Monday, March 30, 2009

Sparkplug Redux

Sparkplug 2009

It has been just over a year since my re-entry into the dirt bike/trail riding world and much has changed. You may remember my story of how I attempted my very first enduro event last year at the 2008 Sparkplug Enduro, and how I bit off a lot more than I could chew. It was an eye opening experience to say the least. My goals were as follows:

1. finish the 55 mile short course
2. try not to hour out
3. stay injury free

If you count being severely humbled as an injury, I left that event 0 for 3.

During the months following the event, due to my work schedule I basically was able to only ride a handful of times. Including "poker-runs" and just a few fun rides. I did, however, attempt and complete the 2008 Black Bear Enduro in November and felt much better about my riding. I was able to finish the ride and actually finished 4th out of 9 riders in my group.

So the new year comes around and I've been out riding in the winter weather exactly 2 times since the Black Bear, when I noticed the 2009 Sparkplug event was being held March 29th. I started to get a nervous twitch in my left eye just recalling the last time I attempted that treacherous event. But after a few seconds, I decided that I needed to "get back on the horse" and see if I could conquer it.

My WR before the ride
The day before the event, the weather was so nasty with a rain/snow mix that fell all day long that I briefly considered not going. I remembered how soaking wet I was after the '08 "plug" that I was not looking forward to another ride feeling like a soggy sponge all day. But I then told myself that I had to go no matter what, even if it destroyed me.

The morning of the ride, I left my house in Gig Harbor about 6:30 and made my way north to Tahuya. The sky looked clear as I drove and I thought it might be a nice day for a ride after all. I made it to the staging area about 7:30 and unsuccessfully attempted to find a parking spot. If there were any no-shows to the event due to weather, the busy parking lot sure didn't reflect it. I ended up having to park down the road a mile or so and after getting everything unloaded, I awkwardly carry my gas can to the gas trailer on the back of my bike and waited in line to register. I signed up for the Senior C class which is supposed to be novice level riders that are between 40 and 49 years old, (by the way, since when is 40 considered a "Senior"? Do I get a AARP discount?). I asked to be put on the latest minute possible and was given 9:58. I know for a fact that there were later minutes available but I decided not to say anything as I decided that it wasn't that important. It just meant that more riders were going to have to pass me, that's all. I paid my $45 and waited around for the riders' meeting. The meeting was very brief but it covered all I needed to know. I then took the bike over and waited in a short line for the sound test. While in the line, I had some kid right in front of me with a Honda 2-stroke that felt he needed to rev it over and over and over... Maybe I'm getting too old but it irritated the crap out of me. The WR passed the sound test with "flying colors" (96db) and I was now all set to go.

This is the gas trailer

I headed back to the truck since I had about an hour to wait for my start time. While at the truck I made a decision to not wear the belt pack I had on that carried my tools. I transfered the tools to another pouch in my hydration pack and it felt much less bulky to only wear one pack instead of two. I then ate a couple sandwiches to fuel myself up and got ready to go.

My time card

I made my way to the starting area and waited my turn. While waiting, I signed the release on the clipboard that was handed to me. ":58!" was yelled out by the starter so I made my way up to the front. There were 2 other riders on the same minute and brief introductions were made. Starter says "go" and we all start our machines and get going. (By the way, I still have yet to have anyone explain the need for a dead engine start at an enduro event.)

The starting area

I start out feeling a bit tight. My forearms were already sore and I didn't know why. A half-mile into the ride, I missed a turn and ended up in the brush. (I noticed this happened quite a few times during the entire ride so either I was exceedingly unaware of the signage, or the club members who designed the course did a good job of throwing in a few "gotchas". I think it was a bit of both.) I got myself back on course and was already playing "catch-up". The first few miles went by and I noticed that the trail was quite a bit easier than I remembered from the '08 event. One of the advantages of having ridden this event before was knowing that this was just their way to lull you into a false sense of security. The trail would be getting much more difficult... don't you worry.

This is the first turn I missed

At mile 4.2, I was cruising down a fairly easy stretch of trail when just as I gassed it to get over a small obstacle, my right hand completely slipped off the grip. I felt like everything went into slow motion and I saw that I was heading straight for a small tree. I ended up landing just short of the tree with my arms almost wrapped completely around it. As soon as I realized that I was essentially uninjured, I laughed a bit thinking that had just become a tree hugger, at least in the literal sense. I got back on and thought to myself that if I only get one big crash per event, then I should be done... right? We'll see.

Checkpoint 1:

Because I'm a novice enduro rider, I don't even bother with a roll chart. I pretty much have to ride all out just to not "hour out" so what would be the point in having a roll chart? If anything it would just be a distraction and cause me to wipe out at least 2 or 3 more times than usual. At some point in the last year I had decided that the first time I "burn" a checkpoint in an enduro, I'll start thinking about getting a roll chart and a good timer. So checkpoint 1 came into view and I somehow felt that even with my missed turn and my crash, that I was going to be early. Sure enough, I stopped and the guy started writing... I looked at the clock and it said "8:57". One minute early. I figured that if I could be that slow and still be early, there must've been a few other guys and gals who burned that check as well. (turns out I was right)

After check one, the course became a bit tougher. There were parts of the "trail" that could only be called a trail because there may have been a rabbit or a squirrel that had traversed the area once or twice in the last 12 months. Even though 60+ bikes had already been here ahead of me, it still looked like hardly anyone had been there before. There were fallen trees, slippery rocks and super tight sections that required you to "walk" your handlebars through the trees. At one point there was a fairly large cluster of rocks that appeared after a sharp, muddy corner and for a second I felt like maybe we were riding at Erzberg. (ok, it wasn't THAT bad)

With all the soft and slippery terrain, I was extremely happy that I had a "secret" weapon. Well, it was apparently only a secret to me, until somebody clued me in. The last 2 events that I participated in I was using the rock hard, street legal stock tires. I had many other riders say to me that if I had better tires that I would enjoy the ride much more. So a week before the '09 event, I purchased new tires, including a Michelin X11 trials tire for the rear and a Pirelli MT21 for the front. Compared to the "Trailwings" tires that came on the bike from the factory, these tires were amazing. I can honestly say that these tires saved my butt on at least a dozen occasions. If it hadn't been for the increased traction, there is no way I could've made it as far as I did.

Mile 25 or so:

Last year I only made it 25 miles. This time when I looked at my odometer, I realized that I actually was feeling good. I was enjoying the challenge and feeling confident that I'd be able to complete the course. I may not score very well, but I should be able to finish barring any major issues.

Through most of the densely wooded trails it was twisty and slippery, and the lack of visibility caused me to be a little uncertain around some of the blind corners. So when I got out into the clear-cut areas, I initially got this sensation that the trails were somewhat easier due to the increased visibility. Then reality set in. Some of the clear-cut sections were actually more difficult since they were filled with rocks and fallen trees that appeared to, (suspiciously), be put there intentionally. There also was one part that had a steep sandy hill that ended with a near vertical ledge. Had it not been for the new rear tire, I probably wouldn't have made it up on the first try. I also had a run in with a small tree stump. I cut a tight left corner a bit too tight and whammed the shift lever back up and partially over the foot peg. There really wasn't much space to pull over and work on it so I decided to continue on until either the next checkpoint or a nice open area where I could bend it back. I thought I might be stuck in first gear but found out that I could use my heel to shift up. I made it to the next checkpoint without too much trouble and was able to use a well calibrated kick with my right boot to get it back to a usable position. Ride on.

about mile 40 or so

The next section had some amazingly steep drop-offs that you had to ride along. I felt like these deep canyons were like something from The Lord of The Rings, and if you missed a turn or slipped in the mud too much, you'd be tumbling all the way down to the "Shire". There also was a series of steep, muddy hills to climb. And while I had the fantastic new tires to propel me up them, they couldn't see around the blind corner where there was some kid stuck just below the summit of the muddy hill. Since neither the tires nor I saw him, I had to stop... which obviously meant I had lost all my momentum. He finally got himself over the top and now I had to get off the bike and "push-ride" it up to the top. This was much more tiring that I had hoped it would be. I really was fatigued after that and I took it easy for the next few minutes to catch my breath. Prior to reaching the top though, another rider had come up behind me and also had to stop. Of course I felt bad for the guy because I knew that he was going to have to do the same thing. I suppose it's just the way it goes.

