Sunday, October 2, 2011

The 'Heck of the North' Finds Herself - Wins Hearts

Jeremy Kershaw sends out final instructions

It's been my experience that the great gravel road races seem to have a feel all their own. The Trans Iowa has it's haunting mystery, The Dirty Kanza, it's breath taking views, and the Ragnarok's stunning bluffs. These are just a few examples of how races become known for something that their director's never really set out to establish. The young "Heck of the North" would be no different. Just in it's infancy, the "Heck" as it is known struggled to find it's own identity. Jeremy Kershaw, the race director (DBD member) neverously tweaked the details of the race almost as if he was looking for that certain something, yet not sure what it was. I often wondered what Kershaw wanted the "Heck" to be, as he seemed to force feed his young child. I was just a competitor in his game so I vowed to roll with whatever direction he pushed his young upstart. Maybe some where deep down I knew that it wouldn't be Kershaw who found the "Heck's" identity, but rather the race itself. Year number three for the race would do just that. Like a small child who's personality begins to shine through the race began to squirm out of it's cocoon and leave it's mark on all who would toe the line as well as spectate. It is my hope to convey the emerging personality of the "Heck" in the words that follow. The race as experienced through the eyes of one of it's competitors, who was truly touched by it's big warm embrace.

A snappingly crisp morning had all the riders confused by what to wear as temps were expected to sore from 31-61 degrees F throughout the day. I wanted/needed to go light in order to stay competitive with the likes of this field. Some of the best gravel riders, mountain bikers, and road riders in the state of Minnesota would be attending this race. The field was extremely deep, with what a fellow DBD member, Charlie Farrow, claimed could be any one of twenty who were capable of winning this thing. To say that I needed every advantage was an under statement. I resigned to start the race cold and accepted that I'd finish hot. So goes fall racing in northern Minnesota. 112 riders left a little known parking lot that marks the start of the North Shore snow mobile trail at about 8:10 a.m. with Kershaw buzzing ahead on a super cool little moter scooter. I coughed up his exhaust as I stayed at the front end of the field, too nervous to even settle back into the pack during the roll out. Eventually, Kershaw pulled off and set us free. He glanced in my direction with a look that he might have if he was sending his daugher out to her first day of school, or was he telling me to be good to her, meaning the "Heck" (his baby). Maybe he was looking my way to let me know that he was pulling for me. All these thoughts ran through my mind as I inched up to the pointy end of the race. A simple email the day before the race from him let me know what he couldn't let every one know, he was rooting for me. It meant a lot and I wanted him to be proud. The "Heck" was in my hands now and I wanted to take good care of her for him. She was also in the capable hands of two other DBD'ers, Big Buff and Charlie Farrow. Big Buff had let me know that he'd shelter me under his big draft and watch out for me at the front of the field, keeping me safe from harm. Farrow too acknowledged that we were all in this thing together, but Charlie was aware that he posessed late season horse power that he wanted to test. I knew he had it as did Big Buff, I'd be content to ride in their shadow for as long as I could.
Joe Meiser and Tim Ek ready to start.

I had the pleasure of hosting fellow Salsa teammate, Joe Meiser at my house the night before. Joe needed a place to stay and our door is always open for him. Joe and I hit it off the first time we met on the dusty gravel of 2009 Trans Iowa. Ever since that day the two of us seem to come together like magnets in races. I'm not sure why, but it seems clear that we understand how each other thinks when were on those bikes. Our like mindedness has proven itself time and time again, this day would be no different. As the race unfolded Joe and I began to do our best to control it the best that we could. Knowing glances, anticipated surges, and fast rotations would become the name of our game as we would attempt to "one, two" our competitors with jab after jab. However, like a heavy weight fighter, they just wouldn't succomb. We'd fight on and on...

I used to wonder if the "Heck" struggled to find her legs, because she was so flat. The terrain didn't seem to dictate the physcial well being of the racers. Large groups of racers could stick together for huge lengths of time which often frustrated the front runners. In other words, it was a course where attacks resulted in little damage other than spent energy from the front of the field. This factor changes the approach of the riders who are trying to control the race, as experience has taught them that the beauty of the draft will allow many a rider to stay in the "hunt". Therefore, the only way to blow up the field is in the trail sections. There are three off road sections in the race. Veterans of the "Heck" know that this is where things will and must go sky high if there is any hope to seperate the group and create a fast moving break away.

Please don't think for a second that there weren't attempts to shatter the hugh peloton that rolled through the country roads north of Duluth. At one point I was riding comfortably in about 4th position when I felt the presence of a fast moving rider approaching on my left. A small little double whistle only audible to me came to my ear. I knew it was Joe and he was telling me to get out of line and grab his wheel. Immediately, I peeled out of the pace line and jumped on his wheel. My heart rate sky rocketed as he and I moved into a fast rotation followed by two other riders. A tiny gap began to form, but not for long as the peloton simply strung out into single file and reeled us back in. I knew it had to happen in the trail, it just had to.

