Saturday, December 21, 2013

In Which Professional Drivers Kick My Ass at Go-Kart Racing (Again)

The sport of kings. When someone invites you karting, you CAN'T say no.

It is Friday night, -7 degrees out, and for some reason, I am sitting in the second row of a rented Ford Econoline, circling an icy parking lot outside a Middle Eastern fast food restaurant in Montreal, Quebec.

“How come the parking lot is full, but there’s no one in the restaurant?” somebody in the back of the van asks.

“No, this place is great,” Rees reassures us from the cockpit. “Hang on a second…” He pins it, sending the van and its eleven passengers in to a short-lived drift. “Aw, it has traction control!” Rees is a professional rally driver. Everyone in the van races something, actually—in addition to a few fellow dirt bikers, there is Greg’s friend Ben, who builds and races vintage sidecar rigs, Fred, a Formula 2000 driver, Frank, who races street bikes, a couple other rally guys, a driving instructor… Where the heck do these people come from, I wonder, and how did they get those jobs? My career envy leads me to a more practical consideration—maybe I should have brought my neck brace. I’m gonna get clobbered.

 Moments later, the van bounces over a raised median, squeezes between the metal posts supporting a large billboard, and skids to a halt on the glare ice of an adjoining lot. We pile out. It’s going to be an interesting night.

Several thousand calories of unidentified protein later, I am feeling more human. I finished the last final exam of my first semester as an engineering student three hours ago, and as a result, the exact details of how I got talked into this venture are hazy to me. Something of the sort happened last year and was an absolute riot, so probably refusing the offer just failed to enter my mind. However, I seem to remember that I have something to do in the morning—something to do in Massachusetts in the morning, something really important—but we’re almost at the karting track, so I decide I'll think about it later.

Chaos reigns indoors as well. The intended party of 20 has become a party of 30, thanks to the evident popularity of Rees’s son Cameron, and we’re going to have to qualify and race in three separate heats. Greg, Ben and I are in the group that will qualify first. 

A scruffy black-clad teenager waves the green flag and I nail the accelerator to the floor. Nonetheless, I’m instantly shunted out of the way from behind. Are my line choices really that bad, or did some skinny teenager get a kart with double horsepower? Greg and Ben pass me in the first five minutes and I see nothing of them for the remainder of our session. I try to stay clear of the traffic and log some fast laps, which will get me a good position in the heat races.

After the qualifier ends, we retire to the lounge—think cement floors, metal tables, and walls plastered with F1 memorabilia—and try to make sense of our printed race logs through a thought-destroying barrage of house music. I haven’t done too badly for myself, I discover—my fastest lap was 30.02 seconds, leaving me fourth so far. Greg is in first and Ben is in second, so we go back to the track and watch the lap board with intense interest as the two other qualifiers progress. It plays out exactly as expected—Greg and Ben have made it to the fast race, and I’ll take pole position in the medium race. Fred, ominously and improbably, is behind me.

After the slow race finishes, me and my competitors in the medium race are reshuffled into the karts they just vacated. As soon as I get in my new ride, I know my lead isn’t going to last past the first corner. I am wearing thin-soled Puma shoes and the accelerator pedal is stuck in the “off” position. I hold the brake and stomp the gas experimentally as we wait in the queue: nothing. The short person pedal extender, a blunted arc of ½ inch metal tubing, digs into the arch of my foot as I push harder… Oh yes, there it goes, after a slight delay. Great.

We line up on the grid, the green flag waves, and I’m barely to the first corner before somebody clips me on their way past and sends me skidding off my line. By the time I’m back on track, I’m in third. My descent through the ranks levels off for a few laps once I get the hang of the kart—when the pedal is down, it has plenty of get-up-and-go, but if I let the pedal off, it stays that way until extreme and increasingly painful pressure is applied. Five laps from the end, Fred laps me. Screw letting off the gas, I decide, and begin modulating my speed only with the brake. What results is an epic battle that has fortuitously been GoPro’d, and it’s more exciting than it looks, because any time you can’t see Fred, his kart is pushing mine. Can you draft someone at 35 mph?

I finish out the race in fourth, but I beat my best lap time from the qualifier by a few tenths, so that’s something. Fred and I shake hands and settle in to watch the fast race, which dissolves into complete pandemonium after one of the contestants loses a wheel—yes, it actually fell off mid-race. Prior to that, Cameron looked all set to edge out his dad for the overall win.

After consuming several beers, stopping for poutine, and buying a package of chicken hearts and “some weird cookies that taste like lotion” (they totally did), our party sets forth on the three-hour journey back to Burlington. Before we even get out of the city, we are faced with an unwelcome sight: why the hell are they doing bridge construction on Friday night in subzero temperatures? The resulting traffic is horrendous, but Rees navigates it with style, evidently fueled by the horrible Eurobeat music pounding from the radio. As he fearlessly cuts someone off to merge left, the guy riding shotgun leans out the window and shouts, “HEY! MOVE OVER, WE’RE AMERICANS! YOU NEED US FOR OUR MILITARY!” Whatever else I’d been planning to do at 12:30 AM tonight, I think, it sure had nothing on this.

Of course, by the time Greg and I reach home at 4:30, my mood has sobered a bit—especially since before I go to bed, I should probably write an email to my editor Kevin Novello explaining why I will not be joining him and Jim Senecal at the Trail Rider Magazine test track in eight hours as previously arranged. I hit the sack not knowing how recent events are about to affect my writing career—but I figure that, as excuses for unprofessional no-shows go, this one will at least get me some points for originality.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Moto doodles!

Well, it's that time of year again--classes are over and I am free to embark on my end-of-semester lecture notes doodle roundup. Once upon a time, I wanted to be a graphic novelist and this was a big event; however, when you are studying engineering as opposed to English, you actually have to pay attention in class or else you get a bad grade. Who would have thought? Thus, all I have to show for myself are the few deformed motorcycles gathered below:

Funny, you think you know what a bike looks like, and then you try to draw one from memory. Not so much.

It's been a while since I posted any illustrations to go with my race reports on this blog--I stopped doing so in the interest of time, since my bike-drawing skills are suspect and remedying this would take a lot of effort. However, circumstances recently turned in my favor--my bike is in the kitchen sans suspension, which is in Colorado becoming awesome thanks to Enduro Spec Suspension (further bulletins on that when it comes back, can't wait!).

I took this golden opportunity to draw the beast from life, in pen--my favorite medium, perfect for those who are over-confident in their abilities and too lazy to erase anyway. It's taking forever, but maybe when I have a better idea of what the thing looks like, future drawings will come easier. I'll post the finished version when I'm done--but don't hold your breath, because I have finals all next week. C in calculus or bust! Maybe I should have applied to an MFA program instead.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Back in the Saddle, Late October

It’s the end of autumn and things are mostly back to normal. Ahead of me, I hear the low rumble of my 
boyfriend’s brand-new KTM 250 XCF-W winding up to a howl, then the shiny orange machine rockets out of sight around a sweeping uphill turn. He’s ridden maybe three times since coming back after a season with a busted knee, and already my odds of keeping up with him have decreased from 2:1 to…well, nil, by the looks of things. Deciding to ignore my invented statistics, I pin it in pursuit, my rear tire spinning on fallen leaves and mud.

I wring out second gear and upshift to third, but there’s still no sign of Greg. The faster I go, the better the tire feels, and the water bars that made for a bouncy descent half an hour ago are excellent jumps in reverse. After many steep switchbacks, the trail levels out and the water bars turn into with washouts. Flying along under a canopy of evergreens, I see a particularly wide ravine blocking the trail ahead of me. On the right, the ground rises like a ramp before it drops off—I make a half-assed attempt to preload my suspension as I hit it, throttle wide. The bike revs higher as it arcs through the air, then my rear tire hits the top of the opposite bank, slinging mud as it sends me tidily on my way.

