Some competitions are more than just fun and challenging — they shape lives. Here are five Midwest events that force participants to draw deep within themselves and that attract scores of spectators to cheer them on (and rock the after-party).
24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell
Jasper, Ark. | September 22-26, 2021
It’s been called the Burning Man of climbing competitions, an emotional rollercoaster of elation and exhaustion, pleasure and suffering — and that’s just the wild parties that punctuate the event.
At its heart, 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is a grueling competition where 450 climbers from around the world see who can top the most routes in one day. (For the less masochistic, there’s also a 12-hour option.) The contest is a team format: one person belays while the other lead climbs. Points are awarded for each line cleaned — no falls and no leaning on the rope — with categories for all skill levels. Also, the scoring is based on the honor system.
“Anyone could cheat anytime they wanted,” said director/founder Andy Chasteen. “But you’re only cheating yourself. Many people are competing just to finish, which is an accomplishment in and of itself.”
The sandstone cliff walls at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch feature nearly 420 routes ranging from 5.5 to 5.14. Chasteen and friends dreamed up the event while climbing there in the mid-2000s.
“We stumbled on the idea one day while we were doing how we do, acting like goofy idiots,” Chasteen joked. “There are so many routes, and they’re in such close proximity, that we had the idea to invite some friends out and see how many we could climb in 24 hours.”
That idea has snowballed into a massive, quirky, inclusive event that attracts a couple thousand “Hellions” (“Lions” for short) who return year after year to compete or to simply spend a week letting their freak flags fly.
“The fellowship is very strong. You’re a Lion the second you set foot on the property for the event,” said Chasteen. “I often argue that it’s more fun to come and hang out rather than compete. A lot of people make this their annual vacation. These people have done an insanely good job at keeping the event pure.”
The atmosphere at 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell is rock concert meets outdoor expo: music, food, beer, costumes, yard games, vendors like Patagonia and Black Diamond. Activities include a climbing film screening and a bouldering rave in the woods where hundreds of people climb, dance, and party to the wee hours of the morning.
Have a wild hair? You can even get a free haircut or tattoo on site, the crazier the better.
“One of the options is a tattoo of my face, which is really weird,” said Chasteen. “There’s probably 20 or so out there running around in the world right now. One of those gets you free entry into the event for life.”
Images by Lucas Marshall, courtesy of 24 Hours of Horseshoe Hell.
Emporia, Kan. | June 3-6, 2021
If there’s one event that establishes the Midwest as a gravel riding mecca, it’s this one. The six-distance Unbound Gravel, formerly known as Dirty Kanza, draws up to 4,000 athletes in a normal year (limited to 2,500 this year) and as many as 12,000 spectators at the finish line.
Marketing Manager Kristin Mohn has experienced the rush of the race from both sides of the barrier fencing. In 2018, she was the 10th female finisher in the 200-mile field; this after breaking down just 13 miles from the finish in 2011.
“I was the only person on the [Unbound Gravel] team who hadn’t finished the race,” Mohn said. “I trained my butt off to make sure I didn’t waste the opportunity. Both race experiences were phenomenal, but coming down the finish line chute was definitely rad. Not many athletes get the chance to pull into a finish line like that.”
Bring your climbing legs if you plan to attempt the event, says Mohn, or expect to be humbled.
“There’s not a lot of big climbs, but we like to say it’s death by a thousand paper cuts. The hills just keep coming at you,” she said. “With people coming from mountainous states, they think this will be no big deal, but thousands of feet of elevation change that never stops is not the same at one big climb and then one big downhill.”
Another important consideration? Flat tires are a big reality.
“You’re riding in the Flint Hills, on flint rocks. Literally, it’s the same material that Native Americans used to make arrowheads with, and they’re notorious for slicing tires open,” said Mohn.
The remoteness and roughness of the course, as well as the temperamental Midwest weather — especially high wind and heat — can also factor into your day, she adds.
Unbound Gravel starts on Thursday with the All Things Gravel Expo, an open-air, market-style expo with more than 150 exhibitors from around the globe. On Friday, the first race kicks off with a 350-mile, completely self-supported and navigated event. The 200-, 100-, 50-, 25-, and Junior races all begin on Saturday.
The final element in Unbound Gravel’s enormous success?
“Our support from the city is so strong, they’re right there by our side helping pull it off, and we see that through the outlying towns as well. Kids go with their parents to checkpoint towns, and these have been taken over by families that come back to see each other year after year,” said Mohn. “The community just brings it.”
Images courtesy of Unbound Gravel.
Queeny Backyard Ultra
St. Louis, Mo. | March 5-7, 2021
Is it presumptive to include a first-year event on this list? Maybe a little, but there’s precedent. The Queeny Backyard Ultra is an affiliate of the Backyard Ultra Series, which numbers 142 races in 43 countries. The concept is popular, the potential limitless.
Held at scenic suburban Queeny Park in west St. Louis County, the distinctive format of the race unfolds like this: All the competitors start together at noon on Friday and run one loop of the 4.2-mile paved/crushed gravel course. They do it again an hour later, and the next hour, and the next. The race ends when just one runner remains after finishing a loop.
Even though the rolling hills peppering the route amount to only 415 feet of elevation gain per lap, the cumulative exertion and diabolical “no finish line” model of the Queeny Backyard Ultra punish participants physically and mentally.
“The temptation to quit loop after loop is hard to surpass. Digging deep and redefining your boundaries is what this race is all about,” said Shalini Kovach, founder of Terrain Trail Runners and director of the event.
