2021 North Star Bike Race
As I sit down to write this, I am eating the large blueberry lemon scone I have carried with me since the start of the race. Ironic, since one goal was not to bring extra food this race.
Coming into this race was completely different this year from last. Last year my Power (FTP) and Fitness (CTL) were high, but my body was fatigued from massive summer miles, and my confidence towards success on the race was so low that my race strategy called for a drastic no sleep approach. This year after two ultra-gravel races early in the year, I mostly took the summer off, resulting in a sizable drop in Power and a pedestrian Fitness number. However, I was feeling more rested and excited about racing again. The no sleep strategy no longer looked drastic, it just needed to be refined.
The season plan was to race the two gravel races and take the summer off. After finishing the first gravel race, I lost all drive. I’m not sure if it was the result of 3.5 years of continual training or personal issues. I slugged my way through the second gravel race and then stopped all official training. This was the first time since I started three and a half years ago that I had gone even three days without training. Soon it turned into a week, then two, and almost three. I started riding again but not at a full training level.
With only six weeks before the NSBR I asked my coach Greg Grandgeorge to put together a plan. I asked him what the odds were of achieving my goals of winning and setting a course record, and the numbers did not add up. I kept those as my stretch goals but realized that the elastic just might not hold for them. I worked the plan hard for about four weeks and started to feel drained. Writing back to Greg I said I felt I was both working too hard and not consistently enough. He cut back my work from that moment to the start. I also focused on getting a minimum of eight hours of good quality sleep in the two weeks leading up to the race, and 10 hours on the two days right before.
When I got to the race my #1 goal was to ride safe, a close #2 was to Have Fun! I was excited to be racing again and was looking forward to the ride. The stretch goals were in my mind. I even felt good about them, intentionally ignoring the logic that my “numbers” did not support them.
Before the race I was trying to find a new angle to reduce time. My focus turned to reduced weight. The previous year I finished the race with almost 6 pounds of food still on my bike! I wanted to focus more on getting food on the road and carrying less. This would mean taking only enough food to make it to the next known resupply. (The last bite of scone just eaten attests to the fact that I still need to work on this.) I also wanted to reduce maintenance gear. This is a sketchy way to lose weight because a mechanical is the most likely way to DNF. However, I also knew the route was relatively clean and I’d had enough experience with tubeless tires to feel comfortable taking the risk. I got rid of one of my spare tubes, the patch kit, one tire iron, my presta converter, a rear derailleur hanger, a couple spare bolts, my spectra spoke, and all spare batteries (I put lithium in my rear lights in case I needed them for the spot tracker).
I then removed my emergency sleep system. After consulting the weather forecast, I replaced a long sleeve shirt with arm warmers and my leggings with leg warmers, but I retained my rain paints and jacket.
In the three days prior to the start, I replaced my entire drive train one piece at a time. This is not how to do this. In the first place, I am not a mechanic and some of the installation came back to haunt me. Secondly, major changes should be made a week or two prior to an event so that they can be tested out. I also replaced a worn-out rear tire.
As I was driving to the race, I stopped for a bike fit. It’s also a no-no to change bike fit prior to a major event like this, but I had been having back pain and wanted to see if there was an easy fix. Mike Dzubay at Freewheel was willing to adjust the elbow pads and cleat position a bit but didn’t want to do anything radical with the handlebar or aero bar until after the race.
On the way to Freewheel, my rear tire un-seated off the rim. Apparently, the stem was leaking and it lost its air. I had Erik look at it. He refilled it and tightened the stem and it seemed fine.
I wanted to get to the start a bit early to have a chance to say hi to the other riders. After talking with a few people, I casually checked my tires and found that my rear tire was soft again. Under five minutes to the start. Brian asked if anyone had a pump and Lee Knutson got one for me. I pumped up my tire, which was leaking audibly. I appeared to have a faulty stem. I tightened the valve stem and re-inflated; it seemed to be holding. I would have replaced the stem, but by now I was a minute late for the start of the race that I was supposed to be co-leading out of the neutral zone. I hopped on my bike and called to the group, “Are you ready to ride?”
