November 28, 2009
4th of 8 in Vet A
Flashback to Thanksgiving 2008 and the arrival of snow and cold in
Northern Illinois which stuck around for a solid 3 months: me and the
Internet got to know each other well. We were already acquainted,
but a couple weeks of 25-below-zero took our relationship to a level
where you learn things about each other you’d have been perfectly
fine never knowing, such as the name of your favorite Bee Gee or the
digestive outcome of Red Bull combined with cashews. In this time I
rediscovered the Hillbilly GP website and its discussion forum, which
was in the midst of various ravings about a first-run endurance race
called the Ozark 100.
The primary instigator of the Hillbilly off-road racing series, know to
his mother as Jon Simons and to the rest of the world as Spud,
helped develop the initial Ozark 100 in 2008 with a unique format: 3
separate motos totaling 100 miles. The course would weed out
competitors after each lap, based on how far they trailed behind their
class leader. The lucky few with enough speed and stamina to make
the third moto would be rewarded by riding the trails one more time,
As momentum developed for the second coming of the Ozark 100 in
2009, I jumped on the bandwagon and reserved Thanksgiving
weekend for a trip to Hillbilly Country. Sure, I’d be blowing off at least
one family event and my employer’s Christmas party. Each way, the
drive would be more than 500 miles and I’d be gone for the better part
of 3 days. But that, my friends, is the beauty of being single and
unattached. When opportunities like this arrive, I go. No questions, no
negotiations, no begging, pleading or whining. It just happens.
Friday morning I packed Big Bird full of gear, hitched up my KTM and
began the long drive to an overnight stop at Lebanon, Missouri. Good
sleep in a comfy hotel bed, interrupted only by paranoid dashes to
the window to see if the 250XC was still attached to the Ultimate MX
Hauler, preceded my Saturday morning drive down to Mansfield. Only
a few guys in the Food Shack were awake when I arrived, so I pulled
up next to the nearest Port-o-Crapper and took a half-hour nap. By
then, sunrise revealed that I was parked beside Ian Blythe, a regular
on several national-level racing series. His drive began in Colorado.
Back at the Food Shack, biscuits and gravy were hot off the oven and
probably the best $3 expenditure of the weekend. My old racing
buddy Elston Moore introduced me to the men in the Shack as a
native of a tribe called Chacah-go-ho. Evidently he didn’t realize I’m
now part of the slightly smaller Dakota tribe, but that’s ok. Over at the
signup area, I snuck a peak at some of my competitors who had
registered the night before. My goal of making the night moto turned
into a pipedream after I read the names of the Pro class, the A guys,
and my Vet A opponents. This field was stacked with guys like Cole
Kirkpatrick, Steve Leivan, Aaron Shaw, and many of the rest of
Missouri’s best. After handing over my entry fee and receiving a cool
set of numbers from BikeGraphix of Kansas City (who also happens
to be the maker of my awesome #407 number plate graphics), I
strolled through the staging area to take in the sights. Trucks, trailers,
and RV’s were parked around a winding pit area. Brian Jahelka,
master of the MotoTally system, was handling scorekeeping duties
and was set up in his own trailer next to the main scoring checkpoint.
This self-described techno-geek represented the Nerd Herd very well,
with RFID scoring, live broadcasting of times at a mid-lap checkpoint,
a live radio broadcast, an HDTV set up next to his scoring trailer for
viewing the electronic results, and even a pleasant computer-
generated female voice announcing riders as they checked into the
scoring lane. She wasn't sexy-voiced like the Garmin lady, but good
enough for a bunch of folks who’d camped out in 34-degree
temperatures the night before.
Spud rounded up the racers at 8:30 a.m. and made three promises:
25-mile laps, a good time for all, and death to cheaters. One hour
later, I was situated on the third row, admiring the first wave of Pro
Class riders smoothly negotiating the grassy curves of the pasture
area. The holeshot was earned by a high school junior named Kole
Henslee, who would clear the leafy trails for several miles before
being overtaken by the Texas version of his namesake, Mr.
