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Athens Milk Run Enduro thrills, challenges dirt bike fanatics

Enduros offer adventure, friendship, tough trails and opportunities to triumph. Entering one might just be the best 50 bucks you’ll ever spend.

By James Holter

When Coach, my fellow Row 30 rider and colleague, asked me Monday morning if spending nine minutes helping him at the Ohio State Enduro Championship cost me first place, I answered appropriately.

“I would have won States, Coach!”

I was joking. That lost time made no difference. Ralph Withem, the guy who did win my class (Vintage) beat me by well more than all the minutes my charity, lack of planning and absent-mindedness spotted him.

Display of past Milk Run winners
The Milk Run started in 1946. A shrine in the Athens Motorcycle Club clubhouse lists all the overall winners.

Coach and I were riding the 2019 Milk Run, which the Athens Motorcycle Club (one of the oldest AMA-chartered clubs) started in 1946. The Milk Run enduro is steeped in history, having been won by off-road racing legends such as Terry Cunningham, Mike Melton, Mark Hyde, Wally Wilson and John Penton. Even though the Milk Run isn’t on the AMA National Enduro Championship schedule, winning it means something, and it pulls national-caliber riders. Recent champs have included Russell Bobbitt, Zach Klamfoth and Robbie Jenks.

The Milk Run is a throwback hard-core, traditional southern Ohio enduro, which means timekeeping, hills, roots, ruts, mud, rocks, clay, surprises, memories and all the adventure your bloody knuckles, cramped thighs, pumped-up forearms, shredded jersey, soaked feet, bruised shoulders and swearing mouth can handle.

And that is why myself and co-workers Mike Jolly and Erek Kudla thought this would be a great first motorcycle race for Coach.

If that was the right call is Coach’s story to tell, but for me the 2019 Milk Run delivered. It was a reminder that composure, encouragement and mindset matter—a lot.

The enduro started behind the AMC clubhouse, where inside is a shrine recording for posterity every rider who has won the Milk Run since 1946. Another name would be added to those placards that day—probably someone whose parents weren’t born when the Milk Run began. Even this year’s ceremonial starter Bud Green, 1966 winner, was a baby when Harry Stites finished with the lowest score seven decades ago. If a pack of mad dirt bikers—masochistic enough to follow AMC President Kevin Brown’s arrows through the woods—could ever feel awe and reverence, it should be now.

Coach (30+ C class) and Erek (30+ A) on their KTMs, and Michael (30+ A) and me (Vintage) on our Yamahas were row 30. When our minute came up, Michael led the way, followed by Erek, Coach and then me on my 1979 IT250.

That would be the last time I would see Erek and Michael before the finish, and about a mile later would be the last time I saw Coach before our Monday morning conversation.

After Coach’s ride ended and he wished me luck, I enjoyed the rest of the first section. It was a good intro, just hard enough to make the point this wasn’t a laid-back dual sport ride. There was sidehill singletrack, tight trees, sharp turns, hillclimbs and plenty of mud despite a week of dry weather leading up to the race.

My IT250 managed well as long as I managed my expectations. Second and third gear lugged nicely, with lots of torque waiting higher in the RPM range. The old-school handling was slow but predictable. The clutch was stiff. The brakes sort of braked. It did one thing better than a modern bike: The seat was thick and comfortable.

Racer on vintage IT250
The author, waiting for his minute to come up to start the 2019 Milk Run. (Photo credit: Wild Bill Collins)

Following more singletrack and an emergency check, the next section started off rocky and got a little rockier before it smoothed out. It was a little tighter and seemed a fair bit longer than the previous sections, but I couldn’t tell for sure because my odometer was broken.

By now, I felt in rhythm with the IT. With my weight forward, finger on the clutch and in third gear, I could transition nicely through the trees. I was confident. My initial goal was to finish with a time that would have placed me in the middle of a the B class. I now thought I might catch up to my row on the transfer sections and – just maybe – finish the 2019 Milk Run without houring out on my 40-year-old dirt bike.

The Milk Run, though, had other ideas.

I crossed a creek into an opening, and that 40-year-old dirt bike coughed to a stop.

It was a little over 40 miles on the route sheet, probably 38ish with resets, and the IT was out of gas.