L-R:  Joe Meiser, Tim Ek, Jason Buffington (Big Buff) make final preps.
The "Brimson Connector" as it is known to the locals was the first trail. It is notorious for holding a huge swamp about a quarter of the way through, but after the swamp it's pretty smooth mountain bike riding from there to the next piece of gravel. I knew exactly where the hidden little entrance to the trail was and got into it in 1st position. Soon a very skilled Shawn Miller blew past me followed by Meiser. My extra inflated tires skipped and bounced over the rocks as I barely held onto control. I felt something large hit my leg, only to notice a much valued water bottle being ejected from the cage. I couldn't worry about being down a bottle at that moment, but it was a large concern as I only had just enough for 100 miles, now I'd be short 25 oz. The effort had me dizzy as I struggled to keep Shawn and Joe in my sights. Then, suddenly Shawn jumped head long into the swamp while carrying his bike with Joe right behind him. Shawn seemed to hiccup a bit as the mud grabbed him, but he was through it quickly and mounting back up. I jumped in without hesitation, my bike in my right hand and the front wheel slamming into Joe's back as he struggled to remove his left leg from the swamp's grasp. I too was in it's icy grip. Two men in Salsa kits struggled to not be swallowed whole by the Brimson swamp. We were up to our crotches in the stinky black bog. I recall curlying my toes in an effort to not lose my shoe as I reclaimed my leg. After what seemed like minutes, but was most likely 10 seconds we were clipping in and on our way. "GO EKI!!" from behind me. It was Farrow he was still behind me and right on my wheel. I felt inspired knowing my training partner was still with me. Unfortunately, Big Buff went down with a flat at about the 15 mile mark, it was just Charlie and I left of the DBD'ers. We cleaned the section in about 5th and 6th position, perfect! We were both up into our big rings and moving quickly in an attempt to become part of the break away. Suddenly, and without warning I spotted a huge pot hole that showed itself under the bike in front of me. Quickly, I lifted my machine and cleared the hole through mid air. In an instant I heard the clash of chain on stays and the hard hit of a rim bottoming out. The blast of a tube was deafening as air blew from the maimed tire. "Who was it?", I thought, "Not Charlie!". I asked the rider near me what happened, "Farrow flatted" was all he said. I felt Charlie say to me, "It's in your hands now Eki". I felt bad, because he was riding so strong and right up at the business end of the race. He would have had the result he wanted, I'm sure of it. I told the rider next to me that I was the last man standing. I'm not sure who this rider was, but he knew of the DBD. He simply said, "Yeah, there's only one of you now". The coldness of the remark inspired me. I rode straight to the Salsa jersey in front of me. Joe and I would now stay on the front as much as possible in an attempt to stay out of danger and control the pace if we could. There were other staples at the front as well. Shawn Miller, Rhett Bonner, Jim Bell (the strongest rider in the field without question), Matt Ryan, and a few others would most certainly rotate in. There were two more trail sections, which meant two more sky high efforts ahead. I began to wonder how many times I could go that hard.

The second and longest trail went off without incident. It was long steady slog at maximum effort, but I was able to keep Joe in my sights while he lead the train through the trail. It seemed I was comfortably going as hard as I possibly could, if that makes any kind of sense. Shortly after this trail the strong Jim Bell went to the front and began to lift the pace, but something was amiss. I didn't want to chase his wheel and neither did any one else. So, there we all sat watching him ride away. A few riders flatly stated, "let him go", "I'm not chasing him anymore", I even chimed in, "I can't chase him, it takes too much energy". We were all racing for 2nd now as he disappeared from our sight. However, it was still early, we had just crossed the halfway check point. If he could hold that solo break away to the end, then he most certainly deserved the win, but there'd be a head wind and he had no help. He was "all in".
Tim Ek tops out the Pleasant View climb.

The dolldrums of the race snuck up on me and I began to feel extremely tired. A glance at my gps had me at 65 miles in. I reviewed how much time I had spent at the front and I was mad at myself for doing it. I wondered if I'd be able to survive the attacks that I knew were coming. I went to the back of the group to eat and collect my thoughts. The always strong Ross Fraboni joined me. He was nursing an earlier injury and wasn't expecting much from his day and had resolved to hold on for as long as he could. He commented about my efforts at the front and offered me his extra bottle knowing I was short. I thanked him, but shook off his offer as Joe had already forfeited one to me. I continued to wallow at the back of the twenty man pack as we rolled over my favorite training road, the Fox Farm. I thought back to days of laughing and riding along through this stretch with Big Buff and Hondo (Charlie), but it sure didn't feel that way this time. I needed to recover, and fast!

