It was 1981, and folks at the Wichita Falls Chamber of Commerce needed a big idea.
The following August, in ‘82, the town would celebrate its 100th anniversary, and the chamber wanted to throw an event to commemorate the centennial. But they weren’t sure what kind of event they wanted to throw. For help, the chamber brought in a consulting firm from New York to concoct some kind of celebration. They pitched it to Roby Christie, a longtime Wichita Falls resident who’d been tapped to chair the centennial event.
“They plopped a big book in front of me – it was a ring binder, weighed about six pounds or so,” Christie said. “It was all about how to put on a rocking chair marathon at the mall.”
Christie didn’t know anything about a rocking chair marathon, but it’s apparently exactly what it sounds like.
“They get a bunch of rocking chairs, and then they just, people get in them and see who can rock the longest,” said Christie. “And that kind of thing can last for days.”
The potential duration was not a selling point for Christie, the volunteer chair. Besides, he had his own idea for the event – one that, at the time, seemed even more unusual than a rocking chair marathon.
In the end though, Christie’s idea was the one that won out, and the one that’s remained the city birthday party for four decades.
“I said, ‘Well we’re going to put on a bicycle ride.’ They said ‘A bicycle ride? Who does that?’ I said ‘Well, we do. And it’s going to be called the Hotter’N Hell Hundred, and it’s going to celebrate our 100th birthday in a hundred degrees, and we’re going to ride a hundred miles,’” Christie said.
It was a good idea. On Saturday, about 10,000 cyclists will race in the 40th Hotter’N Hell Hundred. The race that competed for civic backing with a rocking chair marathon is now one of the biggest long-distance rides on the U.S. biking calendar.
In the early ‘80s, cycling as a sport wasn’t nearly as popular in the United States as it is today. Long races were uncommon, so the idea of a 100-mile race seemed extraordinary. That it would happen during the hottest time of year was just a kicker.
Christie, the longtime executive director of the event, was sure it could be done, though. He was part of a group that had just started a cycling club in Wichita Falls. Between 1981 and 1982, whenever a member would go out of town, they’d pass out flyers at cycling shops, and spread the word through rides with other local clubs.
Christie had hoped that 500 people would come to that first ride. It drew over 1,200. They ran out of bibs to hand out.
“The ladies on the registration committee went out and bought paper plates, and started writing numbers on paper plates, and bought out the town in safety pins,” Christie said.
The race has only grown since that first year. Elaine McKinney of nearby Burkburnett knows that better than most. She moved to North Texas in 1979, and has never missed a Hotter’N Hell.
“That would be one of my claim-to-fame things,” she said.
This year, McKinney’s going to ride the 75-mile route through Sheppard Air Force Base. She rode the full 100 miles five years ago, when she turned 60.
It’s not a ride for beginners. Heat has a lot to do with a particular race’s difficulty, as temperatures have ranged from the low ’80s to 109 degrees. Wind can be a problem, too.
“But when you’re out there with 8,000 to 10,000 other people, that time just goes so fast,” McKinney said.
According to the current forecast, though, the race won’t quite live up to its name: the high for Saturday in Wichita Falls is only supposed to be 94 degrees.
After 40 years, however, organizers say they have a handle on the heat. Medical advisors on hand will cut the race short if it gets too hot. Riders who don’t reach the 60-mile mark within a certain time are diverted to a shorter route.
COVID-19 remains a concern, though. Organizers ask that anyone who feels sick to stay away from the race. And if you’d rather not be part of a crowd, you can sign up to do the ride virtually.