The Heck Epic is an event that I have been looking forward to for a long time. I was enticed by the scenery and the challenge that I knew was sure to be had. All said and done this route would see us ride 213 miles over the course of two days. All riders were required to ride with their shelter systems and spend Saturday night camping in Ely. This is all the information racers had going in. We all met at Castle Danger Brewing in Two Harbors, Minnesota, the Friday night before the race to receive our cue cards and a little more information about the route.
The rest of the evening was spent around a campfire at the start line, reminiscing about old rides and making new friends. We didn't know what the journey ahead was going to be like, and it brought us all together that night. I met lots of great folks simply because we share a love of bikes and have maybe a screw or two loose. I spent a lot of time tossing and turning in my bivvy that evening; I think I got an hour or two of sleep before the sun came back. Racing started promptly at 7 a.m.
There was an impressive field of around 60 riders. I was a bundle of nerves at the start line, filled with a lot of uncertainty, doubt, fear, and apprehension coursing through my body. Two days and more than 200 miles is a lot. To this point I had never ridden back-to-back centuries even on pavement, let alone dirt roads while fully loaded. I had packed for the worst-case scenario, which in my mind was being unable to finish in two days and needing to find my own way back to Two Harbors, so I was a little on the heavy side. But all of that worry went away when the first pedal stroke came down. We were off! It was a beautiful, crisp day, and there was not a cloud in the sky. The pace was on, and we were absorbing the terrain through our tires and breathing cool air. The bikes soared over washboard and rutted out gravel.
Starting up near the front of the pack ...
I learned a valuable lesson on day one: Pace yourself. The hammer had been dropped on the pack, and I kept up with the lead group for the first 30 or so miles, averaging around 20 mph on our fully loaded rigs. Very quickly all of my doubt started to come back as I felt my legs shutting down and saw the wheels getting further and further from my own. I was shelled out the back, and suddenly the race was over.
My ride, however, was just beginning. There was a long stretch of gravel road between me and a chosen rest stop. We had to turn off onto a new trail at mile 52 or take the opposite way to a bar 3 miles off course to refill water. I decided that I was going to need to refill, and I'd take the opportunity to rest a bit at mile 52. At around mile 45, cramps stopped me abruptly, and as I hopped off the bike to shake them out, I saw everybody that I had dropped start to catch up and pass me. I cursed at myself for wasting that energy, and I punched my legs for failing me. Within a few minutes, I was back on the bike headed toward my rest stop, but it would be a long couple of miles. When I got there, I saw I was not the only one experiencing a bad time. I popped my helmet and glasses off, unzipped the jersey, and fell to the ground, a pile of sore and dehydrated muscle. It was at this spot that I would meet Josh and Steve, who came to know me only as “Salsa” thanks to my team kit jersey and hat. The three of us decided that once we could get back on the bikes, we would hit the bar to refill our water and fill our bodies with pizza and beer. It was a much-needed break, and when I hit the road again I felt alive. With pizza grease lubricating my joints, I was pounding out a steady pace again, and when we met back up with the course it was time to get to work. The route had turned from gravel road to ATV trail, and the Fargo and I were having a blast. With each rotation of my tire, I was blasting over rocks and roots and plenty of mud.
The warm air dried the mixture of mosquitoes, mud, and gravel dust into a fine stucco all over my body. With every puddle splash came a huge smile: This is what I wanted, and the self doubt dissipated. The destination now was a grocery store at mile 83, where we had another chance to refill our water and get some snacks. Now I don't know how other people fuel themselves, but when I'm really gassed I like to eat comfort food. I filled my frame bag with gummy bears and was ready to roll again.
The rest of the day would be spent on pavement and bring us directly into Ely, where we were gifted with a screaming descent into town. I clocked 41.5 mph as I roared my victory shout. Day 1 was over, and there was a giant burger waiting for me. We were able to camp in Seymers park, right on the lake; the soft grass beneath my feet felt incredible. I removed my jersey and rolled up my shorts, and walked directly into the lake for an impromptu ice bath.