Kate Ankofski, the woman’s champ, and I led the group through Lowertown. It was nice to ride with a riding buddy I had not seen all summer. After the neutral roll out, the group stayed mostly together. Rose and Scott had a slightly faster pace. Unfortunately for both, the route out of town is less than straightforward and both were brought back to the group due to missed turns and/or stop lights.
Unsupported races mean no drafting, yet it is hard for people not to draft in a group of over 30 when they are on a bike trail. Inadvertently, riders at the back had to be getting an advantage. I wanted to be near the back but was right on the front. I also wanted to ramp up the pace, but as long as the group was behind me I saw no sense in rocking the boat. Oh well. As I warmed up bit, my pace increased, and I started to ride slowly off the front. The moment I had a gap, Mark Skarpohl shot by me. My race had begun.
Mark has a reputation for having only one gear: all out. He is super powerful and uses that power liberally. He was clearly one of the pre-race favorites, if not the single rider most likely to win. On at least a couple occasions he has used the strategy of riding hard to pull other riders above their comfort zone which ultimately sucks the soul out of them before the end. But ultra-racing is a solo sport. I know I have to ride my own race. I let him go.
Anders and Brian also start pushing the pace, with Keaton not far behind.
Brian gave a major push as we got on 61 and took a lead. They had just repaved the shoulder and it was flat and smooth. Brian hopped on the path next to the road and we grudgingly followed. At almost the end of the path, I realized the GPS was showing the route as Hwy 61. It is therefore legitimate to jump on 61, which I did. It was near the end of the path, but I quickly made up some distance on Brian. The weather was close to perfect: cool, sunny with a few puffy and mixed clouds, and a slight to solid tailwind. We were making good time without overworking.
As I got to Hinckley, I was in second and decided to pee and get some fresh water since the Willard Munger Trail from there to Duluth has little to offer in that respect. I had needed to pee since the start of the race and this pee rivaled those from overdrinking at keggers as a college student in duration. Brian, who stopped after I did and left before I had gotten out of the bathroom, later told me he was going to come in to see if I was OK. The purchase of a water and Gatorade took ages, too. Several people rode by, but I was ready for the Munger trail and thought I might make it all the way to Two Harbors before needing to stop again. Sure enough, I slowly reeled in all the riders that had passed me at the break.
Kevin Arends came out to the trial to cheer me on and rode beside me briefly, telling me a story of a race he and his son recently finished. It was a pleasant distraction.
By the time I got to Duluth I only needed water, so I ducked into a Quick Trip, filled my bottles in the sink, and left. This was going to be a major refueling stop, but I had enough to make it to the Two Harbors Quick Trip, so I pushed the stop out. As soon as I left, I ran into a construction detour. Mark was 10 feet in front of me, going through the dirt. I followed briefly, but then took a different path through the detour. I ended up being thrown out on the highway and jumped the jersey barrier with my bike over my shoulder. I was back on the trail with Mark on the other side of the fence, right next to me. I had not wanted to lead Mark through Duluth since the path is tricky and therefore slow. I thought that if he was on his own, I may have gained a couple of minutes. Now, I was in the lead and ended up speeding him through Duluth. As soon as we were back on 61 heading to Two Harbors Mark again pulled away with authority.
Before getting to Two Harbors, I opted for Betty’s Pies rather than continuing to Quick Trip. I ordered two pasties and a slice of apple pie to go, “All individually wrapped in plastic, please,” and paid for them from my bike. I did not feel a need to rest so just wanted to grab and go, but it was surprisingly hard to order two Cokes and two waters to go when I got there. I realized I did not really have room for this load and stuffed one pasty in my mouth, chugged a Coke, and downed the two orders of au jus so they would not go to waste. Big mistake. I ended up giving one of the waters and a cole slaw back to the bemused woman at the window. I did not lose much time, but gained almost nothing from this stop except the apple pie consumed for breakfast the next morning.
