WATFORD CITY − About 550 mountain bikers are expected to compete Saturday in the Maah Daah Hey 100, a race through western North Dakota’s Badlands that's growing in popularity and helping to preserve the unique trail.
Organizer Nick Ybarra was inspired to start the race after completing the roughly 100-mile trek from south of Watford City to Medora for the first time in 2009.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” said Ybarra, who grew up in Bismarck and now lives in Watford City. “Once I did it, I wanted to do it again and I wanted to share it.”
Ybarra and his wife, Lindsey, founded Legendary Adventures New Discoveries, or LAND, and hosted the first race in 2012 with 60 participants.
This year, mountain bikers are coming from across the United States and Canada, with 90 people signed up to race the full 107 miles. Competitors can choose to start at different points along the trail to race 75, 50, 25 or 13 miles.
“It’s not just professionals and extreme riders. We have everybody from the pros to the average rider,” said Ybarra, who added that a 9-year-old girl has completed the 13-mile segment.
Professional rider Kelly Magelky, who has raced in different parts of the world, said the single track race through the Badlands is unlike anything else he’s ever done.
“I’ve raced everywhere, and there’s just something about this race,” said Magelky, who grew up in Dickinson and now lives in Denver.
Magelky, who holds the record for completing the 107 miles in just under 9 hours, is returning to compete on Saturday.
“I think that record is going to get broken, bigtime,” Magelky said. “It’s getting much, much more difficult to win this race.”
Ybarra said he’s excited that mountain bike legend David “Tinker” Juarez will be among the racers. Juarez also participated last year, but rains on race day made the course too muddy and forced organizers to cut the race to 50 miles.
Riders are required to have a support vehicle following along at checkpoints in case they’re not able to complete the ride or have a mechanical breakdown, Ybarra said. Volunteers are stationed along the remote route at aid stations and checkpoints.
On average, about half of the racers who attempt the 107-mile race reach the finish line, Ybarra said.
“The Maah Daah Hey Trail has humbled a lot of racers,” Ybarra said.
In addition to the mountain bike race, LAND hosted a trail run last weekend that attracted 300 runners. Ten runners completed the full 106 miles, with the winner finishing in about 24.5 hours.
Ybarra expects that race, which launched three years ago, will soon grow to the size of the mountain bike race. The organization also hosts several other races during all four seasons.
The events help the Ybarras support their underlying goal, which is to save the Maah Daah Hey from erosion, overgrowth and, ultimately, extinction.
In 2012, nearly every racer got lost because the trail hadn’t been maintained, Ybarra said. They launched the Save the Maah Daah Hey Foundation, a nonprofit that partners with the U.S. Forest Service to provide volunteers to mow, trim, prune and shovel the entire trail.
“We do the annual maintenance every year that keeps the Maah Daah Hey Trail from disappearing again,” Ybarra said.
Curt Glasoe, president of the Maah Daah Hey Trail Association, said the races have been good for the trail because the increased use helps maintain it.
“The big thing is it gets the word out to a lot of people who aren’t from North Dakota,” Glasoe said.
Ten years ago, Ybarra said he rode the Maah Daah Hey for an entire season without passing another person. Now he always sees hikers, bikers and horseback riders enjoying the trail.
“The trail is much busier, much more vibrant," Ybarra said.