Remarkable, I think—that was the most air I’ve ever gotten, at least while still connected with the bike. A hundred yards later, I see a flash of orange amid the gold of the autumn leaves: finally, there’s Greg. Rolling up beside him, I ask how long he’s been waiting. About four minutes, he replies. It has been three minutes since I last saw him. I do some quick calculations and decide that this is impossible unless he’s been going several times faster than the speed of light, which, meaning no disrespect to his skill, I doubt. Before I can confront him about this, a 2005 KTM SX buzzes up to us. Here’s Chris, who has been taking it easy on the downhills because he only has one functional brake: first gear.

The three of us look at each other expectantly until I lose the staring contest and take the lead. I pull a slight gap on the other two as we head down the far side of the mountain—Greg’s left leg still doesn’t hold up too well when hitting those water bars from uphill. When the trail pops out of the woods, we get an incredible view of Camel’s Hump mountain, its trees bare of leaves except for a few yellow aspens and birches dotting its lower slopes. I’m soaked from head to toe, thanks to a giant mudhole a way back, and start to feel refreshingly cold in the wind.

Greg made it back just in time, I think—this is the perfect season for dirt biking. And this—riding around with friends—is exactly what I’ve been missing all summer. Riding alone is a little lonely—and a lot dangerous. Besides, when I’m trying to keep up with Greg and Chris, I get faster way faster than when I’m tooling around by myself, or even when I’m racing, which for a newb like me is more about maintaining verticality than maintaining speed. I know those two will come looking for me if I disappear, which makes me willing to crack the throttle and try new things, like jumping ditches and wheelie-ing over fallen logs (yeah, the latter didn’t go so well today). Greg is just as eager to get some seat time in as I am—he and his friend Bruce are planning to ride in the morning before work once a week.  The thought of those two hitting the trails while I’m catching the bus to school makes me want to cry a little, but I guess Greg has earned it after all he’s been through. Besides, the sooner he’s strong enough to take those downhills fast, the sooner I’ll get faster too. 

Look at thatelbows up  and everything!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NETRA Toys for Tots Run 2013: Progress and Enlightenment (Maybe)

Greg, Chris and I are headed south on I-93 towards Freetown, MA again, seven months after racing the NETRA Spring Challenge together at the same course in March.  Like last time, the mood is festive and the conversation makes no sense whatsoever. “Doctor,” shouts Greg over the general hysteria, “every time I turn on the radio, I hear this tootling noise—do I need to change my fan belt?” Amid blaring Charleston music and deranged cackling, we pass Boston and continue south, arriving at DeMoranville Farm at around 9:30 AM. We add our largely moto-themed contributions to the growing heap of toys near the sign-in tent: reliving your childhood at the mall is a much funner way to pay your entry fee than shelling out 45 bucks at the sign in tent, and it’s for a good cause!

As we unload the bikes, Greg and Chris remind me to put some coolant in my air filter—apparently I requested this reminder while half-asleep in the car, and I am never going to hear the end of it. Despite additional helpful hints about topping off the battery oil and greasing my brakes, I manage to complete my pre-ride tech check without totaling my machine. We warm up the bikes, shove our belongings back into the car like it’s a giant front-loading washing machine, and head for the woods. I’m feeling cautiously optimistic. The Spring Challenge was my first-ever NETRA event, and each lap took me about an hour—I’m hoping that won’t be the case today.

This isn’t half as bad as I remember it being, I think, splashing through the first stream on my way towards the gas line. As soon as I exit the water, my front wheel slides off one rock, deflects off another, and I shoot sideways into a tree. As the bike falls, my left hand gets pinned between the handlebar and the rough bark of the little oak tree, with all my weight and the weight of the bike bearing against it. So much for my confidence. I free myself, stagger around for a minute, and climb back on. When I try to pull in the clutch, nothing happens—and I hear engines revving behind me. I huddle against the predatory tree until the line of traffic passes and my fingers unfreeze, then make my way through the last of the rock garden to where Greg and Chris are waiting.

“I hit a tree,” I explain, and gingerly work my hand out of my glove.

“OOOH,” they say in unison.

There is a mottled purple and red splotch just below my knuckles—a scrape on top of what promises to be a heck of a bruise.

“It still works fine,” I say. “Lead on.”

We rip down the gas line until we reach the first proper section of single track. My run-in with the tree notwithstanding, it seems my riding really has improved—thinking back to the NETRA Spring Challenge, I remember this section as an impassable minefield of bowling ball-sized rocks. Now, going twice that speed, I find a line through or over the rocks that actually feels pretty smooth. I remain glued to Chris’s rear tire until we reach a traffic jam behind a particularly nasty—well, let's say "boulder dump." "Rock garden" would be putting it nicely. Greg and Chris wait patiently for a line to clear up, but I am on Race Mode and immediately look for another way around. Two-thirds of the way across, my wheel gets stuck in a crevice and I decide to get off and push. When I hit smooth dirt again, I am off like a shot.

I stop the next time the trail joins the gas line and don’t have long to wait before my comrades catch up to me. Given my negligible corner speed, I conclude that I still ride faster when I’m trying to follow Greg, and I decide to let him go ahead. While I’m pondering this, he vanishes like Road Runner in a plume of dust and I run through most of my gears trying—and failing—to catch him. The next section of single track is new to me, twisting through a dense, rocky pine forest and gradually winding uphill. Greg’s bum leg doesn’t do too well with the ol’ “sit down, stand up, sit down” routine, so eventually I take the lead. Hearing a four-stroke close behind me, I turn up the heat, and am surprised when someone on a Yamaha passes me at the next trail junction instead of Greg. 

I shut off my bike and take a drink from my Camelbak while I wait. Many unfamiliar bikes pour out of the single track, some of them moving very fast, some of them not moving fast at all. A group of riders pauses beside me and I ask whether they saw any bad crashes in the last section. They respond in the negative, so I take the opportunity to examine my squashed hand.  Everything that was purple before has swelled and the skinned part has sunk by comparison: it looks like a minor case of zombie bite. Then I notice one of the very fast riders walking towards me—it’s Trail Rider's editor Kevin Novello, I realize, disguised in swanky new Shift gear.

“How’s it going?” he says.

“I punched a tree,” I say, and show him the bruise. He doesn’t look impressed. “How are you?” I ask.

“Oh, pretty good—I’m riding the four-stroke.” He motions to the 2014 KTM he’s left by the other fast riders. I squint at it, but can’t immediately tell which four-stroke it is. “Did you lose the boys?” he asks before I get a chance to follow up on the bike.

“I guess so. You didn’t see anyone stuck upside down back there, did you?”

“I don’t think so,” he says, “but it’s hard to tell…”

“Yeah, I can imagine. Your rear brake squeal preceded you.”

Finally, Greg and Chris come puttering out of the forest. Kevin exchanges a few words with Greg—probably about KTM four-strokes—before rejoining his crew, and after Greg and Chris take a break, we set off again. This section along the gas line is probably half a mile long, and I get a rare taste of fourth gear before we duck into the wasteland again for a final stretch of fast, fun single track.

