What it's like to miss a Marji Gesick belt buckle by less than two minutes
Someone tells you it’s eight minutes to 7:30 PM. You have 11 hours and 50 odd minutes in your legs. You meant to do this two years ago but your bike broke the night before. Last year you found out heat hurts. This year was supposed to be different. You trained exclusively for this race. Said screw the local XC events and signed up for five hundred mile races across the Midwest. You threw up, you crashed, you pissed blood, but you became something stronger every single time you survived. And it comes down to this.
2016. Year of ConAgra® Zoyl™ Soy-based Lubricant
When I was a much younger man, I raced a hardtail Jamis aluminum 2x10 with 100mm up front and some seriously under-gunned rubber in back. Had I survived my night-before-the-Marji Harlow pre-ride, my stock 29x2.1” Geax Mezcal $4.99 at PricePoint tires would’ve inevitably shredded into those tiny bits of rubber you see fly up from astroturf on television replays of violent tackles or toe-drag catches. Long story short, I got out easy. One of the jockeys on my rear derailleur seized (a reoccurring issue I later attributed to a certain natural-based lubricant that wickedly fucked bike drivetrains by attracting mud and seizing every goddamn bearing it touched). I hike-a-biked out Harlow Lake Rd and ran into some nice guys in a big white van who gave me a beer and the most disappointing ride of my life.
If you were like me and heralded the Marji Gesick as some sort of test of manhood (because let’s be honest, if you’re doing this race then mountain biking is already intrinsically part of your identity [and so any result is a reflection of self]), then I didn’t want to think too hard about where failing to even start left me in terms of certain masculine traits like preparedness, self-sufficiency, mental resiliency, and honor. I learned how to take care of my bike and signed up one minute after registration opened for 2017.
2017. Year of the Iced Pickle Juice® Anti-cramping Push-Pop
I’m not going to lie, I thought I had the fitness for Marji and that was all that mattered. I did the majority of my training on an indoor turbo hooked up to an internet connection and an endless supply of structured suffering dictated by Coach Chad at TrainerRoad and edited for piece-of-mind by yours truly. But races happen outdoors and unless you live in a sauna you would’ve been unprepared for the Marji falling on the hottest day of the year. The rocks sweated just as much as me and ten or so miles in I encountered a certain ‘knobby’ descent that left my asshole puckered and my right shin with an eight-inch gash that bled all the way to Lowes. Out of water, sock crusted with blood, and in some sort of shock that my race had already fallen apart, I refilled my 3 liter hydration pack from some innocent bystander who looked at my wound with that, ‘oh, honey’-look that told me I was gravely screwed. Not long after that I started cramping and by the time I got to the South Trailhead I was whiter than the tan lines beneath my bibs. Fortunately there was a nurse at the South Trailhead and she cleaned my knee, told me I needed stitches, then dressed the wound and said good luck. I love Marquette.
Exit Aid 1. Climb an enduro trail. Climb Big Blue. Descend Doctor’s. Here’s 400 vertical feet at 10%. This trail is called Scary. Cross the river and don’t look down. There are mountains in Michigan? Hike-a-bike. Cramp. Quit. You. Want. Cramp. To. Cramp. Quit.
Here’s where the mind started to weasel its way out of the situation it very much got itself in. You start thinking, ‘I don’t want this THAT bad’, ‘there’s always next year’, ‘do I really even ENJOY mountain biking or is this all just some sort of sick joke I started to get over an ex who left me for some frat boy and destroyed my sense of pride and this is the only tangible way I know of to get it back?’ Or something like that. You know what I mean.
But these thoughts are the distractions of the fatigued mind. Everything becomes an excuse. I mentally checked out 3⁄4 of the way up the backside of Marquette Mountain and once I gave in what was the point of being out there? I knew my mental game, my technical skills, and steep punch repeatability needed some serious work. I threw in the towel at Jackson Mine Park at mile 85 but I was already excited for the next year. I was the 10th person to sign up for the 2018 Marji Gesick.
2018. Close, but no Sigurd (Sigurd referring to dragon-slaying Siegfried of Norse mythology)
I put in more hours, more intervals, more skill sessions, more weight training, and more time watching Kate Courtney on Redbull.TV (for research, guys). Yet what failure uncovered the year prior was mental fragility. Our bodies are amazing things but the mind puts undue limits on our ability. And so does what we eat. I raced the Barry Roubaix 100 using a brand new drink mix (yeah, yeah, yeah, I know you’re not supposed to try new stuff in races) that cramped my stomach so bad the only other thing I ate all day was a single banana. Failure.
