April 30, 2006 Park Hills, Missouri Leadbelt National Enduro 4th of 9 in Vet A Tough races mean different things to different people. The 2006 Leadbelt National Enduro was muddy, but not the muddiest conditions I've ever experienced. The weather turned nasty and the skies unloaded in the afternoon, but I've ridden in heavier rains. Even the hail wasn't the most painful I've ever endured (Polo, Missouri in 2004 takes those honors). But overall, I would rank the ’06 Leadbelt as the toughest race I've ever finished, for one simple reason: it was longest continuous amount of time I've ever spent on a motorcycle, in bad weather, on a muddy course, with a severely jammed thumb, no brake pads at the halfway point and a broken odometer. Pretty simple, really.
Leading up to race weekend, Park Hills received a couple inches of rain, which kept the trails damp and the creeks full of water. Another inch on Saturday, along with high winds, made the Missouri Mudders scramble to keep the course properly arrowed. My drive to the Sellers residence began with 5 hours of headwind, followed by steady rain when I crossed the Missouri border. Our trip to St. Joe State Park early Sunday morning was dry, but the staging area was as wet as I’d ever seen it. And neither the weather forecast nor the dark skies overhead looked encouraging.
Matt and I pre-registered on row 5, which most riders shy away from but we prefer because, quite honestly, it lets us finish sooner. We’re both well past the age and enthusiasm for hanging out and bench racing for hours while waiting for scores to be posted. After an enduro (or any race, for that matter) we’re generally tired and grumpy and just want to go home, take a hot bath (separately) and wrap hot towels around our heads. The downside to an early row is breaking in the trail for the rest of the field. On a day when high winds would strip arrows from trees and wood stakes, we were usually helping navigate for those riding behind us. Even so, as we would discover in many sections, an early row at this year’s Leadbelt was the hot ticket.
At the starting line, only Jon “Spud” Simons, Aaron “Chili” Roberts and Jim Jenkins were ahead of us. Spud and Chili shared trail-clearing duties on row #2, while Jim followed the pair on row #3. The next group to leave was a full row #5, which included Matt and I, along with Jesse Busk (C class), Dave Pendry (+45 C class) and Jim Staley (4-strk B). I took off first and led the way through some wide trails until the first of my many crashes. The rally-style enduro was set up as a series of special tests using a 30 mph speed average. In between the tests was free territory (i.e. no checks) where speed averages were pretty slow and riders could get back on schedule. We knew where the tests started (wherever it said “Known Control” on the route sheet) and could arrive early with no penalty, so I just tried to cruise to the first test without pushing too hard. In the process of cruising, I crashed a couple times but arrived at the first test with plenty of time to spare.
The test began just outside the public area of St. Joe State Park on damp trails along the southern park boundary. Midway through the test, light rain made the technical rocky sections even more technical. Much of the real challenge of this test was navigating through the center of gullies, where years of water flow had uncovered every odd-sized rock. If there was one thing I’d learned in my years of riding at St. Joe State Park, it was this: the rocks come in more random shapes than girls at a Phish concert. And like old ladies at riverboat slot machines, they stay put. Hit a rock at St. Joe and most of the time your bike (and your body, possibly) will bounce away from it. I bounced away from several rocks and, as would be a common theme in every special test, dumped the bike once or twice. Ten miles in and I’d already crashed more than the previous two enduros combined.
The test ended at the pavement next to the sand flats in the public area of the state park, where Spud and Chili were comparing notes and I mourned the demise of my mechanical odometer. One or more of my crashes had cracked open its face but the mileage counter was still clicking away. Matt caught up two minutes later and we took off after Spud and Chili, knowing we could run as far ahead of schedule as we wanted. The arrows pointed us toward the north end of the park and into a section of woods notoriously muddy when wet. The trails are heavily used by ATV’ s and full of ruts deep enough to swallow bikes whole, which is not always a bad thing because sometimes it’s nice to have a little extra traction under there. The rains had filled every rut to capacity, so any venture through the center of a water-filled cavity was the same type of gamble as propositioning someone you've only viewed from behind – every once in a while you get the trail riding equivalent of a dude when you were expecting a lady.
The muddy ruts came and went, as did a swampy prairie on the northwest side of the park property. On the way back to the sand flats, I tumbled over a log lying across the trail at an angle. While flailing in more random directions than Michelle at a rave, I felt the trail reach out and yank my left thumb in a very unpleasant manner. It hurt. I picked up the bike just as Matt passed by with an encouraging “You go girl!” The pain was so bad that I thought I’d broken my thumb. Matt waited for me and we rode together into the public area of the park, through the sand flats and back to the staging area. With plenty of time before the next test, we headed back to our trucks to gas up. I bummed a few ibuprofen pills from Matt and hoped they would kick in quickly.
Many things can be done with a severely jammed thumb. You can operate a clutch. You can give Chicago drivers the one-fingered salute. You can type overly descriptive race reports on a computer keyboard. What you cannot do with a severely jammed thumb is endure front end kickbacks in sand whoops or bounce off large inanimate rocks. The pain hurts like multiple shots of Jaeger in a 34-year-old’s body.
