November 26, 2011
1st of 16 in Vet A
It's Saturday evening, two days after Thanksgiving. Most likely, you are
relaxing in some fashion, maybe enjoying the last of the leftover turkey or
picking over what remains of Black Friday deals at your local shopping
establishment. Possibly, you're in front of the TV, taking in one of the final
weekends of the college football regular season. You are warm and rested
and thankful for all the comforts in your life.
Or maybe you're within a vast forest in Southern Missouri, straddling an off-
road motorcycle, cold and wet and stopped along a trail with only a 50-foot
envelope of light identifying your existence. You've been here before,
three times already. During the day, you completed the equivalent of a
runner's marathon, or an Olympic triathlon, all while a cloudy sky let loose
with an inch of rain. You've seen endless side-hill trails more suitable for
mountain goats than motorcycles. You've piloted your dirt bike up and over
rock ledges and boulders so infamous that they are given special names.
You are in a state of exhaustion that goes beyond physical.
Now it is nighttime and you know what must happen next. With a pair of
small but powerful lights as your guide, you must force your tired dirt bike
across 40 yards of rocky trail which drops steeply into a deep ravine, then
rises as quickly as it fell. You know that forward momentum is all that will
carry you up the other side of the ravine, as your rear tire is worn to a set
of polished nubs that, 80 miles earlier, were perfectly square knobs of
You also know that what follows these 40 yards is every bit as difficult, for
the awaiting boulders have a special name.
Such was my position around the same time the University of Missouri was
celebrating its Border War football victory over Kansas, which could very
well be the scientific definition of polar opposites, as it relates to
entertainment. Mine was in the form of the night portion of the Ozark 100
off-road motorcycle race; theirs was Jager Bombs at Harpos. Either way,
we were both satisfied. Not only had I qualified for three laps of darkness,
but I was actually there in the hills and rocks and trees, attempting to
complete the course.
This adventure, another of many in my 17 years of off-road motorcycle
racing, was a journey that began two seasons ago. But its roots go back
much earlier than that.
In my past life as a 7-year resident of St. Louis, I'd learned all the names
and locations of the little towns and hamlets that attracted off-road racers
to the Missouri Hare Scrambles Championship series. These two-hour
cross country races, 15 or so each year, took me to the far extremes of the
Show-Me state and added thousands of miles to my little red pickup truck.
I'd spent countless hours learning things about my regular riding partner,
Matt Sellers, that sometimes I'd have been better off not knowing (and he
of me, I'm sure). The memories never left, nor did my desire to return to
Missouri as often as time allowed, to compete in an occasional hare
scramble or enduro.
After leaving St. Louis for the urban sprawl of Chicagoland, I kept in touch
with my old racing scene by way of the Hillbilly Grand Prix internet forum,
which in 2008 was abuzz with the news of a 100-mile race to take place at
the Hardwood Hills Ranch near Mansfield. The race would be promoted by
Jon "Spud" Simons, who by that time had grown to regional fame in off-
road circles as the creator of "Spud-Cut", a type of trail so narrow that it
must be carved through trees and underbrush (in Illinois, we call this
"riding in the woods", but "Spud-Cut" is less common in the old-growth
Missouri forests). The newly named Ozark 100 was to be run as three
separate stages on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, with riders having to
finish each stage well enough to qualify for the next one.
Spud's unique format for the "100 Miler", as it would come to be known,
was somewhat consistent with that of his Hillbilly Grand Prix hare scrambles
series, in that it contained two "motos" during the day. Finishing positions
in the two motos at Hillbilly races were averaged to determine the riders’
final standings. The Ozark 100 would follow this format, but Spud threw in
something extraordinary for the "100 Miler": A third race would happen at
night, and it would contain special obstacles that the day riders would not
have to face.
The inaugural 2008 race attracted riders from a wide geography, including
national fast-guys Ian Blythe from Colorado and Cole Kirkpatrick of Texas.
The ensuing internet chatter piqued my interest in this event, so I reserved
a spot for it on my calendar in 2009. As the 2nd Annual Ozark 100
approached, I bought a set of 10-watt LED lights, just in case I qualified for
the night race. I reserved a hotel room an hour away in Lebanon, so that I
could get a good night's sleep before the race. And that was pretty much
the extent of my preparations.
