Well, another Night Shift has come and gone. The route this year was found by many to be a better one, even though we had more mileage of pavement than the previous two years. Including eleven miles of the North Country Trail for single-track proved to be a nice bonus over the previous year’s five miles of Hungerford Trail. Overall there was less climbing and less sand (which meant less walking and happier riders).
Friday was a very long day for most of us, as we all arranged to prepare camp north of Ludington at the super-nice Lake Michigan at Manistee Campground and Rec Area (managed by the Feds). It is a REALLY nice campground with close location on Lake Michigan with access to the beach and lake. The kids loved riding their bikes on the paved surfaces – one evening until 10pm. The driving there and back seemed like it took forever though. Once we arrived back at Night Shift Headquarters, we had about 50 minutes or so to gear up for the ride start. This was a problem for me, for I was planning on having a few hours to waste by napping and gathering up the rest of my ride gear. So the rushing around began….
Just 24 hours before the ride start I had contracted an intestinal bug of sorts that would have me sitting on the crapper 8-9 times in 12 or so hours. Bad news! This made me REAL nervous. I already suffer from dehydration during normal days and had been stocking up on fluid for the previous one and a half weeks. I immediately began taking anti-poop medicine to ward off the rumbling hydration-robbing demons.
Not only was I nervous because of the “brown-out situation”, but also because I had gotten little to NO time to ride bikes this year. Life is crazy. Life is busy. I bought a new mountain bike in the spring, so I’ve only been riding trails in short bursts – hardly any roads. (You know how it is with a new bike, the others no matter how fancy or expensive, get to sit and wait their turn.)
Some stats and numbers on my "training": I was going into this 100+mile ride with only 338 miles logged for the ENTIRE YEAR! Only four times this year, did I have any ride more than 23 miles – and three of those were all on paved surfaces to and from work at a casual pace. In July I rode a whopping 62 miles the entire month, and that INCLUDED a ride with the family 11 miles roudtrip to Sand Lake for ice cream. In August, ZERO miles. So that’s twenty three training miles in the last four weeks!
IF I completed Night Shift (if), it would account for twenty-five percent of all my 2015 miles. All in one evening. Those thoughts already had me virtually pooping my bib shorts, now with my intestinal “issue”, I could literally be pooping them too.
We met up with the legendary (SAG) Crankshaws (John and Judy) at our departure location just west of Sand Lake. Bob’s wife Dawn and Matt’s wife Laura were also going to SAG, so we had two vehicles to greet five men (myself, Matt R, Matt L, Bob C and Jeremy C) at our pre-planned stops. Matt R and Jeremy were riding their Fat Bikes (the first ever Fat Bikes on NS) and myself, riding my Cyclocross bike (the first ever also on NS). The other two guys were on their 29er mountain bikes.
So, the stage is set. Let’s begin…
Segment 1: Sand Lake to Newaygo (19 miles)
The ride began with us being our usual jovial selves, excited to get the trek underway – swerving all over the dirt roads, acting like 10 year olds riding BMX bikes in that local town to go play pick-up games of baseball for the day. Matt R was seeking out beer and pop cans to crush with his fat bike. I counted 4 crushed cans in this segment. Somehow he was managing to have the tires pick the damn things up and shoot them through the air – usually splattering whatever fluid had been hiding inside over whoever was riding close to him.
Matt L and I didn’t fully recon this section of the route back in May because I had forgot some equipment, so we fast-forwarded straight to Newaygo figuring it would be uneventful. For the most part there were no surprises until we came across a dreaded sand-filled Seasonal Road. Oh crap! I thought we avoided all of those this year in the route planning. This was a surprise. The fat bike guys didn’t even flinch at the challenge. They were gone and out of sight almost instantly. I was all over the place on my cross bike. I was spinning out and weaving back and forth until I’d come to a halt so I could walk.
After coming out of the Seasonal Road south of Newaygo, there was this “sawed off family of round red necks” that welcomed over Matt R and Jeremy to their brush-fire they were monitoring with a garden hose. According to Matt the conversations revolved around their Fat Bikes. "Are those motor bikes? How much one of dem cost?" Jeremy's responses, "No, you pedal them. They cost about two to three." (Yep, no descriptor with that, just “two to three” – you add the zeros my friend.) My assumption is that the other four riders couldn’t wait for me to join up with them so they could leave that immediate area – because we left pretty quick after I stopped to observe. Dang, I missed all the good stuff.
Shortly after this, we had to ride on about five miles of busy M-82, which felt pretty dangerous. We rode the shoulder much of the time, only zipping back onto pavement when no following cars were present. We didn’t stop or slow for anything, Matt R railing over a cooler lid with his fat bike in the process. It was like a 5 mile Time Trial – we were riding so fast and tight, drafting off each other, in order to get off that road! We all felt pretty dang good rolling into the first SAG stop at the Wesco gas station (where apparently, there were some bystanders accosting our SAG women with random comments).
