Don’t let that smile fool you, Lois has been a regular at the Fondo series and is a full on badass. This story just confirms it. Give her a follow on Strava to see the rest of her badassery.
|Photo Credit: Lisa|
I think I have totally mastered a unique persona when it comes to cycling — I can both be completely capricious in how I sign up for insanely hard events (“that’s OK, future Lo will be ready by then”) and extremely meticulous in how I prepare for them. Unfortunately, the latter never makes up for the consequences of the former, BUT something like “perseverance” seems to mean I muddle my way to something that vaguely looks like “success” but is mostly just survival.
I signed up for the Crusher (https://crushergravel.com/) back in Fall of 2019 when it was simply a 225 mile ride from Copper Harbor, MI to Marquette, MI in one day with several hundred other people ( I got the idea from Diane! Thanks Diane for all my best bike race suggestions!). It’s advertised as an ‘Enhanced Gravel race” and when you look through the pictures and see that most people are on FS or Hardtail mountain bikes, you start thinking that your 35 mm tire Dirty-Kanza-Michigan-Coast-to-Coast-Oregon-Gravel-Series tire may not be the best idea. So after several months of exacerbated deliberation and tons of advice from Daniel, David Jang, Shaun Ivory, and Dave Cohen – I ordered a new bike, quite literally for this event (https://bearclawbicycleco.com/thunderhawk-titanium-650b-gravel-bike/).
Felicia, my 650b Bearclaw Thunderhawk rigid frame mountain bike with 2.25 inch tires showed up in March in Michigan at about the time COVID-19 started taking over all our lives and all the bike races were cancelled. I took two full weeks off at the end of March to rest, to be safe, and to think about how I wanted the rest of my year job-wise, bike-wise, and life-wise to look during a pandemic. I decided to commit and start training as if the Crusher was going to happen and I’d be ready.
Todd (the race director of the Crusher) announced that the Crusher was still on, but it was going to be “Enhanced” (re: worse, far worse). It wouldn’t be 225 miles, it would be 250 miles. It wouldn’t be a one way, it’d be a loop out of Marquette. It wouldn’t be a mass start, it’d be solo anytime between July 1 to October 1 (you can still sign up! I dare ya!). It’d be unsupported, it’d have almost no pavement, and it would be partially on mountain bike race courses. W.T.F. This was a totally different event than the one I signed up for (initial expectation, I’d finish in 18 hours. New Crusher expectation: 25 hours. One is a long day, one is an all-day, all-night epic).
I had to decide pretty quick how much of a badass I am (real answer: not much). I wish I could say this was a “HELL YEAH” type decision, but instead it was a slow, turbulent decision over several weeks. Ultimately, it was either “swim or don’t swim” and I decided to swim (for better or worse). Why did I choose yes? Because I wanted this ride – I wanted the 250 miles of backcountry car-less roads, of sunlight filtering through the trees, of riding under the stars, and of exploring the Upper Peninsula in a way I haven’t seen before.
|250 miles of this would have been pretty swell|
A lot of you followed along on Strava with the training journey. There wasn’t a lot of secrecy or crazy FTP builder planning behind it – I did one big solo, totally self-supported (for water and food) ride a week with a ~10% time increase every week (starting with 6ish hours and ending with 14 hours), two days of intervals (well, crappy intervals, aka Strava segments of varying lengths to simulate what I wanted), and 2-4 days of rest-day biking where my average power was 100 W and I’m sure everyone wrote me off as being pretty pathetic. There was one weekend of volume bomb with 3 gravel centuries back to back before a rest week and a lot of fun adventures in between (crossing rivers, getting lost, finding lakes, making friends, and finding new places).
Before I knew it, I was a stronger version of myself and it was July. I dialed in everything imaginable (meticulous planning!) … some examples:
Date chosen: July 7th – non-4th of July, an almost full moon, and I would be in Marquette till July 10th so if the weather was bad I would push to July 8th or 9th.
