Like most races I enter, it started with buddies saying “I’m in, are you in?” We like challenging ourselves and keeping each other accountable. So when almost a dozen fellow Team REMAXer’s said “let’s do it”, I had to!
I have been racing mountain bikes for almost a decade, but have always loved the 2-4 hour cross country single track style races. The LumberJack 100 was my first Ultra distance attempt. I have done plenty of 100 mile rides on the road but 100 miles in the woods with over 8,000 ft of ascent is much different. Committing to this race in the winter seemed like a good idea to spark some training and have a WHY in the cold months. I like putting a racing date on the calendar and then putting in the work to get there. Start with the finish line in mind.
I have used coaching in the past and knew trying something like this would be a good reason to get outside help and formulate a game plan. Matt Acker (Michigan local ultra ultra ultra pro) seemed like a good person to ask! If you don’t know Matt, he is known for winning or finishing at the top of all the “you’re crazy” distance races. I was probably one of the least experienced cyclists he has coached but he took me on as a client. Getting started with winter training, I had high hopes of being able to follow the training plan. I have been able to follow other plans when the goal result was a much shorter race. Most Michigan cyclists know, if you don’t plan to start from zero, you need many hours on the indoor trainer. I hate the indoor trainer! Zwift has at least changed the brutally boring experience of sitting on your bike staring at a monitor. I would say I started my winter training on track with Zwift, riding indoors, and some fat bike riding in the snow. Winter started to end and spring was starting, well sort of. We had the longest coldest, wettest, later winter-early spring I can remember. Yes, the excuses are starting, LOL!
I started to get a little late-winter burn out from indoor trainer miles and no real good weather to get outside. Finally, some OK weather came, and I fell back in love with riding. I for sure lost motivation for training a couple of times in the 6 months leading up to the race. This was one of them. I started to see the larger hour commitments on the training plan. On paper, it sounded doable. Then bad weather, then long day at work, then why should I train I can do it tomorrow and make up for it. I started tripping over my thoughts and making tons of excuses. Matt had said at least a few times, “No problem, it’s still early” When the weather did finally get outdoor-able I was able to hit many of the weekend-long rides scheduled.
When the weather broke I was able to get out with buddies and do some training rides with them. This really helped. I have learned over the years that I enjoy the camaraderie of meeting up with others to push through training. It’s much harder to NOT fit in a ride when others are expecting you. It is also hard to “call it a day” early on the trail when your buddies instead are saying, “Let’s do one extra lap even though we are tired!” I don’t take our team for granted! Great group of guys and girls who truly want to see each other push their limits and goals.
With many up and down moments in the training, we were getting closer to the actual race. A group of us decided to meet up in Manistee Big M, location of the race, to get a couple of laps of the course. It is a 3 lap format. Approx. 33 miles laps. Each lap has approx. 3,000 ft of elevation gain. I took my hardtail (front suspension only) bike which was my plan to use on race day. The course is long and full of hills, but not to many rocks and roots. My thought was to take my best climbing (and lightest) bike. I wasn’t even done with lap one of the practice ride, and I was starting to have MAJOR doubts of what I signed up for. Like any ride or race, I had some good and dark moments. This was more dark moments than good though, LOL. My buddies seemed to be not struggling like I was, and many of my “I will make up that training ride later” moments were smacking me in the face. I tried finding my way off the course and back to the parking lot. The guys could tell back in the parking lot I was mentally struggling. I told my wife I am selling my entry later that day. I am not ready, and its only weeks away. My training was supposed to be up in the 12 hrs. per week range near the end, and I was lucky if I fit in 6-8 on my good weeks. That ride at Big M with buddies was a WAKE-UP call.
(Notice already dressed back at the car, they just got back)
That following week I reached out to my coach and said I am not sure I should do this race. I am not even sure I can finish all 3 laps. In good coach fashion, he responded in a large paragraph going over his thoughts. One thing I remember he typed was the deadline for leaving on your 3rd lap was 3pm. He said you will be able to do that. There were tons of other really good advice on that email but I vividly remember that. He also ended it with something along the sorts of “it’s up to you”. I thought back to committing to the race, and other times I showed up to a race unprepared. A large feeling of “YOU CAN FINISH THE RACE!” hit me.
After my hardtail ride on the Big M practice, my buddy, Chip, said: “use your full-suspension bike, you will thank me later”. With only a couple weeks to go I started getting my beefy full-suspension ready for a long day on the trail. This meant shedding heavy parts and getting it lean! I know, fewer nachos and craft beer would have been a less expensive way to get ready but I wasn’t going to let myself use a heavy bike as an excuse.
(full suspension dialed in only weeks before the race)
Since many of my friends, co-workers, and people I see daily knew I was doing the race, it was the daily conversation. “You ready for your LJ100?” followed by 3rd grader snickering (yes Justin, that’s you). Word started to spread and folks, not in cycling would say, “what are you thinking?” Folks in cycling would say “I can’t see myself doing THAT race” I wouldn’t even bring it up and somehow folks around would say “Mark is doing a 100 mile race this weekend, can you believe it?” I started to avoid wanting to talk about it, it just added to the nerves.
