grabbed a few more snacks and took off into the darkness.
Jackson Park was now a staging area full of racers coming in to grab bags and supplies. I was going to have to go hard to make the cut off 4 hours from now at 2 am so I refilled my water bottles and grabbed a few PB&J squares then started cranking. A few miles into the loop I gave the pedals a hard crank and nothing happened. The crank and rest of the drivetrain seemed fine but the power wasn’t being transferred to the hub. At this point, I thought it was over for me. I text Shona and Eric with the news. Eric told me to give him a call so I reached out to hear what his thoughts were about the hub. Eric is a pro bike mechanic and a rad dude he started troubleshooting me through the problem while he was wrapping up at his sister’s wedding. He took me through the steps of taking off my cassette and opening up my hub to see a mess of pawls then he told me that if I could get 2-3 of them back in place then I would be able to keep cranking. Eric is the man! It worked! Back on the bike cranking to make the time lost but feeling hopeful until the raindrops started to fall. Soon it was pouring rain and I began to see flashes of lightning. I found myself in the dark at an unknown elevation on a trail that I didn’t know. Going off of counting the time between flashes and booms the storm was getting closer. I leaned the bike up against a tree then I went about 50 feet away from the bike and I tucked into a ball and resumed counting the time between lightning and thunder. 30 minutes went by while I held a squat before it felt safe enough to get going again. The technical steep terrain had become unrideable due to mud that the recent downpour had caused. My only option to get down one of the steep sections was to sit and hold on to the bike while sliding down the embankment. Now it was impossible to make the cutoff. The remaining miles would have taken me almost twice as long as expected before the rain so when I came across the next road crossing I looked up Jackson Park and headed back, my race was over. Once back at the park I sat under the tent in the park trying to let it sink in that it was over. I must have looked rough because I kept having people come to check on me and even scored a pizza from a guy I had met earlier in the day. Several riders came in last minute and took back off while others called it quits due to the way the trail conditions.
Looking back at the Marji Gesick 200 I can’t blame the hiccups I had with my rear hub and weather for me not finishing the race. The reality is that I was not fit enough to complete such a grand adventure and still be able to deal with bonus challenges. Next time I make it out for the 200 I will be much more prepared and should easily shave off a couple of hours and increase efficiency. Also this in the next year's training I will increase the volume of high-intensity workouts to help me feel strong on the hike a bikes and sandy areas. For 2019 Todd, Danny and Marji got the best of me this time but I will be back for another go. Thank y’all for the adventure!