I raced a slippery Mohican 100 on Thunderburts and had to dismount during the second singletrack section and walk my bike because I was crying so hard I couldn’t see. Failure.
Two weeks later I raced the Lumberjack 100 on sandbag legs and started vomiting at the beginning of lap two because I didn’t eat enough on lap one. Failure.
Then a month later I went to Pennsylvania and raced the Wilderness 101 and started vomiting halfway up a 1000ft climb because I ate TOO much. I started walking my bike back down to the 2nd aid station because I couldn’t stop dry-heaving after all the other stuff was out. I just wanted it to be over. I never wanted to race another 100-miler. I was fully prepared to kiss the Marji goodbye. Then the nausea wore off, I turned around, and ended up 19th. No single moment is unendurable.
What I’m getting at is the fact that these 100-mile races are like threading a needle six different ways: obviously fitness, but also bike skills, equipment choice, nutrition, mental toughness, and recovery (aka form & freshness).
I got it all right for the 2018 Marji. I came in 100% fresh and peaked. With my dropper post and 2.4” Ardents I could get Strava top tens on technical DH segments. I figured out my nutrition game. And there wasn’t a single point during the race I thought about quitting or giving up my shot at the buckle. Now we get to the part where you find out what it’s like to miss a buckle by less than two minutes.
With the sun dropping behind the many knobs of Ishpeming, I found another inner gear and tore off towards Jasper. One last climb, one last checkpoint, one last descent, buckle at last. I don’t remember any of it. All I recall is seeing the red numerals of the finish clock come into focus and read 7:29. I felt I did it. I felt accomplished. I crossed the line and collapsed onto my bars. 509 TSS®, 11 hours and 59 minutes. No one came to congratulate me. No one said ‘you did it’. Then my girlfriend appeared and she was crying but not happy tears. They were tears of frustration and she was pleading with someone, anyone, that it wasn’t fair, that they couldn’t do this to them. She told me I did it and I was confused. Of course I did I thought. We’re going to get you a buckle she said. I already did I thought.
But it was relayed to me in my state of delirium that I had not, in fact, buckled. The race had started at 7:27 AM so the buckle cutoff was 7:27 PM and I was late. Nine months of training, 6000+ miles, and half a dozen trips to Marquette just to fall short by the time it takes reheat some Border Grill.
But I knew I did it. No one can take that away from you. When you leave it all out there I promise you that you will not be disappointed. And that’s all that matters. Athletics is all about optimization and maximizing your body’s output. A good performance means you went as close as you possibly could to what the body can actually accomplish. And in that respect I felt consummate. As far as I can tell I was the first or second finisher on a hardtail—something I take pride in because the feeling still hasn’t completely returned to my fingertips. And while one could go crazy thinking about all the seconds lost on the side of the trail or at aid stations that would’ve added up to well over 1:29, I didn’t think about it.
Todd apologized for the timing issue and said he’d comp me and the other guy who finished at 7:29 entries for next year. I thanked him but said that it wasn’t necessary. That I actually had done it, which confused him for a second but I think he understood. I hadn’t given up. And that idea is so critical to understanding endurance racing and life in general. So much of what we do is uttered as hard-nosed cliches about perseverance but the reason these things are cliches is because they are so true. ‘The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers’ (Foster Wallace). And I’ll leave you with one more quote from his famous book, the Marji Gesick of novels, about an elite junior tennis academy whose title could very well be another name for this race:
Be a Student of the Game. Like most cliches of sport, this is profound. You can be shaped, or you can be broken. There is not much in between. Try to learn. Be coachable. Try to learn from everybody, especially those who fail. This is hard…Opponents. It’s all educational. How promising you are as a Student of the Game is a function of what you can pay attention to without running away. Nets and fences can be mirrors. And between nets and fences, opponents are also mirrors. This is why the whole thing is scary. This is why all opponents are scary and weaker opponents are especially scary. See yourself in your opponents. They will bring you to understand the Game. To accept the fact that the Game is about managed fear. That its object is to send from yourself what you hope will not return.
David Foster Wallace, ‘Infinite Jest’