Story from a Pro Moto Ironman.
At 2:10 am, I stand beside my KTM 450 XCF-W in staging of the 55th Baja 1000, nervous. More nervous than I've ever been before a race. Why? Because I've ironmanned (riden solo) the Baja 1000 twice before. The first time you attempt the race solo, it's exciting. An exciting adventure awaits, and your ignorance is the key to showing up. But I know what's coming: pain, suffering, heat, cold, dust, fatigue, cactus thorns, crashes, high likelihood of injury or death.
I didn't decide to race the Baja 1000 this time simply to finish. I want to win. The last time I raced it I fell short and placed 2nd. But this year, in 2022, there are 23 Pro Moto Ironman competitors, the most ever, and many of them I know are very fast. I could ride a perfect race and get 5th place with the caliber of riders I'm up against. I decide to just ride my own race and be thrilled if I get a top 3 finish.
The green flag drops for the ceremonial start and I go a few turns through the streets of Ensenada only to stop before our police escort to the official start line on the outskirts of the city. I start 7th in the ironman class with 30-second gaps between each bike, and almost every other pro moto class starts in front of us. Green light, GO! I take off at about 85mph down the paved road when I notice I'm closing in on the rider in front of me. I panic and wonder if my Stella (tracker) isn't telling me it's a speed zone, so I slow down to 55mph to avoid penalties. When we take a left off the pavement onto the dirt, there's a 37 mph speed zone for a couple of miles. When that ends, it's game on.
The dust at the beginning of the race is blinding. There's no wind, so the dust from all the bikes ahead of you just hangs there in the dark for your lights to reflect off of and obscure your vision. I can't see well but charge into the dust, passing bike after bike, hoping to get some clean air. By the time I get to Ojos Negros I had passed more than a dozen bikes. I give my chase crew a thumbs up and don't stop. The next two bikes in front of me are riding side by side, making so much dust I can't get close enough to pass. Finally, they take a suboptimal line in the silty whoops, and I scoot around them both.
I have a wireless temperature sensor on my backpack that reads to my GPS so I can see the temperature in real-time. It was in the low 50s (degrees Fahrenheit) at the start and kept dropping from there. The section from race mile 30 to 69 is below freezing at this hour, getting into the mid twenties. There's a rider on the ground in front of me that just had a tip over. I pause and ask if he's okay. He gets up and give's me a thumbs up. I hit the quick road section and try to eat an energy bar from my pocket, but it's frozen solid. All the pit boards of my fellow ironman riders are lit up along the one mile of road, waiting for their riders behind me. I stop at my chase van where we change the bike's air filter so it doesn't get choked by the extreme dust.
When I return to course, I watch the temperature continue to drop. 25. 24. 22. 20! 19! 18! It's absolutely freezing now, and I have regular moto gloves on, which are not warm at all. I keep my hands functional by tucking the left one behind my radiator intermittently and reaching back with my throttle hand while slowing down for turns to catch the hot exhaust gas. At one point, when it's just 18°F, I'm going over 70mph. The air going through my helmet feels like my brain is getting frostbite. There's no fairing or windshield on a dirt bike and nowhere to hide from the bitterly cold wind. You just have to deal with it. I try drinking, but yeah, my hydration tube was frozen. At mile 100 dawn breaks and I begin the technical rocky descent off "the summit," full of loose rock, huge boulders, and rain washouts. It's gnarly, but I like gnarly. When I'm almost at the bottom, navigating the choppy rock ledges with loose softball rocks peppered about, I pass a bike. This one I see is 735x, an ironman.
