November 27, 2010
The Ozark 100
Mansfield, Missouri
3rd of 10 in Vet A
One year ago, I made peace with myself after the Ozark 100. In a
haze of exhaustion, barely able to move, I had stared blankly at the
lighting setup I’d brought with me just in case I qualified for the night
race, a pipe dream if there ever was one. Halfway into the race, my
day was done. I had not qualified to ride any further and even if I had,
my body never would have allowed it. I had nothing left to give, save
for the determination that next year I would be back. In 2010, I would
be in better shape. I would ride more and I would exercise more. And I
would buy a softer seat.

This year, I did just that. I raced on Halloween day. I competed in an
enduro the following weekend. I did the Zwingle, Iowa hare scramble
one week after that. I pedaled my Trek road bike in front of the TV,
with my CycleOps trainer attached. Somewhat unsurprisingly, it
worked, for reasons that are quite simple: If you choose to race the
Ozark 100, you better have your sh!t in order and you must train
beforehand. It is that kind of race.

My Ozark weekend routine, same as last year, included a hotel room
in Missouri to guaranty a good night’s rest on Friday, then an early
drive to Mansfield on Saturday morning. The only difference this year
was abstaining from the biscuits and gravy at the food shack, which
would have been truly excellent as a spectator but a little heavy for a
racer. Promoter extraordinaire Jon “Spud” Simons stood ready to take
my entry form and welcomed me to the “annual ass-kicking” that is
the Ozark 100.

One final part of my race preparation was a quick hike over to one of
the nearby “elements”, those tricky spots in extreme off-road events
that attract spectators. Off-road elements are not to be confused with
those found in periodic tables, although a rare substance called
Unobtanium, typically evident on the machines of large-budget racers,
usually has little impact on a rider’s outcome. Dress your bike in all
the Unobtanium you please, but if you can’t clear an element made
up of off-camber rock ledges or near-vertical slopes, you won’t get far
in the final standings. The section I was most interested in was
named “VW”, for reasons not entirely clear. VW had sucked the life
out of me in 2009, thanks to a rocky hill climb that cost me many
minutes and far too much energy. The trail arrows pointed towards
VW in an opposite direction this year, which meant I wouldn't have to
deal with climbing that gawdawful hill.  Descending it made me feel
better, but I was still nervous about the off-camber boulder section
where spectators were sure to gather in large numbers. In this
direction, those boulders meant business.

From VW, I hiked further down into the depths of a nearby ravine and
witnessed just how much the elevation varies on the club’s property.
Most of the 750 acres is a series of ravines, more or less, with a
couple hundred feet from the highest ground to the lowest. Standing
at the bottom of the ravine, I raised my head and searched for the
high trails. It was a long way down here, and quiet.

I suited up for the race just before the riders meeting, where Spud
offered his most helpful hint: “Keep on rolling.” From what I recalled
of last year’s race, loss of momentum usually meant pushing the bike
up gravelly hills in a wasteful expense of energy. Spud also
suggested “moto-ing” through the course would probably produce
less than desirable results. Smooth power was the name of the game.

On the starting line, the Vet A class was placed on the third row,
behind the Pro and A classes. New for 2010 was a “tandem” class,
which generated a fair amount of internet buzz leading up to the race.
A month earlier, while working a checkpoint at the Leaf River enduro,
AMA District 17 fixture Greg Moss had described a type of tandem
class from a much earlier time in enduro racing where guys would
ride two-up on dirt bikes for the whole race. This is what I envisioned
of the tandem class at the Ozark 100, until it was clarified as two
riders on separate dirt bikes staying close enough together during the
race so as to pass through the scoring area “in tandem” each lap. The
Kenworthy father-son team of Shannon and Tanner entered this
class, along with a couple other pairs of riders. As some may recall
from my Leadbelt Enduro report last May, Shannon was instrumental
in my education on the role of the pituitary gland in the production of
testosterone. Shannon was also the guy who smoked the Vet A class
at the Ozark 100 in 2009.