Segment 2: Newaygo to North Country Trail (23 miles)
While at Wesco, we notice there are cops everywhere. Lots of late night hooligans in Newaygo apparently. As we ride out (with a curious cop following us), a strike of lightning made us take notice of changing weather conditions. Wow, did I really just see a flash? Then another. And another. BOOM! LOUD, and close. It has not yet begun to rain, so we considered to keep riding (only until the next lightning strike). Mother Nature answered us with a big, fat “NO!, we safely gathered and stopped under the overhang at an ice cream store, when it started to pour. We waited out this rather severe looking pop-up line of storms for 45 minutes. It literally came out of nowhere and formed right above us and to the north. It agitated us to have to sit and wait for this while our bodies cooled down and muscles stiffened. Impatient "Old Man Remus" came to visit us, who later turned into "Weather Man Remus" (reading radar maps and forecasting for us).
Once it was clear, we left – getting only wet from road spray and mud. It was tough to get back in the saddle after that much downtime. Since it was still really humid, we rode through lots of fog and quickly discarded the use of our riding glasses. We did miss one turn here, but found our way back on course with little issue. The dirt road leading to SAG #2 was pretty soft and washed out – Jeremy threw his chain from ripping over one set of the washout bumps. This SAG stop turned out to be a really good one – the sky was clear with a million twinkling stars above. I did manage to see one shooting star from the (now waning) Perseid Meteor shower. This was a New Moon night, so it was SUPER dark out. What beauty exists out there – but only if you deliberately take the time to look.
Segment 3: North Country Trail start to end (11 miles)
A few of us switched out some socks, gloves and jerseys for nice dry ones before tackling the single-track. This would be the most exciting part of the ride. Jeremy donned his blue-tooth Bose speaker pod facing outward off his Camelbak, hooked up with streaming Pandora radio. He would be our leader for this segment so we can all experience the booming likes of AC/DC, Eminem and Metallica during the contrast of beaming headlamps and total darkness. Always bringing up the rear (“riding sweep” sounds way cooler), I got to witness four mountain bikers lit up like daylight at 2am on night time single track. So cool! What a good flowing trail from 6 mile north to 13 mile road. For me, it was a real challenge for the first 3 miles on the cross bike. The lowest gear, nearly the same as my single-speed mountain bike, wasn’t too much trouble. However, the drop bars and road bike-style brake levers were the toughest part to get used to. My back and hands were cramping from lack of steering leverage and frequent braking. My right tricep kept locking up from cramps.
We did get lost in this section, travelling to the east side of Nichols Lake and ending up in a campground instead going toward the west side and continuing on the trail. This segment took near 2 hours to complete. We always seem to have one section that is a weird time-warp of continuum. No way, that took two hours!!?! Once we got back on track and made contact with the SAG, (the two hours confirmed) there were more clothing changes and refueling to happen. This was supposed to be a quick stop, but ended up being longer than planned.
Segment 4: North Country Trail to Branch Township (15 miles)
Most of the ride away from the trail to our next stop was paved. This section went pretty fast. Nothing unusual to note up until our next SAG stop at the Ruby Creek Tavern. Once we arrived all we heard about from the SAG women was how clean the port-a-john was - like brand new. Then we noticed that there were still men inside the bar closing it down. Eventually, an old man came out suspicious of our activities. I approached him and told him we were just borrowing his parking lot for our ride. He says “Oh, you guys are the bikers!” What!? You heard of us? Someone called here ahead of time? What is going on? Turns out this old man had no idea what he was saying. He made himself to be the mayor (or land owner?) of hick-town and spent his time bragging about how there was some Argentine olympian there at the bar that very night. Oh. My. Gawd. An Olympian? Really? Some guy he didn't even recall the name of that did the decathalon and won a silver medal and a bronze star. (yep, he said bronze star). I think Old Man got tricked. Also, he wouldn't shut up about a Veteran’s benefit parade the next day that was going to shut down their main drag for about an hour that morning. Demo Derby. Carnie games. Bon fires. Car Show. Beer Tent. Wow, impressive. (Little did we know that two of our group would get to actually witness this event.)
And then we made the mistake of answering his question of “where y’all goin’?” Of which, Jeremy responded first with “the forest” – then John Crankshaw unveiled the super-map he created on corrugated outlining the entire route. (so beautiful!)
Of course, we had to listen to Old Man Jenkins tell us which roads we should take. I guess Hawley Road (pronounced "Holly" apparently by rednecks) was the crown jewel of all roads in the area. We didn't notice anything special about it. Just another road. It started as dirt, which pissed us all off because Old Man told us it was all paved beautifully. It did change to pavement eventually, but that was funny - how mad we were.
