Saturday August 8th, 2020
Crusher began at the Forestville Trail head – 5:00 AM. Still dark, I wonder how I am going to get this now loaded bike up Hog Back Summit. Just walking to the top was difficult the day before – teamwork would be required. Feeling overwhelmed, the answer to my question was in a white SUV and parking next to me. With her music cranked and hair on fire, this woman was a Full Can of Whoop Ass!! Introducing herself as Liz, she asked if I was riding alone. Answering yes, she responded without skipping a beat saying you can ride with us. Hmm? Rather bold I thought, but sometimes bold is very necessary. That time was now. “Us” turned out to be Liz Belt, Jorden Wakeley, and Steffen Howard.
Things were a bit confusing in the morning darkness, but the glue began to set when the effort to summit Hog Back (1st checkpoint) got real. Together the four of us hauled up bike after bike like a fireman’s bucket brigade. Once at the top and with a clear view of the predawn sky, it was every shade from purple to red to pink – ominous. If weather rhymes mean anything, the day would bring a thrashing.
Hog Back Summit Saturday Morning
Continuing with the decent from Hog Back, it was no joke. There would be no riding here and the result of one misstep could mean a broken bike or twisted ankle. And strangely, I think we were all in race mode – a testament to the caliber of riders I had joined. While technically CrusherEX 2020 https://crushergravel.com/ is not a race, it can be very difficult to turn that off.
The next assent was Top of World Summit. Not as intense as Hog Back, we were able to ride most of it, but still a tricky section of single track. At the actual top I had to laugh. There were hikers camped on both sides of the trail. They were up and out of their tents to enjoying the sunrise to start the day when we arrived. The four of us along with several other riders blew through camp with innocence and 20 seconds of unintentional reckless abandon disrupting the morning tranquility – Oops!! Even today when I think back on that, it brings a chuckle.
It took every bit of an hour and a half for us to get clear of the Hog Back / Top of World initiation. After which, we were finally underway. Jorden was on point and holding an all-day moderate pace followed by Steffen, Liz and myself.
The sky was getting brighter as the sun cleared the horizon – only to grow darker again. Much darker!! Lightning crashed and thunder exploded. At this point, most sporting events would be cancelled, game over, unsafe conditions. But this is Crusher and here the rules are different. The only thing to do is press forward.
And press forward we did – it was a blur. There were two tracks, single tracks, railroad ties with spike heads sticking out, all mixed in with rain and thunder and lightning, and we were soaking wet. Early on the course, it relaxed a bit and took us on a beautiful blacktop road in the middle of nowhere. While doing so, a car pulled up slowly next to us, rolled down the windows only to reveal two giant cameras held by characters in the front and back seats. I still do not understand the significance here. What were they doing and why us?
Rain danced on the blacktop – and when we again returned to gravel, the rain danced on gravel turning it to slurry of mud and stone. Puddles formed – deep puddles. Each of which might as well be a portal to hell. Who knew what monsters lurked in the depths of these black holes waiting to swallow a wheel? This went on all the way to the 2nd check point – the roadside spring (mile marker 30). Here we quickly stopped and took our required pictures only to continue. Drivetrains sounded like they were filled with rocks. Mine was brand new, I tried not to think about it. We continued, it was raining and there was no talking in the group. Jorden held pace and kept us on task. He was clearly our leader. An expert with navigation, strong on the bike, and made very quick work of our flat tires, this guy was phenomenal. Did not talk much, but when he clipped in there was no question, it was time to go. The rain kept coming as we progressed towards the 3rd check point – abandoned snowplow (mile marker 38).
We took our snowplow pictures and then continued. My chain was dropping which brought out a four-letter word – begins with “f”. Turned out to be a take-up issue in the derailleur and only happened in high gear. Quickly learned to stay out of high gear – the problem eventually fixed itself when the mud finally cleared.
It was somewhere after the snowplow when we first saw them. Angels!! Trail Angels!! Two of them. Lindsey and Addie – Addie is Liz’s daughter. In a small SUV parked on the side of a mud slicked road, they had a cooler – cold drinks, food, trail bars, towels and smiles and encouragement. They were the heroes of day and made this crucible possible. Without them, well… I don’t want to think about it.
At 1,979 feet, Mount Arvon was the 4th check point (mile marker 72) and the highest point in Michigan. The gravel roads were still muddy, but the sky was turning brighter with rain coming to an end. There was a lot of climbing, but I do not remember it being difficult. It was on this accent that Jorden saw the bear – lucky!! As we descended the back side of Arvon, the sun was coming out and we were glad to be warm again. Huron River Crossing was the 5th checkpoint (mile marker 111) which is up on Lake Superior. It was a long sloping ride up to the lake and not unpleasant. We knew we were close when the two-track turned to beach sand. Once at the lake, the site was glorious and beautiful. We waded across the Huron and there they were again – Lindsey and Addie and God bless them, they had pizza. Eating as much as possible, I also changed into a dry pair of socks.
Us at Huron River Crossing & Lake Superior.
At the crossing was our Games Master… I mean Race Director. Yes, I had been thinking Hunger Games for some time now – wondering what sort obstacle he was going to spin up next. Todd Poquette was standing there with this mischievous “I’m sorry” grin on his face. Wished us luck and off we went again down to L’Anse.
