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A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
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The Devil's Furnace
Maah Daah Hey, a phrase the Mandan Indians used that simply translates to
"an area that has been or will be around for a long time."
The act of swinging my leg off my bike activated three different cramps at once. I'd grown so accustomed to the shooting pain of muscles constricting to the size of golf balls that I barely winced. My left foot performed as if it were nothing more than a chunk of wood attached to the end of my leg as the tendons and muscles pulled hard against the bone for the lack of moisture within them. My stomach was hard against the left handle bar as I pushed the machine forward as a knot formed below my shoulder blade. While staring no more than six inches in front of my feet I noted that my right calf appeared to have a circus of hamsters running about under my skin. A strange geological landscape swirled around me. I closed one eye in an attempt to gain focus; an audible moan escaped my throat as I noticed the temperature on my GPS...108.5 degrees! I was deep into North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey 100.
Although North Dakota is right next door to Minnesota the starting line of the Maah Daah Hey 100 (really 106) lies some 11 hours away by car from my house. Despite the distance I was bent on being a part of the race that I'd sniffed out a few years ago. In search of different races I felt this one located in Theodore Roosevelt National Park had the makings for the real deal. Although it didn't have the mountains of say the Vapor Trail 125 in Colorado, it still boasted approximately 10,000 feet of climbing. It also spoke of fantastic scenery, referred to as the "Badlands". This sounded like my kind of event. I wanted it to be hard and I wanted a story to tell. The only joker in this deck would be the heat. Extreme heat plays with my body like a kitten plays with a toy. I'd found this out more than once on the long gravel roads of the Dirty Kanza. I pushed the heat of the badlands out of my mind as I was determined to do my best to fend off one of Mother Nature’s nastiest elements.
My plan for the race was a simple one, load up my Salsa Spearfish XX1 and take just about everything I owned that had to do with summer biking with me to North Dakota. I'd make some "game time" decisions about gear choices when I got there. I said good bye to Amy, kissed the kitties, set my cruise control, and pointed the car west. I was heading to Medora, ND to hook up with Mt. Bike Radio founder, Ben Welnak. Ben and I have ridden together, raced each other, and he's even interviewed me a time or two for his show. Ben would be putting me and a host of other riders up at his house near the start line. After an overnight in Bismarck, ND it wasn't long before I was shaking hands with Ben and prepping for a little pre-race ride. Once on the ride I was immediately blown away by the scenery. "Wait, I thought the real badlands were in South Dakota" I said to myself as I pondered the expanse of mini mountains as far as I could see. The sketchy switch backs, strewn with little ball bearings on top of hard pack trail held my attention as one false move would surely spell disaster. The corners were not banked, there were no railings, and the drop offs were very real. My skill set was quickly put to the test. Ben railed the corners while yelling back to me, "This is what you can expect tomorrow!" I reminded myself to relax, let the bike work, and feel the trail. It wasn't long before it was feeling better, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a little intimidated. One thing was for sure, I was a stranger in a strange land.
Straddling my bike at the start line I noticed a relaxed Kelly Magelky.Kelly is the record holder for the fastest finish and once again he had designs on finishing in under a lightning fast 9 hours, while I hoped to come in under 12. He was cool, calm, and collected sitting on his top tube chatting up other racers. I wished I was him in that moment. Meanwhile Nick Ybarra, race director and super classy guyreviewed race directions. Nick finished his speech with the inspiring quote from Theodore Roosevelt; "The man in the arena”. I was moved as Nick pulled the quote from memory with perfect intonation and feeling.
The traditional countdown was underway as the sounds of cleats snapping into pedals played in the background. In seconds I was done with the short 200 yard dirt road section and into the single track, positioned comfortably in about 15th position. The pace was controlled and easily held while riders respected each other as well as the trail. There was none of the senseless requests to pass in the first five minutes of what would be at least a 12 hour ride or more for the larger percentage of the field. As I worked to introduce myself to the trail I thought about the first main feature called, "China Wall". I was told it was a twenty minute climb up tight switchbacks to a large mesa. I was anxious to get the first test behind me.
As I negotiated the China Wall I couldn't help but notice the view as I climbed higher. A panoramic, breath taking scene unfolded in every direction. I found myself forcing my eyes back to the trail before succumbing to the spell of this place. Suddenly, a deafening whoop, whoop, whoop roared into my ears as a helicopter appeared rising up from below complete with a camera man in the open side door. I smiled to myself, thinking that it was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The chopper and its crew were there to film us, the riders and we were warned that we may see them from time to time out on course.
The coolness of the early morning was beginning to fade around 9:30 a.m. and this marked the first time I tugged the zipper of my jersey a little lower. Despite the climbing temperature I felt strong and was moving through the course quickly. My usual strategy of hooking up with a fast group was in place and I was just where I wanted to be, still somewhere in the top 15.