Evening and night riding was pleasant and went without incident and without seeing any other riders. I realized my last open service was the Holiday just off route in Tofte. I stopped for a frozen mango smoothie, Gatorade and water w/Sustained Energy. The smoothie had to be held while riding. This was another mistake: holding a wet, ice-cold beverage while riding in the dark as the temps were dropping and then having to put the sticky cup somewhere on my person when I was done so as not to litter.
Rob Mosimann told me before the race the Mount Josephine was overblown and no big deal. I assumed this was Rob’s understated humor and told him I would remember that when I got there. As it turned out with a bit of tail wind and the suggestion that it was not too tough it did seem easier to get over in both directions. As I was ripping down the back of Josephine, at 2.25 miles to the border, I saw Mark coming back towards me, laboring up the opposite side. I was delighted. After many hours he was only 4.5 miles ahead of me. I got to the border in no time and, although I had planned to stop for water and a soda, I realized that I still had enough fluid to make it back to Grand Marais (40 miles), so I simply looped the parking lot and kept going. I was not going to let Mark get further ahead if I could help it. On the way back to Grand Marais I saw Anders, not too far back, followed by Keaton, Brian and then a group of my Minnesota Randonneurs buddies.
At this point, all functioning brainwaves were devoted to whether I should stop at Grand Marais, and if so, for how long – a coffee nap (15 minutes), a full 1.5 hour sleep cycle, or just calling it a night and going to bed. Getting this rest right could be the difference in the race. I had made a reservation at the Shoreline Motel, explaining that I would be a late check in and an early departure so if they could leave a “Free Breakfast” or bagel out that would be appreciated. I had pretty much decided I would not stop at all and simply give the room to a fellow rider when it started to rain. The rain was cold and I was not dressed for it. I trudged on thinking I would ride out of the rain or get to Grand Marais shortly. Neither seemed to happen. The rain intensified and was accompanied by thunder and lightning.
By the time I got to Grand Marais, the riding through option had no appeal. From my motel room I could see and hear rain, thunder, and lightning. The weather app showed that there should be a letup in about 45 minutes, then more rain. But the forecast was rapidly changing with more and more rain and less and less letup. I ate the breakfast that had been left for me, took a quick shower, and made a cup of caffeinated tea. I decided to do a 15-minute power nap but set my phone for 1:35 minutes for one full sleep cycle in case I did not wake up. I woke in 13 minutes and decided I could not afford a full 1.5 hours, so I chugged the tea and took a caffeine nap. I woke 9 minutes later, ready to go. Or at least as ready as one can be in that situation. With dry kit and rain gear on, I was ready for a wet ride. I headed out the door. When I turned on my Garmin it started to save my ride. Since I had locked myself out of my room, I laid down in the doorway waiting for what seemed like an eternity for it to reset. There was no sense leaving because with the buckets of rain coming down, I would not be able to use the touch screen after leaving my shelter. Finally, the Garmin started up and I took off into a wave of rain.
Despite the weather, I was feeling satisfied with the efficiency of the break: 80 minutes for a shower, breakfast, nap, dry clothing and repack. Not bad.
The positive feeling was quickly replaced by concern with my first pedal stroke. My rear gears auto shifted and popped the chain off my chain ring. Later, I realized the rear cassette that I had installed two days earlier had loosened. The gears were no longer parallel so they would jump from gear to gear when applying power. This gave me about three functional gears to work with for the remainder of the race unless I found a bike shop.
As I made it to the hill out of Grand Marais, there was a rider about halfway up. He slowed; I rode up. My chain fell off again. He slowed more. It was Anders. He was looking wet. We rode next to each other for a short bit and he explained that he had taken a break from the storm under an overhang and asked what I had done. In the most casual and cheery voice I could muster I said, “I took a nap.”
What happened next has never happened to me in an ultra-race before. There were seven actual lead changes in the course of 100 miles. These were not lead changes of mere feet, but leads ranging from one-quarter mile to several miles.
