We left St. Paul, Minnesota in the blistering heat of Friday rush hour. Rows of cars stacked on top of each other crawled across ribbons of concrete. My phone pinged with texts from my friends offering advice and well-wishes–reminding me that in seven hours I will be chasing the stars, blinking tail lights, and the sound of bicycle tires racing across the gravel roads of Minnesota’s western prairie.
My thoughts were a burbling stew of anxiety, planning, anticipation, doubt, and wonder. This is my first attempt at 240 mile Day Across Minnesota. Just how does one prepare for a 240-mile gravel race that starts at midnight?
For those that have raced long distances, this feeling and swirl of the mind is familiar. Staying true to its name the Day Across Minnesota starts at the stroke of midnight leaving riders 24 hours on one calendar day to complete the challenge. What separates The Day Across Minnesota from anything I’ve ever done before is the midnight starting time. A 240 miles long race promises a long day in the saddle. The starting line is in Gary, South Dakota, a tiny town on the western border of Minnesota. The finish line is next to the infamous Harbor Bar in Hager City, WI on the banks of the Mississippi River.
We planned our arrival in Gary, SD so I wouldn’t have to sit around and wait too long for the race to start. I knew sleep was out of the question, so I planned to have enough time to get my bike setup and checkpoint stops ready, but not so much time to get lost in my mind.
We arrived just as the sun was setting. Race check-in at the Buffalo Ridge Campground was littered with bikes, support vehicles, and riders eager to get started. My pre-race routine is well established, so I spent the next couple of hours checking in with friends, hanging out with my friend, and on-course support Jason patiently waiting for the minutes to click away.
At 11:30 Jason decided to get a head start on the other support vehicles hoping to get to the 65-mile checkpoint and set up in time to allow him a couple of hours of sleep.
“You Should Have Heard Them Just Around Midnight”-Mick Jager
Racers started to take the starting line at about 11:45 PM. The air was buzzing with energy. The red glow of hundreds of taillights casts an eerie glow. Foreshadowing? Or simply dazzling display? Race Director Trenton Raynor called us to order on his mega-phone with a short word of encouragement. At the stroke of midnight, a volley of fireworks sent us off into the star-streaked night.
The scene was incredible. Headlights danced across the gravel road. Rocks and pebbles pinging of my steel frame. A haze of dust floated in the air like smoke from canon fire. A quick peek over my shoulder revealed hundreds of buzzing fireflies lost in a cloud. In truth, it was hundreds of riders chasing the night. Bike lights shining through the haze. The forty-five-degree temperatures held a crisp in the air. Unseasonably cool for August, I wondered if I had enough layers to keep me warm.
Check Point 1: 3:25 AM
The first 65 miles was fast and unrelenting. I was in a group of 20 riders bent on destruction. For 30 miles we kept a hard pace over 20 mph. I didn’t plan on hanging with that group for too long, but I like to get off with the front to stay out of trouble. I’d been drinking water all day. I was realizing that mistake as I’d reached my limit of fluids and needed to stop for a nature break after an hour of racing. Losing a fast group like, while part of the plan, is still a letdown. I hoped to stay with it until I saw Jason to refill my bottles. All I could do is watch the red glow shrink away into darkness.
Seeing no lights coming for me and the blinking just up the road, I started chasing convinced I could close the gap and get back on that group. That was a mistake that would cost me later. After nearly two hours of chasing, I knew my error. I picked up a few riders dispatched by the hard pace from that pack, but they were done so I left them behind. A charging group from behind caught me. I was relieved to have company again. However, after a couple of miles, I felt the call of nature again and had to stop. By the time I made it to my checkpoint I stopped a total of five times. Unreal. I can usually ride for three or four hours without stopping.
It was 3:25 AM when I crested the hill and found Jason and Ava, his four-legged friend. I grabbed a small sandwich, drank a mini-coke, loaded my bike up with fresh bottles, and went off into the night. The cool temperatures were taking a toll on me. Expecting to warm up through the exertion, I only had a sleeveless base layer, short sleeve jersey, and arm warmers to keep the night chill from getting to me. It wasn’t working. I added a wind vest, but that wasn’t enough to keep me from shivering once I got underway. I wouldn’t see Jason again until mile 125.
The gravel roads were loose and unpredictable. Given the extremely dry conditions, I expected fast, hardpack. Most of the roads appeared to be recently freshened with larger stones-soft and deep with pockets of sand. Rare was the hard pack gravel famous in this region. I found myself wrestling the roads, in a fistfight with my bladder, and fending myself from the cold temperatures zapping my mojo. It was 5:00 AM and I needed the sun to make its appearance, or I was heading to Sufferville.