Eight miles and 30 minutes later, Matt’s magical pills did their job and my thumb was feeling better. We arrived very early to the second special test, along with most other riders, so I had a chance to chat with John Yarnell on his ’03 KX250, Ray Osia, and Mike Schmidt who was working the check. An EZ-Up tent straddled the starting point, with room for only a single-file line of bikes. Two of the slower guys on our row decided to line up first, which didn't suit me well when our minute came up. I bobbled while trying to get around one of them, crashed once, then got hung up on the toughest hill in the course. It’s rock-infested and used often in Leadbelt enduros and difficult to climb even when the course is dry. Halfway up, I lost all momentum and pushed the bike to the top. From there, I crashed again. By that point Matt was far ahead of me and creative metaphors were flying out of my mouth as fast as energy was leaving my body. I finally gathered some rhythm and arrived at the end of the test just behind Matt and the B-rider on our row. I dropped 7 points, to go along with the 7 points I’d dropped on the first test.
The third special test began in my favorite part of the park property, which seems reserved for two-wheeled vehicles and is used selectively for races. Once again, we had time to kill at the check-in, so I pushed aside the other riders on row #5 and I lined up first. The test was 8.5 miles, the longest of the first loop and the one with the most singletrack. When dry, these trails are as good as can be found anywhere in Missouri and even when wet, they’re still fairly rideable. Not so rideable, however, was a long section through the center of a creek. Even under normal conditions the creek’s deep silt and rocks are a handful. Throw in a foot or two of rushing water and it was a real test, especially riding upstream. Add a series of slick rock ledges and you might understand why this was one of the most physically demanding sections of the entire course.
I approached the rock ledges to an audience of Lars Valin and another Missouri Mudder on hand to help sort out bottlenecks. The first ledge was relatively square, about 16 inches high, and surrounded in pools of water. With no traction to loft the front wheel up the ledge, I hit it head on with barely enough momentum to clear. Lars offered a few words of encouragement while I scaled the next set of ledges. Somewhere in this stretch of creek I saw Jim Jenkins lying in a patch of silt with his boot caught under his KX250. While he struggled to untangle himself, I asked if he was OK, which is Stichnoth code for “Are you incapacitated to the point of needing to be airlifted to the hospital?” Sometimes I take pity on those hopelessly stuck in mud holes or lying motionless and face down in 12 inches of water, but Jim was simply caught with his boot under his bike. I rode on.
I crashed once during this test and finished by dropping 12 points, for a first-loop score of 26. Back at the truck, I ate a turkey sandwich, gassed up the bike and examined my swollen clutch hand. Matt came in a few minutes later to show off a nice cut under his eye. He stayed awhile to clean it up, while I finished my sandwich and prepared for the second loop.
About 4 minutes ahead of schedule, I hopped on the bike and headed back to where I’d finished the first loop. Arrows seemed to point towards the sand track next to the pits, so I took off in that direction and caught up to Spud and Chili. Where the track ended and the woods began, no arrows were in sight. The three of us backtracked and eventually figured out the second loop started exactly as the first. Inside the woods, it didn't take an astrophysicist to figure out the 18 mph speed average would be next to impossible for me to maintain. Not helping matters was getting hung up on some rocks and sliding backwards under a fallen tree. Special Test #4 was mostly a repeat of the first test but was placed a mile or so further down the trail. By the time I arrived at the check-in, I was 4 minutes late. The course was pretty much torn to hell but on a positive note, there was no mistaking where the trail went.
Better defined lines through the nasty gullies didn't make them any easier the second time around. I was 7 minutes off the pace at the end of the test, but because I checked in 4 minutes late, I dropped 11 points. Once again, we headed out to the sand flats, through the bike-swallowing ruts and back to the grassy swamp. This time through, the swamp path had widened from 5 feet to about 30. Somewhere prior to that point, I found Chili playing in the mud and stopped for a minute to play with him. Turns out he was actually stuck in a water hole. We pulled out his bike and rode together for a few miles, which was lots of fun because Chili rides a strong pace and doesn't crash as much as I do.
I avoided the diagonal log that caused my jammed thumb and made it back to the staging area unscathed. Knowing how messy the trails were, I didn't waste any time in refilling the gas tank. I also discarded my damaged headlight shell, which had earlier found itself on the losing end of a head-on confrontation with a tree. By then the odometer cable was ripped out of the drive gear at the front wheel and was flopping helplessly. It didn't matter, though. The odometer wouldn't be needed anymore.
I was now almost 5 hours into the race and still had 30 miles to go. At the start of the 5th special test, only Spud and Chili and Black Jack Enduro President Rick Owens (row 7) were on hand. Mike Schmidt was working the check and offered an act of genuine kindness: he cleared my goggles of mud. At this point there was plenty of it everywhere, although with a few hours of dryness, some of the course was tacking up nicely. Other parts were getting worse. About half the riders signed up for two loops would not make it to this checkpoint. Matt was part of this attrition due to his cut eye (courtesy of his handlebar) and called it a day after briefly giving the second loop a try.