It rained a lot that week. Heavy rains the night before and rain the whole time heading to the parking lot. You’re already scared/anxious/nervous and now you’re having to start in the rain. Buddies not racing but there to support saying, “Man, glad I am not racing today!” Thanks Steve! That was the longest 5 minutes in the start shoot I have ever had. As always, as soon as the wheels start turning, all is fine! Much different than all other mountain bike races I do, we started together in this large group and were chatting back and forth with guys you’re racing with. This also helped you block out the rain and full day of riding you were starting.
Those who have done an ultra race know it takes a ton of prep with nutrition and guesswork on what will sound good to eat when you don’t want to eat. I packed for a small army hoping to not “bonk,” cramp, puke, and all the other things that can wrong from not fueling the body. I have to take a minute and brag up my RE/MAX team who pit crewed for me and other team members that day! I am sure you can do these races without 10 plus folks helping, cheering, or getting you your food, but glad I didn’t have to! I don’t remember what any of you said, or I said back. Each time I saw you was a foggy blur, LOL.
You see your pit crew 3 times if you’re lucky, which includes the finish! The first time you see them after 33 miles, you’re not too broken, and you still have your wits about you. They grabbed my bike like a Nascar pit stop, lubed the chain, handed me bottles I mentioned I wanted, and food. I have helped pit for this race in years past, and it’s kind of funny to see if from both sides. From the pit crew members side it is intense, 180 bpm heart rate, moving fast to get the rider everything they need. From the racers perspective, 120 bpm heart rate, chill. I guess not if you’re leading the race, but I wasn’t leading the race. No matter! It’s a great feeling when every one of the pit members truly care about what you need and want.
Spike of encouragement. Matt who was training me was in the pro race that day and caught me in my 2nd lap as they were on their 3rd lap. He was in the front group of 6 or 7 charging a pretty good pace. He looked over and said “Don’t stop, you got this Mark!” Seems like a small gesture but when you are battling yourself for hours on end and you have doubts, moments like that really help!
Dark Thoughts, Encouragement, and Lap 3
Near end of lap 2 approx. 60 miles in I was DONE. Yep, an hour after I was encouraged by Matt, LOL. “I don’t need to finish this race. I don’t care. I am undertrained. Just get me a hot shower. I am ok with ‘I tried.'” I am giving 1% of what goes through a racer’s mind in such a race. You are battling so many thoughts in your mind in a race like this. Mostly because you have so much time to yourself. To give you an idea, first two laps of approx. 7 hours, you’re solo for most of that. You, your bike, and your mind working for and against you.
End of lap 2. I pulled in to the pits, cheers, excitement, Nascar bike treatment. All of this could not turn my frown upside down. The course had beaten me, I was in a blank stare of blurred shock. Those who knew me well could tell I found my max effort, or least what seemed to be. “Mark, I have never seen you so quiet.” A fellow team member in the race was standing there. Tim Urbanski must have got there right before me. We looked at each other with blank stares as to say, “heck no, no way” A couple of minutes of me just staring went by and I looked at Tim and said “Let’s finish this thing, let’s ride together. No matter if it takes forever, and we walk all the hills.” I didn’t say it loud but those standing in the pits must have heard me because it was instant cheering! Still gives me goosebumps the encouragement we received! I think I ate 2,000 calories in the next 30 seconds knowing I was about to head out for LONG lap! Cheers from friends down pit row were awesome as a send-off!
The parade lap, number 3. It didn’t take long for the excitement to wear off, and it was back to work. Along the way, we picked up Jay Fournier and said, “Let’s finish this together!” That 4-plus hour lap was brutal but at the same time we had a blast. Non-stop chatting and joking. At one point, we got sick of our own food and said, “What do you have to eat? I will trade you! I can’t handle another Clif bar!” (Or whatever I had.) Let’s not forget to mention the only aid station in this race. It is at the halfway point of the 33-mile laps. They had everything and anything you could ask for. Not to mention their positive vibe of fun and laughter! Thanks a ton, aid station! Many, many walked hills, jokes and laughs later, we were closing in on the finish line. “All right guys, we are stopping before the finish line and walking across the line with bikes over our heads!” Our huge pit crew saw us turn the last corner and gave us a cheer so loud, you would have thought we were winning the race! I was in awe of the support and excitement others had for us! I can remember all the high fives, pats on the back, and words of encouragement! Everyone knew this was a big one for me, finishing!
It’s been weeks since the race, and I still don’t have the bug to enter anything with the word “Ultra” in it! LOL! I learned a ton about myself! I am sure I will have to relearn a bunch of it, but you are way more capable then you think. Small positive efforts repeated over time have a HUGE result! Friends and support can help you overcome anything.
If you made it this far, thanks for allowing me to share a fraction of what my LumberJack 100 experience was like! See you on the trail, cheers! Mark Deering
My Garmin battery died 85 miles into the race, but here is some data
Finish line photos!
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