I had heard that the Maah Daah Hey 100 was one tough race, but I was not prepared for what I had gotten myself into. A pre-ride of the opening parts of the trail a few days before the race was a big wake up call for what was ahead, but I still had no idea what was in store for me on race day.
This race report now available in audio with additional commentary on my new podcast – The Endurance Path Podcast w/ Steve Hamlin!
I’d still suggest reading through the written report and reviewing the maps, elevation profiles and checkpoint split times if you are headed out to the race, but also listen to the audio for some additional thoughts and commentary. Don’t forget to subscribe…
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Strava file and other reference links at the bottom of the report
The Maah Daah Hey 100 Start
Pre Maah Daah Hey 100 Race
I arrived at the CCC Campground Tuesday night where the 100 mile race would start from on Saturday. We were making a family vacation out of the event and I also wanted to check out a bit of the trail ahead of time to see what I had gotten myself into. I had done 2 Lutsen 99er races, but I knew I had gotten myself into something much more difficult with the Maah Daah Hey 100. The Lutsen 99er has many miles of two-track or gravel road and nearly half the elevation changes as compared to the 106 miles of the Maah Daah Hey 100 that has only 5 miles of combined gravel road and asphalt.
I rode the first 8 miles of trail out to the first gravel road on Wednesday afternoon to see what I had gotten myself in to. I realized that I would have 2 big climbs in that first 8 miles and that the heat was going to be an issue as I finished my first pre-ride around noon and I was feeling the heat. I had been feeling very confident in my climbing abilities lately, but realized, I may need to rethink my thoughts about going out strong. I looked at the profile maps some more and it sunk in that I would be making these climbs all day on Saturday and the weather forecast was showing race day to be a hot one.
On Thursday, we drove the check points to see what the rest of the course might look like. My wife and kids were along and they wanted to see me throughout the race and take a few pictures. We hadn’t really planned on my wife providing any support at the checkpoints, but after driving the entire course we were rethinking that plan. Things were setting in that I had gotten myself into something bigger than I thought and even though I was well prepared with my drop bags, I was fearful that I had gotten myself in over my head on this one.
I woke up on Friday morning, the day before the race, as if I was racing that day and ran through my routine before riding up the first 5 miles of trail. This would only be my 3rd long distance mountain bike race and I haven’t quite nailed the pre-race breakfast / routine yet. I am one that needs some time in the morning and cannot just jump out of bed and onto my bike. I was planning to wake up 2 hours before the race start, even though I was camping at the start line. I also had to check out that first climb one more time to build some confidence. The climb wasn’t really a problem, it was just the thoughts of where I should jump in the pack and how hard I should push things out of the gate.
Maah Daah Hey 100 Course Layout & Elevation Profile
The race course is point to point with the start line at the CCC Campground about 20 minutes south of Watford City, North Dakota and ending in Medora, North Dakota. It traverses some extremely remote terrain through the plateaus and valleys of the North Dakota Badlands. There is very little gravel road, in the amount of just a few miles in total. I’d consider the riding to be rugged, but not technical. You will have to carry or push your bike more than once.
As you can see from the elevation profile, you are either going up or down. Some of the decents can be really fast through some of the prarie sections, but you need to stay on your toes as the trail can be washed out and not predictable at times. There are a few flatter sections early in the race, but after that it’s all up and down. Between the mid day heat and constant up and down terrain; miles 50 to 79 can really take a toll on you.
Maah Daah Hey 100 Race Day
The Maah Daah Hey 100 Start Line
Me heading to the start line
As I headed for the start line, many racers were starting to line up already and I called an audible to jump a little in front of mid pack and not over do it on the start. It was going to be a long race… The Race Director, Nick Ybarra had a great starting line send off for the race that included the National Anthem and a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. It was a very inspirational send off to the race and the thoughts of “this is going to be Epic” were setting in.
Entering the first cattle gate at the trailhead
Start Line to Checkpoint A (mile 10)
I eased my way up the first climb in line with other riders. There were a couple of guys getting antsy that worked up past us, but I knew that we had a couple miles of open prairie ahead of us after making the climb and this was the first of many climbs. Once we got to the top, I did jump around a few riders and made my way across a couple gaps in the prarie to make up some spots. After the prairie section, we were dropped back to the bottom of the valley for another climb out before getting to Checkpoint A. We had 2 short gravel road sections during the race and the first one was at the top of this second climb.
