Pro Moto Ironman
The 2019 Baja 1000 is in the books, and it was a rough one. 3 days of heavy rain put the race on a 24 hour hold to make sections of the course passable. The start of the race featured a false start for the spectators in the normal spot in Ensenada, but after a few blocks we were paraded by police though the city at 3:30am to the actual start line 4 miles away. This is because the rain completely destroyed the wash and flooded the first few miles of the course we were supposed to ride through. I started 5th off the line, quickly making my way up to 2nd passing dad, Larry Janesky, with a wave. Then 705x passed me. Although the rain kept the dust down for a lot of the course, slick clay, greasy mud, and countless puddles made for tough riding. As an Ironman riding the whole course solo, I tried to go slow through the mud and water so I didn’t get my feet or body wet. Before and in the Uruapan area the rain washed out the course badly in several places. Some ruts were 4 feet deep and several feet across. I couldn’t always see them in time, so I ended up inadvertently bunny hopping over many of them. Each close call made me quiver with the thought of what almost happened. I passed at least 8 other bikes on my way to my first pit stop at mile 70, where I stopped for a few seconds to get clean goggles and a protein bar to eat on the bike in the 60mph speed zone. Sunrise came around mile 85 for me.
Flying down the pacific coast at 75mph, I got soaked from splashing through mud puddles completely covering the course. As I was tiptoeing through a deep mud hole the bike slid out from under me, forcing my boot into the water and my arm into an agave plant. 20 minutes later I felt a searing pain in my forearm that stung every time I hit a bump – for the next 700 miles! One of the dagger-like black spikes on the end of the plant broke off in my arm, but there was no time to take it out if I wanted to stay near the front of the pack. I saw Jimmy and Chris at mile 167, where they struggled to chip through the mud to change the rear tire and take the headlights off. The other headlight wasn’t turning on, so Jimmy had to change the wires to the backup power supply he installed off the motor. I gulped some of my homemade chia seed drinks and took off on the pavement while I ate another protein bar.
In San Vicente there were traffic lights, and at the first red light I stopped and 749x pulled up next to me as we waited for what seemed like forever for it to turn. There’s both the race course rules and the public street rules, and during the Baja 1000 the line is blurry. The next few lights we stopped then proceeded with caution when it was clear it was safe. For the next 150 miles #749x and I were playing a cat and mouse game passing back and forth four times, jockeying for 3rd position up the boulder strewn hill at the end of Santo Domingo Wash and up past Rancho El Coyote. He seemed to be a faster rider, but the 1000 is ultimately an endurance race. When I got to the dreaded 25 mile loop behind Mike’s Sky Ranch, I was greeted with tight, gnarly rock wash outs and river crossings. A puddle that looked 2 inches deep, actually swallowed half my front fender, soaking my legs and inside of my left boot. My next pit was at mile 337, where Jimmy, Chris, Arturo, and Brian worked fast to change the rear wheel again, put the big headlights back on, fill my hydration pack, and get me food to stuff in my face on the next speed zone.
Hitting Diablo lake bed, I was in 3rd place and I could see the dust from the Ironman rider in front of me in the distance. Then after Morelia Junction, it was time to take a beating in the sand whoops before Matomi Wash. I passed mile 400, halfway distance wise, in 10.5 hours, averaging a fast 38 mph including all stops. This gave me a good chance of finishing in my planned time of 24 hours. But Baja had other plans for me as darkness fell again at mile 450.
