I decelerated into the dusty lot in front of the little Bella Vista hotel in Valle Trinidad at race mile 110 at 8:11 am. I was five minutes ahead of my schedule. My team got me in and out in five minutes and I was gone again. The math? 807…I’m…
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I took off out of my second chase truck stop at mile 74 with seven miles to go to have 10% of the race behind me. You think about these things in such a race. Doing math in your helmet is a pastime I developed in Baja, especially in the…
“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within us.” – Lillian Smith I knew my knees were not great. Running was a key part of my training for these races. …
The course turned into an area called Uruapan. It was characterized by hills and whoops in the hills, and deep silty sections in the low areas. In some conditions it was fun – but not these conditions. At the beginning of the race bikes and ATV’s are clustered together on…
My first stop in the 1000 was a gas pit at Ojos Negros, a little poor dusty town outside of Ensenada. When I pre-ran this section the kids would chase after me and I always had plenty of race team stickers for them. The race coming directly through their town…
Who's going to stop me?
I decelerated into the dusty lot in front of the little Bella Vista hotel in Valle Trinidad at race mile 110 at 8:11 am. I was five minutes ahead of my schedule. My team got me in and out in five minutes and I was gone again.
The math? 807…I’m at 110, that’s a little better than an eighth complete. The next section is fast. 70 miles an hour – but it’s brief. Turns come up fast at that speed. A racer is always pushing to a speed where danger is manufactured and hyper-vigilance is necessary, no matter what the terrain.
I see a bike down on the left ahead, and another guy tending to him. He has a broken leg. A few miles later an ambulance is coming. Good thing we are on a graded road so they could access him. It was a road called “Mike’s Road”, named for Mike’s Sky Ranch – a motel for racers 25 miles off the paved road in the middle of God’s country.
It was getting warmer, but not warm enough to take my race jacket off and subject myself to the 55-degree wind. I was happy there was wind. It was my wind. It meant I was moving forward.
“It’s not who is going to let me, it’s who is going to stop me” – Ayn Rand
Chapter SEVEN – Falcon Attack
I took off out of my second chase truck stop at mile 74 with seven miles to go to have 10% of the race behind me. You think about these things in such a race. Doing math in your helmet is a pastime I developed in Baja, especially in the Baja 1000. If the answer was some difficult fraction, I’d set my sights on what mile marker ahead was a tidy one I could compute. 20% complete, 30%, 33% and so on.
This section was easy. “Easy”, or any adjective is always a relative term in Baja. The sun was high enough now not to be in my eyes and I could see the ground and all the hazards clearly. Time to go fast. Cool wind, strong exhaust notes behind me, and miles passing under me.
I pre-ran this section one extra time four days earlier, and I knew it well. We were out doing some video work with the team and waking up my riding muscles for the week when Kevin noticed steam coming from the front of my race bike that I hadn’t noticed sitting on it. It turns out he had an eagle eye. My radiator cap was missing. It was on there twenty minutes ago and now it was gone. I have never had that happen before. Good thing it wasn’t in the race!
We looked for it but had to give up. We rolled into Ojos and split up to find a radiator cap so we didn’t have to waste two hours or more going back to Ensenada. Ojos Negros did not have an auto parts store – or a department store or much of anything except dusty little places to eat belonging to families trying to survive.
Victor and I saw a Sportsman team support van on the side of the road just as their three-man team of military veteran riders rolled in. They were from North Carolina. It has been my experience that in desolate hostile places on earth, people become more friendly as they instinctively know their life may depend on it. Ok, this wasn’t life and death – this time. They were great guys and I am sure they would have helped us anyway. They gave us one of their own radiator caps. In return, I gave them advice as I was a Baja veteran and they were racing their first race. They knew me from our YouTube movie “Into the Dust”. It turns out they would not finish the race. I do not know what happened to them.
As we proudly screwed the radiator cap on, Kevin and Bobby and Arturo pulled up with another one! They asked a local with an old truck where they could find one. He exited the truck, opened the hood and scalded himself getting the radiator cap off his own truck! Ten bucks and it was a deal! How did they know it would fit a 2010 Honda 450X? Arturo just knew – and it did!
