Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Marji Gesick 2023: The Buckle Edition

I went into the Marji Gesick 100 this year with one goal: get the belt buckle. In order to get the belt buckle, I'd have to finish the race in under 12 hours; a difficult feat on the challenging course. Usually, only 10 or 12 people out of more than 500 racers get the buckle. It's a long race. Lots of people take over 20 hours to finish, and lots of people don't finish at all.

The last singlespeeder to get the buckle was Justin Holle, back in 2021. I was just coming off of a 2nd place finish to Justin at Breck Epic, so I was interested to see how I would compare to his time at Marji Gesick. All of this is just to highlight the fact that it was far from a sure thing to get the buckle. I thought I had the fitness, but at the same time, I really didn't have anything to base that off of. Last year, I missed the buckle by 40 minutes, albeit on a slippery wet course. 

Going into Marji this year, my motto was "buckle or bust". I knew the time splits I had to make, so I was going to push as hard as I needed to make those splits, and if I blew up, I'd just crawl to the finish line with disappointment.

The buckle class of 2023

This year, the Marji story started with driving up to Marquette with Simon. We left Thursday in the early evening, and drove about halfway before getting a hotel with Jim and Anthony just north of Flint, Michigan. The next morning we drove the remaining five hours to Marquette and started getting for the race.

The four of us - me, Simon, Jim, and Anthony - drove to Ishpeming to do a pre-ride. The race starts in Marquette, but it finishes in Ishpeming (25 minutes away by car), so pre-riding in Ishpeming also let us drop a car off. I actually remembered some of the trails we rode from last year, and it was much more rideable than I remember. I suppose it's maybe because in the race, the trail is 10 hours in, but still, it was a confidence booster.

After the ride, we went back to the AirBNB, got cleaned up, mixed our bottles, and went out for packet pickup and dinner. The AirBNB was a huge room in the upstairs of a hotel, complete with a full kitchen, washer and dryer, and huge bathroom. It was pretty slick, thanks Anthony!

The check-in line was ridiculously long, and Simon took over a half hour to get his packet. The next task was to search for dinner, also a difficult feat because it was homecoming weekend in Marquette. Every restaurant had a long wait, so we drove to a Mexican place just outside of downtown. It still had a long wait, but we got in to a table of four when Tanya and Clay split up to get their own table of two. It wasn't ideal, but it was now getting later so we took what we could get. I polished off some delicious steak fajitas, and then we went back to the AirBNB to get ready for bed.

I think we all got to bed before 9:15 PM, but not before some funny antics. Jim hopped into bed with Simon, which set us all off laughing. Once the laughing ran out, we turned off the lights and I crawled up to my top bunk above Jim.

The alarm was set for 5:30 AM, but I woke up on my own around 5:15 AM. I won't say I was extremely nervous, but I definitely had a few nerves. No matter how you slice it, it was going to be a long, long, long day of hard racing. Plus, chasing the buckle gave me all the more reason to be nervous. I had my usual combination of coffee, Pedialyte, water, and Nutella bagels, and then Jim and I loaded up our bikes and drove 15 minutes to the race start. The 100 mile race starts in Forestville, just outside of Marquette, whereas the 50 miler starts in Marquette itself.

At the race start venue, Jim and I dropped off our drop bags and then got ready for the start. It was a Le Mans start, more common in 24 hour races (which I've done a couple of), and involves a roughly half-mile run from the start line to your bike that you lay in a field.

I lined up in the second row next to Jim, and we took off our helmets as we listened to the national anthem played live on an electric guitar. With guys dressed as devils, a few bonfires, and loud music, they certainly know how to fire you up before a race. Finally, Todd Poquette, the race director, counted us down to 7:30:00 AM and we set off on the run. Jim and I ran hard from the gun and eventually found ourselves at the front part of the run, alongside Mark Kransz. We were among the first 10 people to get to our bikes and cross the timing checkpoint mat.

Jim and I both had agreed on a pretty simple idea: don't go too hard at the start. We let a bunch of people sneak by us early on, betting that they'd blow up and our steady pace would earn us the buckle. Of course, the very start of the race still required some hard efforts, but we calmed it down as soon as possible. The first difficult section is called the "Top of the World" climb: a large rock feature with a technical downhill section off the back. Surprisingly, I cleaned the short, steep climb to the top and made it down the backside until I ran into a fellow singlespeeder at the very bottom who put a foot down in front of me. No worries. Jim, not having a dropper post, took a slightly more careful approach but quickly caught back up to me.