Spud let loose the Pro class around 9:30 a.m. and allowed a 2-minute
gap between the A class. When our class began another 2 minutes
after that, the benefit of a new rear tire on pasture grass was most
evident. Along with some help from my peppy 250XC motor, I
rounded the first turn in 3rd place. A grass track took us through the
staging area and over a water bar that doubled as a jump over a
small pool of water. I had scouted this area after the riders meeting
and decided a wide line around the turn would set me up well for the
jump. That side of the jump would launch me toward less water, and
with temperatures in the low 40s, I had no desire to begin a 100-mile
race wet. But as we approached this jump and my competitive juices
flowed, I saw the guy immediately ahead of me take the same line I
had planned to use. Opportunity knocked, so I cut to the inside and
launched high over the water bar. I cleared the water and was now in
second place heading towards the woods.

An Ozark 100 rookie might have wondered what the fuss was about in
the two miles, with its flowing singletrack reminiscent of Missouri’s
best trails. Sure, there were some rocks, some hills. The rookie would
have questioned how was this any tougher than a typical Ozark-area
hare scramble. But soon enough, the rookie would understand. As
soon as “VW” appeared, the physical and mental challenges would
appear, one after another. I came to this point in third place, after
giving up a spot by trying a different line down the hill that gave me
fits last year. When I arrived at the spectator spot, a couple of bikes
were stuck in various positions in the off-camber rocks. A high line
seemed like the right choice when I scouted this area earlier, but it
required squeezing between a tree and a large rock outcropping, then
shooting up the side of the hill. I chanced a lower line and found
myself sliding down the hill. After stepping off the bike and helping it
back on the trail, I was moving again, just as a guy walked over to
lend a hand. One obstacle, conquered.

Stepping off the bike cost me a couple more spots, but I didn't care at
that point. This race would not be won or lost in the first two miles.
We arrived back at the staging area to begin a long stretch of trails
winding in and around the hilly property. The course seemed to
forever flow back and forth across side hills, which made sense given
the steepness of some of the hills. For the same reason Pikes Peak
has no direct route to the summit, the Ozark 100 wanders its way
from top to bottom. Over the next 45 minutes I caught up to a few A
riders and re-passed some of my competitors in Vet A. My pace was
strong but calculated; cautious, yet aggressive. I conserved my clutch
hand, still feeling sore from my Halloween Day crash. The ibuprofen
kicked in nicely after about 5 miles, and the 8-mile marker came
surprisingly quickly. The two classes ahead of me had cleared some
of the fallen leaves from the trail, but certain areas were difficult to
read on this first lap. The 250XC powered its way through endless
hills and off-camber trails and logs.

At about 10 miles into the first loop was a special section called
Grand Canyon, named for its narrow, rocky chasm that took us down
a small creek. This was not a long section, but contained enough
boulders and technical challenges to sap my energy in a remarkably
short period of time. Though I cleared all the obstacles through here,
Grand Canyon would be one of several elements I would anticipate
each successive lap, mentally calculating when and where it would
next appear.

One thought that came to mind several times throughout these initial
miles was how different the course would be in the middle of a rain
shower. Would anyone finish the whole 100 miles if trail conditions
weren't as pristine as today? Probably, but I would not have been one
of them. So far my pace was strong, I had avoided any major
mistakes, and my body felt no ill effects as we approached the 18-
mile marker. A couple miles later, however, the reality of the Ozark
100 set in like a Democratic filibuster. I followed a young guy on a
125cc two-stroke through a difficult off-camber section which
contained a pair of rock ledges. We both cleaned the ledges and
proceeded to another rocky ledge that absolutely required aggressive
riding to overcome. The only way through was straight ahead without
letting up on the throttle. The young guy didn't do that and came to a
stop, which caused me to pause and wait for him to spin his way
across the ledge. After he made it through, I let out the clutch and
found the rear wheel spinning its way down the side of the hill. In an
instant, the front wheel began a similar slide and I was now a few feet
downhill from the trail.
No problem, I said. I will simply ease my way
back up to the trail by taking a diagonal path up the hill
. And it almost
worked. Then I ran into some brush that had been cleared from the
trail and tossed down the hill. Once again I was stopped, and now
hopelessly too far from the trail. The rocky, leaf-covered terrain would
not let me gain altitude, so I chose to ease my way down the hill,
where I was confident I would pick up the lower trail that had snaked
its way up to where I had begun my slide down the hillside.