Later that day we were shooting vlogs alongside the Baja 1000 course. I’d ride my bike up to Ted, take my goggles off and do a “Video Think Daily” message. Jesse had the drone up shooting some video of me on the course in the whoops. That’s when the attack occurred.
Falcons and hawks eat other birds. They circle at high altitudes looking for flying prey. When they see one they dive bomb it and pluck it right out of the sky. Apparently, our new $1700 drone looks like a bird.
The blades shredded off the drone and it fell to the desert floor. When they told me I looked up on the ridge and saw the culprit. He was probably wondering what the heck was going on with his food supply these days, and his feet were probably dinged up I am sure.
We couldn’t fix our drone there, but all agreed that we needed one. The race was in four days. Jesse and Ted found a place to buy one in California and we had Javier, who hadn’t come down to Mexico yet pick it up. The images we shot were well worth it.
Chapter SIX …One Step Back
“I soon realized that no journey carries one far unless, as it extends into the world around us, it goes an equal distance into the world within us.” – Lillian Smith
I knew my knees were not great. Running was a key part of my training for these races. Running a long time. Afterwards my knees would be quite sore inside where the bones from my upper and lower leg interact.
I run in Spartan obstacle course races. In April I ran a Spartan Sprint. Last year Tanner got me to run Spartan races in the Elite class with him. Not because I was an Elite runner, but because when he finished, cold and wet and tired, he didn’t want to wait around for me to roll up hours later in the Open Class where I might start a couple hours after him and finish maybe three hours after he did.
I went to this race in Massachusetts alone on a gray morning. At 7 am I took off in the Elite class, getting to the top of the first hill dead last. But, like ‘the little engine that could’, I started passing guys who fired all their energy off too soon. At each obstacle I passed guys doing their 30 burpees for not completing the obstacle. I tried to use my head in these races and learned the obstacle techniques over many races, and I did not fail any of them. I would never be the fastest, but maybe being smart with my abilities would make up for a good measure of my physical limitations.
I finished in the middle of the Elite class and inside the top 3% of all 6000 runners for the weekend. While my knees weren’t impressed, I was feeling very good about my fitness for the upcoming race season.
Three days after the successful Baja 500 race in June I ran a 5K race in the woods. It was going great until near the end I felt something wrong in my right knee. I limped across the finish line. “It’ll be better in a few days” I thought. A few days passed and it was not better – it was worse. A few more days and a couple weeks…no improvement.
I could not run or squat at the gym. How could I work out? In Baja, the limiting factor is your body. The next race, the Tijuana Challenge was in 90 days. I went to a knee specialist and got an MRI. It was a torn meniscus. I scheduled surgery for July 3. Would I have time to recover? I did not know.
Luckily, it was the longest break between races of the season and I was injured at the beginning of that break. Ten days after the surgery I was in the gym. “I’ll go easy” I said. It was probably premature, (maybe stupid), but I needed to try to balance my knee getting better with losing my edge that I had worked so long and hard for.
Two weeks before the race I had my doubts if my knee would be healed enough. Would the race destroy my knee if it was too soon and kill my Baja 1000 bid?
There is no negotiating with Baja. None.
“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” –E. H. Chapin
The course turned into an area called Uruapan. It was characterized by hills and whoops in the hills, and deep silty sections in the low areas. In some conditions it was fun – but not these conditions. At the beginning of the race bikes and ATV’s are clustered together on the course. The ATV’s and faster riders would be coming by me. I was Ironman, and I had a plan. I needed to be the Energizer bunny, not the roadrunner. I had 31 hours ahead of me.
As ATV’s came through and passed me, they’d fill the still air with silt that blinded me. I had to slow to a crawl or just stop and wait to see again. I was a smarter rider and I had a rule – do not ride faster than you can see.
Bikes came by me. Mostly Sportsman teams. There were over 20 of them and on average a rider would go a couple hours and hand the bike off to their teammate. Their dust slowed me down considerably. Then Liz came by. I stuck to my plan – don’t ride into the dust. Sometimes you get away with it, but one crash and my entire year could be over. It was a gamble I did not have to take.