Then comes some faster stuff as the sun tickles the horizon. Two tracks full of rocks and silt and sand with occasional rocks you definitely don't want to hit at 50mph that are extremely difficult to see. Then are I rip across fast flood plains, there are enormous holes of silt that I try to avoid but inevitably get launched into. I pass the talented Bolivian rider, Fabricio Fuentes 785x, right before my van pit. When we were pre-running, me on the bike and Victor and Dustin in the UTV, we came across Fabricio, who was out of fuel. I used a siphon and a fuel bottle to extract some fuel from the UTV to give to Fabricio. We ended up pre-running the next 70 miles or so together. He had been doing great in other Baja races, and I saw first hand he's an excellent rider who would be tough to beat.
When I pit at my van at mile 159 and get tinted goggles and fill my hydration pack, Fabricio passes by. Shortly after we're side by side in a Baja pit getting fuel, but he gets off his bike to take a longer pit stop. The next section has 5th and 6th gear whoop sections and washes made of loose jagged rock with more of the occasional hidden monster rocks you definitely don't want to hit at speed. There are also loads of trees with spiky things, ocotillo, and cacti, forcing the bike riders to the outside of the turns since the necessary lean angle required to turn on two wheels would leave you with a face, hand, or arm full of spikes. You're constantly crossing over the rocky elevated trail center, caused by the four wheeled vehicles, to the outside of the turns. But every crossing of the hump involves a risk of getting cross rutted and high-siding.
At check point 1 at mile 200 I come to a stop at the instruction of a guy named Yiyo, who made me seafood quesadillas the day before and is super pumped I'm coming through. He's giving me all kinds of excited hand signals. I proceed through the checkpoint and cross highway 3, missing Oscar and Dean from my chase crew, standing right behind Yiyo. Oops.
The next section basically consists of pounding 3 foot sand whoops for 40 miles straight. But that's better than the next section which substitutes the sand whoops for irregular rock whoops with random washout hazards. I stop for a brief moment to adjust my catheter tube that had broken free of its zip ties on my boot. That's when the 500x bike of Giovanni Spinali rides by - one of 2 bikes to pass me while riding the whole race.
I come out to the pavement and pit at my van to refill my hydration pack. I expect to see them again in the daytime, but I ask Dean to throw a set of clear goggles in my backpack just in case something unexpected happens. Then I take off down the road and eat an energy bar. I wave to the other ironman chase crews who I'd met in the prior days or years, like that of 774x Florian Schwarz, 712x Eddie Meek, and 715x Jeff Benrud. Speaking of 715x, I half expected him to pass me by now. Jeff has years of specialized military experience, is insanely tough and fast, has crossed the finish line first in the 1000 3 years in a row, and is the only human on earth to have officially finished the Baja 1000 solo 3 times!
I take a right back onto the dirt, rather sand and rocks, for some fast sand washes. This is my least favorite terrain. Why? Because I can go 70mph, but the trophy trucks make this washboard-on-steroids in the sand and sling sand over the huge rocks, camouflaging them. So it feels like I'm going for a ride in a turbocharged clothes dryer that's way out of balance while playing reverse whack-a-mole with camouflaged embedded rocks ranging in size from soccer balls to microwaves. You're trying to avoid these massive rocks that come out of nowhere at interstate highway speeds, are the same color as the sand, and are covered in sand, while your vision is blurred from your eyeballs rattling in your skull from the washboard. All of my bad crashes in Baja have been from hitting rocks like these I never even saw. I hit a few of these smaller rocks that are enough to pitch me over my front fender, but I hold on.
While ripping down a sand wash at mile 367, I'm in second place behind Brandon Wright, 750x, the points leader. I see a bike stopped and a rider lying on his back in the middle of the course. I slow down and veer off to the side of the course when, wham! While I'm looking at the downed rider I smash into the same huge rock hiding in a shadow that the other rider hit. I get launched over the bars and the bike lands on me. I quickly get up to check on the downed rider and realize my face and nose are bleeding and my back and shoulder are a bit injured. A rider, Vance, from the 522x team is already there checking on the injured rider, who turns out to be Giovanni from the 500x bike. Vance and I asses the situation and press the buttons for the "SOS" feature on the Stella.
