ENSENADA, Mexico — As a previous winner, Altoona native Jeff Benrud understood the grueling challenge ahead when he revved his engine at the start of this year’s Baja 1000 — the world’s longest continuous off-road race.
As one of 20 entrants in the prestigious ironman class, his mission was to ride solo on a 2022 Honda 450X dirt bike for 828 miles across the rugged terrain of Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
Benrud’s goal was simple: He wanted to win.
To do that, he hoped to complete the course in less than 24 hours. That meant no sleep and no meal breaks for a full rotation of the Earth.
The Baja 1000 is the flagship event of SCORE International, a sanctioning body in off-road desert racing. The race has divisions for trophy trucks, cars, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles, all of which compete at the same time on the same course – one that traverses rocky desert, steep mountains, sandy beaches and even an infamously difficult stretch known as the “Goat Trail” as it zig-zags from coast to coast on the Baja Peninsula.
While the route changes every year, one thing remains the same: “It’s basically the worst roads in the world,” Benrud said.
To make matters worse, competitors occasionally must dodge farm animals, local vehicles and booby traps set by residents hoping to go viral on social media with videos of sensational crashes.
The 55th annual edition of the race kicked off at 3 a.m. last Friday in Ensenada, a Pacific Ocean port city about 90 miles south of San Diego, California, that treats the Baja 1000 like a massive street party.
Though the challenge was daunting, Benrud is no stranger to difficult missions.
He is a highly decorated retired sergeant major who served for 25 years after enlisting in the U.S. Army upon graduation from Altoona High School in 1988.
His 15 years as a special operations soldier included 700 combat missions and 13 deployments to Iraq and two to Afghanistan in support of the war on terrorism. He retired with eight Bronze Stars, including three with valor; a Purple Heart; and many other awards and citations.
As he approached the starting line last weekend, Benrud’s confidence also was bolstered by the knowledge that he had completed the Baja 1000 three times in the ironman class, winning the 50th anniversary event in 2017 and crossing the finish line first in 2015 and 2016 only to learn that penalties deprived him of those titles. He also competed as part of motorcycle teams in 2013 and 2014.
But when Benrud made his way to Ensenada this fall it had been five years since his last attempt at the extreme endurance test. At 53, he was the second-oldest competitor in the field.
Bumps in the road
Unfortunately for Benrud, his best-laid plans first went astray around the 150-mile mark when he crashed after hitting some large rocks on the course. Despite enduring a blow to the head and a painful leg bruise, Benrud persevered, climbing back onto his motorcycle and continuing the race.
“I hit my head and was seeing stars, but no one’s going to help you out there,” Benrud said. “You just have to pick it up and keep moving.”
Shortly thereafter he suffered a series of nasty spine spikes — what he described as lightning bolts of pain from his butt all the way up his spine to his neck — from hitting grapefruit-size rocks hidden in sand at high speed.
Benrud reported one bump being so big that his legs bounced all the way off the bike, leaving his hands gripping the handlebars as his only remaining connection to the bike as he zipped along the course at 70 mph. He credited his “guardian angel” with pulling his body back on his seat.
An extra hurdle this time around were the unusually chilly temperatures competitors had to endure at night and at high altitudes. Thermometer readings during the race ranged from a low of 22 degrees to a high of around 70.
“In the evening it started getting really cold,” Benrud said. “I felt like I was starting to get hypothermia and I really couldn’t feel my hands.”
Benrud said he knew it must be below freezing because he was swallowing slush when he sucked on the hose of his backpack canteen.
Not meant to be
As Benrud continued to suffer from an unusual number of crashes — he estimated spilling 12 times this year compared with his average of two in past Baja 1000 races — his support team came to the painful realization that this wasn’t going to be Benrud’s year.
At times, chase team leader Geno Mamone said, Benrud’s transponder indicated he was only going 3 or 4 mph.
“I think he was trying to focus again, but we knew he was not himself anymore,” said Mamone, a friend from North Carolina. “After getting his head beaten, he was no longer able to make good decisions. We were worried about his health.”