During the second lap, our group of three spreads out considerably. Gaining confidence, Greg cranks up his speed, not to pre-injury levels, for sure, but fast enough that I only last a minute behind him in the single-track before he disappears into the woods. He’s faster than me in the corners, steadier than me in the rocks, and in between them, he really twists the throttle: I grit my teeth and try to follow suit. I’ve always known Freetown has some berms, but lap two of Sunday’s Toys for Tots run was the first time I ever used them. Meanwhile, Chris has fallen behind—I don’t envy him trying to thread that 2005 KTM 250 SX through the extremely tight turns in the hilly section, or trying to track straight through the rocks on its blown-out shock.

Reunited at the truck, we devour some granola bars, shake out our collective arm pump, then head out to burn some laps on the grass track before loading up to go home. My previous experiences running a trials tire on grass can be summarized in one word—well, maybe two: low-side. However, the Freetown grass track has been compacted until it resembles concrete, and I find myself carrying improbable speed through the corners. On the first lap, I roll the jump near the sand section as usual, but when I see Greg loft a wheel off it on lap two, I impulsively whack the throttle. I get more air then I bargained for, and from up there, the next turn looks closer than I remembered. My suspension compresses—WHUMPH!—as I land, and I keep it on two wheels around the corner, feeling like Orville Wright.

By the third lap, I am about ready to turn in, but then I hear the familiar sound of squealing brakes behind me. The squealer rides high onto a rocky ledge to the right of me, passes me in mid-air and rounds the next corner in a massive drift, followed by some lunatic in Shift gear on a shiny new four-stroke KTM. I upshift in pursuit, flying down the back straightaway at the top of third gear. Come on, Anna, I think, sit forward coming into this next turn, weight that outside peg… Though Kevin and company leave me in the dust, I ride four more laps at full tilt and only take out one stake—a record, believe me. My arms are getting tired, though, and I haven’t seen Greg and Chris in ages. When I get back to the truck, they’ve already loaded their bikes.

The ride home is much quieter than the ride there—not that that’s saying much. In New Hampshire, Greg and I switch places so he can sleep, and as I drive, I reflect on my improvements. I’m not sure I’ll ever make it out of C class, but improving my riding is so satisfying that I aim to keep it up as long as possible. Plus, the more fundamental skills that learning to ride requires—hard work, dedication, and willingess to take a beating—are also indispensable during the week. Walking bruised and sore into calc class or chemistry on Monday and seeing a new set of equations written on the board, I always think, “Well, if I figured out that nasty hill climb on Sunday, I can figure this out too.”

Kevin Novello has captured me moving at warp speed
through the grass track. Maybe I'm doing a track stand?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

NETRA Barnes Way 2013 - In Which I Take Good Advice and Go Up a Hill

Alright, so Barnes Way, the last NETRA hare scramble of the season, was kind of a long time ago, at least as far as the time frame of this blog is concerned.  Though the opportunity may technically have passed, I think the event deserves a few words and I’m going to say them anyway.

The build-up to the race was promising. We picked up Greg’s friend Bill in Boston—Bill is pursuing a Master’s in philosophy at Tufts, and we thought it would be beneficial to his education if he saw some dirt bike racing—you know, to broaden his Weltanschauung. Just kidding—he and Greg don’t get to hang out much, and since Greg wasn’t racing, the two of them were planning to stroll around and catch up on old times while I got my ass kicked.

As soon as the Element bounced to a halt in Chepachet, RI, I ditched the two overeducated gingers to go through tech and sign up. While standing in line for the latter, somebody recognized me from last weekend’s Dam Good hare scramble and handed me my first place trophy—and a gift card to Roost Power Sports in Thomaston, CT! Glory—and 20 bucks. That’s a new air filter! If that ain’t the way to start the morning right, I don’t know what is.

As I rolled up to the start, Megadeth was blaring, Bill was air-guitaring along, and every line was packed elbow to elbow. My performance didn’t live up to the festivities: I ran wide in the first turn and came out of it in the back of my line—and the back of the race, by extension. The trail in its first miles was rootier than anything I’d ridden, and so when I saw some knees, elbows and a motorcycle sticking out of a wood pile by the side of the trail, I figured I had little to lose by stopping to help. The kid was fine, but the bike was tangled in a knee-deep nest of crisscrossed logs. Together we half-rolled, half-carried it back to the trail and went tearing after the pack. His odds of catching them looked better than mine.

By five miles into the lap, I had made up a few positions, passing a girl on a Yamaha and weaving through a long line of guys who were moving in such a convivially slow pack that I wondered whether they were part of the race at all. It was all for nothing, though, because two minutes later, I arrived at the sand hill. With first gear pinned, I made it two-thirds of the way up and fell over. Walking the bike back down, the girl on the Yamaha passed me on her way up, followed by the guys. I repositioned my bike in the deep sand at the bottom of the five-story ascent. It looked totally insurmountable.  

Well, I might as well try once more and get my money’s worth, I thought, kicking the bike once, twice, three times.

I hate everyone and wish I was dead, I thought, kicking the bike five, eight, fifteen times.

I dismounted, ready to wheel it to the side and give up—then somebody grabbed my handlebars. I looked up. There stood a familiar-looking man about my dad’s age, wearing a floppy fisherman’s hat.

“Hey,” he said, “I met you at Tuxedo Ridge, remember? My son and your boyfriend were both in the ER.”

“Oh yeah!” I said. “How’s your son doing?”

“Fine, fine—he had to take it easy for a while, but he’s racing again now. You want me to start this thing for you?”

“I dunno,” I said, “I don’t think I can make it up that.”

“Put it in second gear and hold it wide open, all the way up,” he said. “You stuck with him when his leg was busted, you can do this. This is easy.”

I handed over the bike and the man in the fisherman’s hat started it with one kick. I got back on, thanked him, kicked it into second and wrung its guts out until it wheelied on packed dirt at the top of the hill.

The rest of the race was pretty calm. Going through the initial rooty section after the start-finish line, I made my routine contribution to lap traffic but noticed something very useful in the process: when fast people ride through rough stuff sitting down, they’re not riding sitting still—far from it. Between this revelation and the general lack of early-race chaos, I pulled off a second lap that was a couple minutes faster than my first. It wasn’t enough to keep me from coming in fourth out of five in my class, but it sure was good for morale.

 “Nice job on the sandy hill,” said Bill when we were all reunited at the Element. “Greg and I were ready to run out there and drag the bike to the top for you, but then you made it up!”

 “That was the guy from Tuxedo Ridge who helped you start it, right?” asked Greg. “That was crazy—after he talked to you, you went right up. It was very triumphant. What did he say to you that made you go right up like that?”

I shrugged. “He told me to put it in second and pin it, so I did.”

Good advice, sure, but I think the other part—“If you stuck with him when his leg was busted, you can do this”—is what sealed the deal. It’s taken me a few weeks to figure out why, but I think I’ve got a handle on it now.

When you’re in the middle of a race, tired, frustrated, and with your racing tunnel vision on maximum zoom, winding up with your nose in the dirt at the bottom of an intimidating obstacle seems like the worst thing that has ever happened to you. It ain’t. We’re all a lot tougher than we think—the key with racing is to dig that deep when the stakes aren’t high, and to push your limits without forgetting to have fun in the process. Still, at the end of the day, if racing were just about ignoring fear, withstanding pain, and riding a motorcycle in the woods, who knows if it would be worth the trouble—there are plenty of ways to challenge yourself that don’t risk shattering all your bones. Something makes the experience greater than the sum of its parts—and I’m willing to bet it’s the people.