The first mile or two of Special Test #5 used new trails, so Spud and Chili and I were back to clearing out the trails for the 55 remaining riders. The course eventually found its way back to what we’d ridden on the first loop, which was now pretty much slop. Both sets of brake pads were completely gone. All I could hear was the grunting of the 300’s magic engine, brake squeal each time I touched either the rear pedal or front lever, and the sound of rubber tires on greasy muck, like squeezing a fistful of saturated Illinois mud between your palms.
I dropped 23 points in the 9.5-mile test. Somewhere in that test or the 12 mph section following it, the course passed through the infamous waterfall. Anyone who’s ridden the Leadbelt in the last few years knows what I’m talking about. It’s the most popular spectator vantage point on the course, filled with cameras and onlookers seeking carnage. On a normal day, a small stream provides a scenic series of cascading rock ledges, about 20 feet wide. Some of the ledges with an even slope can be ridden down with little effort. Other ledges drop off a few feet. It is those three or four ledges that are sphincter-tightening when the water flow is but a trickle. What I saw on this day was simply amazing: a raging, whitewater river. Many ledges were completely hidden by rapids that kayakers could have enjoyed.
My first launch off a ledge was met with flashbulbs and cheers. The second launch was nearly disaster. The back wheel spun with the smallest blip of throttle, so I wasn't getting much lift and the front wheel dropped off the edge like an Acapulcan cliff diver. Nevertheless, I kept myself attached to the bike. After I’d conquered the scariest of the ledges, the spectators thinned out and the rock-bottom creek leveled off. Below one of the last ledges was a deep pool of water, which we were supposed to avoid by following arrows around a tree branch that had lodged itself against the edge of the ledge. I didn't react in time and fell over while trying to make a quick turn to the right. The bike should have landed with me in the 18-inch pool of water below the ledge. It should have been completely submerged (like me), and I should have ended my day by pumping water out of the engine. But somehow, thanks to the tree branch, the bike stopped short of the pool of water and teetered on the ledge. Somehow the engine kept running and I was able to grab the clutch in time to keep it going. And somehow, when I uprighted the bike walked it down the ledge, I stayed on my feet while standing in a slippery pool of water.
My unintended swim actually felt good. Even though temperatures never rose much above 70 degrees, I was heating up and I had a lot of time to make up in order to arrive at the final test on time. Under normal conditions a 12 mph average through the 7-mile transfer to the final test would have been a good chance to get reasonably close to being back on schedule. But the trails had turned into slop. I felt tired and slow and would have been very happy if the race had ended right then. The mile markers passed by every so slowly, and by the time I made it to the final test, I was 23 minutes late. So, in the 7-mile transfer section, I didn't make up any time, in a 12 mph speed average. In comparison, Mike Lafferty dropped 11 points in Special Test #5 and gained back every one of those 11 minutes by riding exceptionally fast through the transfer section. I averaged 12 mph; he averaged 17.5 mph. Huge difference in the woods.
The final test threw in a new twist: hail. Rain came first, steadily and then in buckets. With goggles removed, I kept my head down. Soon I noticed a prickly sensation on my arms and saw the unmistakable bouncing of pea- sized hail on the ground. Now this was getting interesting. Fast guys were passing from rows behind me, some riding with the same energy I do on the first lap of a hare scramble. In a wide, 4th gear section I could see Spud and Chili ahead and eventually passed them. A mile or so later, Chili found me restarting my KTM after pulling it out of a deep rut. “Hey, it’ s raining,” he announced. “Hey, no shit,” I replied. I took off ahead and promptly dumped the bike. I remounted and rode with Chili for another quarter-mile until being reminded that while it can be helpful to switch the fuel petcock to the “off” position to cure a flooded carburetor, it’s equally helpful to switch back to the “on” position when the engine is running again. Chili took off while I made some extra work for myself.
Later, I caught up to Chili and followed his creative lines through the ruts and then let him follow me after passing through an observation check. That was the last I’d see of him. When the test was over, the course wound itself another 5 miles back to the staging area. I was never so glad to see the sand flats. My bike was a mess. With no headlight shell, my riding number wasn't visible (not that anyone could have read it anyway), my odometer cable was tied neatly in knots (thanks to a check worker who didn't want to see it get tangled in the front wheel) and my score card was completely waterlogged. If the club was able to use it in any way for scoring, my hat is off to them.
Mike Lafferty won the race handily, while Mike Sigerty took the Vet A class win. I was one of only 43 riders to finish two loops, out of 109 who had signed up to ride the whole 95 miles. My clutch hand was swelling up like a marshmallow and my forearms felt loaded with long, sharp pins. But I was satisfied in finishing, almost to the point of disbelief because of all the events that could have - should have - ended my day early. Toughest race ever.