They agreed that they’d never do it again. And for 6 years, they didn’t go back. The race, the inaugural Baja Ultra Endurance 100K, was a special kind of torment. There was the heat. There was the climbing. There was the incredible length. There was the dearth of anything resembling single-track. There were a lot of reasons why Andrew and Dave were happy with their decision for so long.
But time has a funny way of coloring past race experiences. A fun race on a nice course with easy travel and pleasant weather sounds great—and it is great—while you’re there enjoying it. But this is not memorable. This is not adventure. Strangely enough, in the last few years, I’ve come to realize that many of my favorite memories are of my most difficult days. Memories loaded with discomfort, mechanical problems, biblical weather, and especially fear. It’s rewarding using one’s wits to overcome adversity, and persevering in the face of the nearly overwhelming.
I think it’s Rally racing that has really crystallized this appreciation for adventure in me. Sure, the few races that I’ve surprised myself or someone else with my speed in a perfectly running car are fun, but the races that make me smile in hindsight involve stages run on flat tires or through impossible mud. Getting an hour long project done in a 15 minute service with none of the right tools for the job. Facing fears corner after corner as you put your car and your life in the hands of your partner in adventure—the co-driver next to you.
When I was 16, with a new license and an old Volvo, it seemed adventure was around every corner. Now that I’ve been around the block a few times, it’s a rare treat that I am breaking new ground and out of my comfort zone. So I jumped at the chance a few weeks ago when Andrew sent me an e-mail inviting/cajoling me into coming to the Baja Ultra. He said the course would suck and it would be as hot as hell. Outside of that, he made no promises other than Adventure. “It’s Mexico!” he said. “Who knows what’s gonna happen!” I bought a flight to LAX.
Andrew and Diamond Dave picked me up in DD’s single cab Toyota midday on Friday and we made our way across the border. None of us had been South in six years, for whatever reason, but we all love Baja California and we exchanged tales of our travels on the long drive down the coast to Ensenada.
It’s an interesting drive south from Tijuana. At irregular intervals along the coast, huge resort hotels are in suspended animation. It takes a while for construction to happen in Mexico, so a lot of these buildings were half done when the real estate crisis up North erased all of the equity that Americans were investing. The result is a coastline dotted with 12 story structures without windows, massive steel skeletons rusting in the salty air, and sometimes sprawling resorts that are completely finished and occupied at one end, and slowly disintegrate to nothing but foundations and rusty rebar as you drive by on Hwy 1.
Upon our arrival in Ensenada, the host hotel, the Punta Morros, greeted us with a Corona Extra inflatable finish line arch and an expansive room overlooking the pool and the Pacific. Nice digs! After a short battle with tires and sealant and a long dinner at the fancy hotel restaurant, we were ready for bed, anticipating an early wake-up and a long, and likely painful day.
The 7:30am start was surprisingly misty and cool. The neutral roll-out behind a pickup truck wound us along dirt roads through Mexican Suburbia. When we reached the foothills, the race was on! There was a $250usd prime for the first person to the top of the first hill (4km into the race) and another $250 for the biggest climb of the race at 24km. In light of my decision to ride an Anthem X 29er full suspension bike, and in deference to the length of the race, and in acknowledgment of these Spanish speakers’ whippet like physiques, I decided to ride my own race and play tortoise to their hare.
And so it went for most of the day. A group of 5 wiry hardtail riders would ride away on the climbs and I’d ride back to them on the flats and descents. It was preferable to be behind the lead group anyway, as the course was loosely marked and it was best to have tracks to follow, or to have several sets of eyes looking for the trail with you. It was very much like a Hash run, but with bikes. And it was an adventure!
The group was racing bar to bar through construction sites, down ally ways and through empty lots. In the hills we raced through areas of Campesinos living with only horses as transportation. We rode dry river beds and opened barbed-wire gates. And there were trails! Some of them even felt like bike trails, though most were only trodden-in by horses, goats, or bike-less people on foot.
Tinker Juarez flatted out of the group at 60k and then there were four of us at the front. There were feed zones, but only if you had someone to feed you (oh how the tables can turn!). I resorted to hopping off my bike in one zone to recover a half-bottle of liquid that one of the Mexicans had discarded. Don’t know what it was, but it was delicious!
With 5 miles to go, it was down to a really fit guy from Mexico City and I. By that point, the hare had become tired from his repeated feats of strength in the hills, and the tortoise knew that measured efforts and cunning learnt from past adventures would deliver him to the line first. I rode away from the hard-tailed Spanish-speaker on the final descent and was the first to the beachside finish line/interview box. I spoke in Spanglish about the strength of my opponents on the climbs. They then spoke in Spanish. I couldn’t make it all out, but I did pick up “Gringo”, “Lunatica”, and “Descenso”. I think they were impressed with the Anthem’s handling.
Diamond Dave and Andrew rolled in quicker than I’d suspected. I’d barely had time to shake some hands, have a shower and a massage when they rolled up. And they didn’t look half bad! The weather remained overcast and course conditions were nearly perfect. Neither of them had gotten lost (for long, anyway) or had any mechanical problems. It was—dare I say—pleasant! Sure, we were all tired from four or five hours of effort, but hunger and fatigue were quickly quelled by hot tacos and cold beers at the water’s edge.
The next morning, we were back in the pickup headed up the coast towards our own beds, breakfast cereal, safer roads, better trails, and easy living north of the border. We’d enjoyed ourselves thoroughly in Mexico though, so we weren’t exactly kissing the ground once stateside.
Andrew, Dave and I headed south seeking adventure. We definitely found a little, but mostly we just had an awesome weekend. Was the weekend adventurous enough to leave a lasting impression? Only time will tell.
Happy Trails to you,
Giant Factory Off-Road Team