The forecast that evening for Ely was nothing short of frightening. We were under a tornado watch and a severe thunderstorm alert. Even so, I slept like a baby that evening and slept through all of the thunder and lightning. It was a tremendous storm, leaving the course for Day 2 saturated. The race would take off again after breakfast and a meeting at 8 a.m.
Life-giving sausage and hashbrowns ...
The weather was a concern for Day 2 the entire week leading up to the event. As forecasted, it started to rain around 8:30, and it did not let up until I finally dragged my body over the finish line at 7:30 p.m. I'll just say this right now: It was about the toughest day I've ever had in the saddle.
We took the highway out of Ely and climbed steadily for 13 miles before turning onto our first trail. We were told at the meeting Friday night that Day 2 was going to be considerably more remote. After riding Day 1, I didn't think you could get much more remote than we were. I was wrong. The miles accumulated a heck of a lot slower on this soggy Sunday. With high winds, low temps, and tons of rain, I pushed on through the tangled mess of downed trees, rocks, and deep puddles.
The first stretch of trail was an ATV trail that just would not stop climbing and throwing 10 percent grades at us ...
Mile 101 on Day 2: The home stretch. Epic indeed; epic indeed ...
Conditions did not exactly improve throughout the course of this day. From mile 30 to 50, everybody was hurting. All the rain had dramatically softened the ground and turned what was a usual 15 mph effort into 10 mph at best. We climbed 4,500 feet on this day, a large chunk of that coming in this stretch. It was unforgiving, and the self doubt started to creep back into my brain as the rain battered my face. There was a check point at mile 52, and after what felt like an eternity we finally made it. On this day it took more than 4 hours to reach that mile marker. We checked in and tried to dry off best we could. The organizers were kind enough to have plenty of food and snacks waiting for us. After about 20 minutes, it was time to face the rain again. Leaving the check point, all I could do was laugh: Morale was back up, and the ride was going smoothly again.
We turned onto the Snake Trail for another 15 mile stretch of remote ATV trail, experiencing some of the most fun terrain of the trip—lots and lots of rollers that gave us plenty of speed from the peaks and into the valleys. (The valleys, however, were all flooded over and turned this chunk of trail into an epic mud fest.)
It took until about mile 85 for my brain to decide that I was done. My body was exhausted from being battered with the weather and handling the rocky roads, and I could feel my arms shaking. I just kept my head down and let my soaked feet churn the pedals over and over and over again. I had given everything I had to this race on Day 2, and it was just unrelenting. My body kept screaming at me to stop, even though that was not a possibility. All things come to an end, though, and you are stronger for making it through. With approximately 30 minutes of riding left to go, the heavens opened up and it started to dump buckets of water on us. With a cackle and a deep sigh, I tried to refocus on just finishing. I was out of the race a long, long time ago, and I just wanted to cross that finish line. Finally, after the very last climb, a pink streak across the road came into sight. I gripped the bars and asked my legs to accelerate a final time, and I hit that finishing straight as fast as I could. It was (finally) done.
The human body is an incredible machine. To unlock it's true potential, you have to push yourself to the very edge of sanity sometimes. The times of the finishers might have been vastly different, but we all share an unbreakable will. What's next? I'm afraid to find out. That was my Heck Epic—epic indeed.
ABOUT THE GUEST BLOGGER: JONATHAN ROSENBERG
I grew up in Westchester County, New York, in a lush wilderness that happened to be 30 miles from New York City. While I loved Manhattan, I loved playing in the dirt much more. I learned to love being outside from a young age, and that passion has consistently grown and transformed to this day. The woods have always felt like home to me, and I think the bike is the perfect vehicle to explore the vast expanses of our land. Whether it be on foot or on bike, I just want to be out with the trees. I'm most comfortable with a knife in one hand, and flint and steel in the other. Exploring the world around us really is the best way to explore yourself.
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