The morning flew past and so did the first 50 miles, in fact I had the first 50 out of the way in under 5 hours! Well ahead of pace and still feeling good, yet a little warm. I wasn't worried, because I was staying on top of my hydration and nutrition. Drinking fluids constantly would be paramount and I was prepared with 100 oz. on my back and an emergency bottle on the bike. With aid stations every 25 miles there wasn't a chance I'd run into problems, so I thought. After crossing the Little Missouri River with my friend Charley Tri I was at the second aid station where I'd planned to "re-fit" for the remainder of the race. It was at this aid station that I'd top off all of my fluids, get some fruit, have a Coke, and take care of some bike maintenance if needed. The volunteers were spectacular as they worked to help me and other riders. In one instance I politely asked a woman to hold my bike while I lubed the chain. Quickly, she dropped what was in her hands and in an unsure fashion took hold of my Spearfish. I spun the chain with some lube and thanked her. As I went about other business I saw her still holding my bike. I smiled and let her know that it was o.k. to lay it down I was done working with it. "No, that's alright" she said. That nice lady held my bike upright for at least ten more minutes while I took care of everything I needed to. She saw that I had no support crew with me and she wanted to help. These are the moments that make these events so special.
I pushed out of the aid station to a smattering of applause and some heartfelt cheers. I gave a humble wave and gently pedaled down the trail. Little did I know that things were about to take a turn for the unimaginable.
The thermometer was gradually being turned up by some mythological creature. I knew it was really just the sun, but I chose to blame the Devil, not that I believe in the guy or anything, he just seemed like a good one to pin it on. Along with the rising heat the jagged terrain was beginning to put the hurt on my legs as I grunted up and over each punchy little climb. With my jersey completely unzipped I let my thoughts wander back to a section of the course I'd crossed earlier that caught my attention not only for its harsh surface, but for its other worldly appearance. This little stretch of land was called "Devil's Pass". So, I confirmed that I was right to blame this heat on you know who.
A quick check on the mileage let me know that I was approaching the 65 mile mark and my attempts to deny the overwhelming heat were no longer working. I was beyond HOT and focusing hard on fluid intake as well as nutrition. Holding true to my plan, I was taking a drink of water every time the thought crossed my mind as well as eating twice an hour in an attempt to keep calories on board. As my pace began to slow it was apparent that not only were my legs "cooked" from the effort, but my being was beginning to literally cook. "Calories, Calories!" I thought. Despite the soaring temperature I knew that I needed to keep eating even though the idea stopped appealing to me long ago. I tried to tear into the package of some type of strawberry strudel thing that my wife packed for me and as expected I couldn't get it open while negotiating the rough trail. Finally, while bobbing and weaving the package unexpectedly ripped completely open dumping the little bundle of fuel into the dust below my feet. It looked kind of cool as a tiny explosion of ultra-dried dust erupted into a 3 inch mushroom cloud above the strudel. "Crap! I need that" I said out loud as I grabbed a handful of brake. Ridiculously, I scoured the trail for a little morsel of food that I felt was the most important thing in my world at the time. Eventually, I spotted a tiny corner of the bar poking out of the dirt, it was completely buried. I fished it out of the dust, examined its filth, gave it quick brush with a sweat filled glove, and popped it into my mouth. I was officially reduced to a primitive state.
I was riding extremely slow now and there wasn't much I could do about it. The sun seemed to be draining energy from me at an alarming rate. I felt like a flashlight that still held a beam, but that beam was yellow and fading fast. With nothing but time on my hands I considered the course information I'd read before the event and I recalled that the third aid station would be at the 75 mile mark. Once there I would certainly need to take some time to recover and most importantly cool down. 76 miles came and went and still no aid station. As I trudged up a climb next to my bike I spotted a small shadow of shade with two riders dismounted and on the ground in that spot. "Can I take a break with you guys? I'm so HOT!" I said. Immediately our conversation centered on the whereabouts of the aid station. We wondered if the late addition of some 6 miles of single track meant the 3rd station had been further along than originally planned and with no way of knowing for sure we settled on that conclusion as being a fact. Ten minutes later I thanked them for the shade and let them know that I was going to push on in search of salvation. One thing I knew for sure was that sitting still would never get me anywhere. The truth is I began to really believe that if I stayed put in that kind of heat there was a chance I could die.