I wasn’t disappointed. I was incredibly lucky, running out of fuel in sight of a dirt road. If I had run out of gas 100 yards earlier, my day would have just become a lot more complicated.

I started pushing, and then I heard a voice.

“Do you need help?” It was a girl, maybe 14, next to an EZ-Up with coolers of water for the riders.

“Out of gas,” I said.

“What kind?” she wanted to know.

“Two-stroke,” I answered, while thinking that this kid might actually score me some fuel.

She turned around. “Grandpa, do we have any two-stroke gas?”

“Sure do,” Grandpa said, and he disappeared into a barn.

I thanked the girl and took a water. Grandpa came back with two plastic milk jugs of fuel.

“It’s beanoil mix,” he said. “I hope you can use it.”

Man installing dirt bike air filter
Erek realized he told Coach to install his air filter upside down and is fixing it. Coach can’t wait to start his Milk Run adventure.

“As long as it will burn,” I said.

Grandpa admired my IT, and we chatted briefly about riding. I apologized for not having any money to pay him for the gas, but he insisted he wouldn’t have taken it. I could tell that being able to bail out a fellow biker was payment enough.

I found out later that “Grandpa” was Vern Chadwell, brother of Brent, an AMC club member, and grandfather to a fast kid named Tyler. I’m told the Chadwell family provided a significant amount of land for the Milk Run and the event probably couldn’t happen without their generous support.

“You know what?” Vern asked through a handlebar-wide grin as I capped his jug and handed it back. “The gas stop is just up the road, and you didn’t miss any checks. You’re still in the game!”

With Vern’s miracle bean oil sloshing in the tank of my IT, I certainly was.

I motored into the gas stop, revigorated by Vern’s encouragement. But while making it there offered relief, it was short-lived. I only had a couple gallons of fuel in the can I put on the gas trailer because that’s all I thought I would need. My prior experience riding the IT was mostly the hare scramble at AMA Vintage Motorcycle Days a couple years ago. An enduro is much longer, and I over-guessed how far the IT would go on a tank.

Coach’s fuel was somewhere on the trailer. I knew he wouldn’t mind if I borrowed some, especially since he wouldn’t need it, but I couldn’t find his can. I waited and contemplated how I should spend my three-quarter tank of pre-mix: head straight to the clubhouse or try to bank a couple more checkpoints.

As I waited, Jeremy from Row 4 on a Husqvarna pulled up.

Jeremy had crashed and houred out a check or two earlier. He said he was a bit woozy. Despite that, he was still following the course—a valiant choice if not a bit foolish. But Jeremy said that he had just started riding again, had a goal to finish an enduro and wanted the practice.

He asked me about my bike. I shared some background and admitted I goofed on my fuel.

Jeremy had plenty, and he insisted I top off with his extra.

“It’s 50-to-1 mix,” he said. “Hopefully that works for you.”

Just like Vern’s beanoil, it would burn.

“That’s perfect,” I told him.

Before I left, a guy in a minivan gave me a thumbs up, smiled and laughed—“I had an IT once!” he said.

“Great bikes!” I shouted back.

(Want to bring joy to the world? Do something that reminds adults of nostalgic-filtered memories from decades past. Riding an old dirt bike in a race full of modern machines is one way to accomplish that.)

I followed Jeremy on some road miles. We came to a pit area where chase trucks were waiting for riders. Not having a chase truck, I rode through. There were a lot of riders. I lost Jeremy somewhere. After a few more miles, I noticed I was at Turn 30 when I was expecting Turn 24. Oops. I missed something. I turned around, passed Jeremy going the other way, waved and found the entrance to the next section.

There goes any time I made up, I thought—not to mention any gas cushion I might have had.

Often in enduros, a section will have a characteristic that stands out—a quality that resonates as a descriptor that instantly identifies it to any who rode it. This section, I’ll call the “hill section.”

“Hill sections” are simple. You go down, probably ride through a creek. Go up. And you do that over and over again. The first time up on the IT, there were rocks, roots and a lot of elevation. I knew this would not be the only time I climbed this hill.

The IT makes good power if the engine revolutions are high enough. It pulls nicely and the front end stays planted. However, the suspension does not put power to the ground as predictably as a modern bike. It will pack up, unload and bounce at odd times. It will get hung up on roots and logs if you don’t maintain momentum.

