Tag along with RAM®'s graphic designer, Zachary Lough, for a first-person point of view as he shares his year long journey to finish the Desert 100 Motorcycle Endurance Race.
One Year Ago...
On April 3rd 2022, I found myself in a very unfortunate position. I was on mile 28 of the first lap in the Desert 100, an endurance motorcycle race through the sagebrush of eastern Washington, and I knew I wouldn't finish. My body had started to shut down, my pace was too slow, and the fatigue was hitting hard. I’ve never run my batteries so low in my life. By the time I had reached the end of my first 50 mile lap, the fastest rider had finished the whole 100 mile race. Continuing onto my second lap wasn’t possible, even if I had the physical strength to do it. As I rode onto the finishers platform to get my rider number logged, I heard them yell out, “One lap! Did not finish” followed by an echo from a desk nearby as they entered it into their records.
I was ushered onward to let the next DNF rider onto the ramp. No trophy, no finisher t-shirt, no glory. I couldn’t help but feel how unforgettable I was as I limped back to camp. I peeled my body off my motorcycle and slumped down behind my car in a narrow triangle of shade—completely defeated. As I sipped on some water and forced myself to nibble on a crumb of bread I began to reflect - how did things go so terribly wrong in my pursuit to finish the Stumpjumpers Desert 100 Endurance race?
After a brief rest and time to muster what little strength I had left, I loaded up my camp and started my pilgrimage back to Seattle. I had a solid four hour drive home to mull over the many mistakes that amounted to a four hour and seventeen minute 50 mile ride. I determined I made three critical mistakes. The first was my general fitness. I drank too much, ate too much and when I did work out it was not adequate or long enough. The Desert 100 feels like two 50 mile laps of whoops - a long set of evenly spaced “bumps”, usually about a couple feet tall. A skilled rider can attack whoops with the right speed and technique to glide right across each peak of each bump. I had neither the speed nor the technique, and that turned my race into a torturous squat exercise.
The second mistake was a lack of seat time. Living in Seattle, I would drive to the Walker Valley ORV on the weekends to ride, but so much time was eaten up on the commute. Pair that with my poor fitness and I tuckered out quickly, never logging enough miles to seriously prepare me. I was comfortable on the bike, but also relatively new to dirt riding. Moreover, the riding at Walker is mainly steep, technical, and was generally different from desert riding in the D100. The third, and most apparent mistake on this drive home, was that I didn’t fuel my body during the race. I brought no snacks, only water. I spent over four hours burning calories like crazy and didn’t replenish a single one until I was slumped down back at camp with that crummy piece of bread. Failure sure is a great teacher.
The next week I spent nursing some wounds and dominating several high calorie meals to recover from that experience. Eventually I was ready to toggled on my camera and review my footage. I never considered recording the race as an opportunity to show off my amazing dirt bike skills, but rather as an invaluable resource to dissect my ability and general blind spots. This revealed my fourth and most costly mistake. I would summarize my mistake as an inability to pick solid lines through the course. This resulted in getting stuck in bottlenecks, specifically small hill climbs that were bogged down by inexperienced riders. I watched as I never looked far enough ahead and continuously make poor route finding decisions— like taking the wrong Y in a trail that had huge whoops.. If my fitness didn’t make me fail, which it did, my inability to pick a solid line would have. Full stop.
I was thankful for my GoPro® setup chin-mounted with a RAM® Tough-Claw™ Clamp Mount with Action Camera Adapter, and a 360 camera mounted to the handlebars with the same RAM® Mounts hardware. Between these two views, I had a pretty wide perspective of what went wrong. To anyone else this footage is similar to watching paint dry, but to me it was material that needed to be studied, dissected, and learned from.
Despite my slow pace, the footage put me back in the saddle of the dusty chaos of the D100. As I continued to watch I could feel my muscles tensing in line with turns, willing my bike to go faster and faster. I knew I had to race again and reach that finish line.
One Year Later...
It’s January 2023 and I found myself looking at advertisements for this year’s D100. It was time to put those studies to the test. I was at a safe distance from the race and, like any lover of type-2 fun, could only remember the thrills and not so much the spills. I was going to race again, but this time I had a much better idea of what I was getting into and had time to properly prepare myself.
• Physical preparation: I would need to get on my bike as much as possible to gradually build my endurance. I would add strength training to my workout regime, focusing on my legs and arms for all those whoops. I would also do my best at trying to stretch my body out and become more flexible.
• Mental preparation: This sounds silly, but I’ve read numerous studies that visualizing yourself crossing the finish line can really change your outlook when it comes to actually competing. That the mind over matter outlook can do a lot. I forced myself to practice for long periods of time and worked to shift my focus from fatigue to simply breathing. Moments of high stress can lead to silly mistakes, my goal was to keep calm and rely on my race plan. There is a whole sub list of items here, but knowing what you’re getting into and having a plan for the beginning, middle, and end of the race would help me successfully finish.