At mile-85 we hit the first sign of civilization, a 24-hour convenience store. The group I was riding with split in half with some choosing to stop and others pressing on. I needed to duck behind a dumpster again to address my overactive bladder, so I stopped. There were about 20 riders strewn about the parking lot. I overheard one rider telling his support team he was done. Lights out…no more.
Only one other ride, Dan, was ready to roll out with me. We rode off into the darkness. I was still shivering and needed to get moving. Dan and I kept a strong pace. I can see he was going to be a good companion to click off the miles…until…
About 15 miles after the gas station Dan started to complain about not being able to see his Garmin or his watch. “When’s the next turn? I can’t see my Garmin”. A few minutes later he announced that he could only see about 15 feet in front him. He wasn’t wearing any eye protection. Riding in a big pack racing 20 mph kicking up all kinds of dirt and dust had coated his eyes. He couldn’t see. He was also riding unsupported until Canon Falls at the 215 miles point well up the road.
I was not going to leave him, so I assured him I would be his eyes and get him as far as I could. I was still shivering and having my own problems, but having a companion, even blind, was better than riding alone.
Dan and I charged to the top of the Minnesota River Valley following a narrow farm trail. The sun was cresting the horizon lifting my spirits, but my legs were feeling the fatigue and energy I burned chasing that group. The cold sucked a lot of me, too. With all my overactive bladder issues the first 65 miles, I cut back on my fluids to limit my stops. I was a little worried that I had not taken on enough fluids drinking about only two bottles over the last three hours. Not much…
Interlude: Fuel and Fluids
Getting the fluid and calorie ratio right on these events is a tricky game. Too and your body’s not absorbing what it needs. Not enough and you run the risk of cramping, dehydration, and the bonk. I try to take on about 250-300 calories for every hour of effort. For the past two or three years, I’ve been drinking those calories with products like CarboRocket or Tail Wind. The benefit is you are getting both your fluid and calories in one shot. The problem is, when it is cool out, you don’t drink as much. Adding insult to injury, after six or seven hours that stuff is hard to put down. That is compounded when it is very hot out. For The DAMN I decided on a blend of electrolyte tabs in one bottle, fuel in another adding solid foods and gels to balance out the time I’m not drinking calories. For the most part, it works.
Check Point 2: 6:55 AM
Jason was a welcome sight at mile 125. It was about 7:00 in the morning. I parked myself in a chair to eat breakfast, change out my glasses, and reload my onboard fuel. The sun is up. The birds are singing, and I am no longer shivering like one of Shakelton’s lost Antarctic crew members. Halfway to Hager City. Ava, our team mascot was jumping up greeting me with all the vigor a dog can muster.
I sat down, grabbed leftover pizza from the previous night, and downed a coke. The goal is to get some calories into me but not linger too long. I spent a few extra minutes visiting an old friend before heading out with fresh bottles and a refreshed outlook.
Dan’s vision continued to be a problem. I gave him saline to wash his eyes, but it wasn’t helping. Despite his vision problems, we kept cranking at a strong pace. The next 30 miles clicked off with a steady rhythm. We picked up and dropped a few other riders, but I kept riding with Dan to keep him moving forward.
Following a pitstop for snacks and a short rest at 155 miles in Henderson, MN we hit the “enhanced gravel” section requiring a little bushwhacking along the Minnesota River. Dan’s vision was improving, but his day was about to end abruptly.
The entrance to the bushwhack was clear. Navigating through it was not. I went ahead about 100 yards through the brush and sandpits when I heard a catastrophic chain crunch from behind. I looked behind me. I could not see anyone. I hollered back to see what happened. Long story short…Dan managed to break his chainring. Not his chain…his chainring. I’ve never seen or heard of this happening but there it was. Dan’s day was over. He pushed his bike the short distance back to town. Lights out. Party over. Dan had to call it a day.
While waiting for Dan to figure out his issues, and ultimate retreat to town, a small group came through the brush. I jumped on their five-man train.
Checkpoint 3: 1:15PM
After the town of Henderson, the topography changes dramatically. The climb out of the Minnesota River valley brings you to a plateau for about 20 miles. The relatively flat prairie terrain slowly gives way to waves of deep rollers. One. After. Another. You crest the peak to see four or five more greeting you for miles. They weren’t long, but some of these hills featured a 9-10% grade sending your legs into spasms. For some riders, these rollers were too much causing them to walk them.
