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Hardest Single-Day MTB Race in America? Meet the Marji Gesick

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Michigan’s Upper Peninsula hosts what many claim is the most difficult mountain bike race in America, if not the world. An average DNF rate of 60% foretells the fate of riders who try to reach the end of the Marji Gesick’s twisted track.

Now in its fifth year, the Marji Gesick holds mystery as a major mountain bike event far from any expected epicenter. Marquette County, on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, is a remote and wild place, with deep forests and rushing rivers, all framed to the north and east by the world’s largest lake.

Rocky hills reveal tough singletrack. In your periphery, hints of a bygone mining culture are prevalent in abandoned structures, ghost stairways, and massive, moss-coated pipes.

But hundreds come to race each year, including national-caliber riders like Tinker Juarez, Jeremiah Bishop, Josh Tostado, Carey Lowery, Neil Beltchenko, Alexandera Houchin, and many more.

The course is touted as 100 miles long, give or take. In that distance, its unmarked route twists unforgivingly for hours as you pedal up and up, more than 12,000 feet in total climbing through the Michigan hills.

Marji racers on a slippery stretch of trail; photo credit: Rob Meendering

I rode a stretch of the Marji Gesick trail in August with race co-founder Todd Poquette. We met in Ishpeming, a mining center, and he let me preview a section of the course a few weeks before the annual event, held this year on September 21.

Registration for the 2020 race opens this Friday, October 11, at 8 p.m. ET. The races’ 666 participant spots are expected to fill up fast.

For more details on past and present Marjis, we caught up again with Poquette for some Q&A. Read on for more about the event and tips on how to complete one of America’s most iconic racecourses on two wheels.

Todd Poquette Talks About Marji Gesick

GearJunkie: Why is the Marji often called the hardest single-day mountain bike race in America? Is it the hardest in the world?

Poquette: When a decorated professional athlete like Jeremiah Bishop comes to town and declares your race the “hardest single-day mountain bike race in America,” people are going to take notice.

He’s raced all over the world, at every level, in every type of weather you can imagine. He’d seen it all — until he met Marji. Of course, we’ve done a good job of promoting Jeremiah’s quote, and the 60% DNF rate piques interest.

Todd Poquette

What makes it so hard?

Well, the course, of course! Lack of familiarity. Lack of preparation. Overconfidence. Weather. Bad luck. Poor nutrition. Under-developed bike skills. Fragile egos. The list is endless — that’s the beautiful part.

You do it one year and learn a lot. You come back the next year, apply lessons from the previous year, and find out you have more to learn. It’s not a one-and-done for most people; for some, it takes three attempts or more.

The race is marketed as “unsupported,” yet there are “trail angels” throughout the course helping riders. Did you ever imagine these angels would show up?

Stacie and I live here because of the terrific community Marquette County offers. But we never could have imagined what has happened to our “self-supported” event. I am honestly looking at shifting to a more accurate “community-supported” ethos.

We do not plan to begin putting in aid stations or support traditionally offered at an event, but at the same time, we cannot ignore the level of support. Our community has basically created a new category in the spectrum of endurance event support.

Map of the 100-plus-mile Marji course

Why not call it the Marji Gesick 108 instead of the 100? Or why not making it 100 miles instead of 108?

We get this question all the time. Life isn’t fair. One year it was 93 miles. Now it’s longer. Some years 104, others 108. If you ask 10 racers you get 10 answers. How long is it really? We believe it’s 105.

How do you feel the “evil” nature of the event marketing plays into the people who sign up for the race and their attitude on course?

Here are the three most common things people tell me about Marji Gesick, in no particular order: (1) It’s the hardest thing they have ever done, (2) the community support is unlike anything they have ever experienced, and (3) they love the marketing, message, humor, and raw delivery of the event through social media.

Sensitive people don’t love it, and that’s OK. The world is full of easy races they can attend. Marji racers are drawn to the challenge, shenanigans, and sarcasm. Does it motivate them? Damn right, it does. Does it inspire them? Absolutely.

I receive countless emails, texts, direct messages, and handwritten letters proving it. Marji Gesick is what Doctor Phil would call “tough love.”

Jorden Wakeley makes a deal with The Reaper; photo credit Rob Meendering

Who are some of the notable riders that are a part of the Marji scene?

Nice job putting me on the spot!

I’m going to give you some names of people, but it is by no means a comprehensive list of the many, many folks who we know and love: Matt Acker, Tinker, Jeremiah Bishop, Carey Lowery, Gordon Wadsworth, Carla Williams, Jorden Wakeley, Jeff Rupnow, Jill Martindale, Evan Simula, Jenny Acker, Roy Kranz, Mark Kransz, Chad Schut, David Cate, Scott Quiring, Kip Hartman.

Many more.

Tell us more about the planning that goes into finding the hardest, most uphill route from Marquette to Ishpeming.

The truth is local trail-builders spent the better part of the past 30 years building it. By the time Danny and I sat down and started talking about putting this thing together, “it” was already there. We had some work to do, but the bulk of the heavy lifting had already been done.

Our vision involved connecting every major trail cluster Marquette County has to offer into one epic and painful uphill slog to the top of Jasper Knob. Many local races begin in Ishpeming and travel “downhill” to finish in Marquette. We wanted to go against the grain and create a route that is all uphill from start to finish.

Unlike most endurance races, there is no finish line cutoff time. Why?

It all started because of a determined young woman named Liz Finkelstein. She raced our first Polar Roll. I met her on the snowmobile trail with about 10 minutes between her and the 2:30 p.m. cutoff.