• Nutrition and hydration: I planned to eat well prior to the race, drink plenty of water, and be sure to pack plenty of high-calorie snacks. As I learned, for a race this long your body burns a ton of calories and I would need to keep up a reasonable input to match my output.
• Gear preparation: I had to make sure my bike was up to snuff. Another one of my big shortcomings last year was that my bike had an aggressive power band that was difficult to control as a new dirt rider.
I decided that the first step in my preparation was to sell my motocross motorcycle and buy something with a more linier powerband. I settled on a 2003 KDX200 from Kawasaki. In my extensive research, this bike has been hailed as an absolute goat that newcomers and veterans agree is a fabulous bike … primarily for woods riding. Obviously riding in the D100 is far different than woods riding, but the linier power band and general praise for this green machine made a compelling case to upgrade my ride. It also just so happened that there was one for sale not too far from me. The price was right and my bike woes got sorted.
In the last year I moved from Seattle proper to Bremerton, WA and was now only a 30 min drive from the Tahuya ORV park. Between my new ride and close proximity to Tahuya, I spent evenings and weekends leading up to the D100 logging miles and building stamina. I was still tired at the end of each ride, but I could feel my strength increasing and knew I had more miles in my personal tank. I was eating healthy and cut alcohol for a full month leading up to the race.
As an unexpected perk, I dropped 10 pounds in the first week—nobody ever complains about a lighter ride.
In Over My Head
By the time the big weekend arrived I was confident that I had prepared as much as I could. That feeling didn’t last long as i drove out to Odessa, WA and saw the pilgrimage of geared-up trucks carting dirt bikes. I’ve always felt like a bit of an outsider to dirt riding, being introduced to it so late by growing up in a big city with no immediate family who rides. Moving from street bikes, to dual-sports, and eventually dirt bikes was an understandable progression, but the world of dirt riding can be intimidating—let alone a race like the D100. While I love throwing myself in the deep end and exploring new hobbies, an ugly side effect is that doubt has a way of worming its way into those experiences. Doubled down with my previous year’s experience and seeing car after car drive by with brand new KTMs while I carted my 20 year old dinosaur behind my Toyota Prius, my doubts began to take root.
Rolling into camp was quite a sight, a literal city pops up in the desert. Some are here to party, most everyone is here to ride, and the hardcore are gearing up to race on Sunday. My partner Sarah and I eventually found our camp group, got situated and started talking shop about the weekend's events. Saturday’s Poker Run was an event for anyone and everyone to enjoy some time on a dirt bike. The casual ride consists of a ~30 mile meandering course that featured five checkpoints and at each checkpoint you would draw a random card. By the end of the Poker Run you have a complete hand & the best hand wins! It’s not so much a race as an excuse to get in the dirt. I rode 30 something miles that day and by the time I rolled into camp I was pretty beat. While it was fun and the perfect opportunity to preview some of the course I would be riding tomorrow, t that shred of doubt I had on the drive up had ballooned into a serious concern. I was dog tired… after ~30 miles. Ok ok. Eat a good meal, visualize the finish line, and get some solid sleep.
The Day of Redemption
After a rough night of sleep and an early morning, the pre-race prep felt hectic. Gear on, bike in check. Coffee, two eggs, and bacon for breakfast. Hydration pack filled. Snacks stored. Fuel and halfway snacks passed off to the pit crew. Batteries charged and loaded into my new Insta360 X3 camera. Chin mount sorted with my RAM® Tough-Claw™ setup. Checkpoint stickers attached to my bike and helmet. Do I have everything? Ok, lets go.
I threw my leg over the bike and winced when I could still feel the miles from yesterday. Our group rode to the safety meeting together and the square swelled with riders anxiously waiting to be led out to the start line. After a thorough review of the race rules, Tom McIntosh, the D100 chairman, passes the megaphone off to a rider to sing the national anthem. This moment is profound for a couple of reasons. The first being that the weekend is defined by noise—from parties to the near constant brap of motorcycles rushing around camp, you really can't escape the constant cacophony. But the pause in all this noise during the national anthem, a beautiful song on its own, is equal parts eerie and divine. As the final line of the song rang out, the silence was ripped apart by 1000+ motorcycles starting their engines and revving with applause.
The air immediately became thick with exhaust and the procession to the start line had started. Bikes began posturing for position to get in the lineup first. The race before the race. I cut way far left and went around a bulge of motorcycles and passed even more along the shoulder of the road. By the time my bike was lined up on the start line I must have been in the first 100 or so bikes. Now it was just time to wait. More and more motorcycles trickled into the start line and added to the rolling dominos of bikes that snaked east.
The start of this race is a big reason why it’s so famous. Not only are there so many racers starting at once, but it’s a Le Mans style start where you have to run to your motorcycles, get on and go. Positioning in this lineup is important because with so many racers, the holeshot (or first turn), has a favored end on this start line. Last year, riders that lined up first were favored, but they reversed the starting line and now that favored spot was a bit further down the line. So much for my race plan.
