On the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a humbling and beautiful experience like no other
The secret is getting out, slowly, of western North Dakota's punishing but amazing running, biking and Nordic skiing experience. Established a few decades ago with horses in mind, the 144-mile Maah Daah Hey Trail is proving to be a challenge and a unique experience for racers from all over the nation.
MEDORA, N.D. -- Perhaps nowhere in the American West is the contrast greater for those who partake in endurance racing than on western North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey Trail.
You are in the vicinity of some of the most friendly people you will ever hope to meet, and surrounded by natural beauty unparalleled anywhere in the Great Plains. Yet, the terrain and the climate seem intent on doing bodily harm to those who utilize this rugged 144-mile gem.
“We always have people who are absolutely humbled by the difficulty of the Maah Daah Hey Trail. It’s in the Badlands, so it’s hot, there’s no shade and there’s no water. And the terrain is always up or down so there are continuous intervals,” said Nick Ybarra, one of the founders of Save the Maah Daah Hey Trail, a nonprofit organization staffed primarily by volunteers that maintains the trail and organizes the handful of races for runners, bikers and Nordic skiers held there each year.
“A lot of races in the mountains, you can settle in to a nice pace where you climb for 10 miles, sometimes more, and then you know you’ll have 10 miles of downhill. In the Badlands it’s just interval training and whether you’re running or biking it’s always up-down, up-down,” he said.
Save the Maah Daah Hey is close to a decade old now, and was created out of a messy situation in 2012, when an opportunity to show off this outdoor challenge to the world took a wrong turn, literally.
That summer, Ybarra and other trail advocates organized and launched their original mountain bike race, called the Maah Daah Hey 100. Around 60 bikers from throughout the country started at the CCC Campground, just across the Little Missouri River from the Theodore Roosevelt National Park North Unit, and raced south to Medora. Or tried to, anyway.
“It was really, really fun, but at that time the Maah Daah Hey Trail was in rough shape because the U.S. Forest Service ran out of funding for staffing and trail maintenance,” Ybarra recalled. “So all the racers ended up getting lost on the trail.”
A volunteer army
It was clear that the official maintenance of the trail, which was first built in 1990s with horses in mind, was not adequate to keep the area in the necessary shape for those who wanted to run and bike there. Ybarra and his friends sought and were granted U.S. Forest Service permission to help maintain the trail, and Save the Maah Daah Hey was born. Then the learning began. Ybarra, who is originally from Bismarck, enlisted some hometown friends in the effort.
“For me it was on the job training. I’d never done trail maintenance before and these guys had been working on trails in the Bismarck/Mandan area for decades,” he said. “They kind of trained me up and from there we got all kinds of people helping. Now every year we get 30 to 40 random volunteers who use their vacation time and come out and push the brush mowers and the string trimmers.”
They noted that volunteers are welcome to find more information on where and how to get involved via the organization’s Facebook page, https://www.facebook.com/SAVEtheMDH/
It is a daunting task, as the forces of nature in this wind-swept part of the north country are constantly changing things, and with nearly 150 miles of trail to maintain, there is always a downed tree to move or erosion to patch or grass to cut.
A unique running experience
Their efforts have paid off, with the Maah Daah Hey Trail now hosting eight racing events each year, and upwards of 700 runners expected for their 2021 trail run on July 31. When those runners hit the trail, they will find a challenge and an experience unavailable anywhere else in the country. The rugged terrain of the Badlands, the generally hot, dry conditions, and the slices of real western North Dakota life one sees are incomparable.
“You’re not going to PR. Not even close. You’re probably going to have one of your worst race times ever,” said Tami Norgard, 51, who is an attorney in Fargo and runs two of the Maah Daah Hey races each year. “But it’s not about speed, and it’s not about your finishing time. It’s about the incredible journey and the views you see. One time we started and there were horses staring at us. Last year there were a bunch of guys on horses pushing cattle through the trail. It’s a very unique experience.”
The trail run offers races for participants of every level of ability, from a 5k fun run to a punishing distance race of more than 100 miles. Typical of this isolated and sparsely populated part of the country, even with 700 people involved there is a certain solitude on the trail, along with those constant uphill and downhill intervals, that runners find appealing as well.
“You get to a point where you’re by yourself out there,” said Norgard, who admitted the training on the flat land of the Red River Valley does not adequately prepare you for the terrain of the Badlands. “Sometimes you can see people ahead of you or behind you, but for the most part you’re kind of alone and it’s really peaceful. There’s no pressure to keep up with the crowd, and it’s really enjoyable.”
Two-wheeled trial on the trail
It's a similar story from the mountain bikers who head to the Maah Daah Hey, either to race, or just for the experience. Some bike shops in the region offer a drop-off service, so bikers can experience a segment of the trail, then bike back to their car.
"It is challenging, and it's beautiful. It is stunningly gorgeous in a very different way than something in Minnesota would be, where there are lots of trees and forests," said Valerie Dosland, a St. Paul-based education lobbyist and avid mountain biker. "You can see forever and the wildlife and fauna is very different."
Dosland and her husband rode a roughly 20-mile segment over Memorial Day weekend 2020, and urged visitors to be aware of western North Dakota's unforgiving summer climate.
"I would not do it in July or August, when it's really hot," she said. "We did it in better weather."
There are numerous bike races of anywhere from a dozen to 100 miles held on the trail each year. JC Larson of Fargo, who is a bike expert at Paramount Sports, has happily participated in a half dozen of them, winter (on a fat tire bike) and summer. He admits there are times on the trail when both his body and his mind have been tortured.
"The trail is very exposed. A lot of it is pasture land, but when you get into the buttes, there are short, punchy climbs, and there's nowhere to run," Larson said. "It will definitely bring you to those places where you're thinking, 'Why did I sign up to do this? I am having a horrible time and I feel like I could die if I crash.' Then when you get done with it, you're like, 'Holy (crap), that was amazing!' You can prepare as much as you want, but once you get out there, you're going to learn something new every time."
Secret leaking out, slowly
The name “Maah Daah Hey” in the language of the Mandan people, means “an area that has been or will be around for a long time.” In the voices of those intent on preserving and promoting the region and the trail, one finds that name to be perfectly fitting.
Norgard grew up on a farm outside Arnegard, N.D., and could see the Badlands off in the distance from her family’s home. Even living on the state’s eastern edge now, she said the Maah Daah Hey is in her blood and has stayed involved with efforts to promote and maintain the trail.
“I think this is a resource in North Dakota that not enough people know about it. It’s free, it’s outdoors, during COVID it was great for families to go out and hike,” said Norgard, who will be running the trail’s half marathon at the end of July. “It’s been written up in outdoor magazines as one of the top mountain biking trails in the country, it’s been in Men’s Health and in the New York Times. There are all these national accolades for the trail and yet so many people in our own state don’t know about it and haven’t been out to visit it, and I think that’s just too bad. It’s a great vacation destination that’s not too expensive for people.”
The story is similar for Ybarra, who met his wife Lindsey while mountain biking with friends, and after college in Minneapolis, felt the pull to return to western North Dakota and spread the word about this hidden gem. In the summer of 2009, he rode the entire length of the trail with his parents and wife following in a support truck.
“It was such an amazing experience, I said I wanted to share this experience with other people, and that’s when we started dreaming up the one race, and that race turned into more races,” Ybarra said.