Anders and I rode together for a while. We were conscious to stay at least 3 bikes lengths apart to avoid drafting. We exchanged leads a couple of times, but Anders was simply riding stronger and took the lead after a while. I had not fully warmed up yet after the rest. In Tofte, Mark blazed up from behind and rode right by us. This spurred me on. I caught up and passed and he told me he had waited at the Holiday for it to open. Mark caught back up, Anders stepped it up a notch and caught us both and went by. This time Mark took off to stay with Anders and I started to drop back. Mark stopped at the top of a hill and was digging in his pack when I caught up to him. Seeing that he would be a couple minutes, I put on some coal and built momentum down the other side of the hill. I saw Anders almost a mile ahead and keep going all out. I caught Anders and wanted to suggest he pick it up and follow but I did not have time to say anything. Instead, I heard him shout “Holy Cow!” or some much more colorful exclamation. I had made some good distance on both, feeling like I needed to keep putting the power down to stay away when, a few miles later, Mark zipped by me like I was standing still for the fourth time in the race.
The rain had stopped but the wind had picked up to 13-18 mph with gusts of what had to be 32 mph coming straight up the road at us. There was a bit of shelter along the Gitchi-Gami State Trail, but my limited gear selection made this section slow and hard on the knees nonetheless.
Finally making it into Two Harbors, I saw a biker blazing up to me again in my rear mirror. I thought it was Anders, but it was Mark again! WTH? He had missed the last turn on the Gitchi-Gami and ridden most of the way down to the lake. It is truly a soul-sucking feeling to know that you have ridden down a long windy hill only to get to a dead end. I knew the mistake well given that I had made it myself the first year and repeated part of the error the second year. We rode next to each other for a bit and started to talk for the first time all race.
As he was riding with his front tire two inches in front of mine Mark asked, “Are you in second place?” I pedaled just a bit harder, pulling two inches in front of him and replied, “No. I’m in first.”
“Then I have good news for you. I am not having fun and don’t feel well. I’m pulling out here in Two Harbors.” I was disappointed for Mark, but I must admit that this was music to my ears.
Eating enough and maintaining a happy stomach is one of the toughest aspects of ultra-distance riding over multiple days. I laughed as I reminisced back to the picture comparing Mark’s and my 2nd check point feed bags in the Iowa Wind and Rock Race earlier in the year. Mark had an empty bottle with some powder in it and a gel pack. I had a huge slab of lasagna, a large bag of apple crisp, and so many other treats and calories that my two pound zip lock would barely close. It’s important to find what works for you.
I was feeling OK but needed to attend to my gears. As Mark turned into the Quick Trip, I turned the other way to the SpokeNGear bike shop, just off route in Two Harbors. I was determined to get more than three gears working. When I pulled in they immediately knew that I was in the NSBR given that Rose Wiley had been there earlier in the day with a tire problem. I had previously bought a couple Cedaero frame packs made in their store and was using one in this race, as I typically do. The service was spectacular. I grabbed a drink and sandwich next door, changed out of my rain gear, had my cassette tightened down, and even posed for a picture of me with their bags all in under 15 minutes. I felt like Cookie Monster spewing bread crumbs and other assorted bits as I was trying to tell them how much I liked the frame bag at the same time I was stuffing down the sandwich.
As I pulled out of SpokeNGear, Anders was just coming into Two Harbors. It felt like deja vu all over again. Every year there has been a reason to push it from Two Harbors to the end. The first year, like now, that reason was racing against Anders.
The afternoon was bright and old Highway 61 down to Duluth was particularly beautiful. Sparkling water, blue skies with watercolor clouds, green trees,... and a strong headwind.
The day before I had made a bit of time on Anders by riding fast and not letting up – and he had caught me at a water/bathroom stop. Today, there would be no stop until absolutely necessary. This happened in Moose Lake. With an empty water bottle and a bit of dehydration seeping in, a large soda and two waters were a must. It is amazing how long it takes to get these things in a restaurant versus a C-store, even with great service. I moved on as the sky started looking ominous. Given that my phone was running out of power I had stopped using it. As a result, I had no music, no idea where Anders was, and no clue what the weather forecast was.