I use the satellite phone in my backpack to call my chase crew and explain the situation and call for help. I tell them we have a badly injured rider that needs help. At this point, Vance leaves on his bike to go tell someone at the next pit down course. I get a response on the sat phone saying that a UTV was on the way to pick up Giovanni. I tell Giovanni, not completely sure of the extent of his injuries, and he says he needs a helicopter. I call back on the sat phone to get a helicopter instead, explaining our location. In the meantime, I flag down every bike and quad that came by so they wouldn't run over Giovanni. When the helicopter shows up I wave my arms as they circle in for a landing. I wanted to stay near Giovanni as they landed to block the sand from the rotor wash from getting kicked in his eyes, but the medic in the helicopter is waving me to walk away, perhaps for safety from the rotating blades.
The bird lands and the pilot and medic get out. They leave the engine running as they come over to Giovanni, probably thinking they could quickly get him loaded up, but when they realize the extent of his injuries, the pilot goes back and turns the helicopter off completely. We get his helmet and boots off and bandages on his arms loosely. The medic pours iodine on his arm where a broken bone is protruding. I keep giving him water from his hydration pack. Giovanni mentions an inability to move his arms, shoulder pain, hip grinding, back and chest pain, and we know the injuries are extensive. He had probably been going over 60mph when he hit the rock, and he landed about 120 feet passed it. The forks on his bike are stuck permanently compressed, and the rear fender is bent backwards and tucked under the rear wheel.
Now it's time to move him. The medic stabilizes his neck, I roll him onto his side, and the pilot slides the very small stretcher under him. Then we all lift him and carefully carry him over to the helicopter which is tricky since the stretcher is only about 14 inches wide, and he isn't strapped down. With one final push we maneuver him into the helicopter. I grab his gear, backpack, and GoPro camera (which was buried in the sand) and load it in the helicopter with him. Then the pilot gives me a bottle of water, since when I crashed all mine had leaked out of my hydration pack.
I give the helicopter some space and walk down course to make sure no bikes ride by the helicopter taking off. As I watch it go up and out of the canyon it suddenly gets silent. I put my helmet and gloves on, press the "okay" button on the Stella, and take off down course.
At this point an hour and 25 minutes had gone by and 750x Brandon Wright, 739x Aaron Richardson, 715x Jeff Benrud, and 785x Fabricio Fuentes are all ahead of me, the top 3 being well over an hour ahead. I figure there's no chance of catching them and no chance of a podium finish. Thoughts of quitting enter my mind. I have no chance of getting on the podium, my goal, all my pit plans are now messed up for timing, the trophy trucks will now catch me earlier (and more of them) and rip up the course more, I'd be riding more at night, my back is injured from my crash, and I'm pretty shaken from witnessing first hand the extent of the injuries that can happen to even the most seasoned racers.
It starts getting dark and I'm wearing tinted goggles. I stop to grab the clear set from my backpack and to pee, since during my crash my catheter became disconnected. At mile 440 I look around for my chase crew but can't find them. Then I think I missed a Baja pit fuel stop, but estimate I could probably make it to the next one. The pit ends up being 10 miles down course. As I head towards San Matias on another 25 miles of sand whoops, I'm praying my chase crew will be there. I haven't seen them in over 6 hours, and I'm going to be heading into the cold night over the mountains. I need food, water, jackets, and wheels. I have no way to communicate with my crew without stopping for several minutes.
I decide to focus on riding, and riding fast. I pound the sand whoops in the dark faster than I ever have. I pass Fabricio, who is doing the smart thing and conserving energy in the whoops. Not me. I'm in 5th gear smashing into every whoop at over 50 mph, preloading the suspension and bunny hopping whenever possible to double them. These aren't like motocross whoops where they're uniform. These are all different shapes and heights and could be 20 to 40 feet apart, so you have to make a judgment on how to hit every one. Mistime it, and you'll be swapping out sideways and crashing.