Kirkpatrick. On my row were the familiar faces of Matt Weis, a
competitor from my days as a regular on the Missouri Hare Scrambles
Championship circuit, and Jeff Neathery, riding a Husqvarna 125
Three minutes later, my 250XC kicked to life quickly. A few turns in
the grass track led us into the woods, where I found myself in the
front half of our 8-man class. Our first major challenge was an
obstacle with its own name: The Wall. Endurance races of this type
often identify interesting spots on the course by titling them in some
fashion, and The Wall’s characteristics were as one would expect of
its designation. The trail descended along one side of a narrow
ravine, then shot straight up the other side. Waiting at the top of the
ravine was, you guessed it, a wall of rock. Two line choices at the
bottom of the ravine gave riders a pair of options for scaling The Wall,
and I chose the trail on the right. Why? It’s unclear, but I make this
choice often, including on the basketball court, where in my younger
days at open-gym nights at the old Stockland, Illinois auditorium, my
cousin Paul would often remind my competitors, “He can’t go left!” In
this case, the right line was the right line, and my bike found enough
traction to scale the 2-foot rock ledge at high point of the ravine. I was
on my way.
After the riders passed through and continued into darkness, most of
the spectators moved on to “Area 208” on the other side of the staging
area. An hour later, the riders climbed through the center of a ravine
under the cover of another string of generator-powered lights. I was
perched on the side of the ravine near Marty Smith and Rick Whelove,
where our view showed the riders spaced much further apart at this
late point in the race. Above us, eerie beams of light shone through
the trees as each racer began a winding descent into the ravine.
Once again, Cole Kirkpatrick was first to arrive. He maintained a
comfortable lead over Ian Blythe and was well on his way to taking
the overall win for the second year in a row. Nick Plesa, Kole Henslee
and Steve Leivan rounded out the top 5 in the night race. In the
overall standings, Steve finished 3rd and the teenage Henslee took
home 4th place. Consistent top-10 finishes by Aaron Shaw in all
motos put him in the 5th spot overall.
For those of you contemplating a one-off endurance race, there are
few better options in the Midwest than the Ozark 100. But be warned:
a training regiment of 2-hour hare scrambles will leave you as beaten
as I was. The guys who do this type of racing, and do it well, are
individuals like Ian Blythe, who pocketed his trophy and drove
through the night to Fort Smith, Arkansas for the River Front GP.
After 100 miles on Saturday, he finished 2nd overall on Sunday.
How? No idea. I didn't really want to move the next day, let alone
drive for 8 hours, but I got my money’s worth. It’s that kind of race.
|Yours truly, top of The Wall.
|#704 David Russell lighting up The Wall.
(see Mr. Russell's helmet cam footage - near the end of the video is
his view of this)
The Wall was one of a handful
of spectator locations with easy
access from the staging area.
With abundant sun and
temperatures heading for the
mid-60’s, the race had attracted
a throng of curious onlookers,
all cheering the riders and
offering help when needed.
YouTube video would later
reveal much assistance for
riders struggling up The Wall,
including the extinguishment of
fire set by #704 David Russell’s
sizzling Yamaha. If I hadn't see
it on video, I wouldn't have
As I made my way through these trails, a recurring thought bounced
around my typically wandering mind: While I am very intrigued with
the idea of racing in the woods at night, is this really the place for it?
The entire 750-acre property seemed to be endless, rocky ravines. If
we weren't riding up them or down them, we were riding in them,
along their contours. Typical trails were 12 inches wide, neatly carved
into hillsides, and filled with endless possibilities of near-disasters,
should tires stray more than an inch or two from the beaten path.
Wide, flat rocks embedded in the trail virtually guaranteed that if my
throttle was active, the rear tire would spin itself down the wrong side
of the slope. The singletrack occasionally drifted into stretches of wide
trails, but these were only brief transfer sections. As soon as I’d shift
into 4th gear, blue arrows emphasized with yellow tape would direct
me back to the narrow trails.
After The Wall, I worked my way into 3rd place and, quite possibly,
took the lead when #301 Shannon Kenworthy and the #306 KTM of
former Olympic kayaker Mike Herbert took a wrong turn while
crossing a dry creek bed. I almost made the same mistake, thinking it
wouldn't be a Missouri race without a half-mile run down the center of
a rocky creek. But we were to simply cross over to the other side, and
I caught myself before making a hard left into the creek bed, where
the two riders were returning to the marked trail as I passed through. I
let them by and settled back into the 3rd position through the
midpoint of the lap.