She had a long way to go — through the toughest and worst part of the course. She said she was OK, asked me to let her finish, and promised she would not quit. I told her if she wouldn’t quit, neither would I. In that moment, something shifted for me.

The podium had been decided many hours earlier, and most of the racers and fans had gone home, but Liz was standing in front of me battling. For what? To finish what she started! She finished close to 7:00 p.m.

Respecting every racer’s finish is in our DNA, it’s part of the culture here. Her race mattered as much as any, and in some ways, her finish, and others like her, is more impressive than most. I’m proud of a lot of the things we do — this is one of the things I am most proud of. Teaching people to focus on effort and not giving up.

Chad Mills illuminates the finish line after completing the Out & Back in Herculean style; photo credit: Rob Meendering

You are race director for the Marji, Crusher, and Polar Roll. What’s next?

Directing races is part of my role as Director of Adventure for 906 Adventure Team.

When I’m not helping plan the next adult death march, you’ll find me running Adventure Bike Club for kids 5-17 in Marquette, or helping communities like Delta and Gogebic Counties in the U.P. get their own Adventure Bike Club rolling. I also travel with and coach our local NICA team when they travel to races in Wisconsin.

What’s next? I want to expand our platform and inspire more people to discover the best version of themselves through outdoor adventure. That’s what I’m in it for. That’s why I left a lucrative corporate career.

From a social perspective, I think society is run by about 20% of people. They are your self-starters, go-getters, highly competitive individuals. Amid the other 80%, I think a lot of people are a single experience or single person away from realizing their best self — they simply need that moment or person to happen.

I want to help provide that moment or be that person — and those folks who have yet to realize their best. What do they have to offer us? Probably more than the 20% currently at the controls.

Last year, the cleanup crew found numerous empty cat food cans along the route. Who do you think was using cat food as fuel?

It’s part of our effort to re-establish a thriving community of cougars in west Marquette County.

The volunteers are a huge part of this event, staying up for 24 or more hours straight. What do you want to say to them?

There are not enough words to express how grateful we are. No thank-you will equal the effort our volunteers give year after year, from near and far.

One day a year, I see people from all walks of life, from all over the country, attempt to tackle the insurmountable. Nothing divides them, the obstacle binds them … and they give selflessly of themselves to complete strangers. Amazing humans. Simply amazing.

Alexandera Houchin, Jenny Acker, and Jill Martindale at the start of the Out & Back; photo credit: Rob Meendering

What is your favorite part of the course?

The finish line — and all of the raw emotions we get to witness. There’s nothing like it. You can be going on 30 hours or more with no sleep. But then you see headlights in the distance, they roll across the line, and you feel like you haven’t been there for 10 minutes. It’s magical.

How has the race changed over the years?

I’d like to say the only thing I have seen change is the number of racers and a few small adjustments we’ve had to make to accommodate larger numbers.

I mean, we’ve made it longer. That’s well-documented, and we joined the National Ultra Endurance Series. The partnership has been terrific, and they have allowed us to do things the way we want to do them. I think it’s been good for them and it’s been good for us.

We continue to reach more people across more states, even as far as the U.K.

What tips do you give first-time Marji racers?

Forget everything you know — or at least agree you cannot know what you do not know — and get your butt to Marquette to preride the course. It’s the only way you can truly prepare for what lies ahead.

Attend Marji Camp in June, a crash course in all the hardest stuff. Our coaches will teach you how to ride the tough stuff and help you develop the necessary trail confidence.

What tips do you give returning racers?

You’ve come too far and invested too much to turn back now. Temper overconfidence and control your pace. It’s too easy, especially in the first 15 miles, to go harder than you should and pay for it the rest of the day and night ahead.

What is the ideal bike for this event?

If you’re comfortable and competent on a single-speed, have a nice day. If a fat bike suits you, roll fat. It’s all about comfort and confidence. What do you feel gives you the best chance to finish?

I’ll give suggestions on tire choice and other equipment tweaks, but when it comes to the bike, I’d suggest you ride whatever takes you to your happy place. But be prepared: You might change your mind after your first Marji.

Sean Kickbush crossing a bridge after a brutal initial climb; photo credit: Rob Meendering

What unexpected gear do you recommend people bring?

Figure out how many bike lights you need — bring twice that. And pack for temps to range from 80 during the day to 40 at night.

Is there a single moment from this year’s race that stands out?

A guy walked up to me at packet pickup Friday night, smiled, and shook my hand. He said, “I already won.” I laughed and responded, “You won? What the eff did you win?” I thought he was being a smartass.

He said, “I lost 54 pounds. I already won. This has changed my life. People keep asking me if I think I’ll finish, or how long I think it will take. It doesn’t matter. I already won. I have my health, and I feel better than I ever have. Thank you.”

That’s when you know what you’re doing has transcended what you thought you were doing when it all started.

What motivates you to put on this event? How has that motivation changed over the years?

When I left the corporate world, I had a vague goal: leverage my skills and work ethic to impact my community in a positive way. I had no idea what that would be, what it looked like, or when it would happen. I just knew I was tired of my tireless efforts benefitting a company halfway across the country and never seeing tangible results from it.

In the beginning, it was impacting my community. But as this thing has grown, it has become ever more specific; it’s about people. I’m not just looking at what we can do to impact the community through events, tourism, and economic impact, I’m looking at more specifically at how we can change the future of our community by helping people change their lives.

With every success, the motivation deepens. The fire is burning brighter and hotter than ever.

Get more info on the Marji or sign up for the event at marjigesick.com/100-bike.

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