It was time for breakfast and I popped out one of my homemade Rice Krispie bars while I spun an easy pace along the gravel and recovered from the climbs at the same time. My instincts wanted me to hammer this gravel road section like it was the Lutsen 99er, but I knew that wasn’t the right thing to do right now, at least for me.
Passing through Checkpoint A
Checkpoint A to Aid Station #1 (mile 25)
The next section of trail had an amazing descent that switchbacked down the edge of a ridge. This was my first real taste of what some of the trail ahead was to look like. I got a bit excited at this point and thought how awesome it was to have the opportunity to race on a trail like this.
Right about mile 17, I came down into a creek bed and then followed the edge of the creek… A little over a half mile later, the trail got sketchy and there were no 4X4 posts in sight, I realized I was not on the Maah Daah Hey Trail anymore. There were actually 2 other riders that were with me at this point. After backtracking about a half mile we found where the mistake had been made. Other than the other tire tracks headed down the creek bed, I have no idea why I headed that way as the trail went right across the creek and up the other side. I lost over 10 minutes according to my Garmin. Things also set in for me here about the ruggedness of this trail and that I needed to keep my focus on where I was going.
At mile 19, I came up on a long single file line of riders waiting to traverse down a steep bank across a creek bed and up the other side before hitting another climb up through some switchbacks. As I picked up my bike to slide my way down the slope to the creek bed, the guy behind me made a joke saying “I have an aluminum frame and am just gonna toss it over the edge and pick it up at the bottom”. I love the humor of riders early in races. I say early in the races, because it rarely happens late in a race, but I do enjoy some good sarcasm and kidding along the trail. My shoe filled with gravel and sand as I slid down the creek bed and I must have made some type of verbal complaint about it… The guy in front of me said “it will give you something to think about for the next few hours”…
Back to the race… We got backed up while working our way up the switchbacks and I was getting antsy to make some time and spots back up in the traffic that I had lost when I got off the trail a few miles back, but I was still nervous about pushing too hard too early. As I looked out, I could see we would be climbing for quite some time and I kept patient and eventually worked my way around a few riders when we got out of the switchbacks. I did want to get out in front of as much of this group as I could to avoid getting caught up in any water refill lines at the upcoming Aid Station. We finally arrived at the first Aid Station where I was able to top off my water and keep moving.
Coming into Aid Station #1
Aid Station #1 to Checkpoint B (mile 38)
I left Aid Station #1 at a race time of 2:30 and was feeling good. I knew it was going to start getting hot and the second half of the race was going to be brutal from the heat alone, so I was toeing the line of pushing my current pace while still saving some for the afternoon. I assumed that my pace would slow later in the day regardless of how easy I took it at this point, so I needed to keep pushing. We had a couple of climbs and another descent before riding through Checkpoint B. My family had decided to skip Checkpoint B and head straight for Checkpoint C, to make sure they stayed ahead of me in the race.
Checkpoint B to Checkpoint C (mile 44)
My Garmin doesn’t show it, but this next section up to Goat Pass is where I could start feeling the heat building up and setting in. I have to think that my Garmin temperature is off by 10 degrees or so, as it only showed 48 degrees for the start of the race and I definitely don’t remember it being that cold. It shows the temps coming through Goat Pass to be just over 80 degrees, which would have been just after 11:00 AM. Maybe somebody can check on their device for comparison…?
There were some volunteers on Goat Pass handing out cups of water. As I was coming across, they yelled that they had water and I could either drink it or dump it, my choice. I knew it was getting hot at this point, because I chose to dump it over my head and yelled a big thank you to them. I don’t know who they were, but if you are reading this, thank you again! I remember thinking to myself as I rode past that point; they had to hike it out there from somewhere carrying all that water that they were passing out. Seeing them on the trail, cheering me on; was awesome and the water just took it to another level of appreciation.
Coming down Magpie Road
Coming up Magpie Road
Checkpoint C to Aid Station #2 (mile 50)
I had just run out of water, but rode through the Checkpoint C anyways and started looking for my wife up the road for my water fill up instead. We had a bit of a climb up the gravel before a fun and fast gravel descent. My wife was parked at the top of the second gravel climb where I pulled off and filled up my Camelbak. My kids looked like they were still having a good time and were hanging out the window ringing their cowbells. I gave them a high five as I rode off and yelled to my wife that I would see her on the other side of the river.