Brian Jahelka had placed a remote RFID pickup around 12.5 miles
into the course, and at that point I was about 30 seconds behind Mike
Herbert and just over a minute behind Shannon Kenworthy. Through
the next half of the course I hoped for some flatter, easier singletrack
where I could relax a bit, catch my breath and reenergize. It didn't
happen. The tight, rocky trails just kept coming, all the way to a
spectator point called “VW”. Presumably, this title was related to the
Volkswagen-sized rocks in the area. With helpful advice from
bystanders, I cleared a tricky rock garden where many were on hand
to witness one of the more technical spots on the course. I could not
imagine riding this at night.
The rock garden descended into yet another ravine at one of the
lower elevations of the property, then led up a two-stage hill to one of
the higher points on the course. The first stage took us to a wide
ledge which served as the approach to the second stage. This was far
from the steepest slope I've ever climbed on a dirt bike, but we
couldn't face the hill straight-up and give'er hell to the top. We were
forced to attack the hill at an angle on a leaf-covered trail hiding many
rocks. The trail diverged into two lines, and you can guess which one
I took. This time, right was wrong and left was right. After my third
failed attempt, I tried the left line, where several riders appeared to be
having more success. With just enough space to gather some 1st
gear speed, I bounced over several rocks along the way to a ledge at
the top, carrying the bare minimum momentum that I needed to clear
the ledge and narrowly miss a downed rider at the crest of the hill.
The lap ended about a mile later.
|David Knight receiving some
assistance. No, not that David
|#15 Andrew Smith getting vertical on the hill after "VW"
(watch me flounder on this hill, at about 2:28 and ending at 5:00)
(photo credit: Linda Fuerst)
Three riders in the Vet A class checked in ahead of me after the first
lap, all apparently having no problems with the hill after “VW”. Along
with Shannon Kenworthy and Mike Herbert, #305 Eric Gentges was
now a few minutes in front of me. I refueled and grabbed another
extra Band Aid for my left thumb, then dashed back to the trail. A
wiser individual probably would have realized that it was now
approximately 11:30 and the energy from my biscuit-and-gravy
breakfast was probably used up an hour ago. This thought crossed
my mind about 20 minutes later, when hunger pains reminded me
that it was nearly noontime and I wouldn't be eating anything for over
an hour. And I was tired.
Since the left line was the best line at the hill after “VW”, I decided to
try the left line at the base of The Wall. As the rock wall approached, I
quickly realized there was no way my momentum (or lack thereof)
would carry me past the ledge. I pulled in the clutch and rolled
backwards, then lost my balance and let the bike fall over. Around me
were a few others in the same predicament, stranded on the side of a
steep hill and wondering: 1) How did this happen; 2) How do I get out
of here; 3) How do I make myself appear more helpless than the other
five guys stuck on this hill so that bystanders will devote their full
assistance to me; and 4) Why did I think this race was such a great
idea? I did get some help from an onlooker and was quickly upright
again. I really had only one option at this point, and that was to ease
my way about 20 feet across the hillside to a better path to a smaller
rock ledge. One guy had just successfully propelled himself to the
top using this route, although he ended up in a thicket at the top and
had to dismount and shove the bike through. I pushed the magic red
button to fire up the 250XC’s engine, dumped the clutch and spun my
way to that thicket. The brush stopped me though, and once again I
fell over. This time, the bike was on top of my leg. Thankfully,
spectators pulled me from under the bike and stood it upright while I
regrouped. Jeff Neathery, dressed in street clothes and nowhere near
his Husky, helped me get back on the trail. He’d fallen in one of the
turns on the grass track, only seconds into the race, and injured his
My hope for racing at night was already long gone, and now the idea
of riding only two laps was sounding just fine. It’s been a long time
since I've “bonked” at a race, but today was shaping up for it. At the
10-mile mark, I knew I’d be physically spent at 50 miles. Fifteen miles
in, all I wanted to do was survive. The first lap had taken nearly two
hours – almost a whole hare scramble. This second lap was like
doing back-to-back races and I simply didn't have that kind of
stamina, especially on a course offering no chances to relax.
With 10 miles to go, I was in full-on energy conservation mode. For
me, there’s two kinds of energy needs for racing in the woods: stand-
up energy and sit-down energy. Stand-up is the kind of energy for
gliding over rough terrain; sit-down is for powering through corners. I
had little availability of either at this point, so I forced my legs to
extend when I needed to stand. I didn't want to unnecessarily waste
my abdominal muscles, for I would need those in the seated position
to hold together my internal organs while the seat pummeled my ass
through the rocks.
