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
hot chicks 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.
Park Hills, Missouri