From Zero to 629.4: Surviving the North Star Bicycle Race — Part 3

Eli Radtke poses for a portrait // Photo by Keagan Strenger

I thought I knew what pain was. I was wrong.

Just outside of Two Harbors, I was facing wind gusts of 20–35 mph as I moved one painstaking mile marker at a time. Everything I owned was wet, and my ass felt like ground beef.

I had cried in a Kwik Trip that morning, almost died of hypothermia and asphyxiation the night before, and had to Google what poison ivy looks like as I relieved myself in Jay Cooke State Park.

But I guess we should start at the beginning.

It was a dark and stormy morning. No, seriously. Forty-eight hours earlier, my two friends Ryan Farrell and Keagan Strenger and I rode into a wall of rain. It was 5am and we were awaiting the start of the North Star Bike Race, the 629.4-mile ultracycling race that would take us from St. Paul to the Minnesota-Canada border and back.

As I lined up next to the other 16 riders, I quickly realized I was out of my league. I was by far the most out of shape. I had bulky equipment and a sleeping bag fastened with rope hanging off my handlebars. Everyone else looked like they had stepped out of the movie “Tron.” We signed our names in the official NSBR coursebook and pushed forward into the deluge.

It was windy. It was cold. But spirits were high. For a while, I rode north with Aaron Ehlers, an accomplished ultracyclist who had done the Transamerican (from Oregon to Virginia) and the Tour Divide (from Canada to New Mexico), and he gave me some much-needed advice:

In ultracycling, it sucks sometimes. But you can do more than you think. You have to enjoy the highs and survive the lows.

I didn’t appreciate how true this was until he was already home, in bed.

After a very pleasant stop in North Branch, I struck out with my goal for day one: Hinckley. Just a mere 80 miles from St. Paul, this seemed like an achievable endpoint.

First thing you need to know about my route north of North Branch: “paved” does not necessarily mean “maintained.”

Already I was clenching my butt hoping to not get a flat, but as 18-wheelers barreled by mere feet to my left, I had to navigate a road that looked like it had been bombed.

The second thing you need to know: It’s flat. Like, really flat.

Normally, this would be great. But, with a headwind and a perpetual shower, it was difficult. Between shoving soggy Clif bars in my mouth and screaming at God over the expanses of Minnesota marshland, my legs were burning. There was also no place to fill water or get food for 10–20 miles at a time.

A pit stop for a scenic view on the north shore of Lake Superior // Photo courtesy of Eli Radtke

One hundred and forty miles and 15 hours later, I was setting up camp outside of Jay Cooke State Park, 60 miles past my initial goal. My first big mistake of the trip was not trying out my camping setup before the race. That night, I woke up cold and clammy, shivering so badly I drew blood biting my tongue and saw spots swimming before my eyes. My fingers wouldn’t move, I had a pounding headache, and I was showing signs of oxygen deprivation as well as hypothermia—not my best wake-up call ever.

My “tent” was a bivy sack, something an REI employee lovingly referred to as a “soft coffin,” but I had forgotten to leave a vent so that I could breathe. After running back and forth for 30 minutes, I put on every piece of clothing I brought, vented the bivy, and fell back into a restless sleep. It was only 20 miles to Duluth, and it was all downhill. Easy morning, right?

Think again. I spent three long hours fighting my way into Duluth. It was colder than the first day, and the rain drove into my eyes. By the time I reached the Kwik Trip to clean up after my impromptu Jay Cooke rest stop, I called my parents and softly cried into my spicy chicken sandwiches, looking to all parties like a defeated man.

And I wasn’t alone in these feelings. By day two, almost half the racers dropped out. These were not newbies. These were people who had done this before, who had enjoyed this. But, as I crawled my way (averaging 5 mph for the day, barely a walking speed) north, I saw racers gradually dropping off the map progress app that tracked each rider’s location.

After Duluth, the wind was so brutal, I rotated between adopting and then disowning ever deity mankind had ever created. Nothing helped. There were points where I sat on the side of the road, too tired to even yell, before getting up to battle the wind again. The day was a blur, but it was the most grueling 18 hours of my life.

Two Harbors to the Canadian border was about 125 miles, and then another 40 back to Grand Marais would get me to where I wanted to be. So, when I reached Lutsen (60 miles to the border) at around noon, I was feeling good. That is, until the front wheel of my ride bent after getting caught in a bike rack.

I was 20 miles from Grand Marais, with the nearest bike shop that had a hope of bending my wheel back into shape. But the shop was closed, I found as I quite literally limped into town. I was convinced I was finished, that I would have to scratch just miles south of the border, when I got lucky.

“Hey why don’t you let a real biker through!”

A man had just walked out of a restaurant riding a banana-seat cruiser. It turns out, he was one of the managers of the bike shop.

For the next three hours an employee of Fireweed Bike Coop bent, hammered, threw around and otherwise manhandled my wheel back into place. Without him, I would not have finished the race. After biking five miles in the dark, I turned around and decided to try for the border in daylight.

Elis GPS tracking his movements and lack of signal approaching the Canadian border // Photo courtesy of Eli Radtke

At 72 hours and 260 miles in, I was determined the next day would be a good one. I changed the batteries on my GPS tracker and started north, my eyes set on the border. Now, if you have never been north of Grand Marais, let me tell you, it’s essentially the end of Minnesota.

For 40 miles, I saw only small one-pump gas stations and dogs walking themselves. There is also no cell phone service to be had until you get in range of Canadian cell towers.