I cross the road and enter San Matias wash which terrifies me with the hidden rocks being the same color as the sand. I'd had a couple of bad crashes in there prior years. The bike lurches upward violently a few times from those rocks, but I keep it wheels down. There are many different lines in here, all braided together. I'm ripping along at high speed, and suddenly the ground is gone up ahead. I lock my brakes as hard as I can and skid over the edge of a 20 foot cliff! A blip of the throttle keeps the nose from diving and I somehow roll it out. Any faster and that would have been catastrophic.
I'm relieved to see Oscar and Dean in San Matias. I lift my bike onto the stand and realize my subframe is bent and something is broken back there, but I don't worry about it since I'd been riding fine. They change my front and rear wheels while I get my jackets on and fill my hydration pack and stuff energy bars in my pockets. Then I'm off. I hit Mike's Road and open it up to 75 mph, when the temperature drops into the 30s.
Just after the river crossing, Mike's Sky Ranch, and some technical rocky climbs, I'm on some tight, silty trails with dense thickets of trees and bushes on both sides when I see the mountains lighting up all around me. "Crap. They're here." I pull off into the bushes and wait for the 1000 horsepower dragon to pass. It's Luke McMillin, 1st trophy truck. A couple of minutes later, Dan McMillin's trophy truck comes through. I wait a while for the dust to kind of settle. It's a bad idea to try to ride in the dust of a trophy truck, since they can drive in each other's dust using GPS and won't even see you as they run you over with their 48" tires. But the dust won't settle. It's a windless night and below freezing now. The stagnant cold air just holds onto the dust and I can't go over 10 mph for a good 15 minutes. Just another opportunity for the ironman leaders to pull away from me, I thought.
The tight trails near Rancho La Joya have me dodging branches left and right. I don't avoid all of them and get my knuckles smashed by some thick ones. My cold hands throb in pain as I watch blood seep through my glove. Another river crossing, then silt hills with embedded rocks make the next section challenging. You just have to keep your speed up and not crash, even though you can't really steer or see where you're wheels are going. It's easy to smoke a clutch on this stuff. I keep up a fast pace, passing another 10 bikes or so. Are they in my class? I don't know and don't care. If they're making dust, I need to pass them and fast.
I reach check point 2 at mile 580 and then my crew of Ricardo and Ricky. They tell me I'm 30 minutes behind the next closest ironman, 739x, but I'm unclear on what position I'm in. We fill my hydration pack, change the air filter, and I'm off. Next I experienced hitting sand whoops at over 70 mph by the Pacific ocean at night. Whoa. I'm in so much pain. Pain in my hands, arms, knees, back, neck, and my calves and hamstrings are cramping in the cold. I'm both sweating and freezing. I need to just keep moving and moving fast. Very fast, if I want any chance at finishing in the top 3. I passed the point in the race where I'd typically slow down from extreme pain, and most others would too. But not this time.
When I started the race I remember thinking, "oops, I definitely came out too fast." But now, I'm riding even faster. I'm in a weird state of consciousness. An extended ultra flow state marked by the ability to feel horrendous pain, yet put that suffering somewhere else and focus on the task at hand. Training I'd done with Flow Genome Project in the prior months comes to mind. This race is undoubtedly the apogee of Jamie Wheal's 3 flow triggers: rich environment, high consequences, and deep embodiment. I think of Seneca and the stoic philosophers, and a quote by Marcus Aurelius - "If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your own estimate of it: and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."
Now I have an issue. I have to pee. Why is that an issue? The top ironman riders use catheters for this purpose since stopping to pee over 30 hours or so is a huge time cost. But mine was no longer functional since my crash. Now, my heavy fanny pack full of tools is pressing on my full bladder, what am I to do? I weigh the pros and cons. I'd be wet and cold, but I spent countless hours building my race bike, testing parts, testing gear, riding 3-4 hours every night on rough terrain in the dark in the desert by myself for months, even when I didn't feel like it. I'd had the help of hundreds of people along the way and under a considerable time and financial burden just to show up on the starting line. Why? I want to ironman the Baja 1000 and win. The race could be won or lost by minutes or seconds. That settled it... Gear could be washed. I would pee my pants for the rest of the race.
