A Day in the Park

The 24 Hours of Flathead endurance mountain bike race is about more than pushing limits at Herron Park

By Andy Viano
Mark Christensen, an organizer the 24 Hours of Flathead, rides his bike through Herron Park on Aug. 8, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

In the middle of the night, when temperatures drop at Herron Park and campers scramble to their sleeping bags, there will be lights dancing in the sky above. Fourteen-hundred feet above the tents and trailheads, warmer weather provides relief for a collection of hardy mountain bikers who, with their headlights brightly guiding the way, can stop, look down and catch their breath.

They’ll probably need it.

The 24 Hours of Flathead endurance mountain bike race is a grueling test of strength and perseverance, all in the name of making the feeling of whipping through trails on the mountainside a little more possible for people who are living testaments to the power of strength and perseverance. The seventh annual competition and benefit returns to Kalispell’s Herron Park on Aug. 17 and 18, once again raising money and awarding grants to Northwest Montanans in need of adaptive equipment to navigate their way through life.

It was 10 years ago that Tia Celentano’s sister was paralyzed in a horseback riding accident, and two years later when Heather Cauffman’s then-boyfriend suffered his own paralysis in a mountain bike crash. The two women quickly discovered that there were not just physical challenges to finding ways for their paralyzed loved ones to continue recreating, but that the cost of doing so was enormous.

So they recruited Mark Christensen, a competitive mountain biker, put together this race, and have been raising money for adaptive equipment ever since. The completely volunteer-run event donates all of its proceeds to individuals with physical disabilities, and provides grants for whatever adaptive gear it can afford to buy.

“(My ex-boyfriend) always recreated,” Cauffman said. “So I felt like, how could he not continue to recreate?”

From left, Mark Christensen, Tia Celentano and Heather Cauffman, organizers of 12 and 24 Hours of Flathead, at Herron Park on Aug. 8, 2019. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Two years ago, the organizers took their commitment to adaptive athletes one step further and added an adaptive bike race as part of the two-day competition. It’s the only adaptive bike race in the Flathead Valley. Julie Tickle, executive director of DREAM Adaptive, helps spread word of the race to the athletes her organization works with, and understands better than most the challenges those athletes face to be able to participate. DREAM Adaptive will provide three adaptive bikes for participants to use in this year’s race, but each one costs about $12,000.

“(The race organizers) are super important; they are people that recognize adaptive athletes have a lot of obstacles to overcome,” Tickle said. “They can definitely be commended for recognizing that need and helping more people get outside and recreate.”

The adaptive loop at Herron Park is two miles long, and one of just a handful of adaptive trails available in the Flathead Valley. The Whitefish Trails offer some others, and Tickle and her group are always working to secure more, like on the developing Cedar Flats trails in Columbia Falls.

“Pretty much as soon as I see a new trail system, I get on them to let me show them our bikes,” Tickle said. “Our adaptive athletes want rowdy, fun terrain.”

The course at Herron Park is as challenging as anywhere, at least to Christensen, who has raced competitively for years. And the caliber of athletes who take part in the race every year is a testament to that fact. A single loop is about eight-and-a-half miles and includes 1,400 feet in vertical gain, and prominent local endurance athletes like Joel Sheehan, Jeff Sheehan and Matt Butterfield are expected to be part of the field this year.

The race is the only one of its kind in Northwest Montana, and organizers have long sought to create a festival-like atmosphere during the competition. Camping is encouraged on the open field adjacent to the Herron Park pavilion and meals are served at the nearby schoolhouse. It’s from those campsites that spectators, teammates, or other racers can watch the 24-hour racers and their headlights shine through the course.

“The night laps are a lot of peoples’ favorites,” Christensen said. “It’s a cool, unique experience to be racing in the dark.”

“It’s kind of serene up there,” Cauffman added. “You’re up on a ridge and can see everything.”

Competitors can enter a race solo, as part of a duo, or on a team of three to five members. There are two different endurance races, a 24-hour and 12-hour option, and single-lap entries are available as well. That’s in addition to the adaptive race and a kids race. Awards are handed out for the fastest laps and most laps completed.

But the most significant part of the awards ceremony, according to organizers, is when they get to award this year’s grants for adaptive gear. Last year, the $3,000 raised at the race was enough to buy a pair of skis for an adaptive skier and an adaptive tricycle for another, custom-fit at Wheaton’s Cycle, the primary sponsor of the event since its inception and Christensen’s daytime employer. Organizers are hoping to write even larger checks this time around.

The racing at this year’s event begins at 10 a.m. on Aug. 17 and registrations are accepted up until 9 a.m. that day. More information, including registration fees and a course map, is available at www.24hoursofflathead.org.

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