At the bottom of the hill, the trail was clearly visible, but a creek was
in my way. I found a line through the roots and water and boulders
and was back on the trail. Only problem was, the route back up the
hill was not exactly a quick jaunt. It was more like a mile. In what
seemed like half of forever, I arrived at the off-camber rock ledge and
cleared it as I would have the first time if there hadn't been another
bike in my way. Disgusted, I charged ahead and was back in the
general vicinity of the staging area. A few spectators were lined along
the trail, which I knew could mean only one thing: we were in for a
treat. This time it was “The Wall”, a high vertical slope with rock
ledges at the top.

The setup for “The Wall” was a steep drop into (what else?) a ravine,
then a steep climb up a rocky hillside. Like all of these obstacles, I
powered my way up without letting off the throttle. With the rear tire
struggling for traction, I met the rock ledge with the absolute minimum
momentum to clear it. From there, the last two miles of the loop
seemed much like the first two, with flowing singletrack that could be
ridden aggressively with no ill effects. That changed, naturally, with a
boulder-strewn downhill followed by a tricky climb out of a narrow
ravine. It didn't get any easier. Next up was “Somethin’ Special”, that
infamous boulder field that was run downhill during the day and
reversed for the night loop. From my high vantage point, I saw
nothing but jagged rocks about the size of large suitcases. I pointed
the 250XC straight down the center and tiptoed through the boulders.
At the bottom of the ravine, the trail reversed course and led me back
to top, where a crowd had gathered to view bikes navigate the rocks.
A much larger crowd would gather here later that night.

The trail meandered back to the staging area about a mile later,
where I checked through the scoring barrels and returned to my
Blazer. After fueling up the bike and devouring half a Clif bar, I taped
a couple Band Aids to sore spots on my hands. The blisters were
already showing, and I was only 25 miles into the race. This was
going to be a tough one.

I began my second lap determined not to repeat the mistakes of the
first. When “VW” appeared, spectators pointed me toward the high
line I’d scouted before the race, and it worked like a charm. As I
settled into this lap, my energy level was still strong, but I was now
entering the mental realm of the Ozark 100. This had happened
before in races like the Moose Run, where I suddenly realized that all
the nasty, scary obstacles I’d faced would come again. This time
around, I knew what I was in for, and that was not necessarily a good
thing. The whole lap was filled with anticipation of the next tough
element: VW…The Wall…Grand Canyon. Sometimes the race goes
better when you’re blissfully unaware of the obstacles ahead.

All of those tough obstacles came and went without incident,
including the off-camber rock ledge where I’d lost so much time on
the first lap. Throughout the second half of the lap, I traded spots
several times with Vet A rider Todd Arth, who showed me a few good
lines through some tough sections. He led me up The Wall with a
high line to the right of where most were attacking the hill. Just before
Somethin’ Special, he hung himself up on one of those random small
trees that sometimes find themselves attracted to motorcycles. I
passed by and then bungled a climb out of a narrow ravine. Todd
caught back up at the top of Somethin’ Special, where I paused at the
top to check out my options. My hesitation put Todd back in front and
we finished the lap together, he in 3rd place and I in 4th.

The first 50 miles had consumed 3 hours and 40 minutes, which I felt
confident would place me within 20 minutes of the class leader.
Twenty minutes was the magic number for qualifying to ride the 3rd
lap, and unlike last year, I was ready for another 25 miles. Gas Gas
rider Clay Stuckey had finished about 16 minutes ahead of me, so I
was indeed headed to the next round.

