Hanna Derby is an outdoor enthusiast with a hunger for adventure. She is a competitive mountain biker who competes in a variety of disciplines, including downhill, enduro, cross country and now endurance. She’ll often compete in multiple types of events in a single weekend. In 2019, Hanna won 14 out of the 16 mountain bike races she competed in and won the Lake Superior Gravity Series.
I caught up with Hanna after she place second — just 13 minutes behind winner Carey Lowery — at this past year’s Marji Gesick 100 mile. Marji Gesick 2019 wasn’t Hanna’s first endurance mountain bike race, but it was the first endurance mountain bike race that she finished! (Hanna dropped out of Marji Gesick in 2018 with a hamstring strain.)
In this interview, Hanna shares how she learned to mountain bike, what led her to try a 100 mile mountain bike race, and her perspective as one of the few women currently participating in endurance mountain biking.
How did you learn to mountain bike?
I moved home in 2014 after spending a good deal of time rock climbing, living in my jeep and attending the National Outdoor Leadership School in and around Wyoming. When I came home, I noticed a severe lack of adrenaline in my life, which is how I keep myself grounded and sane, so my mom suggested mountain biking. I got into it pretty reluctantly and…. yeah, it just kind of fit the bill for what I needed. It really pulled me out of a tough rut at the time.
I rode, and still ride, almost entirely alone. At first, I rode as hard as I could as much as I could trying to be as good as I assumed everyone else was. I was beat up a lot… like, a lot. I assumed it was just the way the sport was, because I didn’t have a reference. I was always sore, bloodied up, limping, injured, and I didn’t even know there were different bikes for different things. I just threw myself down and up anything on my brothers Trance X3 hand-me-down.
A revolutionary point in biking for me was actually listening to my brother when he told me to try and lower my seat on a downhill run. I couldn’t believe how it changed things. His tips and pointers over the last few years have probably helped me the most, but it was definitely a painful, stubborn, trial-and-error scenario for the most part.
When did you first realize you enjoyed mountain biking?
I enjoyed it immediately. The need for adrenaline is huge for me, to override my anxiety and panic disorders that I have had since I was born. The same need for adrenaline got me into a bit of trouble when I was younger. I was pretty wild. I didn’t know exactly what I needed or why nothing was enough, but I pushed some boundaries that I know really scared a lot of people close to me.
It wasn’t until I found a healthy outlet for all my energy — and a way to get the pumped up, adrenaline rush, shaking, high as a kite feeling as a reward — that I realized everything, from my wild child antics to my anxiety and panic attacks, was related. I love all things that get you outside moving and make you a better person internally.
What appealed to you about racing the Marji Gesick — an extremely technical mountain bike race — rather than a gravel race?
I have a real issue with being with my own thoughts, uninterrupted for that long! I would go a little crazy I think [if I tried a gravel race]. However, I had never ridden further than 67 miles prior to the 2018 Marji.
Why did you set your sites on the Marji Gesick 100 mile, rather than a shorter mountain bike race?
I felt like I owed it to myself to try for this. I struggle with being satisfactory to myself, and I have a (maybe slightly unhealthy) notion that I’m not pushing myself to my limits.
What is pushing it for me? Yeah, the Marji Gesick 200 mile looked better, but could I actually do that? Realistically, no. I didn’t even think I would finish the 100 mile. I never dreamed I would place in the 100 mile, much less finish 13 minutes back from first place. I had ridden and raced so much this summer, and I felt like it would be cheating myself and my progress as a rider to not attempt the 100 mile.
What was the highlight of racing the Marji Gesick 100?
The highlight was definitely finishing. I really had no idea what to expect from my body, my mind, or my bike. I just didn’t know.
I’m such a novice to distance anything that it was very much unknown territory. Every hour and every mile that passed, I just waited for something to give — my mind, my bike or my body — but it all, for the most part, went so much better than I expected.
What was the most challenging part of the Marji Gesick 100?
The most challenging part of Marji was the unknown factor I think, in two different ways. The first was the unknown of how my body would react, and the second was the unknown of outside forces “acting against me.” Once I felt like my body was actually going to be able to accomplish the task, I was legitimately terrified something would happen to my bike or I would sustain an injury that would prevent me from finishing or slow the pace I was trying so hard to keep. The mental part was the hardest for me. I was so stressed something bad would happen after I made it as far as I had.
You were one of only 10 women out of a field of 137 riders to finish the Marji Gesick 100. When you raced Marji, were you thinking about the fact that you are a woman and most endurance mountain bike racers are men?
I am naturally very competitive, so as far as thinking of myself as a woman rider, I am constantly thinking of the other women out there who I am racing. This race was quite a bit different, and I had to really control my competitive side and kept audibly reminding myself I had no business being competitive in a race like this. This was a personal, internal accomplishment one way or another.
I don’t have a real issue with being the minority gender in a race like this. There will always be men and women better than me, and I’ll always be chasing the next fastest one in front or trying to learn from them. I have very strong female role models in my life and very strong male role models.
I would love to see more women come out and ride Marji. That would be so awesome and I would be stoked for them, but I think it was a challenging day for everyone. I think the numbers of women will keep rising though, and hopefully women can see you don’t have to be an expert or a pro to accomplish your riding goals. Just take it a mile at a time no matter who you are.
What is bringing you joy during this pandemic?
Joy for me comes in a lot of forms. Biking is a huge part of it. I often feel that biking brings me sanity and physical exhaustion, which I depend on to not go stir crazy mentally.
My garden brings me endless joy: nurturing and growing and caring for my vegetables and flowers. Swimming (or just water in general) brings me immense joy. I try to swim everyday all summer, in a river or lake. I feel like a little kid about it. It seems so simple, and I don’t know why it makes me so happy, but I can swim for hours by myself and be blissful. Hiking, boating, camping… waking up outdoors.
Pushing physical limits brings me joy, and, without racing, you do lose a big part of the adrenaline and post-racing high contentment. But, I am most proud of my progress with day-to-day riding, and that hasn’t changed. It’s actually been nice not to be terribly anxious all the time about races… but empty as well.