I did my best to maintain my momentum. Just as I predicted, there were more climbs, and I passed a few riders struggling. I was getting lucky on the IT, and some of my confidence was coming back.

Then I came to the biggest hill yet, and I knew it before I even climbed it.

In a woods race, if you come to a wide section just before the trail disappears into some trees or brush, and there are three or more riders sitting on their bikes with their helmets off, one of two things is on the other side: a huge hill or a nasty creek crossing.

I rode up on three or four riders, helmets off. The trail disappeared into some trees. I looked left and right. I looked up. Way up, though a break in the canopy, I saw a sliver of dry dirt. That meant it was a hill. I had half a second to make a choice: stop and assess or maintain my momentum.

I maintained my momentum. I hit the base of the hill in second gear and revved the old IT. Knobbies clawed into clay, and we kept climbing. Riders were bulldogging their bikes on both sides of the trail. I reached dry dirt. I slipped some clutch and lucked into a good line. Momentum was with me. As I topped the hill, I realized there was a crowd watching the carnage. The guy in the minivan at the gas stop was there, cheering me on like it was his old IT that just climbed that hill. I let out a yell and pointed the IT onward.

There were more hills, but no more as big, mostly rocky climbs that were easy if I picked my line well. I did struggle mightily on one, though. It was slick with an odd right hand off-camber halfway up. I reached that halfway point and had to try the hill three times from there before I got to the top. I stopped to rest.

Jeremy, who I passed going the other way on the road before this section, rode up and stopped. He must have turned around after missing this section like I did. Despite having houred out long ago, this guy was serious about “finishing.”

“So you made it up that big hill, huh?” I stated the obvious.

“Sure did! Good luck!” he said before riding off to chase a finish that wouldn’t count.

After Jeremy disappeared into the woods, I fired up the IT (consistently starting on every third kick now) and followed. Between missing the turn before this section and the struggles on this last hill, I had dropped even further behind. I felt I had to start riding faster. I did. I came to the check 52 minutes late.

I was still in the game.

With an easy transfer section and a generous reset, I made back some time. I was only 31 minutes off my row when I checked into the next section.

This one began with a very tight downhill. I had to manhandle the IT around some trees. I was off-balance the whole time, and it took a lot of energy. My legs started to suffer sharp, biting cramps whenever I sat with my feet on the pegs, so I tried not to sit. When I did sit, I dragged my left leg. It felt stupid but offered relief. The cramps got worse. The enduro quickly became a lot harder.

Then, I came to the first of what earned this section its name: the “rut section.”

There was a creek crossing, short as creek crossings go, but there was just one line, and it was very deep. Ground clearance was not a feature the IT had, and its lower frame rails could not have cleared this rut on a dry day. As it was, there was a foot of muck at the bottom of the rut.

I know that because between the rut and the muck, the IT was buried up to its rear fender when I bottomed out and my engine died.

I got off my bike. Stared at it for a minute or two and wondered if this was where I would wait for the chase crew.

Then, up rode Jeremy. Somehow, I got in front of him again. Inexplicably, he was still following Kevin Brown’s arrows through the woods.

Jeremy saw my bike, swore at what he saw, backed up his Husqvarna, looked around and picked a line about 20 feet to the right of the trail that avoided what I didn’t. He followed that line, splashed through a shallow section of the creek and rode out of my sight for the last time.

Why didn’t I see that line?

A dirty dirt bike in a trailer
Post-enduro clean up can be its own adventure

Regardless, I now had to deal with the consequences. I decided that if I did end up waiting here for the chase crew, my bike would either be out of the rut or I would be a muddy mess from trying to get it out.

I lifted out the front wheel, then started on the back. It took several tries, gaining an inch or less each time, but eventually, I had both wheels free. I dragged the IT up the bank, leaned it against a tree and caught my breath.

After a minute or so, I felt fine, put on my helmet and kick started the IT. Three kicks. We were fired up and heading down the trail.

The route rose out into the open and followed the field perimeter before cutting around some brush. There was one line, and a shirtless rider was hunched over in the middle of it. I stopped.