Clothing: went back and forth on this a lot, but wore a normal jersey with pockets, rapha shorts with the chamois cut out + with pockets, Pactimo baselayer, and padded gloves. I trained for several weeks without gloves to prepare my hands/wrists.
Bike setup: Half frame bag with water bottles on fork and no cages on downtube. I know that’s a weird one, but I wanted to be able to shoulder my bike effortlessly for the hiking sections, and this was a great choice. Also my Swift Industries Handlebar bag and Revelate saddle bag (small and roll up for tools).
Water: Katadyn soft bottle filter. Hands down best choice in the world because you can use it as an extra liter of water storage if need be
Lights: From Daniel, two Fenix BC25R (https://www.fenixlighting.com/product/fenix-bc25r-rechargeable-bike-light/), one attached to my Lumos Helmet (bonus lights) and one on Handlebar. They weren’t quite bright enough to do the descents and last through the night, but they mostly were an awesome choice.
Weight: Yeah, I know cyclists are weird about weight. Prepping for this event, I lost about 10 pounds over 3 months (typical winter storage), but when I got to 159/160 I felt weak, so in the 5 weeks before the event I put back on 2-3 pounds to settle at 163ish, which was perfect.
Skin: I knew I was going to be using DEET excessively to keep away mosquitoes, so I couldn’t plan on using sunscreen too (my skin reacts to sunscreen + sweat and I’d imagine DEET would make it worse). I built up a base tan starting in April.
… I was ready!
But the week of, some latent fears definitely spotlighted themselves. For one, I didn’t have a riding partner. This wasn’t exactly by choice — I don’t know that many cyclists in Michigan (yet) and I wasn’t going to try to convince anyone from Seattle to somehow make it to Marquette to ride with me. So, I’d be riding alone through the night in the middle of nowhere on a dirt road in a place I hadn’t been without cell service. Hmmm. Oh, and wolves were spotted on the course, there are bears, there are moose… this is basically Alaska minus the grizzlies. I’ll admit, I had nightmares of getting followed by a wolf pack and by people the other night. I talked to Jamie Van Beek and Daniel Perry a lot about all of these fears, and I can’t thank these two enough for calming me down enough to get me to the start line. Jamie was 100% right “as soon as you start pedaling, you’ll feel great”.
And that was true – the race starts in a dirt parking lot outside Marquette. As I was pulling out, I saw two guys in the parking lot on bikes (… someone else?!) and YES they were doing the Crusher too! But I didn’t know yet if they were doing the 40/100/225… stay tuned!
You get all of 1 mile of semi-pleasant dirt road (lots of mosquitoes) before you get to a hiking trail – Hogback Mtn. At first, you think, “oh, this isn’t terrible” and you half walk/half bike for the first mile up. Then, it becomes a rocky trail with >10% grade punches and you’re like “OK I can still push my bike” and then it becomes a straight-up rocky hiking trail (>15%) and you’re like “OK I can shoulder my bike and kind of walk up this”. Lastly, it became “OMFG , lift bike up, balance on one leg, grab rock and pull bike by aero bars up a rock wall bouldering session”.
|Check point 1: Hogback Mtn|
I got to the top just as sun was rising and… lo and behold! There was another person! A small woman! Holy cow how did she get up here by herself? That was pretty hard for me and I am super tall… “Hi! Are you doing the Crusher?” Me: “Yes!!! Are you? Please say the 225!” Her: “only the 100 today, gosh it’s pretty up here!” and that was my introduction to future-best-friend Lisa.