Rick Thornton came by me and a minute later he crashed on rocks. I stopped and asked him if he was ok. His flat black helmet visor was broken. I wondered how scuffed up or injured he really was. About twenty minutes later the visibility again was very bad. A Sportsman rider came by me and as he did he rode into a giant gnarly desert bush and crashed right in front of me. More evidence that my plan was smart.
I pressed on as the sun came up right in my eyes, making visibility even more difficult. I was looking for mile 74 to see my crew. I was happy to see them. I would always be happy to see them. They were always happy to see me. It meant I made it through another section. It meant I was still in the race that half the teams do not finish. It was their race too. The last thing they wanted was for it to be over too soon.
They were ready for me. Each had a job and what they needed in their hand or at the ready. It was a positive sign. It was 7:06 am. I was 7 minutes ahead of my plan.
It was working.
“And the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience.” – Eleanor Roosevelt
Chapter FIVE – Early Drama
My first stop in the 1000 was a gas pit at Ojos Negros, a little poor dusty town outside of Ensenada. When I pre-ran this section the kids would chase after me and I always had plenty of race team stickers for them. The race coming directly through their town was big excitement for them. Heck, it was big excitement for much of the peninsula, with 300,000 fans coming out to watch, many of them camping out. Even schools close for two days for the race.
For the 1000 we needed three chase trucks. Javier and Oscar would be in one truck. Javier Gonzalez was a mechanic from SoCal who chased Tanner and me when we won the Sportsman Class in 2015. Oscar Hale was a rider from El Rosario in Baja who has been riding down there for 42 years! He is 57 years old and has competed in the Baja 1000 before. Oscar pre-ran the course with me for three long Baja days. When you do that with a guy, you’re bonded. He is a tough and wise rider and I have a lot of respect for him.
Oscar’s family has a famous restaurant called Mama Espinosa’s. The inside of the restaurant is a shrine to Baja desert racing. In the first Baja 1000 in 1967, there were no pits set up. Racers would stop at mile 66, Mama Espinosa’s. Mama was Oscar’s grandmother. She would give the racers food and gas and tell them to “go quick”. She and her restaurant (and hotel) became part of desert racing history. She lived to be 109 years old.
In another chase vehicle, the van, were Victor and Arturo. Arturo was another Baja native and racing veteran. He competed in one Baja 1000 years ago and won his class. He is an encouraging gentleman and I can tell he really cares about the people around him.
Last, but far from least, was an SUV with my friends Kevin Koval from Albany New York and Bobby Miles from Cincinnati Ohio. Bobby chased on both previous Ironman attempts, and Kevin on the first one. They both got to see something I missed – Tanner finishing the 2016 Baja 1000 Ironman.
We needed three vehicles to be sure they could see me at all our stops at the bottom of the course. There were sections where I would go faster than the chase truck and beat them to the next stop. By having multiple chase vehicles they could leapfrog each other to make sure I had coverage everywhere I needed it.
I can say I have a special bond with each of my support team members. We have been through a lot together. I know these guys will do everything in their power to get me across the finish line.
After pre-running, I made a detailed plan. I will go this many miles per hour on average from here to here. I will arrive here at this time. I will turn right and meet you on the left side of the road. I will need this and this and to change goggles from clear to tinted here. Every detail was planned. We reviewed the plan at a long meeting before the race. We went over things many times.
“A simple plan, executed perfectly and calmly.”
That was our motto. We said it a dozen times together. This is exactly why Victor was shaken when the plan seemed to fall apart before I ever got to the first stop at mile 33.
Victor called to Javier on the radio as he drove away from the start line towards where he was supposed to be. “Ok, we are nearing mile 33. You should be there right Oscar?” “No, we are at mile 16.” “You should be in front of me at mile 33”. “No, me and Arturo decided to go here.” “What? That wasn’t the plan…” “No, that’s what we are supposed to do.”
Back and forth it went and Victor was horrified when he thought that everyone had changed a finely tuned plan on the fly. Then he figured out what was going on. He was talking to another race team, 721x, who was using the same frequency and also had an “Oscar” and an “Arturo”! What are the chances of that! It was a huge relief for Victor when he figured it out.
I never knew anything was happening out on the race course. I looked for the big yellow sign that read 714x, at mile 33 and there it was. I pulled into the truck, saw Javier, told him everything was great and went on.
Seventy miles an hour now, into the darkness.