The next miles presented several technical rock sections, each of which Jim and I smoothly cruised through. We were able to put a gap on some riders behind us, and I felt we were riding great. We eventually let some people get by us on the climbs, confident in our strategy. Occasionally, Jim and I would ask each other what we thought about the pace and re-evaluated based on how it felt. We finally hit our first checkpoint in 1h:31m, three minutes faster than the 1h:34m goal written on our arms in sharpie. Last year, I had done that same stretch in 1h:34m, but it felt substantially easier this year. Plus, it was the same as Justin Holle's 1h:34m, and I was using his buckle ride from a couple years as my pacing guide.

Jim and continued to have a great time riding together. It was so fun to be able to ride with him, and since both of us had the goal of a buckle, we were equally focused. Jim is a fantastic rider, and even without a dropper post, he flows through the trails faster than almost anyone I've ridden with.

Before long, we reached a mini aid station of sorts, and then started back into the woods on a singletrack climb. This is where things went off plan.

Jim and I stopped for a quick bathroom break in the woods, and since I anticipated hike-a-bike coming, I hopped on my bike and started riding again just before Jim got back on his bike. I soon looked back and saw Jim coming, so I knew he was rolling again. We hit a really technical rock section where a photographer was, and suddenly I didn't see Jim behind me. Now, trust me when I tell you, Jim is a better bike handler than I am, so it's not like the rocks would slow him down at all. But, nonetheless, he was no longer behind me. Maybe he had a mechanical? Maybe he crashed? I had no idea. However, I didn't really have time to stop and wait, so I pushed on by myself.

Soon enough, Brian Fuhrmanm caught me in the trails after a super steep gravel road (which I stubbornly cleaned with my 32x19 gearing). I asked him if he saw my teammate, Jim, and he said no. Maybe Jim got lost and took a wrong turn. I hope not, but there was nothing I could do. Brian got by me, and before long, another rider passed me. There was a long climb up from a creek, and it was there that I started feeling really good again.

I ended up passing two riders on that climb, and closed the gap slightly on Brian. But nonetheless, Brian stayed out ahead of me. The next part of the course included a road crossing, which I had marked down as checkpoint number two on my arm. I needed to cross the road by 12:58 PM to be on pace, and sure enough, I crossed the road at 12:50 PM: eight minutes ahead of pace.

I was happy, and I was riding with Ryan Bennett now, so having fast company made me even happier. Ryan is from Colorado and is actually a teammate of Justin, and I've raced him a couple other times at other races. We rode together for a while and I eventually put a small gap on him on some twisty, flat trails. Sure enough, though, he stayed close behind and caught me once we got onto a flat gravel road.

The next part of the course was a long flat stretch of gravel and pavement, leading to Jackson Park for the formal first aid station. Since Ryan was on gears, I knew I had to stick to his wheel and draft him to save time, no matter how bad it hurt. Ryan was cranking at nearly 20mph, but I managed to hold onto his wheel for two miles of paved rail trail until we caught another group of riders and chilled down the pace. Frankly, I was glad the pace chilled down and I doubt I could've held that 20mph pace for the rest of the way.

At Jackson Park for the first aid station stop, speed was the key word. I wanted to get there by 1:45 PM, but I wasn't there until closer to 2:00 PM. It wasn't ideal, but my time split was on the fast-end of buckle pace so I knew I was still doing well enough. I switched my bottles and re-filled my USWE hydration pack as quickly as possible, and spent no time eating food at the stop. Compared to last year, I was feeling exponentially better and I spent far less time at the aid station.

Leaving Jackson Park, I at least knew the kind of suffering that lie ahead. It was slow. It was twisty. It was hike-a-bike. It was Marji Gesick. I can't remember exactly how, but somehow I ended up riding behind Brian Fuhrmann just after getting into the trails. After the gap between Brian and I opened and closed a few times, I sort of settled in behind him and used him to pace myself. I knew he had got the buckle before, so I thought he had a good idea of how hard to go.

We didn't talk that much - we were both going hard - but he was a really nice guy and an excellent bike handler. He was taking all the downhills super fast, but I was able to at least stay close enough behind that I caught up on the climbs. Just over 2h 40m after leaving Jackson Park the first time, Brian and I rolled back into Jackson Park for the second time. The whole time, I had been carefully tracking the time on my Garmin. I needed to roll into Jackson Park by 4:30 PM the second time, and after what seemed like never ending miles of up-and-down trails, I got into Jackson Park by 4:32 PM. 