If you’ve ever slapped a number on your bike and parked it on the line, you are part of an amazing community. Once, Greg and I were driving down the highway with our bikes in tow when a big van passed us in the other lane. We looked up just in time to see a motocross magazine slammed against the passenger window and some random dude inside waving like we were his long-lost friends. Your fellow riders are your family just as much as they’re your competitors—Greg’s injury really brought this into focus for me. Even now, wherever he goes, people who were at the Tuxedo Ridge race stop to ask him how he’s doing. Everyone is amazingly kind and helpful, and if you happen to help someone else, odds are they’re going to be awesome about it. Remember the kid whose bike I helped rescue on lap one? Well, a couple weeks later at the Jack Frost Fun Run, he somehow recognized me and pulled over to thank me—again.

So yeah. Racing: you take the risks, fight through the pain, push yourself further than you thought was possible—because however fun it is to fly through the woods on two wheels, the people you’re riding with make it funner, and you always know that if you fall, someone will be there to help you get back on your feet again. 

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Boots: a Product Review/Post-mortem

Something tragic happened at the NETRA Jack Frost Fun Run in Oxford, MA last weekend. The ride was great, Greg and I had a blast—I guess, to be accurate, something tragic happened AFTER the Jack Frost Run. As Greg was backing the Element out of its parking space with the trailer, the guy next to us knocked on the window and told us that our very new and very long tie-downs were trailing. I got out to tie them up in festive bows, and as I was about to get back in the car, I noticed the calamity.

“Roll forward,” I said to Greg, opening the door. “You’re on my boots.”

Alas, once the wheel was off them and I had dusted them off, they looked—exactly the way they had before. Okay, maybe the giant holes in the ankles got a little gianter. But It Was Their Time, that much is for sure. Consider this their obituary.

Those boots—Fly Racing Maverik boots, a 99-dollar special—were the first piece of dirt biking equipment I ever bought. (That was last fall—don’t go thinking the boots are from the 70’s or anything.)  I purchased them for myself as an overdue acknowledgement that my weekend adventures on Greg’s old trials bike were actually going to turn into a hobby—and shortly thereafter, Greg bought a '98 KDX 220 for me. Heck of a boyfriend, right? See, this is why I’m going back to school. With two of those salaries, we’ll practically have our own satellite race team, in terms of budget if not in terms of talent, at least compared to the present state of affairs—which brings me back to my boots. 99-dollar boots more or less review themselves on their price tag, but let me tell you about the successes and failures of these, just for giggles.

First, they were stiff, obviously, but they worked. At the Toys for Tots run last November, they immediately filled with water, but that was because I toppled over in a knee-deep stream. (I really envy people who learned to ride on bikes whose seats are a foot off the ground, and who got all that falling over with when they were too young for it to be embarrassing.) Over the winter, they kept my feet reasonably warm and passably dry, and then, at the NETRA Spring Challenge, they earned a medal of honor for saving my toes.

The full chronicle of the Challenge is here (and it rivals the Odyssey), but the boots’ part in it is this: totally exhausted after an hour-long first lap, my bike slides sideways out from under me as I round a slippery corner. As I fall, I accidentally twist the throttle wide open—and then land with my right foot in my rear spokes. The spokes carry my foot into my swingarm, and there my toes stay as the bike stalls, firmly and painfully stuck. I land at such an angle that I can’t reach my clutch lever to rotate the wheel backward and unstick them, so I lie there with my face in the mud and scream blue murder until some horrified spectators rescue me. But my toes aren’t broken, I discover, standing up, although the end of the boot has temporarily collapsed. 10 points for Fly Racing.

No, I didn’t break any toes in these until about a month ago. It was a boring freak accident—I flipped the bike over backwards at the top of a steep, rocky hill and the handlebar came down BANG like a hammer on my left middle toe. It turned purple—the whole thing. That was a good sign that the boots were nearing the end of their usefulness—there’s only so many times you can fully invert the toe box before it starts to lose its rigidity. Although, on that note, maybe the problem is my riding, not the boots. Greg’s friend Chris has had the same boots forever and the toes of his are fine—but then, his have griffins and lightning bolts and shit on them and mine don’t, so his may be running on PFM technology at this point (that’s Pure Effing Magic, for those who haven’t asked a computer science major how the internet works recently).

In addition to the compromised toe boxes, the boots are each missing a strap and massively split in the ankle, and one of them is missing one-third of its metal toe reinforcement (God knows how that happened). Folks, I think their condition is terminal. Alas, since I somehow have to pay for classes next semester, I will be forced to reanimate their remains with duct tape and continue wearing them until they decompose completely or Santa's elves team up with Alpinestars and make me new ones (not likely). On that note, recommendations for good cheap boots are welcome—griffins and lightning bolts preferred. 

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

NETRA Dam Good 2013: In Which I Throw my Clothes at a Stranger and Win a Trophy

First of all, a version of this entry will appear in the October issue of Trail Rider Magazine, a nifty little monthly that covers the Northeast's off-road racing, riding, scene and machinery and also (fanfare, please) carries my column, Yard Sale, which I don't post on this blog. Check out the digital edition on the website, or if you're sick of staring at your computer screen, save a paper mill and subscribe to the print version!

My alarm wakes me at 4:15 AM and I climb out of bed with an unshakable conviction that I am doing the right thing. Never mind the four-hour drive (in each direction), or the price of gas, or the murmurings about rain and mud—I missed Hard Knox with a bad cold a couple weeks ago and so today I’m going racing, come hell or high water.

As soon as we get to Massachusetts, it’s apparent—high water it is. The rain follows us to Connecticut, falling faster as we approach our destination. At Thomaston Dam, Greg threads our Honda Element down a long road lined with my dripping-wet future competitors. I put on my gear in the back seat, trying not to lose my earlier sense of conviction as the rain hammers on the roof.


By the time I get to the start, it’s half under water. At the front of the field, workers and spectators have bravely gathered, and there’s even music playing, somehow. I pick a spot on high ground, far from the first corner—no way am I going for the holeshot in this slop. When the flag drops, I sit back and enjoy the view as my whole line charges ahead of me and then self-destructs in the mud whoops following the second or third turn. I skirt around my fallen comrades, my trials tire squirming, and make it to the woods without ever having left the vertical. So far, so good, I think.

Now that the trials tire is less of a liability, I open it up, wanting to hold on to my unexpected lead. The trail is slimy, but if I remember to carry momentum into the hills and stay up on the pegs, I meet with no difficulties. The peak autumn leaves—much yellower and orange-er than in Vermont, I must say—make the woods beautiful even in the pouring rain, and as the miles tick by on lap one, I swear I’m enjoying myself too much to crash.

One panic-inducing moment happens after the trail crosses the road at the top of the course—immediately after my tires leave the concrete, they plummet down a nearly vertical mud rut with a sharp left turn at the bottom, leading to a long, paved straightaway. I upshift to third, only to become extremely confused moments later when I end up back at the road crossing, this time outside the tape marking the course. How did THAT happen? I roll over the tape and down the j-shaped drop-off again, taking straightaway at a more reserved speed and stopping in time to make a hairpin right-hand turn that I hadn’t noticed before.

The section of the trail following this is a riot—bermed switchbacks wind down the hill and into a swampy section whose grass grows well over my head, giving me the feeling that I’m going down a waterslide. I gleefully lay on the gas, trusting the berms to catch me in the corners and the grass to provide a soft landing if they don’t. My joy is cut short when the waterslide ends, dumping me into its proverbial splashdown pool—the mud whoops at the start were nothing compared to this. The stuff isn’t deep in most places, but it’s greasy as hell and my trials tire won’t track straight in it. When I roll on the throttle, my rear wheel spins out and I do donuts instead of accelerating. Worse yet, the mud is interspersed with opaque water crossings of unpredictable depth—most are harmless when crossed at speed, but one hides an enormous hole that nearly sends me over the bars. 