As it turned out, my lack of any sort of physical exercise during the month
of November left me gasping for air about halfway into the second lap. The
physical demands of this race began exceeding my expectations about the
same time a stark reality hit me like an overhead tree limb: I would never
wish to ride these trails in the dark. The night race was of no concern to
me anyway, for after 50 miles I could barely move. In 2010, I vowed to train
for the race, ride as often as I could in November, and at least qualify for
(and ride) the afternoon moto. That goal was met, but 75 miles was my
limit. I qualified for the night race but had no strength to continue.
Fast forward to 2011, and the fourth version of the "100 Miler". I'd
prepared for the race in roughly the same fashion as last year by riding as
much as possible in November, setting up my bicycle trainer in the
basement (and actually using it), and lifting weights. On the way to
Mansfield, I carb loaded with a huge bowl of rice at Crazy Bowls & Wraps in
St. Louis and spent a relaxing evening at a hotel in St. Robert. Saturday
morning, I scouted the boulders of the "VW" section and its cruel hills and
ravines nearby, as well as two other challenging sections named "The
Wall" and "Somethin' Special". My KTM 250XC had been outfitted with a
new chain, sprockets, and a rear tire. My gear bag contained three sets of
jerseys, pants, gloves and socks, along with two sets of goggles and roll-
offs. I brought a full box of Band Aid Tough Strips to shield my hands from
blisters. I even had a separate helmet set up especially for the night race,
should I qualify. I was as prepared as I knew how.
I would need every bit of that preparation. The weather prognosticators
had left one day of rain in the forecast during most of the prior week,
naturally the same day as the Ozark 100. I was hopeful the forecasters
would change their minds, but at 9:15 a.m. on race day, the weathermen
proved themselves adequate. As if on cue, rain began falling just after I
lined up in a wide row of "Vet A" racers in the gassy field where the race
would begin. In some respects, I liked my chances in a mud race. On the
other hand, flashbacks to the past two 100 Milers reminded me of my worst
fear: As tough as these trails are, they sure would suck in the rain.
The Pro class didn't seem at all fazed by the wet condition of the grass
track, which they took to like flies on honey. An instant after Spud signaled
the start of the race by tossing the 15-second board to the ground, 16
engines burst to life. In another instant, muddy tails of turf shotgunned off
16 rear tires. The unfortunate souls waiting their turn behind these riders
found themselves covered in the kind of stuff that frontier pioneers might
have used to build houses back in the day. With rear tires swapping
sideways in all directions, the motorcycles nearly disappeared in a cloud of
dark chunky matter. Half a minute later, the frontrunners would reappear
after snaking through the staging area and doubling back toward the
starting line. These guys were racing hard already, power sliding through a
wide final turn before streaking towards the woods. Pity the riders in the
middle of the pack, now layered in mud less than a thousand yards into the
100 mile race.
The considerably smaller class of eight "A" riders left next, followed by my
16-rider Vet A class. A poor start put me well behind the leaders, but I
wasn't concerned. It's a marathoner's approach one must take with the
Ozark 100, as no such race is won or lost at the first corner, or even the
first mile. However, races can be lost by the absence of sight, which is
pretty important when you're about to enter the woods and stay there for
the next 25 miles. The mud kicked up on the grass track had mostly shut
down my vision, but I had planned for this by taping a thin, clear plastic
tear-off over my goggles. Roll-off tape would clean off my goggles from
there on, but before I'd even seen a tree, that tear-off was already trail
The rear group of Vet A riders aligned themselves together through the
narrow trails leading us to the first tricky obstacle. Less than a mile in, the
arrows pointed us down a steep ravine filled with boulders of all shapes
and sizes. With 30 or more riders already passing through here, each
boulder was muddy and slick. The trail became a 75-yard series of step-
downs, leaving us about 50 feet lower in elevation. In a section as
technical as this, any misplacement of the front wheel could be the
difference between a successful descent and a wild tumble to the bottom
of the ravine. One racer had experienced some sort of malfunction midway
down the ravine, and I carefully steered around his left side. He was
already struggling among the company of the best and toughest 40 riders
anywhere around. I could only imagine how the intermediate and novice
riders would handle these boulders.
