November 26, 2011
Ozark 100
Mansfield, Missouri
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 rubber.

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 junk.

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 weren't.

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
my way.

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 toward VW.

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!”

Indeed.
Mansfield, Missouri