The sun was now on a downward path towards dusk, and I wondered
if I’d wish for my lighting gear when the lap neared its end. Three
other riders in my class, including Todd Arth and Dwight Maggard,
had qualified for the afternoon race. The restart was an entirely
different scene, with about half the riders from the first 50 miles
continuing on for another 25. By now my rear tire had lost its edge
and my start wasn't special. I entered the woods in last place and
watched the other 3 riders gradually pull away. I didn't care. I just
wanted a clean lap with no mistakes. The fall leaves were long
cleared away and the trail was easy to read. Alternate lines were
appearing around some of the lesser obstacles, and I pointed the
250XC towards any showing evidence of saving energy. Thus far, I’d
avoided the feeling of intense fatigue that effectively took me out of
competition last year, but I had a hunch I’d need whatever reserves I
had left in me. Occasionally I’d come upon an A-class rider, or a pair
of Tandem class riders catching up from behind, but for the most part
I rode alone for 25 miles.
Video footage would catch me stalling my
bike in Grand Canyon, and then immediately demonstrating why E-
start on a 2-stroke is totally worth the extra weight (
look for yours truly
about 4:20 into the video
).

When the endless singletrack brought me back near the staging area,
I was completely worn out. The last two miles of the lap featured a
prelude to Somethin' Special, which twice before had fooled me into
thinking I had actually arrived at this notorious element. The approach
was similar: around a left-hand corner, a drop down into a steep
boulder field where I’d pray like hell to keep the bike on two wheels.
But this “Prelude”, if you will, wasn't quite as steep a drop and the
boulders thinned out much sooner. Following the "Prelude" was the
narrow ravine where I’d let Todd Arth catch up to me on the previous
lap. I was dreading this climb almost as much as Somethin’ Special.
The last of my energy reserves took me to the top without incident,
and I was able to descend Somethin' Special with no problem. A mile
later I was back at my Blazer. I unfolded my camping chair, propped
up the footrest, flopped down my tired body into the seat, and
thanked Campmor.com for the best $25 I’d ever spent.

My sore clutch hand, at this point, was not much good for anything,
let alone another 25 miles. I’d brought my lights and could have
ridden the night loop if I qualified, but I had no intention of such
foolery. I changed into street clothes and walked over to the scoring
trailer to check my results. Ray and Glen Osia had showed up earlier
in the day to spectate, and they mentioned that I’d looked good out
on the course. Good enough, they hypothecated, that I might qualify
for the night race.
No way, I said. I wasn't fast enough to qualify, and
even if I did, it would have taken a repeal of ObamaCare for me to
change back into my cold, sweaty riding gear.

So naturally, I qualified for the night race.

I was at the tail end of the evening qualifiers, with a 22nd overall
finish, but that was good enough. Ray and Glen tried their best to
shame me into suiting up to ride, and looking back on it, I probably
should have given it a try. The night course was made up of 3 laps
around a modified 8-mile loop. Maybe I should have at least tried to
do one lap, but I just didn't have it in me. Instead, I bought a bowl of
chili from the food shack and watched the night racers climb
Somethin’ Special. Kole Henslee was simply spectacular in the
darkness. With 1-3 finishes in the first two motos, he needed a night
win to secure the overall victory, and that he did. Kole finished a full 5
minutes ahead of runner-up Caleb Wohletz. From my vantage point
on top of a large boulder in the middle of Somethin’ Special, I could
see Kole descend to the bottom of the ravine that makes up this
element. If I hadn’t known better, I would have thought his KTM had
no brakes. He was that much quicker, compared to the rest of the
riders. Zach Neil, winner of the 2nd moto, finished a distant 6th in the
night loop, which was good for 3rd place overall. The timeless Steve
Levian put his night riding skills to work, taking 3rd place behind
Caleb and pushing up his final position to 4th place overall.   

The next morning, I loaded my gear and began the long drive back to
Northern Illinois. At home, I unpacked the night race qualifier plaque

I'd
earned on Saturday night and placed it next to my fireplace, where
it stands as a satisfying reminder of the toughest race of the year.
Mansfield, Missouri