Another mile later, the first of the specially named obstacles, or "elements",
appeared above me: The Wall. With a running start of approximately 10
feet, we were expected to climb a 40-foot hill with a two-foot rock ledge at
the top. The face of the hill was littered with loose rocks, most about the
size and shape of softballs extensively mauled by packs of wild boars. The
outside line I'd scouted before the race was awash in stranded
motorcycles, so I chose a middle path up the hill. With nothing more than a
handful of throttle and a nearly-new rear tire, my KTM propelled me to the
rock ledge at the far left of the summit. All of these ledges were smooth
and wet and not the kind of obstacle you want to face at a point when your
rear tire is running out of traction, but that's exactly what happened when
my front tire met the ledge. My rear tire came to a stop at the base of the
ledge; the front tire sat perched about halfway up the ledge. By some
stroke of luck, I was able to step off the bike, maintain a slippery balance,
and walk it up the ledge. Meanwhile, on the other side of the hill, rider-less
bikes sailed up the rock ledges, taking flight in short bursts as their owners
tried to execute the ultimate act of sacrifice: Bail out, give'er a shove on
the way off, and hope she makes it over the ledge on her own. Many of the
bikes, unfortunately, were only executing backflips and then rejoining their
riders below the rock ledges. For these guys, assistance from a group of
spectators would be their most likely avenue past The Wall.
The Wall's exit was a U-turn around an orange plastic fence, taking us
directly down the same hill. From there, the race course would meld into a
nearly endless series of side hill trails, switchbacks, and elevation
changes. The Wall had put space between riders, which made these miles
a bit solitary as we spread out even further. Within 15 minutes of the start,
I was completely alone in the woods. The only signs of life during the next
hour would come from two remote checkpoint crews and a deer running for
what it probably presumed was its life. Otherwise, it was just me, my
motorcycle, and red arrows pointing to where I needed to go.
That, and a troubling thought that I'd neglected an important part of my
motorcycle maintenance routine.
With much of the course made of winding singletrack, I would spend a
good deal of time in 2nd gear reminding myself that when I had a chance
to upshift a gear or two, I should absolutely do it. The laps were simply too
lengthy to pass up opportunities to gain speed. I also put considerable
thought into preserving the roll-off tape on my goggles. Riding alone
usually doesn't tax roll-off capacity, but light precipitation kept my goggles
constantly speckled with raindrops. I found that if I only advanced clean
tape halfway across my goggles, I could still improve my vision and use
less tape in the process. Thus, most of the next 20 miles were a continual
transition from half-sight, to barely any vision at all, and then back to half-
sight. But at least I had a shot at having useful goggles for the whole lap.
But those concerns would be secondary to dodging trees, maintaining
momentum over rocks and hills, and riding smooth. My approach to these
things changed about 5 miles in, when I remembered the small
maintenance item I'd failed to address: Air pressure in the front tire. Since I
hadn't ridden in two weeks, the tube was probably down a pound or two of
air pressure and likely to be holding only 10 or 11 pounds. Not good for
rocks, especially the sharp-edged kind I was seeing far too much of in
these woods. I comforted myself by imagining how much the wet trails were
slowing me down and thereby lessening the odds of a pinch flat. I also tried
to avoid as many of these sharp-edged rocks as possible, which showed in
my riding. I crisscrossed the center of the trail, aiming for gaps in the
rocks, or if none were available, the roundest rocks I could find. This style
of riding may have been useful for avoiding pinch flats, but was less
efficient in preserving my energy during a 100-mile race.
Every mile, a large white number was stapled to a tree to show how far
we'd come. The numbers I looked forward to most were 8 (about a third of
the way through), 13 (just over halfway there), and 17 (over two-thirds of
the way there). Another set of numbers was less inspiring: 2 ("The Wall" is
coming....ughh!), 14 (crap, that horrible rock climb is less than a mile
away), and 23 (oh god, here comes "VW"). On this first lap, the mile
markers passed by rather quickly. Though very challenging, the course
was more rideable than I ever expected in such wet conditions. The reason
for this is that Hardwood Hills is actually a bit of a misnomer. A more
appropriate name would be Gravelwood Hills. Only one spot in the entire
course ever developed a rut that an Illinois guy could appreciate.
Everywhere else, the gravelly terrain refused to yield to the mud. Traction,
it seemed, wasn't going to be as much a problem as I feared.
In the 20 or so miles between The Wall and VW, the only obstacle I
dreaded each time I saw it was a rocky climb out of a small ravine just
before mile 15. In most other areas in the midsection of the course, the
trails seemed well within the abilities of a decently-conditioned novice rider.
What separated the boys from the men, however, were two important
distinctions: Stamina, and the ability to conquer the intimidating obstacles
in the first and last couple miles of each lap. As the course led me back to
the grassy field near the staging area, I was about to be tested by one
such obstacle which had absolutely destroyed me in 2009.
