I rolled up to the start of the Lumberjack 100 in Manistee, Michigan fighting an overwhelming desire to still be in bed. To get to the race on time, my dad and I left his house at five in the morning Michigan time, which equates to 2 a.m. back home in Arizona. I sipped – and eventually guzzled – my coffee as we sped down twisty county roads, through the sleepy towns of Kaleva and Brethren, past cemeteries, orchards, and abandoned hayfields. At the start line, Dad snapped photos of me while I yawned, glanced nervously around the staging area, and calculated a simple plan I knew would make him laugh: put a “rascal move” on the women I’m riding with by the second lap, and then hang with a fast pack of guys for the rest of the race. The “rascal move” – dropping the competition on a climb or a blind corner – was my favorite race strategy as a kid.
This was not my first race accompanied by my dad. He was my childhood Nordic skiing and cross-country running coach as well as the inventor of the original “rascal move.” He often charged me with keeping track of my little sister during warm-ups and workouts, and on more than one occasion, I ditched her on a confusing network of trails while trying to hang with a fast pack of guys. She would end up back at the car hours later, in tears, and I would be in trouble. Explaining I was working on my “rascal move” only got me into more trouble; my sister always tattled on me for trying to keep up with the cute boys. I wanted to tell my dad my race strategy for the Lumberjack was inspired by these childhood memories, but the race was about to start and I needed him to move out of the staging area so he wouldn’t get run over.
I grew up Nordic skiing and running on rolling, tightly treed Michigan trail systems similar to the Lumberjack course, and I hoped to feel at home racing my bike in this terrain. But I didn’t learn to mountain bike until living in Arizona in my late twenties, and the rock gardens, continuous sunlight, and long climbs of the Southwest ride a lot differently than the curvy, shady, punchy single track of the Midwest. During the race, my eyes and my hands struggled the most. The lack of sunlight in the woods made my sun-starved desert eyes hurt and my trendy-in-the-west long handlebars clipped trees, which in turn bruised my pinkies.
There was one spot on the course that played to my strengths, and it lasted for only about two minutes every lap. The trail shot down a hill into a patch of sunlight and then climbed straight up another, steeper hill. Each lap, I shifted and eased my way into the ascent as men cranked passed me only to get off their bikes at the bottom and walk to the top. “I’m riding it! I’m riding it!” I yelled each time. I needed to be aggressive because I needed the men to get out of my way if I was going to stick the climb. I rode the hill every time, and on the first lap, I managed to drop the woman I’d been riding with. It was a classic “rascal move,” and as planned at the start line, I didn’t see another woman for the rest of the race. On the last lap, less than ten miles from the finish line, I passed a man whose reaction to the climb made me laugh out loud despite my effort to stay focused on hammering uphill: “Shit,” he said looking stunned as I rode past, “I guess you deserve to win!”
My moment of glory on the steep climb of the Lumberjack reminded me of the one mountain bike ride I’d gone on as a teenager. The ride was somewhere near Manistee, Michigan and for all I know it may have been the same trail system as the Lumberjack course. But I don’t know the location of the ride because I was too preoccupied with my desire to kiss the boy who had invited me on the ride to pay attention to details. The ride, I had thought, was a first date.
My high school crush picked me up in his dad’s truck. I remember driving for over an hour along twisty county roads through the tiny towns of Kaleva and Brethren to a trailhead tucked in by elm and maple trees. His mom followed in a Subaru with a redheaded middle school kid named Kenny. On the drive, my date mentioned something about this bike ride being related to a church youth group lead by his mom. I didn’t really listen. He was not the first boy in wholesome northern Michigan to try and convert me to his family’s version of Christianity. Church was as much a part of the community as morel mushrooms, trout fishing, and cherry pie.
At the trailhead, however, my dreams of this bike ride being a sweaty, romantic, first kiss kind of date were abruptly shattered. As the four of us gathered around the trail map I leaned in as close to my date as I could, hoping my goal of touching him wasn’t blatantly obvious. His mom pointed out two loops on the map – an outer loop close to twenty miles long and an inner loop with mileage in the single digits. Kenny and I, she instructed, would follow the inner loop while she rode the outer loop with my date.
My teenage hormones swung dramatically with these instructions. If I was stuck riding with Kenny, then this bike ride was clearly not a date. I was also insulted. Sure, this was my first real mountain bike ride, but I had spent my youth Nordic skiing and running at an elite, national level. I was pretty sure this mountain biking thing was going to be a breeze. My Midwestern values, however, kept me from arguing with my date and his mom.
The two loops started out on the same trail. This was my one chance to prove I was fast enough to ride the long loop and spend the afternoon with my date. Unfortunately, while we were looking at the trail map, his mom had made it crystal clear that Kenny and I were to stay together and not get separated. This meant in order to keep up with them I was forced to ride as hard as I could while also glancing over my shoulder and encouraging Kenny to ride faster. This was a tactic I had tried often while running and Nordic skiing with my little sister, and I was too stubborn to acknowledge it rarely worked out the way I wanted it too.
I have one vivid memory from the entire ride. I’d lost sight of my date and his mom. Kenny was red in the face as I hollered at him to ride just a little faster. I flew out of some tightly treed single track on a descent into a patch of sunshine, through an intersection, and up a steep hill. I yelled for Kenny to go straight at the intersection as I powered up the climb. Moments later I rounded a corner and there were my date and his mom standing next to their bikes on the top of the hill. I was proud of myself for riding so fast. Their expressions, however, didn’t match my excitement.
“Where’s Kenny?” they asked.
“Right behind me,” I said.
He wasn’t. We spent the rest of the afternoon riding in circles and yelling Kenny’s name until we finally found him. My date never kissed me.
Years later, after I’d moved to Arizona for school, I ran into his mom on a hike while I was home for Thanksgiving. She asked me where I was living these days, and when I said Arizona, she replied, “That’s too bad.” I wanted to quote some Edward Abbey and tell her about the magic of the high desert, but she turned and headed down the tightly treed, moss covered single track leaving me in the one sliver of sunlight I could find.
To the delight of my strained eyes, the final stretch of the Lumberjack 100 shot out of some narrow single track into a small field with full sun. Tears surprised me behind my sunglasses when my dad met me at the finish line. I hated waking up early on race mornings as a kid, but once at the race, there was a lot I loved. My dad and I used to spend the long drives discussing race strategies like, “play opossum for the first few miles,” “put a rascal move on the competition when they don’t expect it,” and, “don’t be a wounded animal when you start to feel tired.” This was code for starting slow and then attacking, breaking away from the competition on a climb or a blind corner, and never letting the competition know when you are hurting so they don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of it.
For years as an adult, I told myself I was over competitive sports and decided activities like rock climbing and mountaineering were more my thing. But soon after riding a mountain bike for the first time in my late twenties, I was compelled to try a race – and I was hooked. Northern Michigan — with the support of my dad — is where I learned to race. It felt good to get back to my roots at the Lumberjack 100.