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, after sunset.
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
|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 believed it.
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 Knight...
|#15 Andrew Smith getting vertical on the hill after "VW"
(watch me flounder on this hill, starting at about 2:28 and ending at 5:00)
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 shoulder.
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
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 second lap.
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").
|Click on photos for
(many of these are courtesy
of Linda Fuerst)
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 darkness.
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
|Mike Herbert, 2nd
place finisher in Vet A,
using some upper
body strength to help
#15 Andrew Smith at
|Here's another video
how helpful the
|Vet A winner Shannon Kenworthy needing a little help.
|Kole Henslee and Nick
Plesa cozying up in
|Brian Jahelka's video of Somethin' Special
|My bed on Saturday
night. I'm not much of
a tent camper.
(photo credit: Linda Fuerst)