Two years ago, the 100 Miler course had been laid out in the same
general direction as today's race. When I returned in 2010, the series of
hills and ravines leading to, and exiting from, the VW section had been
much easier when ridden in the opposite direction. But this year, we were
back to riding this section 2009-style, with mud thrown in. VW itself, I wasn't
so worried about. In the morning, I'd found a line that cut through the
upper ledges of the hillside and seemed like a safe bet. Tricky, but
manageable. Of greater concern was a steep ravine just after VW and
then a tough climb straight up a long, rocky hill...the same bastard of a hill
that hurt so bad in 2009. That, I was worried about.
To get to VW and its Volkswagen-sized boulders, I first had to navigate 40
yards through a deep ravine which would shake my confidence later in the
night race. The dive down into the base of the ravine would have given me
plenty of momentum, if not for a badly placed rock on the opposite side
and a slight lip about 3 feet off the bottom. I hit the rock, then the lip, and
finally shot up the side of the hill, where tree roots stole the last of my
traction. Somehow the rear tire kept me moving forward, and I was able to
fight my way past a rocky ledge and see VW directly in front of me. The
usual crowd of onlookers was perched on boulders, just outside harm's
way but close enough to smell our fear.
The high line I'd scouted in the morning worked well enough to keep my
front wheel planted to small patches of mud scattered between the
boulders. Those blurry, dark spots were a virtual connect-the-dots through
VW, which I survived unscathed. From there, the trail dove into another
part of the same ravine I'd already crossed to get up to VW. The exit out of
the ravine was high, steep, and littered with flat rocks. I cracked open the
throttle and gripped the handlebars tightly, feeling my KTM sail up the
other side with just enough momentum to slide past a large, flat-faced rock
at the top. Next up: Bastard Hill.
The climb up this hill wasn't quite as steep as The Wall, but it was
deceptive. The base of the hill was a flat, narrow bench with the ravine
cutting if off from behind. Along the top edge of the hill were rock ledges,
with a series of leaf-covered trails rising up toward gaps in those ledges.
The deception came in what lay hidden below the leaves: A layer of
jagged, baseball-sized rocks blending in nicely with the terrain. The thick
soils of Illinois would have made this hill a piece of cake, even with a little
mud. But here in Missouri, one short burst of throttle would tell a story of
choppy, bouncy wheel spin. There was simply no other way out of here but
to climb this god-awful hill, on trails that appeared smooth and loamy but
I pointed my KTM toward the same trail on the far left which had guided me
to the top in 2009. The rear tire struggled for traction in the loose rocks,
bouncing and kicking sideways. With no momentum to spare, the front
wheel grazed the first part of the rock ledges and the rear tire bit in with
just enough traction to push me over the top of the hill. The last mile of the
course was smooth sailing through the last of the Hardwood Hills
singletrack. Even if I didn't complete another lap, at least I could say I did
this one with no outside assistance.
Back at my Blazer, fellow Vet A rider Jamey Mooney approached to help
me gas up my KTM. He'd hit a tree early on and was now a spectator with
a broken rib. We fueled the tank and added the right amount of air
pressure to the front tire. With a new set of dry gloves and goggles, I
remounted and headed to the scoring trailer. Most other riders in my class
had already checked through the electronic scoring system before pausing
for pit stops, so my initial disappointment at seeing the flat screen monitor
flash “9th” was diminished when I realized I was probably gaining positions
while others were still in the pit area.
Inside the woods, the trails were well defined on this second lap. The
sharp-edged rocks I had tried my best to avoid on the first lap were more
visible, and I cared much less if my front tire made contact with them. Soon
came The Wall, and as before, my most preferred line from the morning
scouting mission was blocked by a downed rider. My alternate route from
the first lap was still open, so I pointed my KTM at the left side of the hill.
This time, the mud and rocks were chewed up like the stuff expelled from
my wife's cat's mouth the other day and I wasn't carrying anywhere near
the same momentum that took me to the top on the first lap. When my front
tire hit the first of the rock ledges, the rear tire churned itself to a stop.
Once again, I hopped off the bike and gave it a push, which worked much
better than I expected. A few seconds later, I was past the ledges and on
Over the next 20 miles, the white mile marker cards passed by with a
frequency similar to that of the first lap. Every so often I'd approach a
slightly slower rider, follow him for a short distance and watch him pull over
to let me pass with no resistance. There was no racing here anymore.