I arrived at the Grand Portage casino around noon—behind schedule. Between me and the border lay Mount Josephine, a whopping 1,342-foot climb.  With the wind battering my face, it took me about a half an hour screaming along to an Arctic Monkeys album to hit the summit and fly down the other side. Finally, I had made it to Canada. After doing a little dance and filling my water (and my stash of peanut M&M’s) I turned around to head back to St. Paul.

As I started biking, I noticed that the wind had changed direction.

At this point I almost threw my bike into Lake Superior. It was 2pm, and with the headwind I would be lucky to make Grand Portage by sundown. I was cold, calorie-deprived, and without cell service of any kind. Halfway back, a trailer came so close to me speeding down the highway I could have sworn it touched the hairs on my arm.

And then, temptation.

A black pickup truck pulled up next to me, and out of the passenger door, Keagan popped out. It turns out, when I changed the batteries in my GPS tracker, I had forgotten to turn it back on, and without cell service, people were getting a little nervous not seeing me move for a whole day. Combined with that, Keagan had a technical issue that took him out of the race while Ryan had to scratch due to a knee injury.

So here was Keagan and a good friend Phillip Fraser, offering me what I had dreamed of every waking hour for the last four days: a way out. I won’t lie, I was tempted. But one thing kept me from throwing in the towel:

I hate stories without endings. I had to see it through.

Day five was gorgeous—aside from the feeling that my entire body was threatening to spontaneously combust. I was in last place by almost 100 miles at this point, so my goal was simply to survive and finish. For all the hardship I had experienced, there is truly nothing more beautiful than hurtling down a path along a cliff with the wind in your hair and the sun shining over the lake.

Soon, I had to stop outside of Duluth as my back tire finally gave out. There were 157 miles between me and home, and I was officially the last racer on the course.

I woke up with one thought in my mind: today is the last day.

I set off into the 6am fog, in pain but determined. By the time the mist had burned off, I was cruising through Jay Cooke, well on my way.

I had resorted to talking to myself and singing out loud. I was getting overemotional in only the way an exhausted person can, crying over a pretty bird and getting irrationally angry at inanimate objects. I was at the end of my rope as I got off the Willard Munger State Trail and stopped for beef jerky and water in Hinckley.

That’s where the fun began.

Back on the flats, the wind became more apparent. I had about three hours to make it to North Branch before sundown. The problem was that I wasn’t set up to be cruising roads in the evening—I was visible, but not comfortable with the visibility I had of the road. So, I raced the sun. I had exactly an hour and a half left of sunlight as I sat behind a Casey’s, downing water and probably setting a record for eating a foot-long sub with extra meat. I ended up squeezing into North Branch in the twilight, exhausted and out of food.

I had almost given up and pitched my tent when my dad called. I had people waiting for me to finish that night. So, I crushed up three caffeine pills, dissolved them in a Gatorade, filled my water and buckled up for a night ride.

I truly have some of the greatest family and friends. At each intersection of a major town for the next 40 miles, I had people cheering me towards the finish. I would need another 5,000 words to thank them for truly inspiring me to keep going when I was barely conscious on my bike. At one point they all formed a line across a crosswalk to say hello and congrats, and I was so gross and dehydrated and tired that I must have seemed like a madman. Entering Hugo with 20 miles to go, every turn of the pedal was pain and every foot forward was a victory.

It was in White Bear Lake that I nearly gave up. I felt my back wheel, the one I had replaced the day before, suffering from a slow leak. I ended up sitting in someone’s yard, wheel flat, gear strewn around me, tears running down my face. By some miracle, I MacGyver-ed my wheel back to a rideable level and began my last 10-mile trek.

Finally, at 1:30 in the morning, I rounded the corner and saw the finish line. I didn’t have the energy left to cry, and I barely had the oxygen left to yell. A few of the racers and the organizer, Brian Rhea, had come to see the Lanterne Rouge (last rider in) finish.

Eli Radtke crosses the finishes line as the last biker in the race, also known as the Lanterne Rouge // photo courtesy of Eli Radtke

Eli Radtke crosses the finishes line as the last biker in the race, also known as the Lanterne Rouge // photo courtesy of Eli Radtke

I had biked 157 miles on the last day, and been awake for 17 hours of continuous biking. You could brush the salt off my jersey in clouds. I was shivering, bruised, and my ass was molded to my seat, literally. But I did it. 629.4 miles. I am tied for the second-youngest finisher in the race’s history, and I currently hold the longest recorded finishing time at 138 hours and 27 minutes.

In just over five days, I lost nearly 20 pounds, ate a lifetime supply of peanut M&Ms and mentally broke down more times than I can count. My blood sugar was so low when I got home my dad wouldn’t let me go to bed without eating. I slept for 14 hours and took the next two days off work because I could barely walk.

Even as I write this, I can feel the gravity of it. I am not a fit person, and I am by no means a natural athlete. I have struggled with self-esteem and body positivity my whole life, always being the “fat kid” in school.

On the road, somewhere between mental breakdown 16 and 17, I found something I didn’t know I had inside myself—confidence. The courage to push my body to a place that, honestly, no one should.

Out of 17 riders, only 8 finished. I had, by far, the least experience of the pack. But the NSBR, for all the pain that I endured, was incredible. It gave me an opportunity to grow beyond myself, and meet a fantastic and supportive community of people. I plan on trying to finish next year in under 135 hours, and cross the finish line with my friends as they take another stab at it.

Thank you to everyone who has followed me for a year through this process. I don’t know if I would have finished without the pressure of disappointing you, the readers. Thank you to all of my family and friends who lifted me up, and thank you to the wonderful NSBR community for allowing me to participate and showing me what I could be.

This is Eli Radtke, signing off. Remember, keep your head down and keep the pedals moving.

Friends and family turning out to cheer on Eli along the road // Photo courtesy of Eli Radtke