The small group I was riding with swapped stories about past races throughout our careers. Telling stories is a great way to knock off the miles, to help forget about that hot spot on your foot burning a hole through your shoe, the creak of your dusty chain, or the nagging zinger that’s been needling between your shoulder blades for miles. Everybody’s got a story to share.
My merry band stuck together all the way to my final checkpoint with Jason. I pulled off. Their party was father up the road. I was feeling much better than when I arrived at the 125 checkpoint this morning. Jason found a nice spot in the shade for him and Ava to hang out. There were several other vehicles lined up along the road providing good company.
Jason generously served up a sandwich and refreshed my bottles. I brought six bottles so I could rotate them with different fluid options leaving the empties with him. I forgot to tell Jason that I was absolutely done with Tailwind mix for the remainder of the day. There comes a point where you simply can’t put that stuff down anymore. I met my limit of sweet drink mixes. I emptied the mixed bottles and added some Nuun tablets for something lighter and a different flavor. Much better.
After about 10 minutes of rest and a bite of another sandwich, I threw my leg over my bike and started off. I rode past a pit crew under a Green Bay Packers Eazy-Up so I gave them the “Go Pack! Go!” cheer which sent them into a frenzy. When you’re deep in Viking’s country it is always good to let your countrymen know you’re there.
At this point of the day, the sun is high in the sky casting a strong and steady UV stream on my back and shoulders. Jason and Ava were about an hour behind me which means I’m crossing the 200-mile threshold. Forty more miles. All downhill from here, right? Suddenly the weight of the day hit me. The fatigue hit me. The sun hit me. The two-hour chase to catch that group I left at the 30-mile mark caught up with me. The shear pin broke– the wheels were coming off.
This is the moment. This is the test. This is when you either beat the demons in your head back into the dark, dank hole they came from, or cave in. It would be easy to let them take over. It would be easy to grab your phone and call your buddy. You start thinking about that Hazy IPA in the cooler you saved for the finish line. It would taste pretty good right now. Really damn good. Choices and outcomes are measured. Decisions are made.
The Final Push: 2:30 PM
I wasn’t done. I came to The DAMN determined to cross the finish line. But I was overheating and needed to find some shade. I already adjusted my “goals” hours ago. I gave myself the mental and physical break I needed. A ten-minute pit-stop in the shade with a Salted-Nut Roll for company was just the thing. Cannon Falls was the next town, and I wasn’t far. I remember people talking about a Dairy Queen just off the course. That was my next destination.
It was amazing how hard the next 12 miles felt. Inching toward the Minnesota/Wisconsin border means you are entering the Mississippi River Watershed. Energized by the thought of a milkshake and French Fries I picked up my pace.
At the DQ I rejoined a rider from earlier that day. We decided to ride to the finish and kept each other going. The closer we got to Red Wing, the last Minnesota town before crossing the Mississippi River to the finish line Hager City, WI the longer and steeper the climbs. The last 15 miles are the hardest miles on the course.
Here is where the race’s toll was visible across the landscape. Riders that passed me hours ago were strewn about the roadside crawling up the hills, or simply lying in a ditch. The sun continued to shine hard without a cloud in the sky. I checked in with each of the riders to make sure they weren’t in any difficulty. Encouraging a few to keep fighting. Oddly, I started to get my legs back. My companion saw it too and told me to go. He was not feeling the same.
After a few killer climbs over the bluffs into Red Wing I approached the bridge to Hager City. My Garmin sent me in circles around downtown Red Wing until another rider came into view. It was the same guy from the DQ that sent me off about an hour ago. I was glad to see him so we could cross the finish line together. The last mile—the bridge over the Mississippi….glorious. That final turn into the finish line brought a rush of relief and joy. A high-five and hug from Trenton after I crossed the line closed the final chapter of The DAMN for me. It was a DAMN good day!
By the numbers:
Ride Time: 15:35:09
Elapsed Time: 17:41:05
Average MPH: 16.1
Elevation: 8,219 ft
Calories Burned: 6,475
Average HR: 136 bpm
Salt Air Custom Steel All-Road
Ultegra Di2 drive train-11-32 cassette
48/36 Easton EA90 Crankset
700c Roval Terra C Carbon Wheels
700×35 Terrene Elwood tires-tubeless
Custom Cedaero frame packs
A special thank you to Todd Bauer of TMB Images. Todd generously shared DAMN race images for this story. He’s a regular fixture on the roadside, or edge of the trail at countless races (mountain, cross, gravel—he’s there). Go visit his gallery from the DAMN and see more of his work at tmbimages.com.