Though most of the course runs through desolate wilderness, the route occasionally crosses hard-pavement roads, and it’s at those spots where chase teams and support crews cross paths with racers to fix equipment, change tires, provide status updates and supply food, water and fuel.
Benrud’s nine-member support team included his father, retired real estate broker Michael Benrud of Eau Claire, along with friends and family from the Chippewa Valley and his adopted home state of North Carolina.
“It’s the first race ever that he didn’t finish, but it just could have ended very terribly,” Michael Benrud said. “I told him immediately how proud I always am of him and that he did a great job but just had some bad luck.”
When the team intercepted Jeff Benrud and urged him to drop out, he didn’t put up a fight and joined the 60% of ironman riders who didn’t finish the race.
“I definitely wasn’t running on all cylinders. After I first contemplated pulling out, I crashed three or four more times,” Benrud said, noting that the right decision became clear when he was nearly run over by a trophy truck while lying in some weeds after one of those spills.
“We all came to a consensus,” Benrud said. “The guys were thinking it before I was.”
Benrud dropped out of the race at mile 680 — not long after he had been running in second place — after riding for roughly 24 hours straight.
“Baja kicked my butt this year. For that I am sorry,” Benrud said in a post to his followers on Instagram.
No apologies are necessary, said support team members, who continue to be in awe of the punishment Benrud is able to withstand.
“I think he’s a nut job,” joked Benrud’s lifelong friend and former youth wrestling buddy Jimmy Berg of Altoona.
Berg, who was in Mexico to witness Benrud’s triumph in 2017 and returned this year to help out again, said Benrud has always been an adrenaline junkie who liked to push things to the limit.
When Benrud suffered the bad crash early in last weekend’s race, team members did what they could to determine if he was fit to continue riding.
“We tried checking his eyes to see if he was OK because he’s so tough that he probably wouldn’t tell you if he wasn’t,” Berg said.
Chasing someone you care about across the Mexican landscape in the dark is exhilarating but also stressful, Berg acknowledged.
“I worry about him,” Berg said. “Sometimes the transponder doesn’t work or we don’t have cell service or internet and we don’t know where he is or how he’s doing. The last thing we want is for him to take a spill somewhere at 2 in the morning and then we not be able to find him.”
Despite the disappointment of seeing Benrud fall short of his goal, Berg added, “Part of me was happy that he got off the bike because then we all knew he was safe.”
Berg remains impressed with Benrud and his toughness.
“I’m extremely proud of him,” Berg said. “For him to keep doing what he’s doing now, it’s pretty special. There’s a reason that not a lot of people do this.”
Support team member and Army special operations veteran Danny Carver of North Carolina said events such as the Baja 1000 undoubtedly take a toll on participants’ bodies but perhaps are even more demanding mentally.
“The thing that impresses me most about these guys is their ability to stay focused that long,” Carver said. “If you zone out for one second, you’re down”
Reached by phone the day after the race, Benrud described himself as “a little sore, a little foggy and extremely disappointed.”
Still, he expects the bright purple bruises to fade, the blisters covering his hands to heal, the brain fog to clear and his three doomed fingernails to grow back — eventually.
Despite the aches, pains and risks, Benrud vows to get back on his bike and continue motorcycle racing in the southeastern United States.
As for returning to the Baja 1000 next year, he hasn’t ruled it out, although Michael Benrud already has informed his son that he won’t take part in another chase team.
“It’s too early to decide,” Jeff Benrud said.
This is not a man who likes to give up, despite persistent pleas from family members who fear for his short-term safety and long-term health.
Asked why he continues to put his body through such an excruciating and risky ordeal, Benrud compared the Baja 1000 for motorcycle racers to Mount Everest for mountain climbers. Both are considered the ultimate challenge in their sport.
“There’s definitely a draw,” he said. “It’s there, I’m kind of good at it and I can suffer pretty well.”