Survival was the game we now played in these woods. Just before mile
marker 15, I won a reluctant battle with the nastiest hill in the mid-section of
the course. I endured another bout with VW and the worsening climb up to
it. Bastard Hill took two attempts to conquer, all the while costing me a
position when Todd Arth breezed up the hill using the line I should have
chosen to begin with. He finished one spot ahead of me in 3rd place for
the first moto, while I settled for 4th.
The rain had let up by the time I finished my first 50 miles at about 1:15 p.
m. Over the next 90 minutes, I fired up the Blazer's engine and stacked my
knee pads, gloves and goggles on top of the defroster vent and switched
the blower fan to its highest speed. My socks, pants, and jersey fell into a
muddy heap, destined for a tightly sealed garbage bag. The outside
temperature remained a balmy 60 degrees, but that was about to change. I
geared up again with mostly dry clothes and squished my way back to the
starting line. At 2:45, the afternoon sun, which nobody had seen all day,
was on a downward path. Spud set loose the Pro and A classes and I
wondered if I should have mounted my lights.
Only three other riders in the Vet A class had enough energy and desire to
suit up for the afternoon race. I let the others jump out ahead and held
back a safe distance to preserve my goggles. If they wanted to race on the
grass track, they were welcome to it. Few of the racers even bothered with
goggles at all, and some of those who did were already removing them at
The Wall. At the base of the hill, all I could see was anarchy, all the way to
the top. Two spectators stood by as our Vet A group evaluated our
options. I asked for advice, and one of the spectators seemed to indicate
that we wouldn’t be required to ride over the rock ledges at the top. Out of
habit, I stuck with the same line that served me well on the first two laps,
but the combination of a worn rear tire and an even chewier face of the hill
kept me from climbing any higher than halfway up. Fortunately, a crowd of
helpful spectators jumped in to grab my bike before we both slid to the
bottom of the hill. Amongst those helpers was gazillion-time Missouri Hare
Scrambles champion Steve Levian, who yanked my front forks over a rock.
He pointed to a rider who'd just sailed up my original hot line on the far
right side of the hill and said, "Follow that guy." The orange fence had
been opened just below the rock ledge, allowing us an easier exit off this
mess of a hill.
The following 13 miles were a complete blur. My gloves were dry and my
hands relatively painless, thanks to a steady helping of those ultra-thick
Band Aids. During the break between races, I'd stuffed myself full of
Gatorade, a turkey sandwich, whole grain Fig Newtons, energy gel, and
Sun Chips. Fatigue was all around me, but so far I'd avoided "The Bonk".
In both previous attempts at this race, I'd reached a point where my body
began shutting down, refusing to expend any more than the least possible
energy to complete the task of finishing the lap. In 2009, I bonked around
40 miles. Last year, “The Bonk” came at 73 miles. In 2011, so far no bonk,
but I had many miles to go.
In these miles the only remaining Tandem Class competitors, Nick Williams
and Matt Ramirez, passed by and pulled out of sight. This unique class of
riders buddied up for the whole race, were scored together and were
forbidden from receiving help from anyone on the course. After the
Williams/Ramirez team got around me, a few miles later I caught back up
and followed them for many miles, right up to the nasty hill before mile 15.
They held a pace that I was fine with, but at this tough hill, I'd wished I had
pushed a little harder to get ahead. It was a team effort, pushing the
second of their two bikes up the hill. While they struggled with the trailing
Kawasaki, I paused for a moment to monitor their progress. I really wanted
the line they had chosen, but after a few moments, I decided to try the
alternate route I'd used on the previous lap. By now, that option was thick
with rocks rearranged many times by a host of racers. Maybe with a fresh
rear tire I would have had a chance at success, but my first attempt
brought me to a stop, far from the top. Stepping off the bike to push
proved fruitless, so I eased the KTM back down the hill for another try.
By this time, Nick and Matt had succeeded in scaling the hill, while two
more guys had arrived to wait their turn. While I struggled to get myself
turned around, both riders climbed the hill with ease. Alone at the bottom, I
finally had my chance at the hill using the line I’d wanted all along. It
worked. Five minutes later, after catching my breath and resuming a
healthy pace, the skies let loose with a downpour. At one of the two
checkpoints in the Netherlands of the race course, my old Missouri racing
buddy Aaron "Chili" Roberts was on hand to ask if I was having fun. Well
Chili, fun was only one word to describe it. Another word was darkness.