From here, we had about 3 miles of descent before hitting the river crossing. I can’t remember exactly what the terrain was like, but it wasn’t super fast as my speeds on my Garmin at that section top out at 20 mph for just a split second. I believe it was a mix of bench cut ledges with a bit of prairie mixed in. I finally arrived at the river and felt like I had hit a major milestone. I took my shoes off and crossed in my socks. Once to the other side, I peeled off my wet socks and put on my spare socks that I had packed in my Camelbak. We had another 56 miles to ride and I didn’t want to put wet socks back in my dry shoes. It was a short distance up a steep grade of switchbacks from there to Aid Station #2.
Aid Station #2 was a busy place, but I found my drop bag quickly and started swapping out my wrappers for fresh food. I lubed my chain as it was starting to get noisy and changed into my other gloves. My wife was just pulling into the aid station as I was wrapping up. I had plenty of water left, but topped it off anyways. I pulled up to the truck on my way out of the aid station and dumped a bunch of chamois butter down my drawers and put more sun screen on. I only share the chamois butter with you as it provided for a bit of a funny story a few more miles down the trail…
Aid Station #2 to Checkpoint D (mile 58)
I left Aid station #2 at a race time of 5:09 and was still in pretty good shape for having ridden 50 miles, but fatigue was starting to settle in. I can’t remember exactly where it was at, it may have been coming up the switchbacks to Aid Station #2, but somewhere in there I had felt the first leg cramp creeping its way up on me. I had been here before and knew that I can push through them or walk them off and not to let it scare me. I needed to stay relaxed and just keep a steady pace, take the opportunity to stretch quickly when I dismounted for the cattle gates and stay focused. The next 25 miles were going to be brutal with the heat and the constant up and down.
So about that chamois butter… As I worked my way down the trail, I was sliding all over my seat. I looked down to find chamois butter oozing out of my bib shorts everywhere and was actually running down my seat post. I had apparently gotten a little carried away with it… Not only was I greased up well, but so was the entire mid frame section of my bike. My wife later told me that as I jumped on my bike to ride away from Aid Station #2, she could see it squishing out of my shorts and it gave her a bit of humor for the day.
After making another big climb and descent I arrived through Checkpoint D. My wife had skipped Checkpoint D and headed straight for E to keep out in front of me again. I was feeling the heat, but needed to keep plugging along. I still had plenty of water to make it to the next check point, 10 miles away. As a reminder, I was carrying a water bottle on the bike with eletrolytes and wearing a Camelback with a 100 oz bladder.
Checkpoint D to Checkpoint E (mile 67)
After 4 to 5 more climbs and descents, I finally arrived at Checkpoint E. My pace had slowed over the past 10 miles with the repeated climbs. To be clear, the descents were not just nice old relaxing down hill rides through the meadow. There were some very technical narrow bench cuts in the side of ravines that sometimes required an unclipping of my inside foot to work my way around the corners and down the hills. When we did reach an open meadow downhill, it could be a nail biting 20+ mph hour ride at times, with a finger on the brake and watching out for trail washouts and deep ruts that could take you by surprise. Not to mention, after having ridden that many miles in the heat, your reaction time and senses just are not up to par. But to keep up this pace, it required full on attention grabbing downhill riding as there would be a granny gear grinding climb at the bottom of every hill.
I was still in good spirits at this point and had cramped only a couple more times. I topped off my water, slammed half a Coke and had my wife dump some cold water over my head. We had purchased some ice and extra water jugs the night before just in case. I had originally planned to just use the Aid Stations and Checkpoints, but later found the ice and cold water that my wife packed to be very helpful and we were starting to get a system down. I also had used medical gauze as a head sweat band and decided to change it here as the first one was shredding apart by now. By the way, the medical gauze wrap worked awesome for keeping sweat out of my eyes and holding the cold water around my head.
Checkpoint E to Checkpoint F (mile 72)
If I remember correctly, it was mostly open prairie between Checkpoint E and F. However, we still had 2 climbs to tackle and the heat was really setting in. I was getting beat up at this point, but I was mentally in it and just kept steady. I didn’t over push on the climbs and I let it rip in the prairies where I could, but knew that I had to be careful, because the fatigue was setting in and would cause me to make mistakes if I wasn’t careful. I think it might have been in one of these sections where I was barreling downhill through one of the prairies and I had to lock up the brakes to avoid sending myself off the trail into a washed out ditch… I finally made it to Checkpoint F for a quick stop to down another half a Coke, top off my water and had some more cold water poured over my head before heading on my way.