Needless to say, I take a few tumbles in this section, but there is solace on offer at the finish line where the scoreboard unbelievably flashes “Class Leader!!!” as I roll by. I pump my fist in the air, then feel like an idiot when I remember that there were only two other women in my line. Still, I’ve raced them before and they’re both way faster than me under normal circumstances—so when I leave the gates, I stand up, prop up my elbows, and try to clear out my tires before I have to face those slimy uphills again.

As soon as I enter the woods, I start feeling sick to my stomach. What the heck, I think, I can’t be that dehydrated or tired already—then it occurs to me that I’m not tired, I’m scared. I’ve actually done a good lap for once and have something to lose. What if I get stuck on one of those slippery hills or drown my bike in a mudhole just before the barrels, then have to watch everyone pass me as I settle for a DNF? Burn that bridge when you get there, I advise myself, and I gas it like hell up the first of the intimidating hills.

The track is predictably worse than on the first lap, but not impassable (yet—I don’t envy the folks in the afternoon race). The first sign of trouble comes in the switchbacks leading to the road crossing at the top of the track—the first ascent gave me no trouble on lap one, but now it looks chewed to hell. I see a second line on the far left that looks smoother—if I give it the beans, I think, I can shoot right between those two trees at the top and skip the sloppy stuff. For the first 5 yards, this seems to be a great idea, but the ground right before the trees is unexpectedly close to vertical. I come to a sudden halt on the incline, tire spinning, and then notice a camera pointing at my face.

“NOOO! I WAS SO CLOSE!” I shout at it, and fall over. The cameraman’s buddies help me drag my bike back to the main part of the trail, but I’m so out of breath that I can’t get it to turn over (my e-start conveniently died two weeks ago). One of the two guys takes pity on me, kicks it to life, and gasses it zig-zagging to the top of the hill, showering us in an epic rooster tail of rocks and mud.

“Better him than me!” I say to the other guy, then run—okay, make that “crawl quickly”— to retrieve the bike.

I make it to the top of the track without incident and begin making my contribution to lap traffic as the frontrunners catch me on the way down. Conditions are awful for passing: in many places, the trail has deteriorated to one deep rut, and I know that, even if I did manage to climb out of it to get out of someone’s way, I’d go ass over teakettle in the process.  Fortunately, it’s not until I’m wallowing through the wide avenues of whooped-out slop leading up to the home stretch that the majority of the pack catches up to me. Watching them speed past does little to improve my morale as my trials tire incessantly spins out from under me. By the time I reach the final slimy straightaway, I am so covered in mud that wiping my gloves off on my clothes or my bike only makes them muddier. I fall again and again, collecting more and more ooze, until finally, when I go to pick the bike up, it and I are so muddy that I can get no grip on it and fall on my ass trying to lift it.

“F____!” I scream, completely at wit’s end. “I’m gonna KILL somebody--”

Then I hear someone laughing. On the other side of the tape, a lone spectator is observing my plight with obvious glee. I am too far gone to halt my temper tantrum for his sake.

“I cannot f___ing do this any f____ing longer!” I howl, standing up in the calf-deep grease. “I can’t even pick the stupid thing up—my gloves are too muddy…” I strip them off and throw them to the side of the trail, where the spectator blinks at them, insulted. “I’ll come back for them,” I say, wrestling the bike first up and out of the mud, then into a vertical position. “Would you, er, maybe stick them on that post for me? Sorry…” Beginning to snap out of it, I realize that I just threw my muddy gloves at an innocent bystander and feel embarrassed. Well, takes all types to make a world...

I squirm onto the bike and try to twist the throttle. My hands are as muddy as my gloves. Nothing happens. “That’s WORSE,” I say, feeling steam building up inside my ears again. I snatch the gloves off the post where the spectator generously placed them and ooze them back onto my hands. “How much further is it to the finish?”

“Oh, it’s right around the corner. Calm down. You’ll make it.”

Sage advice, I think. I thank him and kick the bike, which, thank God, starts immediately. After letting out some frustration in superfluous revving, I ease the clutch out and slowly accelerate, trying to keep the rear tire anchored in the straightest ruts. The trail climbs, the mud thins—and there’s the gate. The checkered flag is waving, Greg is cheering. I weave through the barrels, taking little joy in the “Class Leader!!!” message still flashing on the scoreboard, then turn my bike down the road toward the Element. “That was the most miserable experience of my life,” I say to Greg, who is running alongside me. “Alright,” I revise, “the top section was really fun, but that bottom section is horrific. There are probably manatees living in my airbox now...”

I complain all the way back to the car, only pausing to tell Trail Rider’s editor Kevin Novello, who is putting on his gear for the afternoon race, what a godawful experience he’s about to have. My community disservice for the day thus complete, I throw everything I’ve been wearing in a bag for decontamination and put my street clothes on, then Greg and I go loiter around the sign-up tent to wait for printed confirmation of my victory. The sign-up tent is in a puddle, though, which seems to be having an effect on the printer.

“Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen,” somebody says. We turn around to face a man in an Army Corps of Engineers hat and matching raincoat. “Please go back to your vehicles and leave the area. There is a flood warning. This event is closed.”

“I could have told you there’s a flood,” I grumble. Everyone looks at everyone else and shrugs; meanwhile, the Army Corps of Engineers guy vanishes. Greg and I begin to limp back to the Element. The crowds show no signs of fleeing, but frankly, I’m glad of the excuse to sit down for four hours as Greg drives me home. I take over at the Vermont border when he starts to fall asleep at the wheel. What an outrageous pastime, I think to myself, looking in the rear-view mirror at the unrecognizably muddy bike on the trailer. What kind of fool would spend their Sundays this way? Expensive, inconvenient, exhausting, unglamorous, and probably more fun in retrospect—I can hardly wait for next Sunday, just thinking about it.

A big thanks is due to everyone who stuck around to make Dam Good happen despite the rain. I had great time out there, on the whole! This is New England, after all—though we spend 60% of all conversation griping about the weather, we wouldn’t be here if we didn’t secretly love it. It makes for good stories. 

...And after.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

NETRA Rocky Mountain 2013: The Rekluse Makes Noises and a Man Calls Me "Man"

Everything is too clean. My gear still smells like the garment factory and the KTM is glowing from a recent scrub. Greg and I spent Saturday night at my uncle’s house, only 40 minutes from the track, so I’ll even be racing on a full night’s sleep. Sitting on the starting line, all this tidiness is making me feel a bit… unbalanced. Fortunately, two problems reassure me I’m not dreaming: one, I forgot my Camelbak in Vermont and I’m borrowing a knock-off from my cousin. Two, the KTM’s Rekluse is slipping, or dragging, or both. Several surgeries have only made it worse. Along with a stripped bolt hole in the engine case, I now have no neutral while the bike is running and it doesn’t like to start in gear. The rest of my line is long gone by the time I take off, and, scrambling to catch up on the grass track, I lose my front and go body-surfing in the dirt on the second corner of the race.