BOOOOOM! My realization was interrupted by a cannon blast, the starting gun for the D100. In that moment all 1000 riders, including myself, awkwardly shuffled to their bikes. Running with all your gear on probably looked as ridiculous as it felt. Between the knee braces and moto pants that are stitched with a distinct bend in the knee, it really feels unnatural. Some riders were mismatched in line and had to cross others to get to their bike (a mistake I made last year). Others tripped before even reaching their bike. I did neither, hopped on my bike, ripped the kickstart and ratcheted the neck of my throttle. I was off! I blazed through sagebrush since there was no time to avoid it, sending the greenery and aroma airborne. Some of these bushes were huge and in the corner of my eye I could see a couple bikes get wrapped & leave their riders on the ground.
I secured a decent position but before I knew it, I was at the first bottleneck. It’s a simple hill climb but when 1000 people are trying to be the first to the top, chaos ensues. I pushed hard left, clinging to the hillside and managed to skirt the first of many obstacles. This was part of my plan—avoid bottlenecks at all cost!
The miles clicked by and while I was maintaining speed, l found myself being passed by faster riders. I knew I had to ride at my own pace and find my own line, but I also tried my best to stay out of the way when I heard a faster bike behind me. I had to remind myself to take a drink of water and each sip from my electrolyte infused CamelBak provided an immediate boost of energy that translated into more efficient riding. I had planned to deliberately take a break at mile 25 to eat, but I started to worry I was going too slow.
At mile 14 I had a bit of a spill that completely halted my progress (see image above). A technical ledge where another rider had fallen forced me to make an abrupt turn in the middle of this maneuver, putting me over my handlebars. I landed on my shoulder, with a bit of a deep crunch you might hear at a chiropractor. Dazed but ok, I picked up my bike from a plume of dust and began to kick it to life despite flooding the engine. Between the fall, the kicking, and the adrenalin, I was pretty put out by the time I got moving again. But that was also a part of the plan—keep moving, keep making progress.
The last 10 miles before the end of my first lap felt tense. I knew I was close, but rounding each bend continued to reveal more twists and turns through the sagebrush. Am I moving fast enough? Am I going to be able to start a second lap? And then, like magic, the pit area appeared. The midway pit area is a long line of friends, family and support crews. Most people have some unique flag or some way to identify themselves out of the crowd. You can’t turn around on the race course so if you pass your pit stop you have to dismount your bike and run back to meet your pit crew. Luckily I was able to find my crew without issue and everyone else in the riding group had already rode through 20 minutes prior. Taking a few minutes off the bike was glorious and my pit crew immediately went to work. I had barely regained my footing on the ground before my partner, Sarah, put a snack in my hand, refilled my water, and gave me a huge smile and hug. As I wolfed down my snacks and drowned myself with water, my bike was getting topped up with fuel. Sarah checked in with me, “Are you gonna do another lap? Are you ready?”. I was only in the pit area for five minutes but those precious minutes off the saddle were a huge boost to my mood and my body. I kicked the KDX to life, zipped down the rest of the pit area, and turned back onto the course for the final lap. With fewer people on the course I was making great time and could focus on picking the best line possible.
Mile 75. I was practically there, this was the home stretch. I have been passing and been passed by the same group of riders. There were 4 of us battling for the bottom slots of the D100. As much as I wanted to ride as aggressively as possible, my body was getting really tired and my knees were starting to scream. Clean lines clean lines. Sit when you can. Stand when you must. Passing through the last checkpoint the volunteers yelled for us to push on.
10 miles left and I was getting a serious shot of adrenalin. The turns began to look familiar, and I could almost taste the finish line. I’m gonna finish. Wait… Is that snow!?! My goggles fogged up a bit but I was too much in the zone to really pay it much attention. These last 10 miles were the fastest I have ridden in the race. With the pressure from those other 4 riders behind me, I pushed myself harder and harder to get an edge. Leaning just right during turns and looking far enough ahead to anticipate decent lines. I reached the pit section and could see the finish. Screaming down the final stretch, I passed two more people. As I rode onto the finishers platform to get my rider number logged, I heard the race officials yell out, “Finisher. Two laps'' followed by an echo from a desk nearby as they entered it into their records. I rode down and picked up the real prize, the coveted “finishers” tee shirt. I did it.
I look around the square, through the snow, and try to find my former self from last year. It doesn’t take me long to find them, slumped down against fences and cars, destroyed from 50 miles of rough desert riding, sporting a token DNF medal around their neck and a glazed over look. As I consider going over to them and sharing a word or two of wisdom from my journey, I watch them slowly get up and a new look of determination shines through. Don’t fret, next year you got this!
The End of an Era
Looking back at the process, I had come full circle after this race. I started off as a naive rider who was crushed into the dust of the Desert 100. I picked myself up and learned from my mistakes thanks to the footage my RAM® Mount setup helped capture. I came back the next year, a little bit more confident, and a lot more prepared. I had completed a race where only half the racers see the finish line. It’s statistically a bet I wouldn't make, but I’m glad I did, because it sure feels good to say I finished after so much effort and self-doubt. I’m already looking towards next year, honing my skills to set a new PR in 2024.
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