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