That bike is LUMINOUS.
Right, I think—having dislodged my jitters and put on some camouflage, I can get this show on the road. Soon, I’m nipping at the heels of today’s token “Dude, That’s Not a Race Bike” person. Remember Dual Sport Guy on the TW200 from Martin’s Mayhem? At Rocky Mountain, there’s TTR-125 Girl, who I pass in the last 20 feet of the grass track. Our first taste of the single-track is packed, nicely bermed loam—then 200 yards later, there’s a left-hand, downhill turn onto a slippery bridge and the trail frays like an old rope across a wide, muddy rock garden studded with pine trees. Thank God, I think—I’d have been dead last for the whole race if that fast stuff kept up. I find the shortest distance between me and flat ground and duck-walk through without an issue, passing half my line in the process.  
Over-confidence thus established, I react with a smile when the course takes me to the first water crossing. Feet up and throttle wide, I fly effortlessly through, feeling grateful (in distant retrospect) that my first-ever NETRA race was the 2013 Spring Challenge. That one was like swimming the English Channel on a bike, at least from a newb’s perspective, and any fear I might have had of water crossings going into it was replaced by weary familiarity by the end. By now, that weariness has worn off and I think they’re a bucket of laughs.
By the middle of my first lap, my race takes on a predictable pattern. First, there is slop, rocks, water crossings—usually featuring a dude with a grey Camelbak paddling slowly but steadily through them. I blow by at Mach 10, gleefully out of control and dousing this poor guy with mud, then the trail opens up. There are whooped-out, sandy sections, big berms, all the stuff that I never have to deal with while trail riding in Vermont. I go sailing into the bushes, and as I’m sweating and wheezing my way back to verticality, Steady Eddie putters past me. I panic, haul ass, catch up to him at the next mudhole—and the process repeats.
The last third of the track is all thrills and spills—it crosses several stone walls (over which I do not find any graceful lines), funnels me down a horrifyingly steep hill with a tiny and slippery bridge at the bottom, then, after another bridge and more tight single-track, it sends me straight up the opposite side of the valley. I barely make it to the top in an overoptimistic second gear, dragging my feet and praying that the overtaxed Rekluse doesn’t let me stall. It doesn’t, but it makes a ghastly squawking noise. Still puzzling over this, I am surprised to see a sign by the side of the trail reading “PHOTO AHEAD,” and a small jump following. I make an effort to prop up my elbows and catch some air—neither of which objectives are met with success, as Art Pepin’s photo will later prove.

See that rear wheel floating? Yeah. MASSIVE air.
I survive the grass track without incident, pass the start-finish line, and make good headway through the first rock garden before coming to a screeching halt at its second and more rustic bridge. A man in street clothes is standing smack in the middle of it and waving me frantically to the left—into a maze of trees and crisscrossing, chain-detaching ruts.
“NO WAY!” I shout at the man, who keeps waving in response. “YOU’RE KIDDING ME, BRO! WHAT ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL BRIDGE?!” He stands his ground, and, shooting him a you’ll-be-sorry-for-this glare through my mirrored goggle lenses, I reroute the KTM into the woods. I avoid the worst of the ruts and rejoin the course, attacking a root-crossed hill from an awkward angle with totally mud-packed tires. A double shot of whiskey throttle gets the bike to the top, but when I see that it’s headed for a beech tree, I decide not to go with it. There’s an awful crunch—and another front fender makes a date with a dumpster.
I walk to the top of the hill, where the bike is being pried out of the greenery by a course worker. He’s a chatty one.
“Looks like you broke your fender!” he says. “I like your graphics, though. What is this, a 200?”
“250,” I say dazedly.
“2011? My buddy has one of those. It’s a sweet bike…”
Now that I’m standing still, I realize I desperately need water. My borrowed Camelbak has about 1/10 the flow rate of my usual one, so I gnaw on it frantically as the guy keeps talking, my sociopathic racing autopilot mumbling vague responses to anything it recognizes as a question.
“Well, good luck with your race, man,” the guy says, offering me the bike as I tuck my Camelbak hose back into its shoulder strap. “I hope that trials tire works out for you—“
“That’s not a man, that’s a girl!” observes another course worker, walking by.
I squint at the first guy, who squints back at me. True, my gear is fairly androgynous and my sociopathic racing autopilot has an unfeminine habit of addressing everyone as “bro…”
“He has a point, but it’s okay,” I say. “Thanks for your help!”
I take the bike and carry on down the trail. 200 yards later, the KTM’s number plate falls off. The autopilot keeps going.
All is well until the end of the sandy, flowing section, when the fastest riders on the lead lap catch up to me. I fall on a big, bermed hill and piss off at least five people who get stuck behind me, one of whom, I notice as I haul the bike off to the side, is Steady Eddie. As usual, the autopilot has a conniption at the sight of him. I’m within striking distance of him when I hit the first stone wall, but the line I take this time is worse than last. While I deepen my acquaintance with the ground, my quarry disappears for good.
“Dude,” I say to the autopilot, sitting up in the dirt, “you just can’t keep doing this.” I resolve to keep my cool and try to make it the rest of the lap without falling. If I were to keep going at this manic rate, I would probably pass out half-way through lap three.
True to my word, I plod onward in a businesslike fashion, making it across much of the steep-sided valley without incident. However, before I can climb to the safety of the grass track, I must cross that last wooden bridge—and there’s a Yamaha lying in the middle of it. Its owner, a skinny kid who has taken off his helmet, is trying to pick it up, but he’s either exhausted or he’s just taken an epic digger. Plus, his boots keep sliding on the wet wood. I look around for another way across. The stream isn’t deep, but to get a decent run-up, I’d have to turn around. Lacking the energy, I wait.
The kid gets his front wheel off the bridge and falls over again. Helplessly, he points to his left—maybe I can make it around him. Going easy on the throttle and paddling my feet, I cross. So this is why I was diverted from that bridge at the beginning of the track, I think—the wood feels like somebody buttered it. I skirt the fallen bike, my front tire finds solid ground—and comes to rest on a tiny, fatal incline. I know exactly what’s coming, but I’ll be sitting here forever if I don’t give it some gas…
I roll on the throttle and my rear tire slides sideways immediately. Now there are two bikes lying halfway off the bridge. With one arm hooked around a tree for stability, I drag the KTM to safety.
“Sorry,” says Yamaha Kid as we catch our breath.
“I would have fallen anyway,” I say. In fact, if he hadn’t been there, I probably would’ve slid off the bridge at Mach 10 and broken my neck.
Carrying on, I make it up the big hill in good form, feet on the pegs, high in the revs, and causing no horrible noises from the Rekluse. In the field track, I try to work up some Zen for lap three, which I’m sure will be a nightmare. There’s a long straightaway leading to the start/finish line and I take it at full tilt. It’s okay, I tell myself—as long as I keep a cool head and remember my technique, I’ll survive. I hit the brakes at the cattle gates, where I feel only dim confusion when I see a big, square, black and white thing waving at me. The autopilot decides that such mysteries are best left unsolved and hurtles towards the woods track—where Greg is waiting, expectantly air-traffic-controlling me toward the access road on my right.
With a sinking feeling, I stop. That was the checkered flag. So much for lap three. Game over.
The bright side of all this is apparent to me as soon as my wheels stop moving. I kill my engine, foist the bike off on Greg, and spend about three minutes drinking, vowing never to forget my Camelbak again.  As we load up the bike, I’m still feeling robbed—Greg says that if I’d come around ten minutes earlier, I would have gotten a third lap. Ten minutes is equal to five crashes, I calculate, and I probably had eight. Maybe next time, I’ll take a leaf out Steady Eddie’s book.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

NETRA Martin's Mayhem 2013: In Which I Hit People With Greg's KTM and Become Tired

The morning of the race, we walk out of the apartment into the dark and damp of four AM and are greeted by an unexpected sound: the oceanic whoosh of skateboard wheels approaching over asphalt. Two punks glide by, slaloming back and forth across the double yellow—and the second one has a foot-and-a-half tall mohawk dyed Little Mermaid red.

“It’s a good omen,” says Greg.

We load up the bike (Greg shattered his kneecap racing in May, so I will be riding his KTM for him) and hit the road, where we immediately get into a fight over our rate of travel: apparently 35 miles per hour with bald tires and a trailer on a bumpy, wet and windy rural highway in the dark isn’t good enough for my companion, so I go 60 and he really freaks out. By the time we reconcile our differences, all I want to do is go home and go to bed, but it’s too late: it's 9:00 AM, and little orange arrows are pointing us toward the race.

