Jeremy Kershaw is always the Race Director at Heck of the North, but this year he got sick and his partner Avesa Rockwell took over. In this story we talk about how they made the decision to move forward, what changed while Jeremy was out, and how it went with Avesa at the reins.
To learn more, visit Heck of the North.
Interview with Avesa Rockwell.
What’s the story behind how you ended up running race day and what's normally your role on race day?
Three days before the big dance, Jeremy developed a fever and a headache. At 6 am he drove to Walgreens to get a Covid test. When he came home and announced it was positive, all I could say was "Well, that sucks."
For years I have tried to imagine how, if god forbid something happened to Jeremy, I would be able to manage the event on my own.
Now I was going to find out.
For about five minutes we discussed canceling because we had no idea what we'd do if I got sick too. We decided that it was worth the risk-- we had a record number of registered riders (820) coming from places as far as Seattle, Portland, and Europe.
All the pieces were in place. We just had to keep the momentum.
Normally I have plenty to do in the weeks leading up to the race-- I manage about 40 volunteers who work two hour shifts from Thursday afternoon to Sunday morning. I also buy all of the checkpoint food, prepare and manage the merchandise store, and help Jeremy with whatever needs to get done, which for him, means dealing with all the route details (including gps files, cue sheets, and trail markers), registration glitches and requests, and all communication with the screenprinter, timer, biffy deliverer, caterer, photographer, sponsors, riders, permit issuers, tourism bureaus, landowners, ATV club leaders-- the list goes on and on. And then he does all the heavy lifting at our storage facility and at the start area.
Sidenote: He has always insisted on setting up the giant circus tent on our own to avoid the steep assembly fee. The minute we decided to go forward with the race I said, "We're paying Doucettes to set up the tent."
Removing that task, for some reason, made everything seem more doable.
During the event he's the MC and greets every rider at the finish. I really had no idea how I was going to do all my stuff AND his.
Luckily, the day before the race he had enough energy to place signs along the route and respond to emails, but on the day of the race Covid laid him flat.
I felt really bad for him-- he spends all year preparing for this one day, attending to lots of menial and stressful details that are instantly rewarded by the collective energy of hundreds of revved up and happy riders on a beautiful fall day in the northwoods.
And this year he would not get that reward. This was definitely the lowpoint-- to answer the second part of your next question.
How did the day go from your perspective and were there any highs and lows that you want to mention?
Once Jeremy posted the update, many long-time riders contacted us to say they would be willing to not ride so they could help out. I took Matt Ryan up on his offer because he knows the routes and the timing company we use.
It was such a relief to send questions about tire widths and requests to switch distances to him.
And in true Matt fashion, about one minute before the 55 miler started he asked if he could ride. I said no problem and he took first in his age category.
Another highpoint, not only this year, but at all of our events, is having the Mangen family from Grand Forks, North Dakota join us. They have volunteered at every single Heck, from dawn to dusk, since it started as a group ride in 2009.
Rick brought his family when his daughters were little. His eldest Gabby is now fully grown and coaches a high school debate team. She baked 12 dozen cookies for riders, managed our store (with our 13 year old daughter Silvi, who is older than Gabby when she started volunteering!) and together, they presented the medals and prizes for the winners. Rick helped us manifest our parking lot engineer's plan to fit as many cars as possible in the northern lot at Alger Grade (a major triumph!), and his wife Sarah delivered coffee for riders at 6:30 am.
Their 13 year devotion to this race makes me realize that Jeremy and I do not own the Heck--- it lives in the hearts of many, and comes to life each year like a magical little circus in the woods.
We also couldn’t do the Heck without solid checkpoint volunteers like Lara Sullivan and Ron Pruitt, Kate Ratkovich, Sue Weum, and John Hatcher. And it was a relief to know Scott Risdal, Mark Hagley, Nate Eide, and Dr. John Wood and his friend were sweeping the course. And also good having Jer’s buddies Charles Parsons and Charlie Farrow camping with me in the empty lot. Thanks for the coffee and the beer!
Every year is so different. What was the weather and vibe like this year? It looked pretty muddy out there.
Just the weekend prior the area got almost six inches of rain, so the roads were soft and there were many ephemeral stream crossings. A puddle on Fox Farm Road was reported to be chin-deep!
Lots of ruined drive trains. These kinds of conditions give lots of business to the bike shops!
This year we made little red pins for finishers with Jeremy's neologism "Graveleer" printed over our Ride the Good Line wings symbol. They are kind of like the wing pins we got as kids when we first rode a plane.
When I walked through the crowd to hand out pins I could easily spot the riders because their faces were sprayed with mud freckles, and their backs and legs were literally stuccoed.
When I told riders “they earned their wings” most broke into wide smiles. It is so cute how people love getting little mementos.
Now that you’ve been race director on race day, will we be seeing more of you running the show for future races?
Maybe. We survived, but I think most people missed Jeremy's dry wit at the start and his handshake at the finish. Some of his friends have suggested having me run another Heck so he can finally get the chance to race it. I don't think he will, but he may surprise me.
For the past few years I have been organizing informal non-competitive all-women bikepacking rides with the thought I might add one to the annual event roster. This might be the nudge I needed.