“Dude, are you OK?” I asked. “You’re going to get blasted if you lay in the trail like that.”

He said he was having a heat stroke and that it was hard to breathe.

I coasted around him. What looked like a nicely kitted out YZ450F was laying on its side, facing downhill. I asked if he had any water.

“A little,” he said.

Good, I thought, because so did I.

Having another human to talk to seemed to calm him down a bit. At this point, I might have been the last rider still on the trail, other than the sweep crew (and anyone else stranded).

I told him that I was going to keep riding. He said that was fine with him.

“Just tell them I’m at Mile 76,” he winced, sounding like an extra in a melodramatic war flick.

“Sure thing,” I told him. I then remembered I had an extra Powerbar in my fanny pack. I fished it out and tossed it to him before heading back into the woods.

The trail dropped back down to the creek and came up to another rutted crossing, almost as bad as the one I got stuck in before. This time, there was another rider, probably in his mid-20s, with his helmet off standing next to a hopelessly stuck Husqvarna FE350. Remembering the lesson learned from Jeremy, I paused and looked for an easier line. I saw one, took it but stalled out.

“Give me a hand, and I’ll get you out of that,” I said.

Jarrett was happy to help someone he observed was “crazy enough to ride that old bike in this stuff.” We dragged my IT through the rocks and leaned it against the tree.

Winning racer holding trophy
Cory Buttrick (right) receives the 2019 Athens Milk Run trophy from Athens Motorcycle Club President Kevin Brown.

“Did you pass that guy laying in the trail?” I asked.

“Yeah, and I’ve been listening to him screaming while I’ve been stuck here,” he said.

We wouldn’t be stuck much longer. The FE had electric start. Jarrett pushed the magic button and feathered the clutch while I rotated the front wheel and pulled it out of the rut.

“Let’s stick together and get each other out of here,” I said.

Jarrett nodded and rode off. I jumped on the IT and followed.

I soon rode up to Jarrett stuck again. This crossing had a sharp left-hand turn just before the creek. On the other side, there was a log perpendicular to the creek and parallel to the crossing, requiring an immediate wheelie and pivot to cross the log. There were a couple lines. I took what looked like the shallowest one, closest to the log, but still bottomed out, having hardly any momentum after making that left-hand turn. I shut off the bike.

“If one person tells me this was fun when I get back to the pits, I’m going to punch them,” Jarrett said. “This is my third enduro this year, and the others weren’t nearly this tough.”

That’s the Milk Run, I thought.

“Good thing it wasn’t raining this week,” I said.

We got the Husqvarna out first, then the IT.

With our bikes at a dead stop, we lifted the front wheels over the log, squared up the bikes, then rode the rest of the way over.

From there, it was more trail, field and then fire roads to what would be the last check.

“You guys just houred out,” the check worker told us. He then asked with some hope in his voice, “You must be the last ones on the trail, right?”

I think he was eager to pack up.

“Well, there’s a guy laying in the middle of the trail on Mile 76,” I told him. “Other than that, we probably are.”

“The sweep crew will get him,” he said.

They gave us directions back to the clubhouse.

Second-place finishing plaque
Finishing 10 out of 14 checks was good enough for second place in the Vintage class in the 2019 Athens Milk Run.

It was several miles back. I almost made it, running out of gas again about a mile and a half away.

Jarrett rode back and got me some pre-mix.

I thanked him.

“No problem,” he said. “I wouldn’t have made it out of the woods if not for you.”

While I didn’t finish the 2019 Athens Milk Run on my 1979 Yamaha IT250, as a consolation, the 10 checks I did see were good for second place in the Vintage class. More important, for the small price of a $50 entry fee, I got what every enduro promises to be: an adventure.

And the storied history of the Milk Run rolled on, with pro rider Cory Buttrick adding his name to the placards hanging on the shrine in the AMC clubhouse.

Buttrick, riding a Husqvarna, dropped 10 points, beating out Sherco rider Nick Fahringer’s 12. Fahringer edged out Zach Klamfoth, on a KTM, thanks to the emergency check tiebreakers.

As for Coach, he learned that while finishing a southern Ohio enduro is an admirable goal, just starting one is the first step.

James Holter manages the communications and marketing departments of the AMA.