At 10:45 AM, C Class is packed like a herd of cattle onto the blocked-off road leading past the sound check and I’m about to fall asleep on my idling bike. To get from the pits to the start, you have to cross a section of the track, and they’re not letting us by because somebody in the Mini race isn’t done yet. I feel a pang of sympathy when the kid finally buzzes past us, followed by a minder—it’s like seeing my future on 80 ccs.

The orange netting blocking the track comes down and 100 bikes jockey to their respective lines. Right in front of me in the C Open line is, unbelievably, a guy on a TW200 dual-sport bike. One super-senior next to me remarks to another, “He ain’t gonna be coming back for those mirrors, or those turn signals, or that headlight, or that speedometer…” In the Vet line, one guy is yelling to his fidgeting pal, “Hey! Just pretend it’s a trail ride, a nice leisurely Sunday morning trail ride! C’maaan, none of these guys is COMPETITIVE”—

On queue, the first wave launches off the line, careens into the first corner, and can be seen dissolving into something like a motorized rugby scrum before vanishing in a smokescreen of dust and exhaust. This, I foresee as the next line goes, is going to be a complete Charlie Foxtrot. I am grinning. It’s gonna be GREAT.

Soon, the Ladies-Sportsman-Super Senior line is the only one left. A female voice from up the line shouts “GOOD LUCK LADIES!” and I shake myself out of my deepening race trance to reply with an awkwardly late “WOOOOOO…?” The flag drops, and the KTM, whose Rekluse has been dragging all morning, does little more than gurgle at me on the first kick. This is only minimally to my detriment, given the pileup on the first turn, and as the pack heads into the woods, I fall victim to an unfamiliar sensation: impatience. I can pass some of these people, I think. Moreover, I better pass them before we get to the muddy, hilly sections I saw in those helmet-cams on Youtube.

As the trail goes into a set of bermed-out switchbacks, I say a brief prayer to Valentino Rossi and make for the outside, which becomes the inside as I crack the throttle—and I’m through. That, I realize, may be the first time I ever passed someone honestly in a race—someone who wasn’t balancing on his or her head in the ditch, that is. Overconfidence surges through my brain like a pleasant and uplifting drug. In earlier races, I thought of the competition as being me versus the trail and also versus my bike: the 1998 KDX 220 that I learned to ride on has a will of its own, a will generally at odds with mine, but the KTM is another story. It is so maneuverable and responsive that I almost forget it’s there—it’s like an invisible buffer between me and the combined fury of Mother Nature and the trail boss, which means I can devote some of my increasingly rabid attention to chasing down the riders in front of me.

This predatory instinct is somewhat gratified when, not 15 minutes into the race, I hear many engines idling ahead of me. Winding uphill, the trail comes to a small clearing in the dense woods: dappled sunlight filters through the humid June air and shoots streaks of gold through the billowing exhaust of what looks like the C250 line, the C200 line and the C Open line all stacked on each other’s necks.

“What the God is going on here!?” I shout at the rider next to me.

He turns to me—he looks like he’s about 12 years old—and says with a sort of profound, axiomatic despair, “It’s C class.” Then, after a pause, he adds, “And I really have to pee.”

I can empathize, and if there ever was a time to ditch the bike and run for the nearest hedge, it’s now—but the tangle of tires and elbows ahead of me is beginning to clear up, and the sight of open trail is like the smell of fresh blood to a shark. Further up the hill, a minder ditches his bike and begins pulling down a section of orange fencing. I start the KTM and shove my way forward.

“Can we go that way?” I demand of the person whom I’ve just cut in line.

“I guess so?” he says, and the KTM launches like a poorly-aimed cannonball straight into the rider currently entering the recently-unbarred turn. Lifting my bike off this person in a flurry of apologies, I recognize her as the cheerful woman from my line who’d wished us all luck at the start of the race. Thus having become unnecessarily winded, I follow her at increasing distance into the rocky, rooty, muddy and hilly back section of the track, where the next sign of life I see is the tail light of the TW200: I’ve caught Dual Sport Guy, but not soon enough to get past him before he attempts a particularly gnarly hill. The little Yamaha’s street-ready tires come to rest on a root half-way up and, despite much gas given, they seem disinclined to leave. Waiting at the bottom, I hear engines behind me and feel the fur on the back of my neck begin to bristle. One rider sneaks around me and launches himself past Dual-Sport Guy, momentum allowing him to traverse the steep, leaf-strewn grade higher up the bank. Another follows.

“Get off and push!” I howl helplessly into the roost, knowing that I won’t have the speed to follow. Finally, a minder helps haul the Yamaha over the obstacle and I rocket up the hill, lurching past Dual-Sport Guy as we wind down the switchbacks on the other side. As the trail levels out, its damp loam gives way to deep mud and slippery rocks, so it’s with some disbelief that I continue to hear the growl of a four-stroke behind me. If he got hung up on that little root, I think, how in God’s name is he keeping up with me in this slop? I’m running a trials tire on a pure-bred, off-road killing machine! I take it as a personal insult and lay on the gas, only to have an unrelated character on a Honda truck past me as soon as the trail dries out. I’m alone in the woods, and more or less remain there until I come to the rooty hill again.  

By this time, my sociopathic racing autopilot has staged a coup and declared martial law, so as soon as I hear the engine of a stuck bike in front of me, I whack the throttle and rocket for the high line. I have it in the bag, I’m flying, no problem—then my handlebar gets caught on the other guy’s, knocks my wheel sideways, and I bulldoze both of us into the honeysuckle on the opposite side of the trail.

“So close, and yet so far,” I say, untangling myself. The minders who’d helped Dual-Sport Guy the first lap are still there, and one of them picks up my bike and rides it to the top of the hill for me. At first I’m a little indignant about this, but when the guy hands the bike to me and I almost drop it, I realize that I am TIRED. I haven’t been falling much—I’ve had to pick my bike up maybe two or three times so far, which is nothing by my usual standards, and the KTM is much lighter than the KDX—but the heat and humidity are taking their toll. I mount up and roll dizzily down the hill, sucking watered-down Gatorade from my Camelbak.

I emerge from the rough section of the track exhausted but unscathed, eager to catch my breath in the flowing section ahead—but then, as I round a perfectly dry, perfectly bermed corner, the back tire squirms sideways like I’ve hit a patch of snow. “Trials tire, no!” I think, accelerating—the thing must be completely packed with mud. No matter how fast I go on the dry sections, I hit mud again before the tire ever feels normal. It’s strange, but my mind is on rails and nothing short of heatstroke or a head-on collision is going to break my flow.

Absenting these major catastrophes, said flow is soon broken by an uphill, right-angle turn with rocks in it about ¾ of the way around the track. I run out of momentum just as the going gets rough, then hear riders on the lead lap coming from behind me before I can even get out from under the bike. The trail is narrow here, and I cause to a great deal of yelling and revving before I get to the top, where I pull off and wait for the pack to pass me. One rider calls out something that sounds constructive as he zooms by, but I can’t quite make it out—or perhaps I really don’t want to hear it.

From this point on, it is smooth sailing to the start/finish line, and I ride my mysteriously tractionless tire as fast as I can manage. On some repressed, subconscious level, I know full well that that tire is not muddy but flat, and not just flat but completely off the bead—but the bike is rolling up to the gate, and I’ve never made a third lap in a NETRA race before, so the hand of God couldn’t pry me off the bike now. Two teenagers on KTM 200s fly past me as soon as I clear the cattle gates and I go tearing after them down the straightaway, yipping with suicidal delight as the rear fishtails all over the place in the following turn.

