Do Indiana Outdoors (DINO) puts on one of my favorite races of the year, The Death March. Some see it as the first race of the season and others consider it a fun spring training ride. Either way you look at it it has become a annual tradition for my friend Kayla and me. In brief, teams of two use a topographical map to navigate to 16 cemeteries, yes cemeteries. Some of these are required stops and others are worth minutes off your final race time. The time subtracted from your finish time may range from 10 minutes to 90 minutes depending on the distance and difficulty in reaching them. The race can last 3-7 hours and ranges in miles from 40-70, unless of course you really get lost. Navigation skills and preplanning are helpful as very few road signs exist on the course. Prior experience in the Death March is extremely beneficial. In 2015 Kayla and I visited 14 of the 16 checkpoints, finished in 6 hours and 45 minutes and landing a third place finish in the women’s division. This year, we wanted first!
Here was our plan.
1. Complete 2-3 long gravel rides to prepare our legs and general stamina to this type of riding.
2. Have a strategy meeting. Review the map, review our successes and mishaps from the previous year, and set the route that we believed would give us the fastest final time. After much calculating, we convince each other this meant we would not try to reach all of the checkpoints. We figured the time that it would take to get to the cemetery and back on course would be equal to more time than the time bonus being awarded. For example, some of the cemeteries are only worth 10 minutes, if it took 8 or more minutes to get there and back the time bonus was not worth the effort.
3. Improve our transitions. In this race both riders must stand with their number plate in front of the sign indicating the name of the cemetery. You must take a picture of this to be presented to officials for scoring after you cross the finish line. Getting off the bike 10-16 times and taking ‘selfies’ quickly truly requires coordination.
We knew we were in a much better position to win this race in 2016. Of course we had the experience of racing it last year and although the required sites change, the 16 sites available do not change. Kayla and I had greatly improved our riding endurance, leg power, and recovery rate from climbing big hills. We learned that we didn’t need 3 liters of water between sag stops and we only needed 3-4 items of food for the whole race. Additionally, we figured out that mountain bikes were not the best weapon of choice for the Death March. This race takes place in Norman, IN. A 60/40 mix of gravel roads and paved roads, both of which snake up and down gradual elevation changes (i.e. Long, slow climbs). Road bikes are not a good choice either as the smooth tires are no match for the egg-sized gravel. The two-wheeled weapon that wins out- cross bikes. Not only are they lighter than mountain bikes but they create less resistance against the road surface and yet provide knobby enough tires to keep you in control on the few 45 mph downhills (yes that really happened). Cross bikes coupled with well planned provisions probably cut out 6-8 pounds per rider!
At the start line we were focused on our plan, ready to push each other, and excited to see how our bodies would perform. We felt very optimistic hitting our first few checkpoints even though we had made a few errors early on. Our engines were strong and Kayla and I both have the fortitude to never give up.
Soon we were taking chances that paid off tremendously in our ability to get from cemetery to cemetery. Coordinating our selfies continues to be a challenge, but it always feels like that can make that up on the bike. The fire tower sag stop was our half way point in our plan and we felt confident despite the annoying mist that had started falling. The fire tower is not a cemetery check point but rather a 5 story, metal ladder leading up to a look out platform where you must take your picture of proof. Climbing narrow, metal stairs in biking shoes is not what you want to be doing after hours of riding up hills. We stocked up our water and shoved some food down our throats as we jumped back on the road to hit the last 3 checkpoints on our route. We were thrilled with our pace despite another navigation error on my part which cost us a 10 minute check point. Not the end of the world but certainly one I would like to have back. The last cemetery we needed was a few miles passed the finish along a two lane highway. We drove hard and timed our selves so we would have a goal to work towards on the home stretch. I have to say Kayla dug deep and pushed the pace to as hard as I could go. We finished in 4 hours, 30 minutes and we’re confident that even though we missed two of our planned 10 minute check points, we would be the fastest woman’s team.
Surprisingly two other women’s teams had finished before us. Based on our calculations we figured we had 2 hours in bonus minutes to bring our final time down to 1 hour 40 minutes. Now the wait was on to see if that was enough to put us at the top of the podium. We felt supremely victorious, but you can’t predict what your competitor will do and it’s anybody’s race until the final count comes in. Luckily it was in our favor and we ended up beating the second place team by 7 minutes! Both teams visited the five required sites as well as six optional sites. The cemeteries visited were identical, save one. The second place team made it to Chrisley- Hillenburgh which was worth 10 minutes. Kayla and I went to Gorbetts which was worth 45 minutes. Gorbetts is a site many teams skip because it takes you off the close- knit route. We went for it and it paid off! To our great surprise the reward was hefty including free entrance into next year’s Death March. Kayla and I plan to continue the tradition and hope to build on our experience from this year. I’ll probably put her in charge of the selfies next year!
A big thank you to our respective sponsers for supporting us along the way, the DINO crew for continuing to put on one of the best events of the year, all of the teams that helped us and even those that were willing to accept directions from two women navigators, and I cannot forget my most gracious friend who lent me a cross bike, which without a doubt made this win possible!