Between loops, the racers have time to eat, sleep, recover, and mingle. Queeny has a large, grass field where participants can set up personal aid stations, as well as an onsite restroom and convenient road access for volunteers, support staff, and spectators.
“Residents from nearby homes came out to clang cowbells and encourage the runners. It was a great, easygoing vibe,” said Kovach. “Now that everyone has seen what Queeny has to offer, I expect next year we’ll see more of a festival-like environment, where whole families come to cook out and cheer on their runner.”
In 2021, the Queeny Backyard Ultra drew 60 athletes and 180 crew and spectators. Angela McKnight earned top female honors with 14 laps/58.8 miles. Tim Barbee was the top male and overall finisher with 25 laps/105 miles.
“At other Backyard Ultras, people are extending their runs to 40-plus hours,” said Kovach. “The potential exists for someone to hit 150 or 170 miles. I think the best is yet to come for this event.”
Images by Marcus Janzow, courtesy of Queeny Backyard Ultra.
Steelville, Mo. | October 15-17, 2021
Each year in the Missouri Ozarks, at a place called Bass’ River Resort, approximately 700 off-road cyclists and just as many onlookers show up for a 55-mile endurance race that also acts as an annual celebration of the Midwest mountain biking community. It’s called the BT Epic, and it’s a hell of a good time.
“We throw a big party and give away a ton of crap. People have a lot of fun,” said Scott Davis. “With the BT, we don’t really have a formula or plan. We just go with the flow. It’s organic. We do what feels right at the time.”
Those are the words of a veteran race director who knows that unexpected things can, and will, happen. But that doesn’t mean Davis and his team haven’t worked tirelessly to create the premier mountain biking endurance race in the Show Me State.
At the time he started the BT Epic in 2008, the Berryman Trail on which the race is held (along with portions of the Ozark Trail) had seen better days.
“I’d been going to Berryman since 1996, and it was getting neglected. After we started the BT, the Ozark Trail Association and the Forestry Service stepped in, and we did a ton of trail maintenance,” Davis said. “It took us nine years to get the course we wanted.”
Depending on your tolerance for Ozarkian topography, the Berryman Trail is either a fast, flowing backwoods classic or a gnarly, old-school path with rocks, roots, twisting switchbacks, and narrow singletrack. Expect to be mostly self-sufficient during the race, which begins and ends at Bass’ River Resort.
Speaking of which, Davis says the biggest advantages of the BT Epic are its dedicated volunteers and its matchless venue.
“We have a real good group of helpers. We go down for five weekends in a row to get things ready for the BT. That’s where we spend our vacation time,” he said. “We’re also very fortunate to have a great venue. We can put everyone in one valley, whether in a cabin, in a tent, or in a car. By putting all those people in one area, you get everyone hanging out. It’s hard for someone not to have a good time.”
Key attractions include a dinner on Friday night, pancake breakfast on Saturday morning, vendor village featuring free beer, and a raucous awards ceremony with a huge bonfire and more than $10,000 in cash prizes, raffles, and giveaways.
“We’ve created a Woodstock of mountain biking,” Davis said. “I got lucky with a really good opportunity. It pretty much changed my life.”
Images courtesy of BT Epic.
Missouri River 340 (MR340)
Kansas City to St. Charles, Mo. | July 20-23, 2021
“No self-respecting river rat should resist the challenge of paddling the world’s longest nonstop river race, which traverses an entire state in three and a half days,” wrote National Geographic when naming the MR340 as one of its “100 Best American Adventure Trips” in 2010.
Before the cross-Missouri fete was an official event, it was a group of friends seeing how far they could paddle on the Big Muddy. Founder Scott Mansker, who was part of this group, made things official and opened up registration for the inaugural MR340 in 2005.
“We didn’t really advertise anything. It had never been done before, so we kind of wanted a small trial run. I figured it would be a couple boats and me,” Mansker told us in 2019. He ended up with 15 people in 11 canoes and kayaks.
Today, more than 700 people in 500 vessels — canoes, kayaks, and standup paddleboards; in solo and team categories — attempt the arduous endurance competition. The race begins at Kaw Point near downtown Kansas City and ends 340 miles downstream in St. Charles.
In the 88 hours they have to complete their journey, participants must contend with unpredictable weather (heat, wind, rain), river obstacles (wing dikes, boat traffic), fatigue and sleeplessness (which have been known to cause hallucinations), and potential frustrations with teammates and themselves.
It all can add up to an exhausting experience, and an immensely rewarding one.
“It sounds so corny every time I say it…but after every single race, I’ll get letters saying, ‘Thank you so much for putting this event on. It has changed my life. I’m a different person for having done this,’” Mansker said.
Competitors come from around the world to race in the MR340, with the winners typically finishing in less than 40 hours. A three-day finish line party features food and beverage vendors, music, sponsor booths, a massage therapist, showers, boat washes, and maybe some “officially unofficial” campfires on the beach. It typically ends around the time the final racers pull up to the boat landing at 9 p.m., after which everyone parades over the Main Street St. Charles to keep the fun going.
“We’ve sort of sanitized all the adventure out of our lives,” said Mansker in an interview with Kansas City’s KCUR 89.3. “When something like this comes along and someone hears about it, it scratches some itch in them and they feel like they need to be out there experiencing it.”
Images by Cindy Hiles.
Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain Magazine.
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