Made the annual voyage to Duluth, MN last weekend for my last race of the year: The Heck of the North. My good friend Jeremy Kershaw puts on a great event every year and this year was no different....except the weather.
Beth and I loaded up the car early Friday morning and managed to get two Gunnars, a cooler, all my riding and camping gear, and all of our clothes and food into the Hellement. We got the tunes cranked up and made the 7 hour drive up north. The drive went by pretty quick and we expected a little more color out of the leaves on the drive up but we didn't see much until we really got up north.
We arrived early and met everyone at my favorite eatery in Duluth called Burrito Union. This place is fantastic and they have locally brewed beer including a seasonal favorite cherry beer which is bright red and really delicious. So, we met the bonk king, gumby, and sir derek for some food and drinks. Shortly after TJ and his wife showed up and the stories and laughter began. We finished up and headed over to the Ski Hut to check in and say hey to Jeremy. It was great to see him and we made arrangements to camp in his backyard again which is also in walking distance. We left the bike shop and set up camp and then grabbed some beers and food for the evening and got set up with a bonfire. It was great camping out with Andy from Hed and Jeremy's brother in law Alec. We hit the sack early and prepared for a long day in the saddle and riding in the rain.
As we drove to the new start in Two Harbors, MN we saw 3 bald eagles on the shoulder of the road 10 feet from the car as well as a beautiful sunrise along the shore of Lake Superior. The temperature must have been in the high 50's to low 60's and I decided to ride with a shortsleeve wool jersey and shorts. I always warm up fast and I packed rain gear expecting the rain to come. I cruised around and said hello to a few people and then we lined up and were on our way.
The race started with about 200 people with a lower attendance than the 375 that signed up, probably due to the looming rain clouds above our heads. We started out on a really rocky 5 mile "trail" section. Jeremy threw about 5-6 trail sections into the race and most were hardly rideable.... In the first 2 miles it was so rocky and bumpy that the water bottle mounted on my seat tube ejected and spilled the only source of electrolytes that I had and 24 of the total 100 oz of water I planned on riding with. Already a bad start.....but I kept pushing trying to keep up with the fast guys figuring I might find another bottle along the way. The gravel was hard packed and dry and we were averaging 24-25 mph in the lead group for a long while. This has always been a fast race. I lost the lead group in a trail section and just tried to keep a close gap on them. The rain started about 2 hours into the race and we had no choice but to just keep pushing. The winds picked up and temperatures began to drop. The tight packed gravel turned into peanut butter and the roads turned to shit. The paved sections were a great relief to the horrible bumpy and washboard gravel but the headwinds added no relief. I rode with a group of 4 for a while and we picked up a few riders about 10 miles from the half way point of 60 miles where our drop bags were located.
We saw a huge group ahead of us that looked like they were coming from off course. Turned out it was the leaders that went 5 miles off course and we had a group of 30 riders again before the checkpoint. We again were cranking a horribly fast pace. I had managed to find a completely clean full water bottle on a trail section and was guzzling water despite the wet conditions. My legs were feeling heavy and I knew I couldn't hold the leader's pace. I let up a little and ended up at the checkpoint 10-15 minutes behind the leaders. I grabbed some more food, filled my water bottles, got some more skratch labs mix in my new bottle, and tried to dry off a bit. I put on my gore-tex jacket to warm up just a bit.
I saw Jeremy at the half and all I could manage was...."there's some fast guys here today"....meaning "I'm bonking and feel like shit"
My shoulder and neck were really bugging me as they do on some long rides in tense situations. I rolled out of the checkpoint alone and decided to ride my own speed and just try to finish. The rain was now a full on pour and we were soaked to the bone. The gravel got even worse and it was like pushing an extra 30 lbs through the mud. My legs were fried and around mile70-75 I hit a very dark spot. I wanted to scream out, I wanted to call Beth for a ride, I wanted to give up!!! I was done! I didn't want to ride, I didn't have the motivation. How was this race harder than Trans Iowa???
I toughened up and found myself riding with a guy named Patrick from Minneapolis. He was riding the same speed as me and really helped me along. We talked about random stuff and it was just nice to talk to someone and help the miles go by even quicker. There were a few more trail sections that seemed to last forever.....I wanted to be off the bike SOOOO bad! I think towards the last 15 miles my pace got a bit quicker just so the ride would be over faster. My derailleur kept getting sucking into my chainstay and the bike was demolished from all of the rain and mud.
I was thankful to have done a 90 mile training ride two weeks prior with my training partner Ari. This got me into the mindset of being in the rain and helped me push past the hard spot in this race.
At the finish line I saw Derek and Beth standing there. I wondered why Derek was at the line and was puzzled. After checking in at the finish line I heard that Derek's frame broke at the lug! Holy cow....poor guy! I heard that Gumby and the Bonk King had hit the half way point and called it a day, but TJ was still on course. I saw Patrick at the finish line and shook his hand and thanked him. I told him without his help I couldn't have made it and he said that it was a similar story on his part. This was a hard race!!!
I wish I had Ari, Giggles, and Special K here to experience this ass-kicker the way the rest of us did. It was great to be up in MN with the whole crew and my girlfriend. We cleaned up and grabbed some food and beer at a restaurant in Two Harbors. I was toast and useless to the world. We hit Burrito Union one last time and then headed to Jeremys for a cold night of camping.
In the morning we got all packed up and said our goodbyes to the Kershaws. I can't thank them enough for hosting us and taking great care of us! Thanks guys!
Beth and I grabbed some camping food and hit the road to Bayfield and on to Madeline Island in the Apostle Islands in northern WI. We got a bunch of firewood, road bikes around the island to Tom's Burned Down Bar, and hiked along the shore to our favorite spot of watching the sunset. It is truly a special place!
It was a great weekend, thanks to all that made it possible and that I shared it with!