HOME TOWN ROOTS: Kate Ginsbach wins Maah Daah Hey 150 mile mountain bike race in record time

Submitted photo

Kate Ginsbach, a 2007 graduate of Hot Springs High School, has recently taken her mountain biking to new heights, including competing in endurace races up to 250 miles in length, like the one shown here in Alaska.


Publisher’s Note: This ongoing new feature is written by recently-retired Rapid City Journal Sports Editor Richard Anderson, who is a 1977 graduate of Hot Springs High School. Upcoming articles will feature alumni athletes from any of Fall River County’s high school sports teams.

By Richard Anderson

Kate Ginsbach needed a bit of a comeback performance when she competed in the Maah Daah Hey 150 mountain bike race Sept. 10-11 in Western North Dakota.

It was the first big ultra endurance race for Ginsbach since the COVID-19 pandemic shook the world and her competitive ambitions, both physically and mentally. The 2007 Hot Springs High School graduate had been steadily building herself into a top mountain bike competitor since she officially took up the sport in 2013, but she had struggled in the previous two years in preparation for the 150-mile competition.

She exceeded her expectations and won her division in a course-record 19 hours and 15 minutes. She summed up her finish in her blog, Adventuring in Alaska.

“The MDH had been on my radar for 5 years and postponing it for 3 years came with a lot of emotions to finally get to the start line and actually reach the finish line,” Ginsbach wrote. “Yes I did finish, yes it was long, yes it was amazing, and yes it gave me just what I needed.”

Winning the Maah Daah Hey 150

in record time

The mountain bike competition on the Maah Daah Hey Trail is on a single track located in the Badlands near Medora. The race began at the southernmost point of the trail, the Burning Coal Vein Campground Trailhead. Racers traveled north to the CCC Campground, over 150 miles away.

“I actually like primarily single-track racing, which is pretty incredible when it comes to a long distance mountain track race, to have that much single track,” Ginsbach told the Fall River County Herald Star. “There are 17,000 feet (17,539 elevation gain) of climbing, but I don’t think any climb is over 800 feet. It’s just kind of like going up on a bluff, dropping down and back up. At some point you are like, ‘oh my gosh, if I’m going down, I have to go back up.’”

There was no mass start and the riders could choose the time to begin. Ginsbach began the race at 7:30 p.m. because she didn’t want to deal with riding in the dark twice. Her mother, Jane Farrell, and Barb Fetters were her support crew and met her about every 15 or 20 miles, giving her food, drink and encouragement.

“That was pretty much the only way I was able to kind of keep the pace I did. They had stuff ready to go,” she said.

Ginsbach said that for all of the races she has competed in, it is hard to describe how amazing it is just to be on single track for that long. It is considered to be the largest single track in the country.

“You really are kind of like by yourself, which is kind of cool,” she said. “I liked the weather. It was about 70 degrees, which was amazing because I live in Alaska. I was really worried if it was going to be like 90 and there would be no way I could survive. And I didn’t see any snakes, which was pretty incredible. I am definitely terrified of them. One of the reasons I live in Alaska is because there are no snakes, so that was good.”

Ginsbach said she didn’t have any lights between miles 106 and 113 and it was pretty dark. But there was a harvest moon and she had the route on her gps, which chirped at her if she was getting off track.

“That was maybe mentally fatiguing, but it was also like kind of a cool experience, to just have the moonlight, and you could see shooting stars,” she said. “I actually went over probably the worst exposure segment during that section. I didn’t realize it, which was also nice because I’m terrified of heights.”

Despite a few obstacles, she was able to beat the course record by about 15 minutes, although she didn’t know it until after the race because of the different starting times.

“I’m also pretty terrible at mental math, so I had no idea if I was on pace or if I wasn’t on pace for most of the day. I was just kind of like riding and kind of thinking, ‘OK, just keep going, keep pushing,’” she said.

Ginsbach didn’t take any significant breaks during the race so she could go for a course record. In longer races she would take a break to sleep 30 minutes or so when she could. She would get off her bike briefly at aid stations, as well as the 68 cattle guards she had to lift.

“I was having to get off the bike and lift it up to get under it each time. They got heavier as the day went on,” she said.

The Maah Daah Hey 150 isn’t the longest race she has competed in, as she rode in a 250-mile race in Alaska that took her 47 hours to compete. There she slept twice for 30 minutes each time.

“That one kind of made me realize I liked races that started and ended on the same day or less than 30 hours,” she said.

To compete in an endurance mountain biking events, riders obviously have to be in good shape. They also have to be in shape mentally. Ginsbach prepares in that area with yoga and meditation. She said she doesn’t get too attached to any one particular outcome during a race because things can change quickly.