The trip down to L’Anse (mile marker 143) was an absolute gift. It was after 6:00PM – the wind was light, the hills easy, and the road mostly paved. Off to the west a stunning sunset unfolded bringing the day to a close. Our group separated a little here, it was Jorden and I followed by Steffen and Liz. On this stretch I took point as darkness settled. It was required. Over the course of the day, my taillight had snapped off (how could that happen?) leaving me unprotected from the rear. Jorden positioned himself in the back to make sure we were covered. Arriving in L’Anse, it was dark. We found Lindsey and Addie at a waterfront park. They again topped us off with drinks and snacks. We had a tire that required attention – making quick work of that, we were off to the 6th checkpoint, McCormick Outhouse.
Again, we were in pairs. It was Jorden and I, Liz and Steffen. Once we were well clear of the L’Anse blacktop and back in the forest, Jorden picked up the pace to a speed I could not hold. The result was that we to separated.
Now alone in the dark, the night turned magical. Heat lighting flashed on the distant horizon, an owl hooted to break the evening silence – and to scare the crap out of me (sent by Todd I’m sure). And then there were the stars – millions of them twinkling through the canopy of trees under which we passed. Riding alone, at night, on a two track, in the U.P. forest was hands down my favorite part of this whole experience. Not sure why but it really brought a feeling of self-reliance and peace that I did not expect.
It was 2:00AM when I arrived at McCormick Outhouse (Mile Marker 172). Jorden was there, Lindsey and Addie were dutifully on station. Talking to Jorden, he casually remarked that we still had 80 miles to go – a formidable ride on its’ own. I distinctly remember hearing those words but refused to understand what they meant. I had no response.
The big question was the status of Liz and Steffen. With no Cell phone service, there was no way of knowing their location on the tracking web site. The answer came when two guys we had been trading position with all day arrived at the checkpoint. Liz was not doing well – sick to her stomach and rolling slow – Steffen was riding with her. We all knew what this meant, and it was heartbreaking. She was the heart and soul of our little group and to this point, consistent and strong – now she would not finish. And that is the thing about Crusher, it is indifferent and does not care who finishes and who doesn’t. What happened to her could have happened to any one of us for a thousand different reasons. Done for this day, done for this night, but done with Crusher? There will be more.
With the news about Liz, Jorden departed up-trail. Lindsey and Addie went off to find Liz hoping to restart her engine. Knowing that Steffen would want to finish, my plan was to wait for him. After just a few minutes though, I started to get cold in the night air. This was not good, forcing a decision to continue alone to the 7th checkpoint – Yellow Dog River Crossing (Mile Marker 204).
During this stretch the moon came out. Not a full moon but big enough to wash out the stars and brighten the night. It was also here when it started happening – hallucinations!! And the moon was do a fine job to vividly enhance them. While my eyes were seeing all sorts of crazy impossible stuff (think garden gnomes dancing on tree branches), my brain was clinging to the goal of reaching Yellow Dog before dawn. It was 5:30 AM when I waded across that river- goal achieved.
Feeling pretty good, I got on the bike, only to jump off again. There would be no riding here. No riding for what seemed like two miles. The trail was a washed-out steep incline of sharp rocks, soft sand and flowing water. It sucked. This was a dark place for me and have no appreciation for it. With no choice but to keep going, I kept going.
Finally clearing this mess sometime later, I was able to start riding again. I was tired, speed was gone, but was able to keep moving towards the final checkpoint Chunky Summit (Mile Marker 244). It was about 3 miles shy of Chunky when I saw it standing there – a horse on the side of the trail eating the leaves off a tree. I could hear him chewing. I blinked once, then twice then realized that was no horse. It was a moose – big moose (or Todd in a moose suit) having Sunday brunch and blocking my way at the same time. After taking my tourist picture, I moved forward slowly hoping this thing would casually wander off. The last thing I wanted was to be raped by a lovesick moose who mistook me for an attractive mate.
Chunky Moose or Todd in a Moose Suit – pretty sure I see a zipper.
Wander off it did. Calling this a good omen, it was not 10 minutes later that a rider came up behind me. It was Steffen and still riding strong. I was very glad to see him. Together we continued towards chunky at a much faster pace than I was riding alone – he relit my fire and we were cooking again. We got to the summit but could not find the exact checkpoint to include in the required selfie picture. He searched the back trail, I went up-trail. We found that sign, got our pictures, and were joined by the two other riders we had seen throughout the crucible. There were four of us now to finish the ride – and finish we did. Riding like the Four Horsemen from the book of Revelation, we descended from Chunky like there was no tomorrow. At that pace, it did not take us long to make it back to the trail head (mile marker 250).
I expected nothing on arrival but could not have been more wrong. There were well-wishers. Lots of them with open hearts and open coolers, congratulating us for what we had done. Steffen and I congratulated each other and with that I immediately started to feel better.
To Steffen, Liz, and Jorden – these are fantastic individuals who invited me on to their incredible team. I wish them well and will ride with them anywhere and at any time.
May the Odds be ever in your Favor. (Hunger Games)
Games Master of the Hunger Games. Hmm? – Striking resemblance to Todd.
More about Liz…
It was a beautiful Sunday morning in mid-September, Church (Covid online Church) was finished and I was just about to leave for an easy ride when my wife Nancy commented on a Facebook post saying, “she did it”. Not to leave me wondering, further explained that Liz Belt had just finished Crusher. Checking my Strava fitness app, sure enough there was Liz with 250 miles in the bag. And the title of her ride “Quick Rip”. Not only did she finish, she did so two and half hours faster than our August effort. I could not have been happier.
Liz is an Iraqi War Combat Veteran, Wife and Mom, and the Proprietor of a Spin Studio up in Traverse City https://intrepidcycling.co. Having one of those driven and infectious personalities, she is one all-around Badass both on and off the bike. With all that and being very accustom to “Doing Hard Things”, leaving something like Crusher undone – Out of the question.
30 hours on the bike – feeling it