I see my chase team at Colonet and yell, "all good" and keep riding. I make my way back out to the coast on the whoopy hills, avoiding spiky agave root balls, puddles, and rocks in the course. I come to a section of rock ledges where a rider had crashed bad during pre-running right in front of my dad's UTV. I had been waiting down course 6 miles when I got word from a UTV driver that there was a guy that was pretty messed up. I turned around and rode back to him. Along the way I saw a yellow FJ Cruiser who had an extra seat and they followed me to the injured rider. When I arrived the man, Curtis, had a bad concussion, broken sternum, and brain injury. The other guys loaded him in the FJ Cruiser who got him out of there. I fixed up the bars on his bike enough to ride and my dad rode his bike out of there. I think of Curtis as I wheelie over the rock ledges in the race.
Through the canyon and out to the dirt road I go. Then onto the paved road. I shove some energy bars in my mount. I see my chase crew and again tell them, "all good," and keep riding. I know what I have to do if I want any hope of getting in the top 3 spots, and all stops that are not essential must be eliminated. I rip down the washboarded crossover road and twist through the mountains. When the course turns into the hills, the course gets gnarly. "Perfect," I think. I'll use the rough technical stuff to my advantage. I won't let the pain slow me down. The rougher it gets, the faster I go.
I meet Oscar and Dean again in Valle de la Trinidad for a super quick pit. Down the road, take a right. Up the "goat trail." It's freezing. Whoops. Fast terrain. 6th gear. 75 mph. Huge rock on the left. Course washed out 4 feet deep on the right. Slow to 10 mph for a hairpin turn through a barbed wire fence. 70 mph. $&#! Cow! That was close. Onto the pavement. 57 mph. 35°F. Sitting there shivering, left hand tucked behind radiator. Traffic now. 40 mph. Turn right onto dirt. Let the KTM 450 motor roar. Jack rabbit runs in front of me. I hit it. Sorry buddy. Tight twisty turns. Don't take the same wrong turn in pre-running. Glance at GPS. 20 degree right, 40 degree left, 30 degree right, 90 degree left. Full speed to check point 3. There's my crew. All good, don't stop.
I know there's a super long straightaway ahead. A quad is in front of me making dust. I rip around him on the outside and pin it down the straight. 88, 89, 90 mph! That's all she has. I back off to the low 80s to not blow up the motor. A Chevy Silverado is up ahead making dust on the race course. He's racing me, doing about 65, but I pass him and don't look back. There are G-outs and all kinds of hazards at these speeds that terrify me. I get into some twisty rocky terrain in the mountains now. I realize I haven't seen a trophy truck for almost 300 miles. Weird. Oh wait, here they come. A few pass, and I wait 30 seconds for the dust to clear some. When I get going, I discover I'm catching up to the trophy truck! This is not a good thing. There's no way to pass, and the dust is horrendous. I just had to wait until some faster stuff where he could take off.
Now around race mile 750 I get to the silty hills of Uruapan. I know this is the last big challenge, or in my eyes, opportunity. I reason, if this will slow down everyone else and I can maintain this hyper flow state and put aside my pain and suffering and ignore the bitter cold and blisters on my fingers and blood on my knuckles, this nasty terrain is my opportunity. There's not much you can do to stand out when things are well and easy. It's what you do when you're in the pits of hell getting rocks thrown at you and sand kicked in your eyes and you think the pain cave can't possibly go any deeper and you're ready pass out; that's your moment.
