An interview with Ernie Marenchin, May 2, 2006
Now that endurance racers have an organized national series to showcase their talents (the recently announce National Ultra MTB Endurance Challenge, a series of six 100-mile mountain-bike races ranging from Park City, Utah to Harrisonburg, Virginia) big-name riders across the country have shifted their schedules to be able to hit series races. Cyclingnews MTB editor Steve Medcroft found one ultra-endurance specialist who couldn't be happier for the competition.
Subaru/Gary Fisher two-niner pro Nat Ross says he's dropped a European trip to add a couple of new Ultra MTB National Series events in his schedule. Ross' teammate and current U.S. Solo 24 Hour National Champion Cameron Chambers says winning the series is his primary season goal. Even Chris Eatough (Trek/VW) should be seen in at least one of the races (he traditionally competes in the Wilderness 101 in Pennsylvania).
The enthusiasm is good news for the dozens of lesser-known but super-committed ultra-endurance racers who rise to the challenge of these event throughout the year; guys who mostly pay their own way, who put in the same intense training as the full-time pros but often have families and full time jobs to share that training with, who make names for themselves with accomplishments that awe the average endurance mountain biker.
"“If you're in a solid second place in a lot of races you have no incentive to chase down the lead guy. In this format, we'll be racing all out in every race up to the very last second.” " -Marenchin on the merits of the Ultra MTB National Series points system
Stepping up to the big leagues
High on that list of athletes is 135-pound Ernie Marenchin of Kent, Ohio. Marenchin made a splash at the 2005 24 Hours of Adrenalin Solo World Championship; a nasty, rain soaked and freezing affair in Whistler, British Columbia and the site of Eatough's sixth consecutive world championship. Marenchin closed to within striking distance of Eatough late in the race causing both the Trek team pit to start asking questions about him and Eatough to pick up his pace and re-open the gap.
“I didn't have any expectations going into the race,” Marenchin said recently by phone. “I was hoping for a top five. When the race started going and I caught Nat at six hours, I knew I was doing pretty well.”
Called Ernesto in the official results (Ernesto is actually a high-school Spanish class nickname; Marenchin has no Spanish heritage), Marenchin finished second, only twenty-seven minutes behind Eatough. “After that, I really started thinking I could do well at this kind of racing.”
It was a realization six seasons in the making. “It all kind of started as a personal bet to myself,” he said. “I always felt like my endurance was pretty good but I had never done a longer event. I wanted to do something other than a marathon so I did the 12 Hours of Snowshoe in 2001. I got tenth but I was hooked.”
Marenchin says he continued to race the twelve-hour format for a couple of years, but only as a non-elite. “Then I started taking it a little more serious. A buddy of mine (Jim Baldesare with team Go-Mart/West Virginia) did a Wobblenaught fit for me and I started getting good results. So we changed my diet and we developed an entire racing schedule for 2005.”
Marenchin saw immediate improvements in his racing. “I stayed strict and saw a huge difference mentally and physically,” he says. “I was ten to fifteen pounds lighter than the previous season and had some good results early.” Results such as a win at the 24 Hours of Big Bear over perennial endurance pro Mark Hendershot and phenom Cameron Chambers.
Paying his dues
Stepping up to the elite class in endurance racing has meant that Marenchin carries a pro-level training load as well as balanced his other life commitments. “I'm getting married in July and don't see my fiancé much,” he said. “I do consulting with a local company out of Akron for the Microsoft Great Plains accounting software (thirty-three year old Marenchin is a Certified Public Accountant) which adds fifty or sixty hours on top of the training thing.”
The next logical step for an athlete like Marenchin is to make the jump to a full sponsorship. Does such an opportunity exist? “Mountain biking is still focused on shorter races, like the NORBA series,” he says. “From a sponsorship perspective, it kind of leaves us enduro racers out.” Despite the bleak outlook, Marenchin says he does see light at the end of the tunnel though. “I'm thirty-three,” he says. “Realistically, with the type of work I do and life as it is, I don't think I could ever replace my current income by getting paid to race my bike but it's not an impossible dream. Every year I'm getting stronger. Every time I think ‘why am I doing this,' I just remember guys like Tinker and Hendershot. They're making it happen. I could too.”
So Marenchin is excited about the opportunity the new Ultra series offers racers like him. “You can only do four to five 24 hours races in a season,” he says. “They're just too hard on you. You can see that in Chris' calendar - he has two or three events he's really focused on and it shows. The 100 milers aren't quite as draining. They give you a good workout, you get the hours you need and they don't beat you down as much as the 24.”
With the format long enough to give ultra-distance specialists a chance to stand out in the competitive crowd of racers, Marenchin says a 100-miler is simpler for a self-supported athlete like himself to manage financially. “It's easier for a lot of guys to do. You don't need a support crew, a mechanic, two bikes, lighting and everything else you need in a 24-hour solo.” That reachability should increase the quality of the fields (and in turn make the races more attractive to sponsors).
Marenchin says he'll miss only two of the six Ultra MTB series 100-milers, making him a contender for the overall prize. “I really like that the series seemed to be really fair. You don't have to do every single race. It's not all on one coast. And the points system (points awarded based on time gaps at each event versus positions) is the best I've ever seen - if you're in a solid second place in a lot of races you have no incentive to chase down the lead guy. In this format, we'll be racing all out in every race up to the very last second.”
Swinging for the fences
Marenchin says that although he'd like to “pop the Ultra MTB series out for myself,” he plans to stay true to his 24-hour roots. “I'm seeing the ultra series as a great prep for my three major goals - Big Bear (June 9-10, West Virginia), Nationals (July 29-30, Wisconsin) and, ultimately, Solo Worlds (October 7-8, Georgia).”
That 24 Hours of Adrenalin Solo Worlds, considered the authentic achievement in the unsanctioned 24-hour solo community, moved from its traditional home in Whistler to Conyers, Georgia and off its normal first-week-in-September slot to the same weekend as the prestigious 24 Hours of Moab (promoted by competing 24-hour mega-promoter GrannyGear Productions – read between the lines on that one). The move means racers like Marenchin have a choice to make about where to end their seasons.
Marenchin knows though that Eatough is going for his seventh consecutive Adrenalin Solo Worlds win and unseating the focused Northeasterner is the only accomplishment that matters in his discipline. “I was really hoping to do Moab - everyone tells me how great it is and I dream about racing there - but to be technically considered number one, you have to be racing Chris. He is the fastest guy out there. If that means he's going to race Conyers, then that's where I'll be. It'll take 100% devotion to beat him. You can't screw around with your diet or your training. You have to sacrifice other races. Your pits have to be consistent and super fast. You just cannot have a bad day.”
Can Marenchin be that perfect? “I've read the articles about the way he trains and the way he does his pits. I've seen him with a team of mechanics and walkie-talkies and cameras – it's all pretty impressive. I try to take the pieces he did well and the pieces other riders have done well and put them together for myself. I don't know if I can beat him, but I'm going to take my shot.”
You can see Marenchin next at the GrannyGear 24 Hours of Conyers in Georgia (May 20-21).