Those last few miles before Jackson Park were hard. Really hard. I was pushing hard, too, maybe harder than I should have, but I knew I had no choice if I wanted the buckle. Being on a singlespeed, I had to get off and run quite a few uphill sections, which only added to the suffering. I can distinctly remember pushing my bike up steep hills, my left hand and forearm leaning on the saddle and my right arm directing the handlebars as I pushed forward. It felt like I was going to blow up, but I trusted myself and my fitness and kept going.

So now it was 4:32 PM and I was at Jackson Park for the last time. I had half a camelback of water left, so I only switched out my bottles and shoved a honey bun in my mouth as I rode away from the aid station. I was fast at the aid station again, making sure not to waste any time. There was now only 17 miles to go, and I had 2 hours and 58 minutes to do it.

That sounds easy, but it isn't. Those last 17 miles include over 3,000 feet of climbing and countless hike-a-bike sections. To be honest, though, I was now feeling cautiously optimistic about the prospects of a buckle. This last section took me 2h 40m last year, so I figured as long as I didn't blow up or have a mechanical, I should manage to get the buckle. That right there, though, was the crux: as long as I didn't blow up or get a mechanical. In the back of my head, I was still worried about my time so I wanted to ride as hard as possible to counteract the effect of any possible issue. Plus, I also just wanted to finish as fast as possible.

As the miles ticked away, the buckle seemed more and more likely. I never wanted to believe it, but I let myself think about it a couple times. Before long, I was 10 hours in and only had 12 miles to go. Then it was 10.5 hours in with 8 miles left.

Eventually, I looked down at my Garmin and it said 2.16 miles left, and it was only 6:45 PM. I had 45 minutes to cover two miles, I knew that even if I flatted, I could literally run my bike to the finish line to get my buckle. Still, it didn't seem like a sure thing quite yet.

I had been riding with Brian the whole time, at least for the most part. Occasionally he'd get ahead of me, but I always seemed to end up right behind him again. Periodically, Brian asked what time it was and how many miles we had left, since he was also going for the buckle. This last time when I told him we had 45 minutes to do 2 miles, we both sort of acknowledged we had succeeded.

Brian and I flew down the descent to the last climb up to the final token (I'll explain those later), and did a mix of riding and walking up to the token. We grabbed it - a DumDum lollipop - and ripped back down the trail we just came up, before turning off to pavemnent. Next stop, Main Street Ishpeming.

It was only a mile to go; Brian and I congratulated each other on the imminent buckle, and I told him I wouldn't try to out-sprint him to the finish, since he had done a lot to help me int terms of drafting and pacing. Plus, to be honest, there was no way I actually had any chance of out-sprinting him anyways.

The last mile of pavement and gravel around Ishpeming was a little surreal. Alright, maybe surreal is too strong, but I was a little bit emotional. That also sounds too strong, I mean, it's not like I was crying or anything, but I was very satisfied with how my day went.

The finish line came into sight and I spun my legs off following Brian across the line. A genuine smile came across my face when I finished; the timer read 11 hours and 29 minutes: I got the buckle with 31 minutes to spare, and won singlespeed and got 6th overall in the process.

I was elated. I really was. I've been fortunate to have had a few good races this year, but the feeling after Marji Gesick was certainly the best of any of them. I think pretty much without exception, it's true that the more nervous you are before something starts, the more satisfying it is when it's done. With Marji, it felt so good to accomplish my goal of getting the belt buckle, and it felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I really hope I'm not coming across as melodramatic, but I am really happy to have met my goal. It was hard, really hard. Plus, if you know me, you know I like hyperbole.

Now that I had my buckle, it was all about cheering for Jim to finish within the next 31 minutes and also get his buckle. My brother texted me and said that Jim wasn't far behind - only 15 minutes - at the last race checkpoint, so I had a feeling he'd be getting the buckle as well. Sure enough, just 15 minutes after me, Jim came flying across the line to be the second Pittsburgh'er to get the buckle this year.

I found out that Jim had a massive flat tire in the rocks and had to go back to aid station - which was thankfully right behind him - to get a new wheel from a bike shop volunteer who was working there. It was almost too good to believe, but the new wheel got him up and running and able to chase the buckle again. I was glad he didn't go off course or crash, because that's what I had feared when I didn't see him behind me anymore. 

Either way, all that mattered is that Jim and I both succeeded in our goals. Jim had an amazing race and showed once again why he is one of Pittsburgh's finest bike riders. It takes a mix of strength, technical skills, and luck to get the belt buckle, and the stars aligned perfectly this year for both of us.

At the finish line were Tanya and Clay, and also Simon and Anthony, who arrived just after I finished and before Jim finished.