I could see a light from a bike ahead and I charge harder than I ever had. I make the move and can see another. Another one. The hills of Uruapan get these huge jagged ruts from the rain going down them. They'll make you crash or swallow your entire bike. Then the 1000 horsepower trophy trucks come through and pulverize the remaining ground into silt and loose rock. I don't let it bother me. I lean back in third gear, keep the front end light, and charge up the hills. I come over the top of one, and there's a 4-foot-deep rut 6 feet across. No time to stop, I wheelie over it and get bucked into another rut 2 feet deep and come to a dead stop. I pop the clutch and stand the 270lb bike on the rear wheel to execute a pivot turn to get out. Good thing I've been dabbling in hard enduro riding.
I keep seeing bikes. They all must have been bunched together in the slower rough stuff. I pass one every few minutes. I pass them nicely and give them space, but so fast as to send the message, "don't even try." Not a single bike had passed me since Giovanni way back 16 hours ago, despite having fresh riders swapped onto their bikes. I figure I had worked my way back to a decent position and consider taking it easy and riding conservatively to the finish to reduce the risk of crashing and ending my race. But I reason as soon as back off, I'll get out of flow and make some stupid mistake. Do I want to ride to win, or ride not to lose? I ride to win. In Baja, and any life situation, there are things you can control, and there are things you can't. I can't control the terrain, the temperature, the dust, or the other riders. I'm riding stuff I don't recognize and swear I never pre-ran. But I can control keeping myself on the little purple line on my GPS and riding. So that's all I do.
At my final pit in Ojos Negros I see Oscar waving me forward aggressively and screaming, "GO! GO! GOOOOOOO!" No stop. By his enthusiasm, I know I'm getting close to another ironman. I'm not sure who it is or how far ahead they are, but it doesn't matter. "Stay on course, ride fast," is what I tell myself. The last 30 miles are the same as the first, just the reverse direction, and I have them memorized. I'm closing in on bikes so fast that some pull over thinking I'm a trophy truck. There is a rider trying to pass another guy but can't get by in the thick dust. I come by and pass them both. I'm doing my best riding ever. I rip through the hills on the outskirts of Ensenada and down onto the paved highway that now had a 37 mph race speed limit. That's it. I just have a few minutes to go, and I can't make up any more ground. As I cruise in, I still legitimately don't know if I'm in 4th or 1st, or somewhere in the middle since I was passing bikes too fast to look to see who they were. I cross the official finish line, relieved to be done, but somehow sickly hoping there are another couple hundred miles to make up more time if I need to. I wait there for a few minutes, where Score officials congratulate me. I pry my frozen blistered hands off my bars.
Now all that is left to do is ride 5 miles through the city to the ceremonial finish for a podium interview. I take my time and obey all traffic laws, even though it's 4:30 am. Pulling up to the podium, I notice a bike in front of me. It's 739x, Aaron Richardson. He's the one I was chasing for the last 500 miles. He had started two and a half minutes before me, and I don't know how far ahead of me he crossed the line. We will need to wait until the following day to see the official results. I quietly wish the best for Giovanni and hope he is doing okay.
When the official results come out, I have the fastest course time by 24 seconds despite stopping for over an hour. It turns out that Score has a rule that if you stop to help a critically injured rider, they will credit you back the time you stopped. I'm surprised to see they gave me an hour and 25 minutes back for my time helping Giovanni, which extends my 24-second win to an hour and twenty-five minute win.
All my training and testing paid off. Not only training my body, but my mind. I now join Jeff Benrud as the only other human on Earth to officially ironman the Baja 1000 3 times (Fabricio Fuentes gets his 3rd finish after me, making him the 3rd). I dug deep and fought hard to be the fastest ironman and 7th overall bike, even against the Pro Unlimited teams. That was the ride of my lifetime.
"It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat." - Teddy Roosevelt
A special thank you to:
Rocky Mountain ATV/MC in Washington, UT
Flow Genome Project
All the ironman racers, past and present - nobody can fully comprehend this accomplishment but you
Into the Dust Movies: