After successfully finishing the Marji Gesick 50 in 2017 I got a strange desire to do it again, but this time trying the 100 mile option. Most of my difficulties with MG50 were due to the heat, dehydration, and not being sufficiently familiar with technical trail riding. Having completed Lumberjack 100 numerous times, finished the Barry-Roubaix Psycho-Killer, and done a bunch of not-easy 100+ mile gravel rides I’m no stranger to completing ultra endurance events, and I figured that with the right preparation I’d be able to finish.
From great fat biking to a solid Lumberjack, from long endurance rides to getting a smart trainer, preparation worked out really well this year. I was fortunate to be able to spent a lot of time up in the Marquette area riding bikes, getting plenty of experience with technical sections (both up and down) that I was previously too afraid to ride. I got a lot of climbing in, did a number of long rides, had a solid nutrition plan, had the requisite lighting set up, and was ready to go.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. I DNF’d. Why? Fatigue.
And I just didn’t have it in me.
The course wore me out. Whether you are doing it as a race or just to finish, Marji Gesick 100 is a serious event, awarding a beautiful belt buckle to anyone who crosses the finish line in under 12 hours. With only a bit over 12 hours of daylight on race day, and buckles typically only going to elite-level racers, most normal humans (such as myself) who manage to finish will be in for a long day with the most technical of the riding — the end of the route — happening in darkness. I definitely underestimated the toll the first part of the race would take on me. Before starting I roughly figured race day would take ~15 hours, and with the low heart rate I tend to have on these technical routes (compared to long pre-race rides), I thought that I’d be fine. With my longest rides of the last three years being 9-10 hours moving time, about half way through the route I realized I hadn’t had enough long days. As the day wore on and I hit ~11 hours I was feeling pretty cooked. The first time I reached the bag drop† I was feeling spent, but decided to go back out and see how I felt; clear lenses in my glasses and lights in my pack I kept riding.
While I could still put out power, as I got into the very-technical RAMBA trails I was feeling sleepy and a little light headed at the top of climbs. I didn’t have the focus to climb nor descend well, feeling like I was constantly about to make mistakes, walking much more than the last time on those trails. My upper body was getting sore from handling the bike and I stopped having fun. I kept riding, telling myself that when I reached the Iron Ore Heritage Trail (IOHT) as the course passes through Ishpeming I’d decide what to do.
While I probably could have finished, I stopped half-way up the switchback climbs of Last Bluff, looking out at the setting sun, and decided my day was over. Three miles later, where Partridge Knob splits off from the IOHT I stopped my Garmin, put on arm warmers, chatted with some support folks on an ATV, and texted Kristen to let her know I’d be meeting her in 20 minutes.
This was a real good day, and I had a lot of fun for the amount of race route that I did ride. To some extent I think I could possibly have finished, but I don’t think it would have been any fun, and I really didn’t feel like trying. Getting those remaining 20-some miles done would have involved hours of walking in the dark and not riding what’s otherwise super-fun trail. I don’t regret my decision, and even as I quit I was looking forward to coming back and having fun with the MG50 in 2019.
Two days later I ended up back out on the RAMBA trails, starting a ride from where I dropped out of the race. GPS data, memories of last year, and a few lingering signs pointing the way I finished up the race course and realized two things:
- I really, really like these trails.
- The choice to DNF was the correct one.
So, beyond quitting? It was a great race, and I’m really glad I did it. But I really do think the MG50 is more for me.
Here’s some data on Strava of my race day and the finishing-it-up ride:
- MG100 DNF: Da “Race”
- #QUITTER: Ride back to Jackson Mine Park.
- Finishing Things Up: Rest of the route, with a couple wrong turns.
My remaining thoughts about the race are best captured as points:
- Having someone to meet you and help you out with nutrition (the only kind of outside aid you’re allowed to accept) is amazing. Kristen met me at the South Trailhead with a half a burrito and mixed up bottle. Seeing her, eating that burrito, and only having to worry about filling my pack with water was mentally amazing and hugely helpful.
- Starting off the MG100 is a 0.5 mile run. I was worried this would cause me problems, but I sort of trotted / jogged along and it was fine. Running along with my friend Erik and chatting it sort of just went, and next thing I knew I was at the start area and my bike and it was time to ride.
- The weather was intimidating at first, but otherwise amazing. It was in the 40s at the start, but most of the day hovered nicely in the 50s and 60s. I mostly had a chilly/cool feeling on my arms, but never felt cold.
- The route is mostly great. Starting out heading into Harlow Lake strings things out nicely, and by the time we reach the first seriously technical section (Top Of The World) things are fairly spread out.
- There were two not-very-hard parts of Harlow Lake that I did not enjoy riding, especially in a group. The first was the Lower Hogback single track, which is rocky and wet. The second was the swampy portion through the power line corridor when heading south. The latter soaked my feet, and they remained wet until I changed socks at the bag drop lots of hours later. I’m glad I had good socks.
- It was clear climbing the back side of Marquette Mountain was going to be tough, but I figured we’d be taking the usual double track to the top. Instead we turned off of the double track and climbed Snake Oil before descending Ezy-Rider. That climb, and seeing only 51 miles on my computer when I reached the top, was when I started to question if I could finish.
- The mix of folks I ended up near on the MG100 seemed to be a bit more serious / less talkative than those I rode with last year in the MG50. I’ll chalk this up to nerves and lots of people taking the race more seriously than I apparently did.
- While difficult, the whole route remains great. There’s a good number of parts I can’t yet ride (Gurly, some climbs, a fair number of things in RAMBA-land), but otherwise it’s outstanding.
- After climbing Lowe’s the race route passes through a box culvert. I was afraid this would be full of water, but no… it was fine. It was just dark. There are far swampier areas within a few miles of the end of the race.
- There were many, many ad hoc aid stations. At almost every major road crossing or parking area there were folks set up. Beyond what Kristen got me, I also ate a couple granola bars, a banana, and some water. At almost every significant point there was someone offering food, water, and even whisky and beer. These aid stations are MUCH less frequent around the RAMBA trails.
If you are trying to decide if you should try this race, do it. You will need to prepare, those who haven’t ridden in the UP should plan a trip or two to get a sense of the trails before race day, but do it. When registration opens at 12:01am on October 13th, sign up. Consider doing the MG50 as it’s a good bit easier than the full MG100, but do it. It’s worth it. These are phenomenal trails in an amazingly beautiful area. You will struggle and suffer a bit, but you will have fun doing it. And you’ll want to come back again and again.
† While the race is officially unsupported, it passes through a bag drop area at Jackson Mine Park — a de facto aid station — twice. Once around 70 miles in, and a second time at around 95 miles.
‡ The MG100 race is officially 100 miles, most riders who complete it with a wheel sensor see ~110 miles total. I believe the higher number to be correct, based on:
- Recording 59 miles for last year’s MG50.
- Seeing 51 miles on my bike computer when the 50 and 100 courses converged.
- My experience with assessing under recording on GPS-only vs. GPS-and-wheel-sensor setups.
- Detailed analysis of the official GPX route files compared to my recordings of the same trails.