The sand whoops then rock whoops around San Felipe were taking their toll on my hands, back, feet, and legs. Some sections the whoops were 3 feet deep, requiring lots of strength and energy to keep a good pace through them. As I hit them, I felt the bottom of my soaked left foot developing into a one massive blister from the friction and pounding. For over 200 miles the course was 80% whoops. That equates to about 56,000 whoops just in this one section! There were up to 8 different lines in some sections, some being rougher than others. I kept trying several, but it seemed like the whoops just kept getting bigger. I was so desperate for the pain in my hands and back to stop, I started screaming in my helmet alone in the night, which seemed to provide a few seconds of distraction. I began yelling at myself out loud “You idiot! Why the **** are you still pounding the biggest whoops when there’s probably a better line?!” My mind answered, “because I’m to exhausted to go find a better line.” Then out loud, “yeah you idiot! You’re exhausted because you keep pounding the biggest whoops.” “I know you’re right,” I thought.
When I crossed Zoo Rd I was supposed to ride by with a thumbs up to Brian and Arturo. Instead I asked them for food. All those whoops drained my energy and I was starving. My plan was to stop for a pit in 30 more miles, so I quickly ate whatever they had for me and I took off.
I thought I was going to meet my chase crew at mile 536 where it crossed Hwy 3 at El Chinero, but when I arrived there was no crew. I rolled on, tired and in so much pain. Feelings of worry, anger, and lots of fear hit me. “Why wouldn’t they be there? This is my most critical pit in the entire race. I need my jacket and cold weather gloves to make it over the mountain. What am I going to do? Did their truck break down? Did they have to go help Larry?” To my surprise and relief, Jimmy and Chris were waiting five miles down the course. I must have failed to communicate exactly where to meet, or there were no spots available back at the road crossing. I got off the bike, heart racing with anxiety, and threw my backpack off before falling on the ground dizzy and wobbly with exhaustion. As I lay on the ground looking at the stars for almost a minute, my heart rate came down and I had to decide how badly I was willing to hurt to finish this race. I knew what was coming next if I got back on that bike.
Jimmy and Chris assisted me to my feet and helped me get my jacket on. They put cold weather gloves and hand warmers in my hip pouch as planned. I chugged some chia seeds and ate a banana while leaning on the truck so I didn’t collapse again as the guys filled my hydration pack and changed my front wheel. With great difficulty I swung a leg over the bike, thanked my crew, and was off.
The next section was a wash between mountains full of rocky whoops that I was familiar with and did not like. But there was a bike coming behind me and I didn’t want to eat his dust, so I upshifted to fourth and started smashing the whoops as if I didn’t notice the crippling pain in my body. At mile 580 I saw Brian and Arturo and once again asked for food before riding off to what was going to be the hardest feature in Baja I’ve ever ridden, at the time I was least feeling least like I could do it.
The section started out with fast, 5th gear, deep sand with a few rises that I would sail 80+ feet off of. When the course took a right, it was more sand whoops that turned to silt beds and random silt holes that were not there when we pre-ran. On Laguna Salada dry lake bed I could see the headlights and dust from 3 bikes in the miles ahead. Despite the terrain allowing higher speeds for a fresh rider, I could not ride over 70mph at this point because the surface of the lake bed was riddled with hard-packed bumps and divots that sent shocks of pain through my traumatized hands. The lake bed yielded to flat rocky sections with occasional dips, washes, and volcanic boulders that resembled black pumpkins sitting in a field. I pulled up to a Baja Pit, and for the first time, shut the engine off while fueling. Although I had a jacket on, all the vents were open and I was getting chilly on the high speed terrain. I had been trying for miles to close the vents myself while riding, but my sore uncoordinated fingers and the dust in the zippers made it impossible. The guys at the pit helped me zip and snap all my jacket’s vents closed.