Never had I ridden inside woods in such dim light. The setting sun and
heavy cloud cover turned every rock and tree and patch of mud into
shadows. The downpour eventually ended, the clouds thinned slightly, and
the singlegrack was now a series of tiny rivers.
These little streams guided me to the final 2 miles of the course, where the
hills were alive with flowing water. I paused ahead of the steep ravine that
would lead me to VW, partly to rest, but mainly to work up enough courage
to grab a handful of throttle and hope my badly worn rear tire would help
me climb the other side. Thankfully, it did. After VW, the best news of the
day was delivered just before the nasty ravine before Bastard Hill: We
wouldn’t have to cross the ravine or climb the hill. The trail had been
rerouted down into the bottom of the ravine to an area which circumvented
the Bastard. God bless’em.
I finished the afternoon race in almost complete darkness, having spent 10
extra minutes completing that lap in comparison to the first two. Back at the
Blazer, I stripped off my wet clothes, fired up the defroster again and
stacked the same pile of gear on top of the dash. Based on the small
number of riders in the afternoon race, I knew I had a decent chance of a
top-25 finish overall and qualification for the night race. But before I
concerned myself with that, I had to get warm. The temperature had
dropped to 45 degrees and I was soaked down to my underwear. After
changing into dry clothes, I closed the Blazer’s doors and cranked up the
heat. I called my wife to brag about my survival, sent out a few text
messages to friends to tell them what they missed, and generally relaxed
my tired body.
Meanwhile, while the heat inside the Blazer closed me off from the cruel
elements of the outside word, I completely missed an important
announcement by Spud over the PA system. The starting time would be
around 6:00. In my barely functioning mind, I had thought the night race
would begin at 7:00, based on what I remembered from the past two years.
So while I leisurely warmed up in the Blazer and strolled over to the scoring
area to find that I had, indeed, qualified for the night race, all the other
riders who planned to race were busily preparing their bikes and gear.
About the time I finally did bother to rig up my lights to the KTM, switch
helmets, and put some fuel in the tank (all in the blackness of night), I
suddenly heard an interesting sound coming from the starting area: A
chorus of motorcycles, warming their engines.
I dashed out to the center of the staging area to get a better view, and
almost shed tears at what I saw. The starting area was filled with a line of
lights across the starting area. The race was about to begin, and I was still
walking around in my street shoes. That oft-recurring dream of the past 17
years, where I’m at a race but can’t seem to get to the starting line in time,
was happening for real. Surviving 75 miles in the toughest of conditions
with no injuries to bike or body and feeling good enough to continue riding,
that was all now in jeopardy. I was going to miss the start of the race.
Panic kicked in. I grabbed my soggy boots, shoved my feet into them, and
buckled as many latches as 30 seconds would allow. Chest protector,
Camelbak, fanny pack, Leatt Brace…no time. I threw on my riding jacket,
shoved the helmet light battery into the chest pocket, and grabbed a warm
pair of gloves off the defroster. Goggles probably wouldn’t do much good
anyway, so I left them. With the barest of riding essentials, I hopped on the
KTM, fired up its engine, and made a run to the starting line.
At this point, the reality of the situation finally kicked in. First off, it really
didn’t matter whether I started with the other riders or not. I’d qualified and
was only planning to do one lap. As long as I made it back to the scoring
trailer, nobody was going to care when I started. The second reality was
that if there was ever a time to not skip any of my protective riding gear,
this was it. I was about to ride through the same trails, with the same
elements of danger multiplied exponentially by darkness. And when I say
dark, we’re talking about a pitch black, can’t-see-the-hand-in-front-of-me
kind of night.
So there I was, leaving the starting line completely alone. The last of the
departed riders were just finishing the grass track while I made my way
around the giant mud pie that was now most of the staging area. As I
approached the entrance to the woods, spectators on their way to
Somethin’ Special jumped back to let me through. The singletrack took on
a whole new appearance at night. My pair of 10-watt LED lights reflected
off the trees and provided for excellent sight. The helmet light showed me
what I was looking at, while the handlebar light revealed where the bike
was headed. This combination produced surprisingly little shadowing, and I
could see over the dips in the trail as I approached them. I was liking this.
