How Sandy Marshall Learned to Mountain Bike and Completed the Hardest Race in the Country — in 14 Months

Sandy Marshall was the tenth and final female finisher at the Marji Gesick 100 this past fall. I have got to highlight how impressive it is to finish this race. The Marji Gesick 100 is extremely technical and has a stringent time cutoff. The most remarkable thing about Sandy’s finish is that she started mountain biking just a little over a year prior to racing Marji.

I talked with Sandy about how she did it. How did she go from not mountain biking to completing arguably the toughest endurance mountain bike race in the country in a little over a year?

How did you learn to mountain bike?

Ha!  I’m still learning!  I got on a mountain bike for the first time in July 2018, when I decided it was going to be really challenging to complete the Leadville 100 mountain bike race in the 12-hour buckle qualifying time on a fat bike — especially for someone too scared to descend without a death grip on the brakes.  I needed to make up all the time I could on the flats and uphills.  I took a few local mountain bike beginner skills classes and also a couple women’s only weekend skills clinics, and I practiced on sufficient basics to survive Leadville without injury and get my buckle. 

Then, I got this crazy idea to try the Marji Gesick 100 next — holy hell!  For an at best intermediate skills level rider, truly a stupid idea. I took another couple weekend skills clinics though this year, got out to practice when I could, and just kept pushing the bike whenever I couldn’t ride it.

When did you first realize you enjoyed mountain biking?

I’m not sure I’m there yet!  I did realize this year, though, that I could really love it.  I love being on a trail in the woods, and the flowy track is fun now that I know how to ride berms.  As I get better, my enjoyment will continue to increase. That’s what keeps me going every time I crash or get scared, which still happens a lot. But, I can see real progress in the two seasons I’ve been at this.  It helps to occasionally go to a women’s only skills camp. They get me and have or have overcome similar fears so are so supportive.

Why did you race the Marji Gesick 100 — a super technical mountain bike race — rather than a gravel race?

I do gravel too and really enjoy it.  Mountain biking has actually helped me get far more comfortable on gravel, which has been a great benefit. 

But why Marji specifically?  Because it really pushes your limits.  I’ve got great endurance and am a strong climber, but have weak downhill and other technical skills.  Others have strong technical skills but the length or amount of elevation is their kryptonite.  I can push my limits on miles of gravel, but I can’t challenge myself in the same way as the mental challenge Marji provides. 

For me, that’s why I’m out there. I don’t race to compete against someone else; I race to see what I can do and accomplish. It makes me feel strong.  Todd and Danny have created a race ideal for this. No one goes home afterwards quite the same.

Why the Marji Gesick 100, rather than a shorter mountain bike race?

Same as my previous answer!  It’s a test of my limits.  This was the first race I’ve done where I really didn’t know if I could finish.  I knew I wouldn’t quit, but I didn’t know if I could make it past the time cut-off at Jackson Park to be able to finish. I did The Alexander, a 392 mile gravel race, and The Crusher earlier this year and never really doubted I’d finish either. With Marji, I could barely sleep the night before.

I did think about some women I know, though, who bike and how mentally tough and determined they are. I knew they were watching to see a report that I finished. It’s great to have examples to emulate and to aspire to.

What was the highlight of Marji this year?

Crossing the finish line.  Also, the amazing people with the pop-up aid stations. I never thought I’d want grilled cheese or bacon during the middle of a bike race, but these were an absolutely blessing… as was the water offered when I was out and less than 10 miles from the finish. These people were so great and encouraging and really made a difference.

What was the most challenging part of Marji this year?

The thunderstorm around midnight that made the last sections even unwalkable. Mud was everywhere, and I couldn’t even stand without slipping, much less push a bike.  And riding in that? Yeah, far above my skill level, especially in the dark and exhausted!

Only 7% of the Marji Gesick 100 finishers were women, as is typical with endurance mountain bike races. When you raced Marji, were you thinking about the fact that you are a woman and most Marji riders are men or not?

I don’t really think about that when I’m out there.  I did think about some women I know, though, who bike and how mentally tough and determined they are. I knew they were watching to see a report that I finished. It’s great to have examples to emulate and to aspire to.

It sounds like you’ve been to a few mountain biking skills camps. Do you have a favorite women’s only mountain biking skills camp to recommend?

I’ve been to two women-only Trek dirt series camps that were just amazing! The instructors were super good and I learned a ton, making some breakthroughs at each. The women I was grouped with in each camp were a great diverse mix but all friendly and supportive. Many participants weren’t local. They traveled to the camp like me, which may have helped these camps feel less clique-ish? They also gave me some terrain really different than I can ride on in Minnesota; I think that also helped accelerate my learning and pushed me just sufficiently beyond my comfort zone without going too far. Whatever the magic formula, I got great results and enjoyed them!

The local camps I’ve participated in have been a good value, but the Trek dirt series camps I attended were really a step above. I’d love to go to one of their camps in Whistler sometime. The scenery looks incredible.


What role is biking playing in your life now?

Biking is my freedom. Our stay-at-home orders are about to lift, but we’re still encouraged to be “safe at home”. On my bike, I can get out, breathe, fly… It keeps me strong and grounded. It feels normal. It brings me peace and joy.

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