As if Jim and I getting the buckle wasn't enough, Anthony won the MG 50 race overall and Simon won the MG 50 singlespeed category. Plus, Tanya had a strong finish that earned her a top spot in the overall NUE marathon women's standings.

In all, 12 people got the buckle this year. I was the only singlespeeder, and Jim and I were the only teammates to get the buckle. We took the group buckle photo, chatted with some more people, and then headed back to the AirBNB to shower and get some food.

I don't think a chicken parm ever tasted so good, and Jim seemed to be even more excited than me to eat his chicken parm. The four of us had a late dinner at a pizza/Italian joint, and then went back to get to bed. I never sleep well the night after a hard race, and this was no exception. I don't think any of us slept well, actually, but it was a small price to pay.

Back at the AirBNB after dinner

The next morning, we hit the road back to the 'Burgh. We stopped at a breakfast place in Munising and I enjoyed one of the best breakfasts I've had in a while: a massive country-fried steak. It was heavy, but it was just what I needed.

The rest of the drive home felt long, but it actually wasn't as bad as I had feared. Simon and I stopped for Subway - and then Burger King for dinner - so the drive got broken up a bit. Simon played a bunch of good music on the drive home, and there were lots of things to laugh at. We got to Simon's place around 9 PM, and I was home half an hour later. What a trip.

There are a few extra things I'd really like to mention. For one, I know a few people paid attention to my comment after Shenandoah regarding which NUE race is the hardest. When you just cross the finish line of a 10+ hour race, your brain isn't exactly working properly, and you tend to say hyperbolic things. Being prone to hyperbole already, I'm especially susceptible to that.

But, what do I actually think? What is harder? It doesn't really matter. My opinion is just that: an opinion. If you want to know, you really have to find out for yourself. I think that on paper, Marji Gesick is harder, but that's just my opinion. The course is longer, and times are longer, and it's probably more technical overall.  But once again.... the O-word, opinion.

That said, the course itself is only one aspect of what makes a race difficult. Shenandoah was 95 degrees, whereas Marji never got above 70 degrees. I was blown out at Shenandoah 6 hours in, but at Marji, I felt pretty good the whole time. That doesn't mean Shenandoah is harder, it just means the conditions made me suffer more. Marji definitely gives more of a full-body workout, though. My back was smoked after Marji.

All of that is just to say that "harder race" is subjective, and it depends on a lot of things. I love Marji Gesick, and it's a darn tough race. I'll leave it at that.

The second thing I wanted to mention are the tokens. At Marji, you have to collect 3 or 4 tokens at various checkpoints throughout the race, and present them at the finish line in order to officially finish the race. This year, the tokens were fireball candy and dumdum lollipops. Last year, the tokens were wood nickels. A couple top racers got disqualified for not having the tokens at the finish line this year, which really sucks, but it's part of the race. I don't really have an opinion on that whole thing, and I don't want to opine at all, so I'll leave it at that. I just wanted to at least bring that up for posterity.

Finally, I want to bring this to some sort of conclusion. Marji Gesick is the last of the NUE races I'll likely do this year (unless I do Big Bear), so it sort of feels like the end of a season to me. I ended up winning all four NUE races I did this year in the singlespeed category, but of all of them, Marji Gesick was the most satisfying. Why it was satisfying is a mix of redemption, meeting my goal, and finishing the year strong. Last year, I missed the buckle by 40 minutes, so for 365 days, the buckle was always in the back of my mind. Being able to go to Michigan again, set a pacing plan, and follow that plan the whole race felt really good. It's not often that things go exactly to plan, but Marji Gesick 2023 was one of those times. 

I have a lot to be thankful for after this race. Of course, I couldn't do it without my family and friends and the support of my team, Syndicate Cycling. Anyone who knows me knows that I don't like mindlessly recognizing sponsors; when I thank someone, I want it to mean something. Anthony and the entire Syndicate team, as well as all the sponsors the team has secured, are truly indispensable to the fun and success I have biking. For instance, rather than camping and fiddling with tents in the dark, Anthony hooked us all up with an AirBNB. That's something I'm extremely thankful for. There's also no doubt that biking often brings out something spiritual in me. The combination of suffering, being in awesome places, and accomplishing goals makes me look deep inside and realize that there's something more out there than just rocks, roots, and dirt. I'm grateful that racing and biking in general brings my mind to those places.

Lastly, crossing that finish line in Ishpeming reminded me of one thing: riding and racing bikes is exactly what I want to be doing. There's not much else I really want to do.

The buckle; sorry Simon, I didn't take a better picture of it

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