Like an old-school cyclist, all I knew was what I was experiencing: the sky was getting ugly and the wind was a solid 20 mph straight into my face. Highway 61 South was fully exposed. The storm started in the southwest and approached fast. I slid through the front without being hit with rain, but the wind was pounding me from the south. Then a 35-mile per hour blast from the west moved me a foot across the road. Then immediately back to the south. Then a shot from the southeast. All the while, the wind blowing steadily from the south. The temperature was still warm. With threatening rain I put on my rain jacket and started to sweat.
Just to the west, it was raining buckets and lightning flashed non-stop. To the east, more lightning. It was not raining on me but there was water in the air everywhere. Confused broken rain drops that did not know where to go were flying in all directions. It was bizarre. I finally turned on my phone, checking the radar of the storm and the tornado warning. I was riding right down the middle of this thing without getting wet.
North Branch and the relative shelter of a trail seemed to never come. My speed dropped from 16 on the Munger to barely 13. In Duluth I had thought I could finish around 1:00 am, but now I was hoping for 2:00. As I hit the trail and the last 50 miles my speed dropped to 11, then still lower. There was nothing left in my legs, and it seemed that as soon as I could get some momentum and speed into the wind, I would come across an intersection that I needed to slow for. My GPS had run out of battery. My phone was dead. There was no distraction, just the summer vacation nightmare question of early childhood: “Are we there yet?” I knew the route home, so I did not plug my GPS into the dyno. I just rode. And started to think I might even miss the 3:00 am cutoff or even the record pace I was certain to achieve when I had been at the border.
I rolled across Shepard Ave. to the finish at 2:20 am Friday, September 17 with a total time of 43:17. (Cutting the course record by 1:33 and PR by 4:45) I was surprised and thrilled to see Leah Lindstrom Rhea, Trisha Groth, and Scott Gregory cheering me in. Afterwards, I realized with gratitude that Scott has been at each NSBR finish for me. Getting off my bike, I felt dizzy, so I leaned on the railing and started to say that I was not feeling well. Mid-sentence, I blacked out and collapsed. The next thing I knew the three of them were around me trying to straighten me out and asking if I was OK. Dehydration, low blood pressure, exhaustion, all of the above? Not sure.
Trisha and Scott were thoughtful enough to accompany to my room to make sure I got there OK. I fell on the bed for a few minutes and then slowly worked my way to a shower, which I took sitting on the floor. I got dressed and went see Anders come in. He had gotten a lot more rain than I had and still rode in strong. Then I went back to the hotel, asking Leah to call me when Brian came so I would not miss his finish. Since it was the middle of the night, I needed to turn off the do not disturb function on my phone. As I tried doing this in bed, I kept falling asleep and being awakened by the phone hitting me in the face. I finally got it turned it off – and the next thing I realized the phone was ringing and Brian was a couple minutes out. I raced down to cheer for him. It was 6:30 in the morning. It was amazing that the three top racers had completed the race in under 48 hours. This was a goal that I had worked on for four years.
To be honest I am not sure what transpired next, but I did make it back to the finish to see Keaton arrive just before 9:00 AM. Then I realized I was starving and went for huge breakfast of steak and eggs with the works and a caramel roll the size of my head. I walked back to the start to greet Brian Broomall and Rob Mosimann and then headed to my hotel.
At 12:20 PM, ten hours after completing the race, I walked in my room and fell onto the bed, turned off my phone, and did not wake or move for 16 hours. Then, I rolled over and slept for another two. When I finally woke, I checked MAProgress. Mark’s spot was three miles out, but never seemed to finish. The next riders in were Kyle VanPelt and Ian Buck, each with their own incredible stories.
It is clear from all the finishers that the NSBR is a tough and satisfying challenge. Each rider is a tribute to the human spirit to take on an event like this for the first time, or try to improve the next time. My hope is that the same spirt drives each of us in whatever endeavors we value in our lives.
Photo Credit Trisha Groth