Thursday, October 7, 2010

Unbiased and Objective Heck of the North Race Report

The Heck of the North did NOT disappoint!

Part I: Without them there would be no race and then no beer…

Giving back to the community is what nice people-of-action do. Rich nice guyz-of-action may write big checks for civic improvement, think Alfred Nobel or like Mrs. Palucchi, who gave a million dollars to build and maintain a warming house and skating rink for general use down near the DECC a few years ago here in Duluth. Whilst poor, albeit nice folk need to improvise a little more; the little drummer boy played his drum a couple thousand years ago in Bethlehem for a special babe. When giving back to their communities, normal guyz like you and me, (but they are really not like you and me because they are inspiring and benevolent and generous), fall somewhere in between this spectrum of unbridled philanthropy and spontaneous street-displays of appreciation and honor. Jeremy Kershaw puts on the Heck of the North as a way of giving back to the local cycling community and his effort make all involved very happy. Thank you Jeremy Kershaw for making us happy, making people happy is a very special thing to do and should secure you a place in cycling heaven, where there are no saddle sores, raging motorists, or the like.

Thank You to all the folks that volunteered as well, including the Mangan Family that came all the way from Nordacoeduh to assist with this grand excursion. Also, Thank You to the Family Buffington for putting on a grand post-race party complete with four expertly and lovingly hand-crafted ales and a plethora of delicious fare. I know for sure that I speak for all when I give a collective BRAVO Heck of the North!!! Note: even Rich Hendricks, who took an amazing spill and yet finished the race seemed happy enough at the post-race party, especially after ingesting a couple pints of the Loon $%#* Stout.

Part II: …Now you know the rest of the story:

Although thrilling to personally participate in (as a mere bit player); the race action itself played out in a rather predictable way given the composition of the field of racers, the lay of the land, the onset of a significant head wind for the first few hours, and the time of year.

The author conservatively estimated that of just the ones he personally knew, there were at least twenty guyz signed up that could ride in (and influence) a lead pack and that within this pack there were at least ten guyz that could realistically win it. So, going into it, in the writer’s limited mind— the odds-on-favorites were Joe Meiser, Jake Boyce, Nikolai Anikin, Todd McFadden, Tim Ek, Shawn Gort, and Ross Fraboni. While certainly any one of the following could, given their past performances, easily sneak in for a top finish as well; Ryan Horkey, Jason Stukel, John Struchynski, Mike Dietzman, Shawn Miller, Jason Buffington, Dave Pramann, Tim Andrews, Matt Ryan, Josh Peterson, Mark VanderWolde, Rich Hendricks, Drew Wilson, Corey Berg, and Mike Haag (even on single speed). Eki and I were picking Meiser to win it even though he is a new sleep-deprived daddy. Yet clearly, on paper, Jake Boyce, the talented Cat. 1 roadie and ‘cross racer was the one to beat.

The course is beautiful, remote, varied, and pretty flat for the first ninety-eight miles, then suddenly with about four or five miles to go, one is confronted with a series of long sustained climbs that can and does break the spirit of many riders, especially weighty ones like the author. Throw in a head wind and the course is perfect for guyz that are savvy enough (and patient enough) to “sit-in” and wait for the final climbs and sprint to the finish (Nikolai wins this year’s “Sit-in-and-wait-to-strike” award). Thus the only way a chunky, old, non-climber has a chance to finish high is to somehow initiate a gap on one of the three off-road sections with the forlorn hope being that he can survive the final climbs before being caught up by the youthful and lean ones.

The first off-road path is a snow-mobile trail, but itz pretty short and comes on within the first half of the course. In this year’s race there was a break initiated on this section and a gap did emerge with about ten guyz getting away, followed by a group of four chasers. The author was in the chase group and luckily it was a motivated one consisting of the venerable veteran Mike Dietzman, the wily Drew Wilson, and the steely Shawn Gort; thus allowing us to regain the lead group as it headed into and out of the mid-way check point (sans Wilson, out w/mechanical). In many gravel road races, the Check Point can be a fitting opportunistic place to initiate a concerted effort by a few guyz to establish a gap on the big group, but at the Heck-of-the-North no such opportunity exists because of the fact that immediately following the checkpoint the course is flat and fast, allowing the big group ample time to coordinate a recapture of the few. This is exactly what happened to my training partner, Tim Ek, who flew solo through the Check Point and took off with purpose, but immediately understood that to try and gap the whole chase group on such a long flat section, against the wind, would be foolhardy (Note: The mild mannered and unobtrusive writer tried to explain this elemental concept to Mr. Ek during pre-race discussions, but the bull-headed Eki both chastised and castigated the writer as an “old fool!”).

The second off-road segment involves negotiating a pretty involved aspect of the grassy, swampy, and rolling North-shore Trail. Here in lies a real opportunity to test the survival-of-the-fittest theory, hurt the “real” competition, and ultimately establish a significant gap, but in this year’s race the trail was so swampy as to force even the best of riders off their bikes. Walking is a great equalizer and thus because of the very wet conditions this section did not afford an opportunity to divide and conquer the pack. Bringing up the rear, soaking in the proverbial “hurt-tank", the author, for one, was a happy camper when he saw the line of riders before him, all with their bikes shouldered, post-holing through the mucky hummocks that lay between the group and the hard-packed gravel, for he knew that this unstable terra-firma had afforded him a stay of execution.

