This Saturday at 6 a.m., while most will still be soundly tucked into their beds, several hundred dedicated thrill seekers will be tucking themselves into a 106-mile cycling course that’s as grueling as it is beautiful.
The Maah Daah Hey 100, as it has for the last four years, will take riders on a journey through the heart of the Badlands — up and down Devil’s Pass, around slim, winding paths with 100-foot drops on either side, past grazing buffalo, and through the Little Missouri River.
Those taking a break from the task directly ahead of them will look up to find some of the state’s most breathtaking scenery.
“The trail has a romance of it’s own,” said Nick Ybarra, the race’s creator and director. “The same spell that was cast on Teddy Roosevelt was cast on me my first trip on the trail.”
Since its inception five years ago, when the full-length course was the only riding option, Ybarra and his crew have added four more distance options. The Maah Daah Hey 100 now has 75-mile, 50-mile and 25-mile courses and, newly added this year, a 13-mile course.
Along the way are nine checkpoints where the trail meets intersecting roads for family and friends to see their bikers go by. All five races start at different points, of course, but all trails lead to Medora, where family friendly events will be going on throughout the rest of the day.
With the additions, the enrollment numbers have grown from 60 in its first year to an expected 420 this year — its most ever.
Racers from all over — Florida, Texas, the East and West Coasts, and Canada — have arrived in North Dakota for the race, something Ybarra thinks attests to the exceptional characteristics of the trail and of the Badlands as a whole.
To give some idea of the difficulty of the full course, look no further than last year’s heat-induced dropout rate. With temperatures around 100 degrees, only 37 percent who started the race made it all the way to the finish line.
Luckily for the 420 participants this year, regardless of distance, this Saturday’s forecast looks to be a more temperate 80 degrees.
For the first timers, Ybarra offered some advice.
“Start small, then go bigger,” he said. “This trail has humbled many, many mountain bikers.”
Most 100-mile mountain courses, added Ybarra, are finished by the best bikers in around six hours. The course record for the Maah Daah Hey 100, set two years ago, is 8:56:22, held by Kelly Magelky, who is originally from Dickinson but now lives in Colorado.
As far as course specifics, the stretch between the second and third stop points could prove the toughest.
“Once the bikers reach that second station, they’ve done 50 miles with still 56 to go, and to get to that third station is 29 miles,” he said. “That stretch is so rugged, such a constant up and down. You keep reaching the top of a butte hoping for that third station. And all you see is endless Badlands. That happens so often.”
On the 364 days a year when the race isn’t going on, the toughest part isn’t even cycling related. That would be the course maintenance.
In order for the event to exist, many hours of behind-the-scenes mowing, weed whacking, branch trimming, and dirt shoveling is necessary. Otherwise, the elegant course would would be lost in the vast nature of the Badlands.
Phil Helfrich, whose involvement began when he found a flyer announcing plans to build the trail, has been volunteering ever since. He put forth 100 hours of his time this July to ensure the trail was up to task.
A four-time participant, Helfrich said the work is worth the pay off.
“Whether going uphill and downhill, dealing with heat, rain, thirst or hunger, you get challenged. That’s what keeps people coming back,” he said. “You find some inner strength you didn’t know you had.”
His enthusiasm mirrored Ybarra’s.
“The North Dakota Badlands are so unique and so unlike anywhere else in the world. To have the trail available to ride is just short of miraculous,” Ybarra said. “So I couldn’t let it disappear. That’s when we said we wanted to start hosting the race.”