“I kind have joked that it is the ultimate form of surrendering because you might have a mechanical problem and you have to figure it out,” she said. “You might fix it and things are great, but you know there’s going to be highs and lows, so you are anticipating knowing that each situation won’t last forever. You just try to get through the lows and capitalize on the highs when you can. When I am really good and fast, I am going to try to ride that as long as I can. If I am slowing down, knowing that if I am still moving, I am still making progress. If I have to take a break, it will benefit me overall. Some of the longer training rides you figure out things – how to eat and drink -- so you are not in a down place by keeping calories in.”

Ginsbach said she enjoys mountain biking because it makes her stay in the present, focusing on the trail rather than zoning out.

“Something will usually pull you back in like, ‘oh, I need to pay attention,’” she said. “I have definitely had my share of falls and crashes. And I have run over snakes, which is quite terrifying.”

COVID is her work, but it put a damper on her training and racing

Ginsbach, employed by the Georgetown Law Center in Anchorage, works on pandemic preparedness and response legislation. She had signed up for the Maah Daah Hey 150 in the fall of 2019 thinking she would do it in the fall of 2020. But COVID-19 hit in the spring, and living in Alaska she didn’t travel much. She also began working on the COVID response, which made her schedule a little hectic.

Much of the races she would normally do also got canceled, so she admits she didn’t follow a structured training plan throughout much of 2020.

“That was a little challenging because I had been training and racing for seven or eight years at that point,” she said.

She did sign up and compete in a 30-mile winter running race in Alaska to have something to train for and re-build her endurance.

“That was fun and interesting to run in the snow,” she said.

By the summer of 2021 she got back on the bike and competed in the Kee Night 50, thinking she would use it as training for the Maah Daah Hey. But during that race she herniated a disc in her back, so she didn’t compete that fall in the Maah Daah Hey 150.

Getting to the Maah Daah Hey 150 in 2022 was a challenge to say the least.

“With the COVID work I had been doing and everything else, it kind of finally caught up to me and I just had to take a step back from a lot of stuff and deal with overwhelming anxiety and panic,” she said. “So I wasn’t really sure if I was going to get to the starting line this year until maybe January or February.”

A riding friend in Alaska was doing the Tour Divide, a race from Canada to Mexico, and she wanted to provide a start line, so she asked Ginsbach in May to ride from Anchorage to Haines, which is about 600 miles.

There, Ginsbach felt like her body was physically able to handle this distance, so all she needed to do to get back on the starting line was work on her anxiety. She said it also served as a way to check into recalibrating and doing the work she probably should have been doing for two years when she was working on COVID -- to get back to a standard grounding thought.

“A lot of that was I always did biking and training and racing as just this outlet,” she said. “Having such bench marks with training, you just have to get better a little bit each day. We found it so easy to see that progress. If you’re working on a super technical thing, you can see yourself making big changes over time. And when I didn’t have that outlet during COVID, it was really hard to be working on COVID all the time and then dealing with it in my personal life and not having a super great outlet. So that was like my COVID bike journey, which was not a lot of racing and not a lot of structure, which is very odd for me. I’m very happy to be back to training.”

Turning to the bike

Ginsbach got her start on the bicycle like any youngster in Hot Springs, riding everywhere around town. She admits at the time, though, she didn’t know a thing about mountain biking. That came much later.

She first started training on a bicycle after breaking a leg while playing college volleyball at Holy Cross in 2009. She had the choice of biking or swimming, and although she did some swimming, she preferred to bike.

She would eventually learn to love to bike.

That summer, in 2010, her mother bought her a road bike and Fetters would pick her up while she was training for her Ironman competition. She would go out riding for a two- or three-hour ride as part of Fetters’ eight-hour training rides.

“I was like, ‘oh, this is kind of cool. This is fun,’” she said. “You push on the pedals and there is that immediate feedback that you are fast. I started really enjoying it and I started road biking my senior year of college.”

Then Ginsbach was hit by a car while biking. She decided that she would try mountain biking because, “there are no cars in the forest.”

After moving to Boulder, Colo., her mountain biking picked up and she eventually started competing in 2013 because Hot Springs classmate Wayne Russell and his friends were into mountain biking.

She and some friends at her work applied for the Leadville 50 lottery. As it turns out, she was the only one from that group that was able to compete in the race and she finished in second place.

“I thought, ‘I enjoy this and maybe I’m pretty good at this,’” she said. “I have enjoyed it ever since. I like getting out on long training rides, and it is a cool way to explore areas that you can’t necessarily get to by car or that will take you longer if you were trail running. It’s a cool way to see the world and test the limits of your body.”