The steep drop down the boulder-filled ravine came soon, and by then I
had caught up to either Spud or Chili riding sweep. In first gear, with my
lights focused on the boulders, I stepped down each drop and reached the
bottom with no problems. I continued on, slowly and cautiously and
occasionally glancing around to see if anyone was near. Small pockets of
light identified other riders, and from a distance I could make out the string
of lights hanging over Somethin’ Special, one of two elements to be lit up
for the spectators’ enjoyment.
Near The Wall, which had been removed from the night course, I joined up
with several racers who were riding backwards on the course, lost
apparently. The trail had been blocked off by what appeared to be a pile of
brush, which was at first interpreted as a sign that we weren’t supposed to
be on this trail. This was entirely possible, since the 25-mile course had
been shortened to 8 miles for the night loop. Another sign we were lost
was that we were past the point where Somethin’ Special should have
come. After half a minute discussing what to do, we chose to ride around
the brush pile and continue on the marked trail.
After the race, we would discover that several of us had somehow missed
the trail to Somethin’ Special, and the pile of brush was actually a tree
which fell during the rain storm in the afternoon. Spud eventually caught
up and guided us through the trail, but I didn’t feel good about missing part
of the course – especially the toughest element of the Ozark 100. As the
miles passed by, I gradually gained confidence and kicked up my speed.
One of the last difficult obstacles before the VW area was a rocky creek
bed, followed by a hundred yards of flat, slippery rock bed. Somehow I
made it through, and then climbed out of this low area and back to the
grassy field next to the staging area. These last two miles would be the
scariest of the day.
In this final and most rugged area of the course, an element called “208”
would be new to me. As a spectator at this section in past years, I’d see
motorcycles arrive as a parade of lights weaving back and forth across the
high woods, then slowly descend into the low area of 208. As I now took my
turn through this section, I could see why most riders appeared to descend
so cautiously. The decline was steep and littered with boulders of all
shapes and sizes. Since this wasn’t part of the day course, there were no
clear lines to the bottom. I felt like I was riding through virgin forest.
Where the descending trail met up with the ravine that makes the
spectator portion of 208, I could finally see why in years past, some riders
had struggled to make the tight turn that would send them up the ravine. A
wide turn would have put my front wheel into a gully that was blocked by a
log. The key was sticking to a high, inside line. I took this path, then burst
ahead through a series of boulders, climbing moderately through the
center of the ravine. Directly overhead was a string of lights which
revealed a few shadowy spectators standing above the ravine. Had I
completed all three laps in the night race, I would have seen this area fill
up with more and more people after they’d had their fill of Somethin’
Special and moved over to 208.
To climb out of 208, the trail took a hard turn up the right bank of the
ravine. In past years I’d seen riders struggle to make this turn and rise up
to the higher ground, so I pushed forward with all the momentum I could
muster. The KTM found enough traction to escape, and we continued on
After another minute passed by and another difficult climb up one of those
rapidly deteriorating trails more suitable for mountain goats, I was back to
VW’s prelude. With each energy-sapping obstacle in these final miles of
my race, my heart beat faster, my arms weakened, and my will to move
forward faded. In the darkness of this forest in Southern Missouri, cold and
wet and paused to survey the last great challenge of my current
adventure, I scanned the next, worst 40 yards of a very long day. As I
stared down the ravine, I realized the VW element was not, in itself, a
fearsome series of boulders or a test of skills. It wasn’t an opportunity for
photo ops or bravado. VW was simply the spoils of winning the battle to get
there. I wanted to see those boulders one last time and know I’d
accomplished a goal set two years ago. The endless miles pedaling my
bicycle through the hills of Northwestern Illinois, the winter evenings lifting
free weights in front of the TV, limiting my intake of McRib sandwiches
during the month of November, all would pay off over the next 15 seconds.
I could say that my limited gifts of coordination, balance, stamina and
mechanical skills had been offset by hard work. I would finish this lap,
because I had to.
I would also take home the Vet A class win by default. None of my
competitors suited up for the evening race, even though three others
qualified. Of the 25 men who could have raced in the dark, 13 gave it a try
and 7 finished all three laps around the shortened night course. That
night, I filled three garbage bags with wet riding gear and, like previous
races here, spent an uncomfortable evening attempting sleep inside the
Blazer. The events of the day were like those adventures of years past,
destined to be remembered whenever future comparisons would be made
to the toughest races I ever attempted. As Jon “Spud” Simons so aptly
stated in the morning rider’s meeting, “We’re makin’ memories!”