The smallest climb caused me to dismount and push. I simply could not ride anything that required even a modest effort. My body was in trouble and protesting against my brain’s commands. Completing 15 yard sections were victories and eventually just moving forward felt like winning. I began to ask out loud over and over where the aid station was, yet I received no answer. Instead the "Devil" seemed to snicker while he turned up the knob a little more. Finally, I topped out on a ridge that I can only imagine the Mandan Indians would have used to spy their rivals off in the distance. High atop this spine I saw it! Lying innocently in a serene state of bliss was a 5th wheel camper down about 300 feet below me. I could see bikes lying on the ground while people hustled here and there clearly assisting others who weren't doing that well. I knew I'd be one of the ones needing help. I navigated a tight switchback drop down to aid station 3 in a manner that never should have been successful. Instead of riding down the trail it seemed to be more of a controlled crash that never really materialized. Through blurry vision I headed toward that camper.
My bike was taken from me the moment I got my leg over the seat. I stumbled away from it without a care in the world. I didn't know the man who took it from me or where he took it. The bike that means so much to me was no longer even a thought in my mind, it no longer existed. Amy Welnak, Ben's wife approached me and from the look in her eyes I could see that what she was looking at concerned her. "Are you o.k.?" she asked. "I'm in trouble. I'm so hot, I have to find a way to cool down" I heard myself say. She let me know that there was a well nearby and that she'd be willing to pump water on to my head if I wanted. "Let's do that!" was my response. She walked with me as I explained to her that things were going drastically wrong with my body. I went on to say that I felt my chemistry was off and I was experiencing wild swings of emotion. As I told her this I could feel myself beginning to cry. I fought off the emotion, but I sensed that she knew what was happening.
On my hands and knees under the pump my body recoiled at the shock of the blast of water that slammed into the back of my head. Drawing in a deep breath I fought the urge to retreat from the water, but I knew that cooling down my head was paramount if I wanted to continue. Earlier I felt my arms burning under the intense heat of the exposed terrain. I questioned whether it was sunburn, but upon examination my forearms I noticed that they were so covered in dirt that I doubted they were being burned. I concluded that it was one of the telltale signs of heat stroke. My body was beginning to cook from the inside out. Amy went on to pump the handle while I allowed the column of water to engulf my head and neck. Nearby, medics looked on from under a tent, their concerned gaze pulled at me like a magnet. I glanced over my shoulder as Amy and I walked back toward the aid station, returning to the medics was a serious consideration. I chose to re-enter the fight with the hopes that I could cool down enough to ride 26 more miles to the finish.
Ben and I agreed that a significant rest was needed if we were to succeed. He looked comfortable and under control, while I had stripped off my helmet, gloves, and jersey fighting for some semblance of my former self. While nibbling at potato chips, grapes, and sipping Coke I watched riders enter the aid station. Some were in good spirits and others had a distant look in their eye. Despite gaining the courage to push on I knew I was still a member of the latter group.
"My bike! I have no idea where my bike is!" I exclaimed to a volunteer. She gave me bit of a giggle and assured me that it was fine. I asked her if she saw #51 among the cluster of dusty machines lying in the parking lot, "Yes, it’s right there" she said smiling. Time seemed to pass slowly until Ben said, "You ready?" "Let's do it" I said, with a tone of certainty. I wondered how I was going to keep up to him as we slowly rolled out of our sanctuary. Ben is a stronger rider than me, but in a pinch I can hang with him when I'm fresh. I was far from fresh and his skill set exceeds mine on some levels. I set the tone by mentioning to him that he should go ahead of me and if I get dropped I'll continue to fight the Devil on my own. I could tell he didn't want to go it alone as he doubted that I'd be left behind. It was the first time I got the impression that he was hurting too. Together we pushed on doing our best to stick together, him checking on me after fast descents to make sure I wasn't dropped and I waiting for him to gather himself after difficult hike a bike sections that normally we'd have been able to ride with our eyes closed. A small gap formed between us with Ben out ahead of me. I'd lost sight of him until I came around a bend and saw him sitting next to his bike on the other side of a cattle gate. His head in his hands he muttered that he needed a few minutes. As I waited next to him I could feel the searing heat pulling the life out of me and there were still some 8 miles to go to the next check point, where I hoped cold water would be available. I was flush with fluids to be sure, but it was all piping hot. I needed ice for my hydration bladder and cool water for my stomach. My head began to once again spin while I stared out at the prairie grass, the heat waves shimmering above the weeds. A resounding voice in my head spoke up, "Keep moving or you'll never leave this spot!” I expressed this to Ben and he let me know it was o.k. for me to push on alone. I turned the cranks over slower than ever now as I actually wobbled down the single track. The heat beat down on my shoulders and rose up from the grass beneath me. The wind would blow as if to toy with me adding insult to injury as the Devil's breath reminded me of the feeling one gets when they open the door of the oven to check on a pizza. The blast of hot air that swept across the open prairie was more than I could bear, but what could I do? Where could I go? There was no escape. Delirious now, I glanced at the temperature on my GPS, it read 108.5 degrees! A wave of fear swept over me as I wondered if I was going to get out of this. I began to repeat a mantra out loud, "I can take it. I can take the pain." Over and over I said these words setting them to the rhythm of my marching steps as I trudged up inclines, or as I pumped my legs slowly up and down on the flat single track. If I wanted to live I needed to make it to the check point.