Coming into Checkpoint F
Checkpoint F to Checkpoint G (mile 76)
It was only 4 more miles to Checkpoint G, but it involved another couple climbs and we were back into some of the rocky and dry clay areas, where the heat was heavy. My Garmin shows over 100 degrees for this section. Again, I am curious what readings other people were getting out there. My wife said that somebody had reported at one of the Check Points that they saw 115 at one point on their device down in the valley. 115 does sound a bit excessive, but all I know is that it was hot. I’ve traveled to India a few times and spent a week in Hyderabad, India a few years ago where it was 112 to 114 and this felt no different. Of course, I wasn’t riding a mountain bike across Hyderabad either. I think once you get over 100 degrees and you have been pushing the heart rate for 8 hours, 5 or 10 degrees difference doesn’t really matter anymore. My Garmin peaked out at 105.8 for those that are curious.
I was feeling strong still and my spirits were high. Conserving some energy at the beginning of the race had paid off. I had come up on some other riders and could tell the heat and climbs were starting to take a toll on everyone. There were a couple sections of trees where a few riders were taking advantage of the shade to cool off. We exchanged a few words about how far it was to the next Aid Station as I pressed on. I got a bit of a second wind here, mostly of adrenaline and excitement as I realized I was working my way up in finishing spots. Back at Checkpoint C, my wife had thought I was running in spot 21 and I knew I must be getting close to top 10 at this point. There was another climb up to Checkpoint G where I just downed another half a Coke and kept going. Aid Station #3 was only 3 more miles.
Coming into Checkpoint G
Checkpoint G to Aid Station #3 (mile 79)
I found myself out on my own through this next section, but it went by fairly quick. There were a few switchbacks, but the climbs were not bad. I had some adrenaline pumping and came into Aid Station #3 feeling good. I almost missed a turn in the switchbacks coming into Aid Station #3 as I was letting my excitement get away from me. Luckily there was not a drop off and I was able to get things stopped in time. It was a good reminder to respect the trail. I found my wife with the truck parked near and downed half a Red Bull, topped off my water again and took another cold water dousing over the head. We had a good system going now and it was working to keep me cool. I did not mess with my drop bag and headed back out on the trail.
Aid Station #3 to Checkpoint H (mile 92)
I made it out of Aid Station #3 at a race time of 8:45 and feeling strong, but I had 12 miles to the next check point that would take me to the bottom of a near empty well. Heat was kicking my tail and taking a big toll on me. Leg cramps were starting to get a little more serious and I had to stop and stretch a few times. I could feel my body burning fat now and I needed to get some carbs in me as I was getting very sluggish. I had gone too long without some solid food. I stopped right around mile 89 and caught some shade behind a tree to eat a waffle, drink some water and stretch. I think I was only stopped for a minute or two before pressing on again.
My body devoured the waffle and was begging for more. I had been here before a couple years ago in my first and much shorter mountain bike race. I say first, but I did do quite a bit of riding 12 to 15 years ago, along with a couple short races. A couple years ago is when I had gotten back into riding again, after loosing some weight and realizing that the slightly overweight “Dad Bod” was not working for me.
I know at some point, I had 2 gels left and I may have taken one of them before the waffle, but I ended up finishing off the second one at some point during this time as well. Mind and mental fortitude can take you a long ways, but at some point, you have to feed the muscles. I finally came into Checkpoint H and I was running on fumes. I ate a banana and downed a half a Coke.
I had all kinds of emotions going through my head at this point. This was by far the toughest thing I had ever done and even though I was hurting, I never questioned why I was doing this. I wanted to be there and I wanted to test myself. Deep inside, I was absolutely loving it. I had come a long way in my fitness over the past few years and I was excited about what I was accomplishing. That being said, I had been suffering to deep depths for the last hour and I still had another 14 miles to go.
My wife later told me that she was a bit worried for me at this point and knew I was hurting bad. I am the type of person that wears my emotions on my sleeve. On the outside, it must have appeared that things were coming apart, but on the inside I was just getting the distractions out of my head and preparing myself to finish these last 14 miles. This is where the mental fortitude comes in…
I had been yelling (yes, out loud) at my legs to shut up for the last hour and positive self talking myself into every pedal stroke (Thank you to whoever keeps posting those “Shut Up Legs” t-shirt images on Facebook that have been embedded in my brain… I should probably purchase one of those shirts now). I took the dunk of water over my head, topped off my Camelback and water bottle with cold water. As I left that Checkpoint everything was right in my head and I knew that I was going to make it.
