The "Heck of the North" is quickly rising to the ranks of a premiere gravel road race event in the Midwest. I recently was in touch with my good friend, training partner, and director of the event for a glimpse into what makes the "Heck" so special. I know the race wiggled it's way into my psyche and definitely broke me down to my most animalistic form as I scratched and clawed my way toward the finish.
Please take a moment for a sneak peek into what makes this race so great, from the best seat in the house.
Is it possible to be a director and fan at your own race? In other words, do you find yourself getting caught up in the action or are you completely neutral?
No, I am completely caught up in who is out front, who is making their first go at a gravel century, who has had bad luck. Part of the reason I borrowed a scooter this year was to witness the ride as it was happening...not just checking people in at the halfway and finish line. Seeing all the riders lined up in the parking lot before the start and then seeing the lead pack out on the course are two visual highlights of my year.
Has the "Heck" materialized into the vision you originally had?
Every one of the gravel events that I have ridden has unique feel. I was awe struck by the bluffs of the Ragnarok, and the wind-swept views of the Almanzo. I wanted to showcase the beautiful countryside of the Duluth area. I wanted riders to see the Big Lake, the woods and the pastures carved out of the wild. My intention of the Heck was to put a course together that created a lasting effect on the rider. I want the person who witnesses the route to think about it on their way home to where ever they live. So, yes, I think people seem to like the event, and that gives me a lot of pleasure.
What do you find to be the most satisfying part of being the race director?
I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility for the riders. I really enjoy meeting riders the night before during registration. Again, on the morning of the event, it is almost like Christmas seeing the parking lot fill up with cars and bikes and riders getting ready to roll out. I find it both odd and lucky that I was able to create an event (with the inspiration of other events) that has drawn so many wonderful people together. That is very satisfying.
If you could have one wish come true that would make the "Heck" even better, what would it be?
Actually, I would really like to see an increase in the number of female riders. I know there are some very talented female athletes in the Midwest, and I would love to draw them into this beautiful sport. Sometimes I think it would be cool to have a pro level rider do it...and then I think that might actually take something away. The great stories come from non-racing folks just trying to make it around the loop in one piece.
I know you're a strong athlete in your own right. Do you ever think about competing in your own race?
I think the first year I contemplated doing it. Then, as the start date drew near, I realized there was no way I could, or even wanted to ride it. I have plenty of other opportunities to test myself throughout the year. Riding the Heck would take away from the big picture that I so enjoy getting by spectating and managing it.
Were you surprised by the depth of talent at this year's race?
Yes. All of a sudden I had some of the regions most talented athletes wanting to ride the Heck. It made me feel proud that they wanted to take part in this thing that is very different than a lot of the other events they do. At the same time, I never want to take away from the majority of riders who are not racing any one other than themselves.
When do you actually exhale or can't you?
My anxiety level drops a hair after I get the riders out of the lot and onto the gravel. From there, they are on their own. I have now a fairly high level of trust in my cue sheets, so I am pretty confident that if a rider is paying attention, they won't get lost. By the time I finally get to Buffington's, finish my first home brew, and take in the stories of the day...that is when I feel like I can get a good night's rest again.
Let's face it, you're an excellent photographer. You captured some killer images during and at the conclusion of this year's Trans Iowa. Do you ever wish you could take off your director's hat and just shoot the event?
Thanks! It is something that I am actively trying to do...capture images from these very dramatic cycling events. This year, my intention was to shoot much more than I did. But alas, my borrowed two-wheeled transportation didn't have a very good day! We DNF''d. I am hoping to shoot the Heck more next year. As I have mentioned, it is tough to have both mindsets going at one time...part making sure the event flows OK and part trying to keep a creative eye, looking for good light. I love cycling photography and I see an untapped source of images living within these long, gravel events. My hope is to capture a few from both the perspective of participant and spectator.
Some people talk about that "extra something" that is found in special races. It seemed to me that there was a lot of talk at the post race party indicating that the "Heck" has it. If so, what do you think it is about the race that gets inside people.
I'm not entirely sure. If the Heck does get so lucky to inspire riders and leave a mark...it may come from a mix of the country they are riding through, the uncluttered, unsanctioned framework of the event itself. Maybe it is because the Heck is purely about the love of cycling and competition. Nothing more. I truly think it is a great group of people that get together for the Heck. I sense that it is competitive but somehow manages to stay friendly. I never want to lose that feeling for those that ride it.
"Heck of the North", 4 words. Can you describe the race in 4 words?
Simple. Organic. Challenging. Sustainable. I hate questions like that! I sound like a Whole Foods ad. But that's pretty close.
There you have it. We'll see you next year Jeremy. Thanks for giving us this gift.