In 2018, she competed in 18 races, winning four competitions and placing second in the Maah Daah Hey 100. She also had four third-place finishes.

Ginsbach said there are two things that mountain biking gives her:

1) a sense of adventure that you’re going out into the unknown; 2) a mountain biking community.

“There are some things that you can control whether that’s the food, the water, the route you’re taking, but a lot of it’s just kind of like being open to this experience,” she said. “I have great training partners in Alaska who also do ultra endurance events. Even when I was in grad school, I was racing. I always felt like when I was at the races, it’s such an individual experience, but it’s like this bonding. Everybody does the same race course, but has very different experiences. And then you get to the finish line and you’re like swapping stories and it’s like something that was super challenging for you and somebody tells you how they got through it. I think it’s really cool.”

During the Maah Daah Hey 150, she said the race directors were kind and generous with their time.

“I finish this race and they had homemade soup for me,” she said. “This is a really cool way to see different sides of people and how they engage in a different community.”

Her days as a

Lady Bison

Like most youth of her day, Ginsbach began participating in sports as a youngster in the summer recreation program under her aunt, Joyce Farrell. That led her to compete in volleyball and basketball at Hot Springs High School, as well as run track.

“I just did everything I could. I don’t ever feel like I was a particularly standout athlete, but I was good enough,” she said. “We had great teams like when I played volleyball and basketball. We had Kathy Schjodt, Heidi Beehler, Kara Powell and the Dinkel twins (Jamie and Jessie). It was just a way to hang out with your friends.”

The Lady Bison volleyball program earned 11 straight state tournament appearances from 1996-2006 and earned three thirds and one fourth-place finish during the 2003-2206 time span.

“We went to state all of the years I was in high school, which was really fun,” she said. “After I graduated I didn’t realize what a unique perspective event that was to participate in because it was so common that we would go to state, which was really cool.

“I think my sophomore year we went like 30-1, which was really cool. And then in my junior year we almost lost the regionals, which was kind of terrifying. We were playing Lead and the other girl, she hit it and it went out, and that’s how we won. But it was like, you know, the fifth game, like 15-13 and it was so close.

“In basketball, weren’t as good but it was still fun. In track, I feel like I just kind of did it to stay in shape for the other events. But it’s interesting because as I’ve gotten older, track is the one thing post high school that is pretty easy to keep doing, you just go outside and run.”

Ginsbach said she still thinks about all of her coaching relationships, even the ones that started in Hot Springs with Dennis Northrup, Cheryl Huddleston and Ken Hemmingson. She said it’s the coach-athlete relationship that develops into a mentorship or a mutual respect of just identifying the strengths and the other person that can help you.

“It’s always really great to connect with them,” she said. “They did have a big influence on my life, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, instilling commitment and hard work and working towards a common goal with others.”

Her work at the Georgetown Law Center

Along with working on pandemic preparedness and response legislation, Ginsbach said they consult with the WHO with different legal routes they can take. She manages a COVID 19 Law and Policy Database where they tract different countries response through legislation. They also do work with the Global Health Security Agenda with liability issues that arose around vaccines and no fault compensation structures.

“It was really like a lot of COVID all of the time,” she said.

After high school, Ginsbach earned her bachelor’s degree in environmental science at the College of Holy Cross in Wooster, Mass. She ended up going to law school, but after the first year she took a leave of absence to get a Master’s degree in global health at Notre Dame. Her Master’s was focused on pandemic preparedness, vaccine development and deployment for pandemic influenza.

After her Master’s she went back to law school at Notre Dame and earned her law degree After working in Boulder, she took a job at Alaska Native Medical Center because she said she is also interested in indigenous access to health care.

“You know, growing up so close to Pine Ridge and all the health inequities that happen, and the structure up here is so different, I kind of came here to learn more about it,” she said. “That was really eye opening and really interesting.”

In March 2020, she was hired by Georgetown and she has been there ever since.

“I’ve been at the Center for Translational Health laws, which is basically trying to use COVID as a catalyst to work on transforming health legislation in response to disease outbreaks, beyond just pandemics,” she said.

Coming up?

Ginsbach said she really hasn’t thought about where and when she will race again, as she is still reveling on her Maah Daah Hey 150 win, just because it took so long to get there.

But, she has a race in Iceland that she is trying to get into next summer and there’s some more bike packing in Nepal or Mongolia that she is interested in trying. There are a few other shorter races in Colorado she’d like to get back to.

“My plan right now is to not really think too much about it until January,” she said. “And I’m hoping to kind of do a little like ski mountaineer racing this winter and get into shape for that. And then kind of see where biking takes me at this point.”

Fall River County Herald Star

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