Getting Lost in the UP: A Solo Mission to Finish The Crusher Gravel Race

Matt challenges himself to finish the Crusher, a gravel race that takes place on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, alone.
Photo: Hannah Morvay

What’s a summer without racing? Turns out, it’s 2020. Furthermore, it’s a summer with a looser agenda, more time at home, and less time churning cranks on a road bike for the sake of base miles. Now that all sounds like a win-win, though for a lot of us it’s anything but.

It’s a summer with profoundly less social connections made, seeing fewer places, and putting on more weight. I’m surely not the only who has noticed that if you’re not training for anything, then you’re riding with less intensity and frequency and there might be a correlation with an increase in calories. Compared to last year, where I had 10+ days of racing, it was much later in the season when I could fit into a few pairs of my favorite bike shorts.

The thought of being a race organizer this year is even scarier. Most years, races only shut down in the event of a massive downpour that turns the course into the perfect stage for a Tough Mudder. In the case of rain, the Crusher, an annual gravel race in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan just outside of Marquette probably wouldn’t have had a problem at all. With coronavirus though, Todd Poquette had to come up with a plan B.

The Crusher, held every summer, is a race on the backcountry roads around the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan. There is a 40-mile, 100-mile, and 200-mile race. However, all of them are actually quite a bit longer (sshhh!). The Crusher also has a 50- and 100-mile course option for pain-cave-loving runners, and a team 50-mile course for riders.

In a normal summer, the Crusher is more festive. “On a typical non-pandemic year we gather en masse to celebrate adventure and individual accomplishments for an entire weekend,” Poquette says. There are hundreds of people, vendors and food, and booze of course. Poquette has tried to keep the event casual. “If your event starts at 5:30am, you are on the clock when the clock strikes 5:30am. If you’re in the bathroom, cool – take your time but the clock is ticking.”

This year was different. There were no shuttles, or mass starts. But riders could still take on the course with their own support and a group of friends they were comfortable being around for what could be 30 hours on the lonely, sandy, and remote woods of Northern Michigan.

“You are on your own. You accept responsibility for your preparation, choices, and outcome. GPS is a mandatory gear item.”

Photo: Matt Miller

After mulling over the idea of heading to Michigan to try out the Crusher, I decided to go for it. I needed a reason to push myself and could use a little adventure. I weighed the travel risks and was aware of the guidelines in place heading to Michigan, which were similar to being anywhere in public. I wore a mask at the airport, on the plane, and anywhere in public around Marquette.

After a missed flight followed by an eight-hour layover in Chicago, I made it into my hotel room in Marquette by 10:30 PM. Just enough time to get some decent sleep before riding the Crusher in the morning. I met with Poquette to grab a bike from him to use. Events like the Crusher, and the Marji Gesick, a grinding cross-country race one town over from Marquette, help fund the 906 Adventure Team. The 906AT gets kids on bikes as part of an after-school program and teaches life lessons on two wheels.

Photo: Hannah Morvay

“Our organizational mission is to ’empower people to discover the best version of themselves through outdoor adventure.’ We accomplish this goal by creating adventure experiences for people of all ages. Our events promote a self-supported ethos – because we believe individuals must accept responsibility fo their outcomes. I think, and our programs and events support this perspective, we should all spend less time judging others and more time competing against ourselves, who we were yesterday, and work toward what we can be tomorrow.”

After I threw one of Poquette’s 906AT fleet bikes in the car — a plus-tired Salsa Timberjack hardtail — my partner and photographer for the trip to Marquette, Hannah, drove me to the Forestville Trailhead, just down the road from the Harlow Lake trails. When Poquette said “self-supported,” he meant it. I wasn’t sure if I would pass by as much as a single gas station, so I needed to have everything for the race on my back and in the frame.

I packed a bunch of Honey Stingers, some Sour Patch Kids, granola bars, a mask, a credit card and ID (just in case), and had a bottle of water and Vitamin Water on the bike. Oh, and a multi-tool, a tube and patch kit, and GoPro. It wasn’t the lightest setup, but I was pretty confident that I’d have my bases covered. Mostly I worried about the Timberjack being the right bike for the Crusher. Poquette mentioned that there would be enough sand on the course that the plus tires would be worth it.

I asked him how long he thought it might take. “What do you think? Four or five hours?” His response sounded less optimistic than mine, noting that the fastest person had done it in something like three-and-a-half. I figured I’d take my typical 15MPH road bike average pace, and knock a few Ms off due to the sand and terrain. Even at 11-12MPH, I’d have it in the bag after four-and-a-half hours. Either way, I was ready to start.

