Sledge HAMR was like nothing I’ve ever done before and it was amazing. With the unannounced 1-hour warning prior to the start time caused us to do as much of the prep work for the race before we went to bed as we could. Waking up to “Africa” by Toto blasting at 4:00 a.m. was very cool. I’ll think of this race every time I hear this song in the future even if it is the recently popular Weezer version. The lyrics about the rains seem particularly appropriate since it ended up raining the majority of the day, something you don’t want when you are going to be on your bike for as much as 24 hours. Although, with all the “Blame Todd” stuff surrounding the Marji Gesick, I am a little surprised the chosen song wasn’t “Blame it on the Rain” by Milli Vanilli.
After a few instructions shortly before 5:00 a.m. Race director, Todd Poquette, said “alright go ahead when you are ready.” Matt Acker turned to me and asked “Is that the start.” I said “Hell yeah, let’s do it” and we took off. After several minutes cruising with headlamps in the dark Acker suddenly proclaimed “Crap, I forgot my wallet,” and promptly turned around to go back for it. Twenty minutes later Acker flew past us after getting in his bonus miles. I found myself riding most of the day with Dustin Meyer, a solid rider and fun guy to spend the day with. In addition to simply riding the course, we also had to punch our passports at a number of checkpoints sometimes located on out and backs along the way.
Regarding some of the specifics: Words cannot describe Mosquito Gulch. Think of going uphill through large boulders and deep and stinky pits of mud/quicksand. The place reminded me of the Fire Swamp in The Princess Bride movie. My confidence level took a hit early on when I fell off a ridge I was trying ride several feet down into a deep gully filled with large rocks. The only good thing about that section was that it came early in the day while we were still fresh. While the race was advertised as a “gravel race” no one on a gravel bike would have made it. Sure, there were some nice sections of gravel. However, in-between them were unbridged river crossings, a maze of rutted, muddy, slippery, seasonal roads, 2-tracks, and occasionally what looked like frickin’ riverbeds chocked full of slippery downed trees. Luckily I wore my hike-a-bike friendly shoes!
Around mid-day, the rain increased and soaked us as we approached and took on the long climb up Mt. Arvon, Michigan’s highest point. After reaching the summit, the course plunged down a sketchy ATV trail on the backside of Arvon which was long, loose, wet, and slippery. It was at this point that my brakes started to fail and sound like a dying animal. I became nervous knowing that there was still a long way to go. The rest of the day, I tried using the brakes as little as possible fearing a complete failure which certainly raised the pucker factor on many of the fast and rough downhill sections.
At 104 miles in, we got to our first taste of civilization, the little town of L’Anse at the base of the Keweenaw Peninsula. I took refuge for about 30 minutes in the Subway and devoured the most glorious personal-sized pizza I’ve ever eaten. Despite temps in the 50s or 60s with the rain, Subway decided running the air conditioning full blast that day was a good idea. I was soaking wet and freezing. This got me back out in the rain to start the long trip back to Marquette. At that point, we were treated to miles of paved roads which boosted our average speed and helped some of the miles to tick by relatively fast. Eventually our route entered the wilderness again for large doses of challenging terrain with sprinkles of firm packed gravel roads to give us some hope and keep our spirits up.
As darkness fell, the slog became a blur. Despite carrying 10 pounds of stuff I didn’t need, I neglected to bring a backup headlight and, of course, mine went into low battery mode much sooner than expected. The prospect of blasting down around in the woods in the dark did not get me excited. While I love these races, I don’t always love them while doing them or even when they are immediately finished. I’ll admit that more than once throughout the day, I found myself standing in water unable to ride, pushing my bike along, and calling Todd a bunch of bad names out loud, all by myself, in the middle of nowhere. A good buddy of mine says he is often planning how he is going to sell his bike while suffering through one of these events. However, after I get some sleep and stop hurting, all the best parts of the day push out all the bad parts in my mind and I can’t wait to sign up for another sufferfest.
Shortly after 11:00 p.m., a little over 18 hours after I started, I rolled into camp where we took off what seemed like days ago. At the finish line was a small but enthusiastic crowd who greeted me and offered refreshments and a place by the roaring fire. Knowing that I’d be camping again that night, I made it my number one priority to find a place to take a shower. With the help of a local, I found the truck stop just before closing and gladly paid the $5 to clean my nasty self up. Returning to the campground, I tried to stay up to see my buddies finish but sleep won and I crawled into the tent and collapsed into my sleeping bag feeling very satisfied.
The great thing about these events is that they are hard. You don’t know for sure that you will be able to complete them when you start. If you do succeed they offer a much bigger pay-off than cross country races that take 2 or 3 hours to complete which you know going in that you will finish. While the Marji Gesick is a stellar event, many of my friends who love that race will never get a buckle, some will never even get close. Those same people, however, can have an equally epic experience at the Sledge HAMR and finish within 24 hours and raise up the unique HAMR trophy if they work hard and just keep moving forward. Sledge HAMR is the epic for the everyman. Time for you step up and show your grit. In some ways that is easier to do here than at Marji. At Marji, there are some bail out points where you can easily quit if you are so inclined. The same can’t be said for Sledge HAMR. There, once you enter the wilderness you are in it until L’Anse and then you are in it again until you finish. The format provides the needed motivation to finish. There is no other realistic option and that, my friend, is a good thing!
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