In the distance across the windswept prairie I saw cars parked along the side of a road. It was the c.p. Cramps came and went through my legs every few minutes as a liter of water sloshed back and forth in my stomach. My gag reflex was occasionally kicking in just to add to the myriad of problems my body was experiencing. With 14 miles to go I knew the only thing that would make it possible was to once again start the cool down process and somehow get the fluids to leave my stomach and enter my body, but really deep in my mind I knew enough about how it all works to understand that it was much too late for that now. If I were going to make it through that final leg it would be done so on nothing more than fear and the will to survive.
Crossing the gravel road I saw a woman check off my number as I panned the area looking for a canopy or something that would offer shade, there was nothing. Then, two images jumped out of the scene as if highlighted in yellow, one was a crumpled up pop up tent lying behind the volunteers in a heap, clearly taken out by a strong gust of wind. The second was about 4 large office cooler jugs full of water sitting out in the blazing hot sun. Just as I processed the opposite of what I hoped for I heard the woman’s voice say, “We have no shade, and no ice”. Whatever shred of hope I had left just as quickly as the wind gust that took down that canopy. I was crushed! To take another sip of hot water while my core temperature continued to rise was unfathomable to me. Nevertheless, I accepted a small bottle of water and made my way over to sit with a few other riders in a spot of shade near a pick up. A young fit athlete who I had convinced to push on from aid station #3 quickly let me know that he was done for the day. He seemed to have a hint of joy in his voice as if the decision somehow lifted his spirits in knowing he no longer had to keep dying a little each hour. My body seemed to move in slow motion as I tried to unscrew the cap to the plastic bottle. I took a small sip of the steamy hot liquid and as it ran down my throat a thought rushed into my mind. While these two riders continued their conversation I interrupted them, expressing the thought out loud, “I don’t think I’m going to finish”. As soon as the last word escaped my lips it was as if my body had been waiting for that sentence. My gag reflex jerked into action and I thrust a hand up over my mouth and staggered to my feet in full retreat to the back of the truck. For 10 minutes I emptied the contents of my stomach into the crispy, dry grass at my feet while I hung one arm off of a stranger’s bike rack. The owner of the truck came back to see what was happening. The look on his face was as if he were looking at living dead man, “its o.k.” was all he said. I knew my Maah Daay Hey 100 was over and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
The events that followed were confusing to say the least. As I collected myself following the episode behind the truck a heavily damaged Ben Welnak wobbled into the check point. He flopped lifelessly into the hot grass. I headed toward him to let him know that I could not continue. I was barely finished telling him my news when he announced to me in a matter of fact tone that he too was finished. Ben continued to bake in the relentless heat despite my efforts to get him to the shade; he simply would not or could not move. Moving on from Ben I shifted my focus to trying to get us out of there and to the finish area in Medora. Eventually a ride to town presented itself and we took it. Crammed into a back seat with my legs shooting into cramps every couple of minutes I did everything I could not to throw up. It would be a lie to say that I was disappointed about pulling out of the race, I wasn’t even thinking about it. The only thing on my mind was cooling my body temperature.
Fifteen minutes in a cold shower and my skin was still hot to the touch. The slightest efforts had me taking a break in a lawn chair. It took me 30 minutes to set up a tent that normally takes about 4. As I rested in the chair after pulling out the tent poles I pondered all that I had been through on this day. I rode some of the most spectacular single track I’ve ever ridden, I was filmed by a crew flying in a helicopter, I saw beauty that I couldn’t have dreamed of, and I experienced heat like I never have before. I went to a place I’d never been, a place so extreme that my well-being came into question. Throughout all of this I’m proud to say that I rode into the Devil’s Furnace and although I did not complete the event I emerged intact and with an experience I’ll never forget.
The stats on this ride.
Special Thanks to:
Nick Ybarra, race director and all of his volunteers. I love entering races so hard that most people can’t or won’t finish.
Ben and Amy Welnak, thank you for allowing me to stay at your home and showing me the beauty of western North Dakota.
Salsa Cycles, my Spearfish performed flawlessly and I’m sure it was more than confused when I stopped short of the finish line.
Rudy Project, thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe.
Schwalbe Tires, the Racing Ralphs were the right choice for this course.