The Death March Ride was one of the most fun and unique mountain bike events that I have completed – definitely in my Top 5. This is unlike any other bike race that I have heard of. It is located in Norman, Indiana in the Hoosier National Forest, very close to Brown County and their infamous IMBA epic trails. There are cemeteries spread around the forest and teams of two navigate to them in any order using paved roads, gravel and trails.
The race is run by D.IN.O. (Do Indiana Off-Road). Three gravesites are drawn in advance. These are mandatory sites and they are given to the teams so that they can start planning their route. The morning of the race, two more checkpoints are drawn. These are also mandatory, but are thrown in at the last minute to put a wrench in the pre-race planning that teams partake in. Racers are required to hit all five mandatory checkpoints but get time bonuses for hitting any other checkpoints along the way. So, the first one to finish is not necessarily the winner. You must strategize about which stops are worth the time bonus based on riding surface, elevation changes, weather, rider fitness and what you think your competition is up to.
Most riders were either on CX/gravel bikes or mountain bikes. I saw a few road bikes, one tandem and a couple of fat bikes too. We were on mountain bikes, but I definitely think the CX bikes had an advantage. That’s what I would want to ride if I did it again. I think we could have shaved some serious chunks of time off of our final score since there is so much gravel. Check out some of these cool cyclocross bikes from Trek available at Breakaway Cycling.
I’ve wanted to do the Death March for several years but never signed up because it was a long drive and I had always put off finding a teammate. Luckily, this year a willing partner fell into my lap when my nemesis, Chris Knapp, asked if I wanted to put aside our rivalry and work together to complete the challenge. Despite the fact that I had to spend 9 hours in a car with my arch rival, this was a great opportunity to experience the Death March.
We loaded up our cars on Friday afternoon and made the 4.5 hour drive to Norman, Indiana. About 30 minutes out, we stopped at the Big Woods Brewing Company in Nashville, Indiana. I love checking out new breweries and this really made my evening. I ordered a flight of all 8 beers they had on tap and they were delicious. It was way more beer than I was imagining when I made the order. I was already worried that I had overdone it the night before a race when a friendly local couple offered to buy me a shot of fine bourbon. Fortunately, this turned out to be the perfect amount of beer. I was happy, but not too happy. I got to try everything and I woke up feeling spunky the morning of the race.
We camped at the Midwest Trail Ride camp site, which was basically at the start line for the race. This is a horse camp with stalls for horses next to camping spots for RVs. Camping was free for racers and we had a fairly secluded site with access to bathrooms and showers. I would definitely sleep there again.
I was up very early and excited to tackle the big event. Cars and mountain bikes swarmed the campground and the place was buzzing with activity. There was a short line for registration and Chris and I talked a little strategy for the day. Chris had studied the maps and geography of the region and come up with a route that would allow us to hit all 17 checkpoints. He also came up with several alternate routes that would allow us to bypass some of the harder stations if we needed. He had done the Death March twice before, so I was deferring to his wisdom for guidance. Chris loaded all of his routes onto a Garmin and we used his .gpx files to guide us throughout the day.
I really wanted to hit all the checkpoints, but since I had never done the event I wasn’t sure how hard that was to do. I decided to let Chris make the call when the time came.
When the race started, it was amazing. Over 130 teams went under the start line and immediately started branching off in different directions. We were using a counter-clockwise course strategy which Chris felt would help us avoid some of the crowds at some of the closest checkpoints. It seemed to work. Our first turns took us off on a road with very few other riders and after our first checkpoints we started seeing people riding at us. It was fun having the other teams riding by us throughout the day. It added to the camaraderie of the event.
Riders can use paved roads, gravel roads and trails to travel between the checkpoints and the beginning of the day was mostly paved and gravel roads. I was excited when we finally got to fit in some trails since that is the kind of biking I’m most passionate about. However, soon their was a dramatic drop in our average speed and you could see immediately how having local knowledge would be a big benefit. The trails were much hillier and included some of our steepest (and muddiest) climbs of the day.
Chris and I were chugging along at a good clip, but it was hard to tell how we were doing in the standings. We did a good job of not getting lost, but it was hard to tell if we had chosen the most efficient routes. At one point about half way through, Chris said, “So, are we going to do all the checkpoints?” My heart pumped with excitement. “I want to,” I replied eagerly. And from that point on, their was no doubt about our goal. We were going to hit everything as fast as we could and see where the time bonuses put us in the standings.
The checkpoints were usually full of activity with teams stopping and taking pictures of each other by the cemetery signs to prove to the judges that they were there. The furthest checkpoint to hit was Elkinsville, which probably added 15 plus miles to our journey and gave us a 90 minute time bonus. Only 11 of the 131 teams that finished made it to this checkpoint.
The checkpoint that stuck out the most was not even a cemetery. It was the Hickory Ridge fire tower. In order to earn the time bonus, riders had to climb to the top of the tower for their photo. This was a very difficult climb when you take into account fatigue and our slippery mountain bike shoes on the metal steps. We happened to climb it at the exact same time that a boy scout group went up, which made the tower very full, but also gave us a lot of potential photographers.
I felt good for most of the day. I stuck to an eating schedule of 350 calories per hour, which I divided into snacks every 30 minutes. Temperatures were cool, so it was easy to stay well-hydrated. I felt like my experience in the Tri-State 6-Hour series had taught me some good survival skills for a long day in the saddle. While Chris was in charge of navigation, my role was pacing and motivation. Early in the day, I encouraged Chris to slow down when his competitive juices would kick in and inspire him to speed up. Towards the end of the day, I tried to motivate him to go faster when fatigue was dragging him down.
Chris is a strong rider, but it was obvious that I had done more off-season training than him. Towards the end of the day I could tell that the long ride was wearing him down. He ended up walking several of the climbs and I tried not to push the pace too hard even though I was starting to feel super-competitive when I started adding up our time bonuses. Several times he started cramping, so we stopped so he could eat and drink. I have to give him credit for pushing through the pain though. He rode like a champ despite any discomfort he was feeling.
I was not without my own challenges though. In the last two hours of the race, the temperature dropped by at least 10 degrees and rain started pouring down on us. When we stopped at the fire tower I started shivering badly. I knew we still had about an hour left to ride and I was miserable. I didn’t have any extra clothes to put on and the only way I could warm up was to try and pedal faster. I started wondering whether I had pushed myself too hard and whether another hour in these conditions might cause me to get hypothermia.
Fortunately for Chris and I, I warmed up and Chris found a second wind. The final 5 miles were our fastest of the day. Sure, it was mostly downhill on pavement, but we were also putting out more power. It was a fun way to end an adventurous day.
We crossed the finish line in 6 hours and 44 minutes and earned a time bonus of 5 hours and 55 minutes for a final time of 49 minutes. That put us 19th out of 95 men’s teams (80th percentile) and 22nd out of all 131 teams that finished the race (83rd percentile). Not too shabby for a couple of out-of-towners!
Overall the day was a blast. At the finish, we showed our photos to the judges to prove what we had done. Then we sat down for a delicious post-race meal.
I’m really hoping I can do this again next year!
Make sure you like Quickdirt on Facebook for more race reports. You can also add your email in the column to the right so that you are instantly notified when new content is posted here on Quickdirt. Thanks for reading. Up next, I’m heading to Athens, Ohio for the Gravel Rouser. This is a 45 mile gravel route with a 4-10 mile mountain bike time trial at Lake Hope in the middle of it. Yes!