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.

FOLLOW UP:

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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