Segment 5: Branch Twp to Custer (21 miles)
Less than one mile down the road from the RCT, we knew we had to take a right turn – which is apparently why we blew right past our turn and proceeded to climb TWO giant steady hills and continue for another mile or two. Ha! But even before these hill climbs, Matt R said to me “is that it?” I said, “No way. Seasonal road. AVOID.” Apparently, glancing at a white sign with black lettering without reading it means it can only be a Seasonal Road. Upon inspection later, Matt R read it to be a sign about winter-time snowmobile restrictions. Whoops. We had actually been heading south – which led to lots of map reading, confusion, etc in the middle of the road. I couldn’t even read a map at this point, so I handed over my copy to Matt R and said “here, do this for me – I can’t.” (At least the downhill back to our mistake turn was sweet – I’ll take credit for that at least!)
Since we had gotten lost a few times this evening, we began cutting a few turns out of the route. The sky began to lighten as we rode straight north to Custer on all pavement, towards our last SAG stop – avoiding the gravel I had planned “for fun”.
Segment 6: Custer to Lake Michigan at Maninstee Campground (23 miles)
SAG stop in Custer was good. Apparently I missed all the hub-bub about a missing SAG vehicle. It took me about 5 minutes to catch on which led to some chuckling. I didn't even notice a full size pick-up truck was missing!! I was pretty spaced out. It turns out that Bob and Dawn’s truck got a flat tire at the Ruby Creek Tavern. So a few men's gear and food was still there. Hence why I SAG with the masterful Crankshaws – he’s never said, but I’m sure John has a redundancy plan in place for such events. Safe! (Bob and Jeremy's reward for completing Night Shift was to then go travel 40-some miles to go tend to the broke down vehicle, repair it and talk to more locals near Ruby Creek Tavern during the parade and festivities. They eventually made it back, but they were pretty blown up and tired.)
Even though I had stomach pains and didn’t want to eat or drink anything, I knew I had to. That’s one of the worst feelings, making yourself consume something when nothing sounds good, nor do you feel like you even have room for it. I managed about 1/3 of a small Diet Coke and some other stuff I can’t even remember. I just remembered that I needed caffeine in my system in order to finish this thing out.
There were general discussions of it “almost” being over, except for the 20+ miles left that we knew of. Men laying flat in the parking lot. Moaning. Groaning. You know, old man stuff. Gear scattered, bikes thrown askew. We all began to shed the gear we wouldn’t need like lights, extra tools and water bottles. It was time to try and make short work of these last few miles, lighten the load was the strategy.
The route was pretty flat and boring. We needed the flat, but not really the boring and cut a few more miles from the route. The last dirt road on the route, Townline, was all washboard, stony and bumpy as heck. Also, full exposure to the sun through flat corn fields. One last punishment to the sitting area, hands, neck and shoulders. Terrible. Once on the entrance road to our campground we were feeling pretty good about being close to done. It went on and on for miles though, the longest 8 miles of the trip. Just a continuous “let’s be done with this!!” attitude. Without cutting out miles from the pre-planned route, we probably would have been close to 120 miles on the evening. It ended up being between 112 and 113 miles on a 108 mile planned route. Which then led to discussion of me planning future Night Shifts to be 96 miles since once we get lost we’ll end up around 100 anyways. Sometimes out of painful desperation, comes great ideas!
Like Bob said, each Night Shift is unique in its own way, never repeatable even though the route may be. However, there are a few pre-requisites that must come about for it to be a true “Night Shift” experience:
1) Seasonal Roads, walking in sand and muttering angry words to oneself - or the feeling of being totally lost all by yourself in the dark
2) Random talks with crazy locals
3) Broken equipment or equipment malfunctions (this time a SAG vehicle)
4) A time-warp section taking way longer than it should
All of which 2015 Night Shift fulfilled. Within the last 10 miles of the ride, I rode up next to what appeared to be a suffering Bob and said “Bob, the only reason I can figure why we do this each year is for the stories.” I guess that’s it. Without the stories that can become embellished with friends over time, what good is it? It’s not like we are actually doing it to meet health goals. Adventure and stories. That will keep us young, right?
I don’t know how I really rode all that length of a ride with little to no training. I don’t want it to give me a false sense of not having to train more in the future, but at least I know what I’m capable of. I concentrated so hard on managing my water intake, nutrition, stretching and rest. It proved to really work. And the thought of me bailing on my four friends suffering in the exact same manner, was unfathomable. Sure, I was slow and at the back of the pack – I always am – but I couldn’t give up. I get that from my mom. That’s a story for a different time.