Thus it came to pass that a group of eleven emerged from North Shore Trail intact. This lead group consisted of the following: Jake Boyce, Nikolai Anikin, Tim Ek, Shawn Gort, Ross Fraboni, Ryan Horkey, Jason Stukel, John Struchynski, Mike Dietzman, Tim Andrews, and the writer. Conspicuously missing were Meiser, Buffington, McFadden, Pramann, Peterson, and Ryan, et al, all of whom had looked strong but had somehow angered that erratic woman, Lady Luck, and/or also found themselves in ill-favored status amongst the unpredictable (and often unfair) gods of cycling battling losing efforts against flats, broken chains, wrong turns, runny noses, viruses, and the like. Happy to note that all lived to race another day and to smile when old Lady Luck strikes someone else an underhanded blow!

From the end of the North-shore trail to the base of the climbs,( just a few miles from the finish), lies only one more minuscule chance of deliverance (finishing in the top three) for the aged, weighty, non-climber and that is attacking the fabled Moose Mile with the doomed and desperate hope of somehow getting away and establishing enough of a gap to hit the climbs alone (or with one or two others) and making it to the top before the climbers catch back up…

Only sixteen or so miles from the finish, the Moose Mile starts with a challenging river crossing leading into a thickly forested, rock strewn, and rarely used mucky ATV trail. This year’s conditions were especially tough, but to the practiced rider it is surprisingly doable in good time, taking less than twelve minutes to cross over into the waiting gravel. Having practiced it several times leading up to the Heck, the author had a distinct advantage in knowing the terrain, but sadly knowledge almost always places a distant third to lung and leg power in bike racing. This “last chance” trail starts where the Cant road dead-ends. The narrator felt good on the Cant road and thus decided to at least make an effort by getting onto the trail in third or fourth position hoping that he could follow what would surely be a full-on attack by Boyce and Fraboni; both of whom are top notch ‘cross racers.

Making a beautiful Belgium-styled CX dismount crossing the river in third/fourth position, the author was dumbfounded at the speed with which Rosscoe Fraboni, Jake Boyce, and Nikolai Anikin flew through the rocky trail leading up from the river and then in a flash they were gone, gone, gone!!! Mind you, we, the chase group, were not idle, nor skittish, for we too went as hard as we could go, but the three leaders left us like we were standing at a funeral procession of some dignitary. Nevertheless, the eight chasers pulled through onto the gravel thinking that they would be rewarded with a glimpse of the three break-away riders and even perhaps a chance to run them down, but we saw nothing! It was simply amazing how fast they had gapped us and it sent a strong psychological message of the “real-politick” throughout the group.

As a realist in times of stress, the author looked at the lean & muscled body-types amongst the riders in the group as compared to his own ill-defined bulk, did a quick reflective assessment and then some basic mass divided by volume computations and then personal weight x energy x cardiac output calculations, and then immediately started to aim lower, figuring that planning for a top ten finish would be a more reasonable goal for the day, especially given the sustained climbs that lay between the group and the finish line. Of course the individual only knows what he/she is thinking in such a situation, but it may not be too far off the mark to assert that the fact of the matter was that all eight (except perhaps the great climber Eki), knew at that point, that the best one could hope for was a fourth place finish given the disappearance of the top three.

So it came to pass that the chase group made its way to the base of the climbs that heads up the Lester River, sans the amicable Gort who succumbed to the vile and merciless Leg Cramp Demon, a dark angel that shows no mercy. It was also at this point that the grizzled and defeated writer bid his comrades of some 100 miles, “adieu” taking his rightful place within the “caboose of despair,” riding in alone with only his many shortcoming, failings, and formable heft to keep him company to the finish line (in the 10th position).

Alas, whilst for the writer all that remained was to limp alone the final miles to the finish, his diminished mind daydreaming of the recuperative powers of liquefied fermented barley and hops ; two exciting dramas were playing themselves out up ahead on the last mile or two of the course. Uncatchable by the chase group, strong Nikolai and speedy Jake, side-by-side sprinted towards the line with the streamlined, youthful Boyce edging out the resolute, but less aero-dynamic Russian for the impressive win!

Meanwhile, Rosscoe had faltered on the last climb and was struggling to regain composure, whilst the remaining chasers lead by the redoubtable Eki surged with a dose of bloodlust at the sight of the third rider. At that point, the mischievous gods decided Fraboni’s fate by sucking the air from his tire leaving him stranded with but a mere half-mile from the finish. Eki jumped on the opportunity and fired it in for third place followed closely by the formidable Tim Andrews!!! Bravo Brave Men!!! Yet, the curtain had not fallen for many still would labor through their own challenges including Michelle Haag, who would go on to win the Women’s Division…BRAVO BRAVE WOMAN!!!

And of course it would be remiss to fail to mention the real heroes of the Heck of the North; the steady ones that finish it no matter the time and breadth of personal challenge involved. Namely: Derek Chinn and Scott Sundby, both of whom took ten and one-half hours to complete the course!!! This kind of steadfast effort reminds me of what the Sage of Winter Cycling Epics, Dave Pramann, once told me after he completed the classic Arrowhead 135 in a record time of like 16 hours, “I am the lucky one, I get to drink beer now, itz the guyz that battle the course for twenty-four hours, thirty hours, or even more that are the really tough ones” (Note: Or something like that, I was well into my fifth stout when said that to me!).

In any event, it was a great day for all and we all owe our thanks to Jeremy Kershaw and his team of do-gooders!!! Once again BRAVO HECK OF THE NORTH!!!!


  1. Bravo to you Farrow!! You under estimate yourself. Not to mention, your analytical sense of this race goes unmatched. You called it all! Your words were in my head as if coming through an ear piece from the team car. Thank you! I climbed the way I did, because you said I could. Again, Bravo! Mallory sends his best and offers another finger of rum to the MEN...

  2. You done the race proud, Mr. Farrow. I see bright future for you.

  3. As I sit here reading this, Loon S#!T Stout in hand, I realize: Had I spent as much time/energy prepping the Brimson, NST and Moose Mile as I did the Post race Beverage selection, I may have fared better. Priorities!