Fortunately, Spud and his crew had posted yellow cards on trees,
counting down the miles to the end of the course. When I saw “10”, I
felt like I could finish the lap, maybe within the required 20 minutes of
my class leader. I’d get an hour or so of rest before heading out for
Moto #2 and another 25 miles around the course. But with 5 miles to
go, I had no desire to ride any more. Fifty miles would be just fine and
I knew my ass would thank me later. My butt cheeks were rubbed
raw, my clutch hand was starting to blister, and I knew I still had to
face the dreaded hill after “VW”. It came soon enough. When I
reached the wide ledge below the second stage of the hill, I paused
to catch my breath for a few seconds. I would need all the energy I
could muster for this. With a twist of the throttle, I lurched forward,
eyes locked in on the left line. The trail was well defined now, the
rocks much more visible. On video, the hillside appeared moderately
sloped, but the footage clouded the fact that those darned rocks were
stealing our traction.
With momentum building, I rolled over the first few rocks and lost
some speed after each one. An offending tree that had frustrated
many riders passed by without incident, and I let the bike slow to a
stop in a safe spot just before the final ledge at the top of the hill.
Again, I rested. One last blip of the throttle and I propelled myself
over the ledge, but not before rubbing a tree with the inside of my left
leg. The encounter left a burn at the bend of my knee, much like a
knee guard strap that’s been rubbing too long. At that point I didn't
care, though. I limped to the finish line and saw myself more than 30
minutes behind Shannon Kenworthy. I’d lost 20 minutes to him on the
Back at my Blazer, I laid myself on the tailgate and closed my eyes. I
saw rocky, off-camber singletrack. These visions wouldn't leave and I
could barely move, not because of bodily soreness, but from
complete exhaustion. It’s not often that I race nearly four hours on a
dirt bike, with only a 2-minute gas stop in the middle. Even the Moose
Run didn't hurt as bad. Spud and his gang of sadistic Ozarkians gave
me 50 miles for $50, measured in value by the number of times I
uttered “How can anyone survive 100 miles of this?”
|You don't see this kind of
spectator help very often
(Chris Smith riding a very tired
George Raney's bike up the
hill after "VW").
After changing clothes, I grabbed a pillow and napped for the entire
90 minutes of the Pro class second moto. I awoke to the sound of Ian
Blythe’s KTM returning to his van and announcing that he’d won
narrowly over Cole Kirkpatrick. With Cole taking the first moto and Ian
finishing second, the two were now tied in the standings. The overall
results would come down to the third moto, the one to be run in
Around 6:30 p.m., the night-qualifying riders lined the starting area
with an assortment of headlights and helmet lights. Cole Kirkpatrick’s
KTM sported a huge Baja-style round headlamp, combined with 4
small lights mounted to his helmet. His head was a mass glow of
artificial light. If anyone was going to see well in the woods, this was
the guy. I walked to an area near The Wall called “Somethin' Special”.
In the day races, we had ridden down this garden of boulders. In the
night portion, riders would have to climb it. Twice. The 100 yards or so
of boulders were lit with a string of generator-powered lights.
Supplementing the illumination were a couple hundred spectators.
Most were there for entertainment, but some intended to lend hands
to the riders. Seventeen riders would ride the night race, and all
would need assistance at Somethin' Special.
The first rider to arrive was Cole Kirkpatrick, followed closely by Ian
Blythe. Two major areas of ledges and boulders required teams of
bystanders to push and pull the bikes. I balanced myself awkwardly
at the top of Somethin' Special and saw only one rider clean the final
series of ledges with no assistance.
|“Maybe four miles from the end of the moto I caught [Zach] Neill
who looked like he was riding with two flat tires, a broken shock
spring, and a case of the get me outta here’s. This race will do
that to you.”-- Steve Leivan, 3rd overall
|Ian Blythe, 2nd overall, getting help from pretty much everyone.
|Overall winner Cole Kirkpatrick receiving some assistance in
|In the pits with the Leivan's,
preparing for night racing.
|Above: Mike Herbert, 2nd place
finisher in Vet A, using some
upper body strength to help
#15 Andrew Smith at
"Somethin' Special". This was
a real challenge for even the
|Here's another video demonstrating just how helpful the
|Vet A winner Shannon Kenworthy needing a little help.
|Kole Henslee and Nick Plesa
cozying up in "Area 208"
|Brian Jahelka's video of Somethin' Special