The view at the top (Checkpoint #1! We had 8 mandatory checkpoints where we had to take a selfie with an object) was spectacular, but it takes everyone between 1.5-2 hours to go up and over Hogback mountain. Lisa went ahead, I took my selfie, and then I prepared for the descent which was pretty painful too. But eventually, I was able to hop on my bike again, and the course dives into singletrack, including partially submerged and overgrown railroad track for a mile (thud thud thud). OK that all sucked too. When that ended and we completed a .4 mile partial hike-a-bike loop (Top-of-the-world), I was at ~ mile 12 and 3.5 hours in and realized that this race was going to be a very, very long race (>25 hours).
|The single track I could bike and take a photo
at the same time
As I pulled out into a pavement section, I saw some people behind me. OMG! It was those guys from the parking lot. And, OMG, they had multiplied – there were 4! They caught up to me quickly and we started talking a bit. I was euphoric to find out they (Doug, Chris, Chris, and Rodney – a group of 4 friends from Ohio) were doing to the 225 too! I had someone else on the course with me, what a relief! They were more energetic, so I told them I’d see them later as they biked off together strong.
|A quick hello to the Ohio biker gang!|
More dirt, more single track, and a few miles from Checkpoint #2 (a copper pipe with water flowing out of it), Lisa caught up to me while I was filtering water (I had passed her somewhere but I don’t remember where). At this point, I found out she was on a single speed (…!) so that was why I was caught up to her on a flat dirt road. We rode together for a bit searching for this random copper pipe somewhere on the side of a 5 mile stretch of road and then… eureka! We found MY MOM! Hanging out by the copper pipe!
|Can you see the copper pipe?? It’s there !|
Now this race is supposed to be unsupported-ish, but if you’re alone, Todd gives you a little more grace / wants you to have someone regularly checking in. My mom told us she saw the guys not too long ago (“how did they know my name Lo?”). Another selfie (this one with Lisa!) and I was off (with Lisa not too far behind, but she let me ago since I was geared and wanted to hustle on the flat. 250 miles is a long day).
There was snowmobile trail. There was some pavement (but not enough). There was a dirt road. There was sand. Checkpoint #3 a yellow snowplow appeared and I continued on, alone, on a beautiful day in the UP enjoying the day and riding my bike. Sand and mud started creep into the course again, which meant more effort for slower speeds and more walking when the mud turned into a foot deep marsh. We also started climbing a bit more. On one of these sandy hills at ~mile 45, I was received my approximately 400th mosquito bite. Unfortunately, this bite in particular startled me enough that I lost my handling in the sand and crashed.
Crap! Initial inspection looked non-catastrophic. The zip-tied tracker had snapped off my aero bars, so I had to reattach it with another zip tie. Everything else looked good, so hopped on my bike, clipped in and pedaled, and … heard some horrible noises from my drive train. Uh oh.
I was stuck in my hardest gear and it looked like the derailleur was unwilling to shift and stay to any other gear (although it could be moved there). I fiddled with the shifters, checked the hanger (looked straight?), and then… smiling Lisa appeared! “Are you ok?!” me: “Yeah… hey do you know anything about derailleurs” *Silence* Her: “No… that’s why I am on a Single Speed”. But Lisa stopped and helped me with moral support.
|All smiles and team work here|
After a bit, we were able to figure out that the cable had come loose. With some tightening and readjusting, I was able to get my derailleur to go up to the second highest gear. Success! Massive Success! We both continued on chipperly, and especially since we were mostly climbing/descending, we were the same pace and stayed together for the next 20 miles. We had the perfect romantic stroll together, chatting happily along the ridge in the wildflowers and talking about other events and joys of cycling. I could wax on extensively about how delightful the 20 miles I had with Lisa were, but this is already an endurance test for a blog post.
|The ridge with Lisa!|
We unfortunately parted when Lisa turned to finish the 100, and I was left to climb Mt. Arvon, the highest point in Michigan. Without my easiest gear kind of sucked, it was 3 PM and hot, and it was a sandy climb (9 hours in < 70 miles. Yikes!). I chipped away, took my checkpoint selfie at the top (#4!), cried a bit on that descent (terrifying!) and started heading towards the Huron River Crossing (#5).