At midnight, two things happened: one that I wasn’t aware of, and one that was staring me in the face. Although I wouldn’t realized it until many hours after the race when my phone reminded me, I had my 25th birthday. The the event I did notice was one I had been dreading the entire race. I had just hit mile 660. That meant there was a gigantic mountain straight in front of me towering between me and the finish line. I could see 4 bikes above me in the distance struggling with the rocks. I took a deep breath, downshifted, and began the climb. Up 50 feet, dabbed my foot on the ground. Up 50 feet, boulder knocked me off line. Up 50 feet, foot dab. Up 50 feet, stalled the bike. This series of events went on for several miles. This climb was bad pre-running, but after 20 hours of racing and being at maximum pain and exhaustion levels, it was a living nightmare. Every jolt of the handlebars from ledges and boulders skipping out from under my tires was excruciatingly painful on my hands. I tried sitting down in 1st gear, chugging up the mountain, but that was slow and the rocks were too big. I found standing up in 2nd gear and using the clutch to control speed and traction to be faster and more efficient even though it was more painful on my hands. I passed a rider who was stopped either to rest or contemplate a line up the rocky slope. I continued to get intermittent bouts of stinging pain in my forearm from the agave spike still in there. Going up a steep part, some loose rocks threw me off my intended line, forcing me to skirt left to avoid a microwave-sized rock thereby smashing my hand against a woody bush. Navigating the switchbacks, I saw the tops of the mountains in front of me light up. They’d arrived. I pulled over at the first place I could and watched the first trophy truck, #83 Luke McMillin, roar over a rise and past me. Then came the steepest, gnarliest hill climb at mile 671. As I prepared to go up, another bike was slowly coming down after a failed attempt to get up the steep and washed out 1000 foot long climb. I crouched on the pegs, got up to speed, held on tight and sent it – passed all the rusted out truck bodies that never made it. Mad sketch.
At the top of the mountain I did something many bikes will never be able to do. I passed the lead trophy truck! Yes, he stopped to pit. As the path started to descend there was a boulder the size of a compact car in the course. It wasn’t there pre-running, so all the rain must have broke the ground under it loose and it rolled down onto the course. I didn’t know if a trophy truck would even be able to fit by it. Since it was immovable and there was a cliff down on the left and a cliff up on the right, I was curiously hoping it would block the entire field of trophy trucks so they wouldn’t be roaring past me at dangerous speeds for the rest of the race. Sadly no. I looked across the mountain I had just traversed to see the lead truck stop in front of the rock, then slowly squeeze by it. In the meantime I was worried about running out of fuel. I was already 9 miles past where the Baja Pit was supposed to be, and riding slowly up the rocks is not very fuel efficient. To my relief the big orange “Baja Pits” sign was where the nasty rocks and mountain finally ended. The lead truck passed, again, while fueling.
My body was wrecked. Feet blistered and sore from standing on them, back muscles ached, legs tired, knees chaffed, forearms smoked, hands destroyed from both holding on and blunt trauma from every bump transferred to the handlebars. But I finally made it to the halfway point at mile 680. Yes, there was only 120 miles to go, but I’d ironmaned the Baja 1000 before and have a background in endurance racing. The pain and suffering gets compounded at the end of a long race. So even though I was 85% through the miles between the start and finish line, the real battle was about to begin.
Having crossed the mountain, it got cold – very very cold. It was the section of the course I’d known to be cold in past years. I tried to prepare, but northern Baja was having a cold snap and I was there at the coldest time of the night. I stopped on the side of the course, removed my standard motocross gloves, and ripped open the hand warmers that I had in my hip pouch. I put on my cold weather riding gloves and stuffed the hand warmers in them on the back of my hands. As I continued on, I prayed the temperature wouldn’t drop any further. I went to take a sip from my hydration pack and found the tube frozen solid. It’s strange to think a desert race would be punctuated by subfreezing temperatures. Any endurance racer will tell you that being cold will elevate your existing pain from exertion to a whole new level. I was wearing motocross pants on the bottom and a tee shirt, jersey, and jacket with no insulation on top. All my gear including helmet was designed to cool the rider with air scoops and vents. Riding a dirt bike in that cold was like standing on the roof of a car traveling down the highway, in the winter, wearing summer clothes, for over 4 hours! My legs, feet, and toes were frozen. My head was frozen. My fingers were frozen and crossing over each other on the grips. I couldn’t get enough feeling in them to reach my index fingers for my clutch and brake levers, so I rode using just the shifter to get me to slow down. I was so cold, I no longer cared about my 24 hour time goal, or finishing in the top 3, or even finishing at all. I just wanted to be warm.
