MARQUETTE - Twenty years ago, if you would have told Danny Hill that he would compete in the longest, most difficult mountain bike race in the world, he probably would have laughed out loud.
At the time, he wasn't an avid exerciser: he worked at the Marquette Branch Prison, and when was done with work for the day, he just wanted to spend time with his family, not make time to exercise.
"I was doing nothing, getting fat," said Hill, "I started putting on the weight."
Danny Hill stands with his mountain bike along the Continental Divide during the self-supported 2,745 mile Tour Divide Mountain Bike Race on June 24, 2011. (Photo courtesy of Danny HIll)
At 30 years old, a friend of his told him he should start running, so he gave it a try. He started running near his home in Ishpeming, Mich.
"I don't think I made it a half mile," he chuckled.
But he kept working at it little by little, and signed up for a 5k. Then came a 10k, and three months after he started running, he signed up for a marathon.
"I said I'd never do that again," recalled Hill.
He did 50 more marathons, even after that bold statement.
After a dozen 50-mile ultra-runs, a number of triathlons and three knee surgeries, the running was getting rough on his body-rough to the point that he needed to retire as a runner.
Enter mountain biking.
Just as with the running, Hill competed in local and national bike races. He wanted to see how far he could push himself. Last February Hill finished the Arrowhead Winter Mountain Bike Race, a 135 mile race located in International Falls, Minnesota in the thick of winter. The frigid temperatures reached 41 below, and he ended up losing a toe to frostbite.
Now, you'd think a missing toe would put you out of commission for a while, but Hill already had ideas of what would be next.
Hill read about the Tour Divide race eight or nine years ago in Outside Magazine.
"There was a guy named John Stamstad that was the original endurance racer; they had an article about him doing this continental divide race, drinking vegetable oil to get enough calories to keep going," said Hill.
"So I said, I'd like to do that sometime," he added.
Some might have thought Hill was going off the deep end, but his family and friends were nothing but supportive.
"My family was behind me from the start," he said.
He sat down with his wife, Heidi, after watching a documentary called "Ride the Divide," a movie about the 2,745 mile self-supported race, and she questioned him if he really wanted to do it.
Before she knew it, Heidi was counseling her husband on how to use a sewing machine to sew his own bags that would hold his belongings on his continental divide ride. The race started in Banff, Alberta, Canada, and ended in Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
"Now that I've retired I have the time to do it," he said, " I didn't really want to take the vacation time to do it before."
He studied the rules of the race. The official rules state:
To complete the route a rider may resupply food/equipment, rent a room, launder clothing, even service their bike at shops along the way. The intent is to ride unsupported between towns, and function self-supported when in towns. Any services utilized must always be commercially available to all challengers and not pre-arranged.
You may be thinking to yourself, hotel rooms and laundry, that doesn't sound so bad. The reality of it all is that you sleep on the hard, cold ground and are lucky to change into some clean shorts every few days. You may even be seeking the shelter of an outhouse to get out of a snowstorm.
Hill knew what he was getting into, but never could have imagined the adversities he would have to face in the weeks to come.
Danielle Pemble can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 256.