|Checkpoint #4: Mt Arvon|
Honestly, this part was a painful 3 hour blur. Time moved really slow, the gravel roads were really washed out, chunky, steep, and just pretty painful. Descents were sketchy (“Jesus-take-the-wheel” descents) and there were multiple hiking sections. Eventually, I started to descent off the lakeside cliff we were on into deep sand… we were close to the beach! Then I saw my mom, a pink dot on the beach!
|Checkpoint #5: Crossing the Mouth of the Huron River|
I took time to cool off a bit, take a brief swim in the lake (submerged my whole body) and drink ice water after I crossed the river. My mom said I was about an hour behind the guys and expressed concern. Me; “nah, I’m totally going to catch them and be ahead when it gets dark, you’ll see”. The stop was about 10 minutes and then I was off again, rolling on campground gravel roads.
|The beauty of L’Anse Sunsets over Lake Superior|
Eventually, it turned into beautiful pavement and I was suspicious. “He’s giving us too much pavement… there must be something horrible coming up”. But there never was!!! We had 30 miles of the most glorious pavement I’ve ever experienced in my whole life into the sunset. Heaven. As I told Todd later “that was better than any Christmas gift I’ve ever gotten”. I rolled into L’Anse at about 9:30 (before sunset!) and met up with my mom.
She said the guys had been stopped for a while. I quickly ate, put on my lights, and prepared to head out into the dark. This would be the last time that I would see my mom till morning – she wanted to follow all night, but I convinced her this wasn’t a plan. I wanted her to trust in Daniel Perry to watch my dot (thank you Dan!!!) and that he would call her if anything happened, which would wake her up. She accepted that this was probably the best, so she went to Marquette to sleep for 4 hours after. I ate, grabbed another burrito, pumped up my tires, drank an iced coffee (I was having trouble eating at this point, but liquids sat well!), and … I was off into the twilight ahead of the Ohio biker gang.
|The Ohio Biker Gang!|
It grew darker, the road became narrower and narrower and the forest lining the edges grew thicker. It got to the point where I couldn’t see anymore (after 11 PM), and I turned on my lights and music and started to sing to myself. On a scale of 1-10, I was spooked. This was definitely the type of woods your parents tell you not to hang out in at night by yourself.
But… just as I was singing Imagine Dragons “top of the world”, the Ohio biker gang caught me! I about screamed with joy. They were “surprised” they were able to catch me with the lead I had, but I told them that I had been waiting for them to catch me and that was always the plan, even if they didn’t know it, haha. They graciously let me join their group, and I never felt anything but safe the rest of the night (we did have a funny joke about that – “only in a bike race would you be excited to find 4 men in the middle of nowhere at night who pick you up and take you with them” hahaha).
|Checkpoint #6 with the sketchy outhouse|
Doug, Chris, Chris, and Rodney were a hoot – Doug at one point said something like “I hope we weren’t more boring for you than biking alone”. Me: “Oh you definitely were. I would have been scared shitless the whole night if I was alone”. We laughed and chipperly made progress in a section that I’d call “death by 1000 cuts” with hundreds of short punch climbs and descents. A harvest moon rose in front of us (ooooh) and it felt like we were in the mountains of Arizona or something (very desert like smells and desert-like grasses/plants). Eventually we made it to checkpoint #6 – this random outhouse in the middle of nowhere that I would have never found on my own (thanks Chris for finding it!).
|Checkpoint 7: There’s a River behind me, I swear|
Around 2-3 AM, morale did start to flag a bit. I will say on my end, I never felt “sleepy tired” the entire race, but I was feeling fatigued/having trouble keeping up with calories. I started to fall back a bit, especially on the descents. The guys patiently waited for me and Doug, bless his heart, stayed behind me with his high beam on the big descents (“Todd’s descent”) after one of my headlights had gone out. Out of water and low on spirit, we hit Yellow River at 4 AM-ish (Checkpoint #7, so close). We got water (highlight: I actually caught a fish in my filter bottle. Haven’t had that happen before), ate, I cleaned my bike chain (my drivetrain sounded horrible from the mud), and we moved on.
