November 27, 2010
The Ozark 100
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
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 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
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.