As I enter the muddy section for the third time, it becomes evident that at least one of the race’s long-standing annoyances is going to require action—the one involving my bladder. A root dumps me into the woods and I decide to stay there and problem-solve rather than continue suffering internally on every bump in the trail. This accomplished, I stagger back to the KTM, gulping down Gato-water now that I have someplace to put it. Though feeling better for the pee and the drink and the rest, I can see the proverbial wall ahead of me and I am on a collision course for it: it’s only a matter of time.

The wall manifests itself in the same honeysuckle hedge that I pushed somebody into on lap two: thirty-seven minutes later, I am back on the rooty hill, or rather off it, this time alone and somehow dangling head-first down the bank, held up by one ankle that’s pinned under the radiator shroud of the bike. I succeed in freeing myself after some serious Cirque de Soleil moves, by which time the resident minder has noticed my plight and come to assist me.  He frees the bike from the greenery and, since hauling it backwards up to the trail would be nearly impossible, he wheels it down the embankment and places it on its kickstand on the access road below. I stumble after him, babbling a totally incoherent version of the following: I’ll never make it back up that hill because my tire is flat and I feel like I’m going to barf; nonetheless, I am intensely interested in the distance remaining to the start/finish gate.

“About two and a half miles,” he says in response to this last. “Do you have any water with you?”

I reach for the hose of my Camelbak.

“Why don’t you take your helmet off and take a break?” he suggests. “This road we’re on goes right to the pits. Just a few hundred yards that way, and you’ll be out of the woods.”

I ditch the helmet and drink, as advised, then make a somewhat more intelligible pitch for continuing my race.
“I’m okay,” I say. “Two and a half miles? I’ll make it. That hill is the worst bit, anyway—is there a way back to the bottom of it from here? I’m gonna need a running start…”

The minder squints at me, then glances furtively around the woods. There’s nobody in sight.

“The trail crosses the road right up there,” he says. “Take a left and you’ll skip the hill.”

I search around for an easy way back to where I came from and don’t see one.

“Well, okay—if it just skips the hill…”

I put on my helmet, mount the KTM and rejoin the trail 50 yards up the road, feeling like Jell-o salad on wheels and riding scarcely better. One interesting fall sends a handlebar end into my cheekbone in the one inch of exposed skin between my goggles and my helmet, another lands me in some low vegetation that I pray is neither poison ivy nor crawling with ticks, and a third—and final—sends me face-first into a big ridge of bedrock sticking out in the middle of the trail.

I attempt to get up, and instantly find myself hyperventilating so hard that I am imminently going to puke, cry, pass out, or all of the above. “I can’t do it,” I squeak on an exhale. “I can’t—I can’t—I—“

Whether I can or can’t, I hear bikes behind me and I’m blocking the trail. I stand up. A man on a 1990’s Kawasaki rounds the corner: over his number plate is taped a big black “W.” This, I think, is the sweeper, the official Grim Reaper: the Pro race has started, my goose is cooked. I lunge for the KTM and haul completely ineffectively on the handlebars, some dim notion of escape flickering in the rabbit-like remains of my mental faculties.

“Are you okay?” the sweeper calls, putting his bike on its kickstand as the KTM continues to remain inert.
“Yeah, I’m just tired…” I drop the bars sheepishly and take off my helmet. As the sweeper rights the bike for me, another rider comes around the corner: his KTM wears a red number plate and custom graphics reading “Spartan Race”. God help me, I think, it’s the AA’s already—so it is to my great surprise that the red-plated rider hits his brakes.

“You okay?” he calls—the standard greeting. Assured that I am, he continues: “The access road’s right there”—he motions behind him. “Half a mile on flat ground to the pits. If you stay on the trail, you’ve got about two miles of rocky hell to go.”

Before I get a chance to dwell on the eternity that was the last half of a mile, the words are out of my mouth: “I have to keep going. I’ve never gotten three laps in a NETRA race before. Are they gonna have to hold the Pro race for me?”

The two sweepers consider this.

“Not if you move at a good clip,” says the guy on the Kawasaki. I reach for my helmet, but he cuts me off: “No, catch your breath first, it’s worth it.” Then, after a pause, he offers me a hand and says, “What’s your name?”

“Anna,” I say.

“I’m Gerard. I think I’ve seen you at races before—I’m a Super-Senile. Aren’t you the one with the blog?”

I am completely dumbstruck.

“YEAH!” I say.

“It’s good,” he says. “I read it sometimes. You’re usually on a KDX, right?”

“Yup, that’s my boyfriend’s KTM. He shattered his kneecap at Tuxedo Ridge, so I’m exercising the bike for him.”

We chat until I catch my breath, then DJ, the rider with the Spartan Race graphics, asks if I’d really like to keep going.

“One more crash and that’s the end of it for me,” I say. “But hey, I’ll take one more crash, why not?”

“Sounds good,” says DJ. “We’re happy to watch you take a real digger.”

I put on my helmet and mount up.

“Leave the goggles off for air flow,” says DJ, “and stand up as much as possible. We’ll follow.”

Hesitantly at first, then faster, I lead our little caravan down the remainder of the trail. I’m dubious of DJ’s advice to stand, given how tired I am, but as we enter the mud and rocks, I discover that the bike is not only more nimble this way, but maneuvering it actually seems to take less energy. I can hardly believe that I’d been on the verge of tears and ready to quit two minutes ago—hell, given the option, I’d start the whole race over! As we descend the last set of bermed, flowing switchbacks, I am laying on the gas, leaning the bike over, completely forgetting that my rear tire, unlike my lungs, has not gotten a  second wind: at the sharp apex of a decreasing-radius, downhill turn, the tire slides, my arm gives out, the bike flips me high-side into the air, where, robbed of my forward momentum, I glance gently off the bole of a stately old oak and plummet a number of yards down the bank on the other side of the berm.

“DIGGER!” I shout, sliding to a halt on my back and pumping a fist in the air.

The echo of my voice reveals the miracle of my total lack of injury. I didn’t even get the wind knocked out of me—but where the hell is my bike? Quite a distance away, a brief survey proves: “Well, there lies my race,” I say—but just then, a hand reaches down from the sky to help me to my feet.

“Are you okay?” Gerard asks.

“Yup! Did you see my digger? It was a good one.”

“No, but we heard it—”

He looks over his shoulder, and I follow his gaze to see DJ skid down the nearly vertical bank on his heels, start the KTM, and launch it back up to the trail so quickly that I honestly have no recollection whether he pushed it, rode it, or picked it up like Superman and flew it. 

“Holy cow,” I say to Gerard, “I guess that was easy…”

We climb back up to the trail and I coast the last quarter-mile to the finish line, where, as predicted, I see the B, A and AA riders all lined up behind that orange fence blocking off the track, waiting for me to get my sorry butt out of the way.

I rejoin Greg at the car, covered in mud and too spent to do much besides stand in the shade, drink more water, and provide wandering, monosyllabalic answers to Greg’s questions about how the race went. DJ stops by as we’re packing up and Greg asks him whether Spartan Races are harder than hare scrambles. DJ considers this for a moment, and answers something to the effect of, “Well, they’re completely different things, but there’s nothing like dirt biking for exhausting yourself.” Though unable to respond, I lock this comment in my heart like a precious jewel, planning to take it out and flash it at all the friends and coworkers who look at me like I’m insane when I suggest that riding a motorcycle in the woods is tiring. 

Photo by Kevin Novello