At 4:30 AM, we hit the dreaded mosquito gulch at mile 204. You could hear them. I told the guys they could go on without me and started walking my bike up one of the big climbs, but Doug stayed with me. We hiked/climbed/mudded/swore our way through the 2 miles of mosquito gulch. I took no pictures, I do not want to remember that time, it was not fun.
|Post Mosquito Gulch “when is this going to be over”|
We made it through though and hit a long but beautiful stretch of washboard gravel road as sunrise really hit. I asked/begged the guys to leave me/dropped off the back because I really needed to poop. I’m proud to say I peed 3x in this race and pooped once, which if you know me in these races, is a massive record of excretory function. Yay!
|While I pooped…|
I then put my music back on and chipped away the miles alone. I still had 40ish miles left and wanted to try to finish by 10:30 am. A ways in, I actually passed the Ohio gang on the side of the road (making a phone call?) and said something like “and Lois, with the unexpected attack on the paved climb”. I also told them I’d see them later (meaning they’d pass me again, which was true).
Hours passed, and there were some really nasty bits of sand, ultra aggressive flies (I’m on my 8th layer of DEET and they are still getting through), and mud. Oh, and I was stung by a bee, because why not. At the bottom of a powerline descent, I see my mom! I slow and say hi, but I take nothing and continue on – it’s 8:30 AM and I just want to finish!
Unfortunately, my plans did not work out as I hoped. My Wahoo Bolt decided to randomly restart itself when I was looking for the final snowmobile trail, and I couldn’t find it/navigate it without maps. I had no internet service, so I was stuck while the bolt “recovered” my ride for 10 minutes. OK, it got it, good to go! Then, 10 minutes later, it did it again. OMG. At this point I was trying to find the last checkpoint, moving slow, and had no maps again. UGH!
|The last checkpoint!|
The guys fortunately caught me here, we waited for the last of their group (I’ll admit, selfishly I felt terrible and like I was going to pass out so I wanted my maps to work so I could go, but I am glad ultimately it worked out this way. Girl needs to learn some patience) and then we did the final 5 miles (with Strava recording on my phone, f that stupid bolt. This also happened to 2 of the Ohio biker gang on their Bolts too! I think the file was too large). I will say this, the last descent was super fun and two of the guys outsprinted me to the finish at the end (I deserved that too, haha).
We were greeted by lots of excited people – all of team Ohio’s support / family and my mom! Plus Todd, the race Director, was there to see us in! It almost felt like the end to a real race – everyone was cheering and it felt like a real accomplishment. Lisa even came and cheered too (after finishing the 110 in 14 hours, sleeping that night, eating breakfast, and then coming to see the finish… that’s how long the 250 is haha).
|We’re done! (Photo credit: Todd)|
I was exhausted by had fun talking with everyone a bit and then my mom and I went back to the airbnb to sleep. When I took off my shoes, showered, and looked down, I realized I was covered in bruises, cuts, scrapes, and was bleeding in multiple places. Too tired to move after my shower, my mom covered me in antibacterial hand-sanitizer (this was excruciating and cruel) before I posted my ride, ate a few crackers, and fell into a deep sleep.
That’s it! That was the Crusher! I finished it in 29 hours and change and … I am proud I did! It took all of my past failures and successes to get to this point — for example, every time I refilled my water bottles, I took two magnesium pills. This saved me this race, but it is also what killed me in Dirty Kanza and C2C; I shed magnesium when I sweat and need to replenish frequently. Could I post a better time? Sure. But that wasn’t really what this experience was about – it was about taking the situation that was giving to you (COVID-19, messed up training, being alone, etc.) and still finishing. So I am grateful for all the people who brought me here in this journey, from my Strava training rival Pamela to my control tower Daniel + Mom to constant support from JVB and Yee to Todd for choosing to host this event still during COVID even though it was a lot more work for him to keep it safe to Lisa to the incredible Ohio biker gang. Strava at: https://www.strava.com/activities/3733521591