Checkpoint H to Checkpoint I (mile 98)
I left Checkpoint I, thinking to myself… All I have left is less than half of a Chequamegon 40, “this is a piece of cake”, using my kids’ terminology. I was hurting still and it took a couple miles to get my legs back under me, the gels and the banana started to kick in and my legs were coming back. It is amazing how the body works. By this time I noticed a couple riders had caught me coming out of that last Checkpoint. I knew I couldn’t let up now and I had to push. I knew I was close to a top ten finish and I didn’t want to give anything up. I kept squirting the water bottle over my head and pressing on. I was slowly picking up speed, but they were still hanging with me.
We came under the I-94 tunnel to find ourselves backed up for a few seconds while some horseback riders were coming out of the end of the tunnel. We were able to make our way around them and I let my pedals have it. I think I was starting to get some separation from the other 2 riders, but they were hot on my tail. I arrived at Checkpoint I with the adrenaline pumping.
Checkpoint I to Finish Line (mile 106)
I grabbed a half of banana from my wife and topped off my water bottle with cold water. I was feeling strong at this point and knew I was in the home stretch. I took off from this last Checkpoint strong and kept the heat on the pedals. This was a completely different feeling from an hour ago. I made quick work of a creek crossing and got back on the pedals. Before I knew it, I was dumped out on the asphalt and making my way down the bike path to the finish line. I finally crossed the finish line in 10th place with an official race time of 12 hours, 5 minutes and 26 seconds.
I was doing 24 mph when I crossed the finish line. I honestly could have kept riding. This probably sounds a bit demented, but there was a small part of me that was sad it was over. I was having one hell of a moment those last few miles. I don’t think I actually stopped for another 100 yds after the finish. My wife asked me what I was feeling when I finished and it is a bit hard to explain. I was excited and felt really good about how I performed and even gave a bit of a fist pump. I had won the battle from my perspective.
You see, it wasn’t really about the Maah Daah Hey 100. The Maah Daah Hey 100 was providing the atmosphere and the playground, but the race was going on in my head. I was making another step in my life’s adventure and overcoming another battle. A battle I brought on myself for sure, but you have to go out and put yourself in the battle in order to win it and show yourself that you can accomplish great things. At the end of the day, it is another stepping stone to your life story and what you will do with it. I left there, thinking now what can I go accomplish? The possibilities are endless if you never stop testing yourself. Idleness will kill you. We are meant to be productive, test ourselves and accomplish great things.
The finish line
Post Maah Daah Hey 100 Race Thoughts
This was by far the most brutal thing I have ever done. Never once during the race did I question why I was doing it. There are many reasons why racing the Maah Daah Hey was the right thing to do and they are all good reasons. It feels good to keep the trail alive and support another person’s dream of saving the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It was an amazing opportunity to race on that trail with that type of terrain and the legacy of Theodore Roosevelt to go along with it. I love traveling with my wife and kids and we’ve been able to visit and see some amazing things because of the National Park System and State Park Systems. The race was not through the National Park, but it was right next door and my kids got to check another National Park off their list and camp in another state because of this race. I thought the starting line send off was fantastic. Thanks again to the Race Director, Nick Ybarra for memorizing and reciting “The Man in the Arena” quote from Theodore Roosevelt at the start line. That was a really nice touch and set a great tone for the day.
As far as my goals for the race… I really just wanted to finish without having to use my lights. I talked and planned for a 12 hour race, but I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into or if that was really possible, which is why my drop bags were packed with so many extra goodies… I even had these nagging thoughts of a 10 hour race that would pop up, but I knew I wasn’t ready for that yet. That will be for next time. I am really happy with how the race went for me. I had done 2 Lutsen 99ers, but this was a different kind of race. I am not taking anything away from the Lutsen, as I love that race. It has a little bit of everything to it, but there was something a little special about the Maah Daah Hey 100 and it was the ultimate test for me and where I am at right now.
To put things into perspective, 5 years ago I couldn’t ride more than 5 or 6 miles without having to rest up for a couple days. I would have been spending my Saturday drinking some crappy light beer and burning something on the grill because I thought it needed 1 more beer of cooking time… Sure, that may sound like fun, but I certainly wasn’t inspiring my kids to do anything great. Saturday August 1st, 2015 at the Maah Daah Hey 100, my kids got to see me set a goal and reach it. They saw me suffer and push through it. They spent the entire day with my wife going from Checkpoint to Checkpoint. It was just as long of a day for them, but they were right there at the finish line sitting around me telling me “good job Dad”. They were part of the team and the accomplishment. They had won the battle with me…!
Podcast Show Notes Page – Episode 6: Revisiting 2015 – Maah Daah Hey 100 Race Report