This part of the course received the most rain in the previous days, so there was mud water everywhere and frost beginning to form. As I was standing up riding a higher line, my front wheel knifed into some wet sand and took me down. My body fell a good height to lower ground and slammed my right side into the earth at 40mph, knocking the wind out of me. Unable to breath, I heard a trophy truck engine and scrambled to pick my bike up and get out of the course. I nearly fainted from the sudden impact and lack of oxygen to my sleep deprived body. I got out of the way just in time for the truck to fly by. As I continued riding I got to a point where I simply could not operate the bike safely. I was so cold I thought I could die from hypothermia. I saw a Mag 7 pit and stopped. I was not a member of the Mag 7 pits, but the guys grabbed their fuel can as I muttered “don… nee… an… foo…” They looked confused as I eventually managed to get out “I don’t need any fuel” through my chattering teeth. “Do you have a fire?” I asked. They helped my rigid body off the bike and brought me to their fire behind their truck. I kneeled in front of the flames, warming my hands, thanking them profusely, and telling them how worried I was about other riders dying from the cold. Despite my body screaming at me to stay, once I had feeling back in my hands, I stood up. The guys urged me to stay longer, saying I wasn’t in contention anyway. I’m not sure if they knew I was an Ironman riding the entire course solo, but I knew, and I knew I was at the front of the pack. They helped me on my steed, I thanked them again, and was off.
The faster I rode, the colder I got, since the wind speed moving over me would increase. Because of this, I found myself riding a lot slower just so I wouldn’t freeze. It seemed to be a little warmer when I made it to my chase team at mile 728 where I ate a protein bar, a meat stick, and a very cold banana. There was 1 mile of pavement before turning left off Highway 3. I think the pavement was keeping the temperature up a bit because shortly after getting back on dirt is was brutally cold again. Normally I try to ride as efficiently as possible to save my body, but the body doesn’t generate much heat that way. I began moving around on the bike, doing squats, and contracting and relaxing my muscles. I was deliberately going out of my way to hit big whoops to work harder on the bike and try to warm up, but I still had to be careful not to get soaked with water from all the puddles. It kind of worked, until the course smoothed out and I went faster. There were very few chase crews or spectators on this part of the course. I stopped and asked anyone I saw if they had a campfire. It was a balance. I was in a race trying to go fast and do well, but the faster I went the colder I got and risked collapsing from hypothermia.
My chase crew was waiting for me at Ojos Negros, 33 miles from the finish. I rode by them with a thumbs up. The course looked different on the way back in, even though it was the same as the first 33 miles. The four wheeled vehicles has splashed most of the water out of the puddles, making it better in some places and slick mud in others. I looked up and saw the moon. A big red sliver close to the horizon. (The moon was verified by photo that same night to be full and white, so either I witnessed some sort of eclipse or was hallucinating.) Entering Ensenada the temperature finally warmed. Along the highway under construction I looked over the city. It was 5:00 AM. It was a 37mph speed zone all the way to the official finish line, so I knew my race was over. I looked at my GPS and Stella. 800 miles, 25 hours 10 minutes, 32 mph overall average speed. I wasn’t happy with my time, but I was relieved to be done. I became the 6th person to ever finish the Baja 1000 Ironman twice. I crossed the official timing loop, which was just a SCORE official holding a stop sign and a line on the pavement. It was weird riding the 4 miles back into town to the podium. I was no longer a racer, but a civilian. I had to obey speed limits, traffic signals, and stop signs. It was still before sunrise and nobody was driving or spectating on the empty streets. The scene was eerie and anticlimactic. I rode up the finish podium for an interview, beat up and exhausted.