If a guy holds any chance to win the race he MUST get through the Moose Mile in a top position and unscathed. The Moose Mile is the final off road section and the roughest. There are a lot of long sections where the rider is forced to carry the bike and run. The riding is picky and tricky. Hidden rocks and roots had talented racers rolling in the bushes every 10 feet. Meiser and I moved through in 1st and 2nd position, with one of the best mt. bikers I know, Todd McFadden on my wheel in 3rd. A couple twisted ankles, slips and falls later and we were clear of the trail and starting our descent toward Lake Superior. I was still in the front and the group was being chiseled down. The "Mile" had torn a handful of riders out of the group, there were now 13 of us begining the Lester Park Rd descent, a four mile drop to the big lake. Earlier strategizing had told me that if I was still in the lead group at this point that I had an honest chance at winning the thing. I was there and I would implement my plan.

Completely done in!

I expected attacks on this stretch, but none came. In fact, the group had a hard time organizing and my sense was that the guys were pretty tired, I knew I was. I was beat! Under 10 miles to go in this race with the last 4 being uphill had me wondering about this full water bottle of Joe's that I was carrying. I wouldn't need it, so I began to spray it out on the road. "NO EKI!", McFadden yelled. Then came one of the coolest moments of the day. I held the bottle in the air as Todd rode to me. He took it from me, proceeded to take a long pull, then pass it on. Our little band of 13 all got a sip from that bottle before it was empty, our last act of compassion toward each other. The battle was about to begin.

Joe Meiser shortly after finishing.
I attacked hard and fast on a down hill section gaining about 200 yards on the rest of the boys. A glance over my shoulder showed me that they weren't interested. "Holy crap, are they letting me go?!". I figured if I could get to the bottom of 7 Bridges Rd. alone, then maybe there'd be a chance I could sneak up that big climb alone and in for the win. The group decided that the entertainment of watching me ride alone in front was over and they reeled me in without concern. Humbled, I continued to stay at the front for the long climb. I lead the group up and into the Amity Trail. Amity is the equivalent of a good conditioned two track. No real technical skills are needed here, but you are riding in the woods. The final sections of the race consisted of Amity, a 1/2 mile tar section, then the headwall climb of Pleasant View Rd. to the finish. My dream of glory would have to happen here. About a 1/4 of the way through the trail I attacked forcing a split in the group. Joe Meiser, Matt Ryan, Todd McFadden, and Ted Loosen came with me leaving other strong riders to make up the chase group. McFadden grabbed my wheel and instantly attacked me back. Loosen, Ryan, and Meiser went with him, I didn't. I had nothing left to give. I was riding at maximum effort and I desperately tried for more, but it wouldn't come. I was stuck between groups and running scared. Nothing seemed to change and time moved in slow motion as I approached the Pleasant View climb. The proportions of this hill are such that getting off and pushing the bike is a reality. However, I held my spot, struggling up the pitch and rolled in for 5th place overall, with my good friend Joe in front of me for 4th. Fellow Duluthian Todd McFadden finished 2nd giving every thing he had to chase down a fast climbing Ted Loosen. Also from Duluth, Shawn Miller came in after me (6th) impressing me with his effort throughout the entire day as did Matt Ryan (3rd).
Joe and Tim go 4th and 5th.

My training buddies Big Buff and Hondo, never gave up the fight, but their's was of a different nature. They battled mechanicals and wind, alone to their own thoughts and devices. Sometimes that fight is the worst of them all.

3 of the 4 Duluth DBD'ers at Big Buff's post race party.
L-R:  Tim Ek, Jeremy Kershaw, Jason Buffington

The finish line parking lot was buzzing with excitement from riders and their families. I took it all in and realized that the "Heck of the North" was on the gravel racing map with a personality all it's own. What that personality is? You'll have to come up and ride the race to find out. When you're done, you'll know.

Thanks Jeremy, thanks.



Jeremy Kershaw said...

Great story! Felt like I was right there choking on the dust and feeling the burn. You and the front boys did the Heck proud. Thanks for the effort and I'm already looking forward to 2012.

TMF said...

Well written Tim. Thanks for the was a blast.


Anonymous said...

Great effort Tim! When the horses are let loose there is no letting up! Grady

Anonymous said...

Honest Effort Brother.

Boz said...

Finishing w/ Pleasant View is almost cruel. What a test!

Josh said...

I have returned to this post quite a few times over the last year as it's one of my favorites to read. I toe the line as a rookie to not only the Heck, but this whole world of gravel racing next week and I am confident that this will be the race that sets the hook. I'll see you out there, probably not for very long after the start, but I look forward to seeing you around at the after party. Best of luck.