Photo: Matt Miller

With an imaginary blast out of a pistol, I left the unmarked start gate, ready for a day by myself in the Michigan backcountry on my first day in the state. Sure, I’d bought breakfast that morning with a voucher that the tourism group gave me; an iced Americano and a Mediterranean style crepe. But I would most definitely call this adventure now.

Adventure lies in the unknown and for me that was the Michigan terrain. This wasn’t actually my first day ever in Michigan. I once flew into Detroit and drove to Ohio for a wedding, but all I saw was the city. The roads in the UP are loose with silty sand, void of cars. I noticed a few small houses and trailers pushed into the woods, twenty yards off the road. On both sides of me were rocky hills, and maple trees, and oaks, and birches that spread into each other and band together to form a canopy.

Compared to the piney forests I’m used to in Colorado, I was made in the shade with a natural tarp. The climbs were more moderate and hilly instead of straight up and miserable. For the first hour that’s all I could watch. That and the mushrooms springing up from the ground or off a fallen tree’s bark and the bright shades of green moss lining the trail. For the first hour, I didn’t see anyone else. Usually in Colorado, if you’re riding and need help, you only have to wait a few minutes for someone to pass by. Not here.

Views of Lake Superior early in the ride. Photo: Matt Miller

Before long I knew I was in some sort of “place.” I passed a trail runner and two other mountain bikers before I hit a trailhead and wound around to the top of a hilly vista that overlooks Lake Superior. I took in the view briefly and got back on route. I passed over streams and rivers, and marshes and across boardwalks before hitting a piece of straightaway road for a few miles that led me to a logging area.

I pulled over and checked my data while I ground up an energy bar in my mouth. Eighteen miles in. Eighteen miles! That’s it? My ambitious 12MPH pace was being buried in sand. I was two hours in at this point and it was going to be a much longer day than expected. I wouldn’t have quit either way, but if I wanted to, it wouldn’t have been possible. I had no cell phone service and no read on where the hell I was.

I rode through the logging area and heard machines making stumps behind the walls of trees. The dirt road was rutted out with puddles and pools so I weaved between them and watched frogs jump deeper into the water to avoid me.

At mile 25, I stopped for another snack and texted Hannah. “Halfway done. Longest 50 miles ever.” I was about three hours in and felt I’d become familiar enough with the UP woods. I bounced onto a road again, picked up some speed and made a left onto another dirt road, pounding sand past remote residences.

Sights off the road. Photo: Matt Miller

Part of me wished I’d brought my headphones so I could listen to a podcast. Instead, I sat with the uncomfortable silence in my head. Much of the race experience that mountain bikers and cyclists have is defined by the atmosphere and by commiserating companions that we ride next to, and encourage, and compete with. Their energy becomes our energy and vice versa. Without other people, it turns into a long ride by yourself and you’d better hope that you have enough grit and mental tenacity to keep turning the pedals because the frogs aren’t going to cheer you on.

Between miles 25 and 52, I climbed more roads and descended into hidden 4×4 and snowmobile trails where I was glad to have flat bars instead of drops. Every time I thought I was getting closer to the Forestville Trailhead, another climb emerged, adding a few more hundred feet of elevation gain and weight to my legs. After six hours of this, I was crushed.

Freshening up for the last 20 miles.

“Can you please bring me a Coke and some chips?” I texted Hannah, hoping it would go through.

The final 30-40 minutes of this year’s Crusher ran through the Forestville Ski Trails. I sped down grassy groomers, hitting 20MPH and I whizzed by the trees in search of the trailhead and my starting point. Finally, I pedaled up to our rental car. Hannah hopped out with a Coke and some chips and I was relieved. I’ll admit, the stoke was low. I was tired, hungry, and I was pretty sure my eyeballs were sunburnt. I would have been more excited to cross a finish line with cowbells clangin’, and cold beer within grasp.

But, I’d taken on a pretty large task by myself. That, I knew. Putting 52 miles under my belt on a hardtail in an unfamiliar area, where things could have gone wrong was a big day. And, I live for days like this. I want to know that I’m capable of really hard things and that I have enough fortitude to continue. Days like this set the bar for the next day and give me one less excuse to shy away from something challenging the next time.

There might have been only one person at the finish to congratulate me, but even without an obnoxious finishing coral, The Crusher seems like it accomplished its mission this year and then some, by showing people that they can take on big challenges independently and succeed. That’s more important this year than it has been in a while.