The pace of my life, leading up to the Ore2Shore Mountain Bike Epic race, felt as if I was pedaling downhill in too low of a gear…legs spinning fast and out of control, fingers ready on the brakes. I needed the slower pace of the Upper Peninsula and views of Lake Superior to quiet my busy mind. It was a decent theory but first, you have to get there. The day before leaving, I stopped in to CityHub Cyclery in Muskegon for some accessories and to pick up a custom logo jersey. With my new duds, I would look good at the very least, even if I was found bloodied and bruised in a ditch. Julia, the owner, asked what I was up to and I told her I was riding the Ore2Shore.
She grinned and asked, “Who talked you into doing that?”
“A guy named Josh,” I replied.
First time jitters plagued me leading up to departure and a low-grade level of apprehension had settled in my gut. I worried about my lack of TITS (time in the saddle). I’d never done a mountain bike race, certainly not one with a mass start of over 900 riders, point to point over rocks, sand, gravel, single-track, road and bridges. Josh kept assuring me, saying, “You’ll be fine,” with a knowing smile. I was not convinced of my bike fitness level. One week prior, we had pedaled ten miles of trails at Luton Park in Grand Rapids, which was the extent of my trail training.
Almost 900 riders lined up at the start. From the very back, I watched a lively sea of shiny helmets bob up and down. On my inaugural attempt, I survived 28 miles from Negaunee to Marquette in 2 hours, 24 minutes. Josh tore it up and notched a 1 hour 59 minute time in his fourth outing. We spent 16 hours (that’s over 800 miles) in the car in a three-day span from Friday to Sunday. Only on race day, was my behind firmly planted on a bike saddle, on the beach or on a Marquette barstool… not in the bucket seat of the car. The rest of the time was spent getting there and back again.
The 28-mile distance is called the “Soft-Rock” ride and the “Hard Rock” is for the extreme riders, who pedaled 48 miles. The soft-rockers started with a view of tranquil Teal Lake from the Negaunee School parking lot. Tranquility morphed into tension as the blow-horn set us in motion. Josh and I were in the back, waiting for the bottleneck of riders to disperse over the road ahead. We began on pavement as we pedaled out town, riders eight across the road. The pace was sluggish for the first mile and then the first hill pointed us all downward. The asphalt on the first hill claimed an arm of one unlucky woman. I passed her hamburgered elbow and said a quick prayer for her and my own safety. I followed Josh’s backside up the next paved hill before it spit us out to a narrow two-track that slowed the pace down yet again. I had to dismount and walk with everyone else until enough riders had gone through. A dusty, sand filled my nostrils and I pedaled in a melee of bikers still three-across. Once the hills began, the pedal herd was naturally separated. I churned up methodically and was happy for more room to move. Josh gave me a wave and he was off, up on his pedals, taking the opportunity to pass slow riders. My plan, keep a comfortable pace and stay on my bike; I like my elbows, knees and clavicle just the way God made them.
The thinning pack churned up then down hills that grew in intensity and the surface transitioned from two-track, to gravel road, then back again. My teeth chattered and my triceps bounced down rutted single-track declines only to sail through patches of sand at the bottom. The terrain changed often, so I focused intently on avoiding rocks, ruts and other riders. I noted that I passed most everyone on the way up but was passed almost every time I went down a long hill. My rider profile would read: decent fitness level, good ascender but needs to work on her downhill moxie. There was time to relax on few flats of two-track and two aid stations holding out water cups. My guess, only about 25% of the water actually made it down the throats of thirsty riders. I managed to grab a paper cup of water, with one hand on my handlebar. The water sloshed around crazily as I bumped over a railroad crossing; half of my ration leapt up and hit my face and helmet. The remaining, I gulped down before tossing the cup aside.
Refreshed, I pedaled over pine needles and through the shade of a dimly lit section of single track. I rejoiced internally as yellow signs proclaimed: 24 to go, 20 to go, 14 to go, then 8 to go! Two ridiculous steep hills slapped me back in place and off my bike. You’ve heard the expression – There’s a hiker in every biker? The good news, everybody else was walking bikes too. Following that, a steep sand pit forced out a long sigh. I gave it a run but the sand gripped my tires and told me to dismount once again. I looked around, only one rider was moving through, still on his pedals. Just ten feet in front of me, the angle dropped sharply again and I watched the same dude fly over his handlebars and land with a thump in the sand. Walking was the wiser choice for the soft-rockers. Plus, off my bike, I had a moment to gaze out from the bluff to a panoramic Lake Superior glinting at me in the sun. It was a race, but the sand took a chunk of time from all of us. My legs held and when I saw the 4 to go sign, I felt energized. Three other women see-sawed me back and forth on the last section of two-track that melted into bike path and the NMU campus. The last mile meandered toward the fieldhouse finish.
Josh was perched on the curb before the finish line yelling to me, “Get it girl!” I smiled, pedaled the last 100 yards and crossed the line to cheers and an announcer belting out my name and hometown! I dismounted and my legs did not buckle and I did not have the urge to hurl. Sweet, I thought. Josh approached grinning broadly and gave me a knowing pat. I looked around at all the other riders. We were a picture of filth, ore-color raccoon eyes lined our faces where sunglasses had been perched. Definitive dirt-lines on my ankles and upper arms, clearly showed where exposed skin. We all had a Marquette mountain bike tan. Happy and dirty photos ensued by the finish line.
Besides mountain biking, Marquette is also known for brewing some great beer. Josh and I celebrated at Ore Docks Brewing with two hard-rocker friends, Greg and Kevin. A negative calorie day, we all splurged on food truck tacos and pints of lagers and porters. Eventually, midnight tolled and tired bikers started to fade like the sunset in its last two-minutes over Lake Superior.