Shortly after that hill, I came upon a rider who was letting me by. This was pretty rare since I normally was on the other end of this exchange of places but this one was even rarer in that the other rider was riding the same bike as I was. Yes, there was another idiot out on this gnarly trail riding a nearly 300lb WR250R. The man was obviously nuts. I thought about using this as an excuse to stop and rest by asking him about what modifications he may have done, etc... but alas, I kept on trudging through the mud and goop so I could hopefully make it home before dark.

At roughly 30 miles, there was a gas stop (gas check, whatever) and I knew from riding past events that I would need to top off. I put roughly 2 gallons in and while the excellent volunteers were there helping me, I overheard them discussing someone who might be getting in too late to get their fuel. I told them that I would donate whatever was left in my can. I know it wasn't much but i figure it'd be better than nothing. I headed back out on to the trail and still felt pretty good. (I never did get my can back... oh well, I guess maybe they thought I meant to donate the entire can too?)

Somewhere around the 40 mile mark the trails got extremely muddy and by the time I showed up, they were also badly rutted. As I traversed this area, I encountered a lot more slippery tree roots than usual. I started calling this the "ruts and roots" section. I also started getting a slight case of "monkey butt" and tried to stand up as often as possible. The problem was that with all the ruts and roots, it was exceedingly difficult for me to maintain my balance so I had to use my feet to prevent potential crashes. This meant that the "monkey butt" issue was getting worse. In spite of this new development, I still felt good overall and was confident that I could finish.

Here's a good action shot taken by one of the other competitor's friend. I'll post his name if I can find it.

I kept waiting for a fast section or a big reset so I could make up some time, but it seemed that every checkpoint I got to, my times got a bit worse. It didn't get worse by much, but worse none-the-less.

I finally made it to the second-to-last checkpoint and was 40 minutes behind my time, (the clock said :38 and my time was :58). This actually was good in my opinion since the previous check I was also roughly 40 minutes behind. This meant I was keeping a reasonable pace. I wasn't making up any time but I wasn't really losing any either. The "Checkpoint Commander", (I'm not really sure if they have a title like that or not but I thought it sounded cool), told me that I should have about 5 miles left. I was happy to hear that and headed off across the road, (with the great help from the volunteers keeping a watch out for traffic), and entered the last section of trail. Knowing this was the "home stretch", I actually had a boost of energy and was riding with more confidence now. There was a long straight stretch of dirt road and that allowed me to speed up over 40 mph for a bit. I could just taste the cold beverages waiting for me back at the truck. Then, to my dismay, the trail took a detour into more tight and twisty turns with tree roots and mud. I wasn't as bummed about the terrain as much as I was about the fact that this was going to delay me from consuming the aforementioned beverages.

My WR after the event

I hadn't seen another rider in quite some time at this point and it was somewhat relaxing not to have to worry about someone passing me or having someone in the way. Which is why this next scene was somewhat weird to me. I came upon a rider with his helmet off and bike leaning against a tree. He didn't seem hurt so I didn't stop but when he looked at me I could've sworn it was Terry O'Quinn, who plays "John Locke" in the TV series "LOST". I briefly considerd stopping and asking for an autograph but being that I don't follow the show and I was determined to get back to the truck, I just kept going. I later thought that maybe they were filming in Tahuya for an episode and I probably ruined the scene they were shooting.

I continued on and felt that my pace was steady. I wasn't breaking any speed records but in spite of being on the bike for nearly 5 hours straight through all kind of treachery, I was feeling better than I expected.

Course split:

OK, here's where I made a mental error. The trail took me across a small bridge and at the other side were arrows pointing in both directions. Earlier in the ride there were a few instances where the trail would split ever so slightly and you could choose to go either way and it would end up bringing you back to the same trail. For whatever reason, (it probably looked easier at the time), I chose to go left. I made my way down the trail for a couple minutes but I started to get a feeling that something wasn't right. Being a pilot and having an instictive sense of direction, (with the possible exception of trying to find Salty's restaurant one evening... don't get my wife started on that one.), I could tell I was heading in the wrong direction if I wanted to get back to the staging area. I made the decision to turn around and sure enough, when I got back to the split, I noticed a white sign that I hadn't noticed before that read in big letters: "SHORT COURSE ---->" Damn... I just lost a few more minutes that I really couldn't afford. So I head off in the right direction slightly cursing myself for not paying attention.

The last couple miles were basically more of the same but they were well worn trails so it wasn't too terribly difficult. I finally saw the last checkpoint and was anxious to see how I did. The guy said ":02" and I was a bit confused. This would mean that I either made up 36 minutes (not likely) and was now only 4 minutes behind my time, OR... I somehow went so slow that I lost an additional 24 mintues. I'm fairly confident that I was going fast enough to not lose that much time, however, it's the only plausible explanation. The 3 or 4 minutes I lost on my course split confusion wasn't enough to lose that much time so I guess I just didn't keep up with the 18mph average that was required during the last section. I assumed that this meant that I "houred out" once again. I did tell the guys at the checkpoint that I was a minute or so early at the first checkpoint if that helped at all... it didn't.

I rode back to the truck with mixed feelings. I was bummed about the last checkpoint time but I felt good about the fact that I rode over 55 miles through some tough terrain and still felt like I could ride more. This was a HUGE improvement from last year where I could barely remove my wet socks after the short distance I managed to ride.

As far as I was concerned, I achieved my goal to complete the ride that I couldn't a year ago and to do so without feeling like it took every ounce of my energy to do so. Don't get me wrong, it was the toughest ride I've ever done, but I finished the course feeling relatively strong and like I could've ridden more if need be... (although there would've had to have been a really strong need.)

The next day the results were posted online and to my surprise, it showed me actually completing the course. Of the 96 riders that actually started the short course, I finished 76th. The two riders immediately after me also finished and were given scores for the last checkpoint. Everyone who was #79 and higher didn't finish for whatever reason. Based on how the points are scored, it showed that I was only 46 minutes late to the last checkpoint. Which, to be honest, is about how it felt to me while I was riding. I knew I wasn't making up time but I really didn't feel like I was losing that much either.


The ride was well designed. The Bremerton Cruisers Motorcycle Club did a fantastic job putting on the event and I hope that everyone who participated thanked them.

I felt good about my results. I had no delusions about bringing home any trophies but I wanted to ride the entire 55+ miles and not feel like I just rode the Baja 1000... on a moped.

Slight tangent here...

One thing I noticed about the classes riders are registering in. As I mentioned earlier, the Senior C class is supposed to be for novice riders who are between the ages of 40-49. I looked at the score sheets and the top 3 riders in the Senior C class had better scores than a few of the Senior A class riders who are considered, (at least by themselves), to be expert level riders. I realize that it's possible that the C-class guys could've had a great day while the A-class guys may have stumbled a bit, but the reality is that if you are scoring good enough to beat ANY A-class rider, you're definitely NOT a novice and shouldn't be registering in the C class. In my opinion, there were at least 5 to 7 riders in the Senior C class that should've been in the B-class or higher just based on their scores. In the end it wouldn't have made any difference in my score, I just might've been 7th out of 8 instead of 13th out of 14. Just an observation, that's all.

Ultimately, I'm glad I took on the challenge and finally "conquered" the Sparkplug Enduro. I think the enduro format is great and if I were to ever decide to get serious about competing, I would pursue the enduro series.

Thanks again to all the Bremerton Cruisers Motorcycle Club volunteers, I had a great time and who knows, I may even see you next year?

See, I could even manage a slight smile afterward.


Nan said...

Great story Scott... and nice pictures. Sounds like you did so much better this year, what an improvement. The mods on your bike have maybe helped. Sounds like a good way to get some exercise. Thanks for sharing...

Nan said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dale & Beth said...

Nice work Bro. You sure have come a long way since last year. Now I might just have to get a bike... =O Would be fun to ride again though!

Scott said...

Thanks guys... I appreciate the support!

Anonymous said...

Good work Scott: It's not easy, but it is addictive. I rode enduros from about '77 to 88, quit until 07, and am riding 09 as sort of a "last hurrah", on an old Honda XL200R, which is lighter and easier to handle in the tight stuff than your Yammie: you done good! If you see the old Honda at Shelton stop by and say hello....Thanks for the fun read. Gary

Rowdy Style said...

looking good!! sand baggers are the lowest of the low in amateur things. ugh!

Jason Plett said...

Good work Scott! Your adventures have inspired me to try an enduro myself, thank you.