Kevin Daniels was a climber to the core. For over three decades, the Bishop-based owner and operator of Fixe Hardware USA divided his time between outdoor-industry work and vertical play: alpine, ice, trad, sport, bouldering—he did it all. Then an ACL re-injury sidelined him in 2013, and his doctor suggested he tool around the mountains on a trail bike while recovering. The next day he bought a motorcycle, and the following year he raced over 40 hours through the Mexican desert to his first Baja 1000 Ironman finish. He was hooked. Determined to win the 2017 running of the event—the longest nonstop motorized off-road race in the world—Daniels enlisted the help of Uphill Athlete coach Sam Naney for training. In November 2017 he shot off the starting line in the dark, feeling more physically prepared than ever for the madcap miles ahead.
He didn’t finish, but he had the best race of his life.
-by Uphill Athlete Kevin Daniels
I’ve pushed for 60 hours in the mountains and speed-climbed El Cap and tackled 40-hour A5 routes—I’m a good endurance athlete but motorcycle racing is the most overall demanding sport I’ve ever done. There’s nothing like standing up on the pegs, your weight on the balls of your feet, knees squeezing the gas tank, your head almost over the handlebars. There’s a tremendous amount of core strength and body tension involved, like with climbing. Everything is engaged when you’re riding the bike properly, from your feet to your hands. There’s a balance point where you don’t have to grip the handlebars too tightly, but there’s nothing restful about it.
For 35 years climbing was what I did, and I took it as far as I could. I reached a point where I wanted to explore something new that had a big learning curve—something I didn’t know anything about, involving totally different types of people. For about five years now, motorcycle racing has been that thing. It’s a huge financial commitment—I don’t have any sponsors, but I also don’t have kids and I’m not married—and I’m not that good. But five years ago I really wasn’t that good. It’s been fun to see progression.
This year I made it my goal to win the Baja 1000. It would be the 50th anniversary of the event, drawing a lot of good racers, and I wanted to give myself the best opportunity possible to do as well as I could. I don’t do anything half-assed, so I decided to get serious about training.
I reached out to Uphill Athlete about five months before the race, and I started working with Uphill Athlete coach Sam Naney on a daily basis. We started with two months of base training, which was new to me. Right from the get-go it was clear I’d always been training above my metabolic threshold. It was a fun challenge to ride my bicycle for 6-plus hours around Bishop at almost no effort, listening to music until I was as bored as can be. We interspersed the large volume of low-intensity mountain and road biking with heavy lifting days: low repetition, heavy weight, not quite max effort, but close to it. Then we moved into a strength phase where I incorporated the same concepts, but used the rowing machine and did a lot of upper-body strength training.
My taper period spanned the two weeks leading up to my departure for Mexico, and by the time I got down there I felt so strong, like I could bend the handlebars. I spent the next three weeks prerunning the entire course, covering about 1,600 miles between Ensenada and La Paz. You need to know the route inside and out—when to expect the sharp turns, the barbed wire fences, all the stuff that could kill you. Racing is a complete and total crapshoot as it is, so the goal is to be as prepared as possible. During the race there are markers like flags and arrows, but the nationals like to swipe them as trophies. It’s like the Wild West down there.
A lot of the prerunning is also spent planning how my support vehicles will leap-frog down the peninsula, and what they’ll have ready when I roll in. I have a crew of four people—my dad, my girlfriend Sarah, my buddy of 35 years Bill, and my racing partner Sanjay—who drive two vehicles down two-lane Highway 1 for 40 hours straight, super sleep-deprived, trying to stay ahead of me. It’s dangerous for them as well.
Near Ensenada, just a few nights before the race, I hit a big obstacle—literally. Around 1 a.m., while prerunning a section with Sanjay, I slammed into a frickin’ horse. That was legit. Though I downplayed it around my crew, I had a headache for a couple days, and it got to the point where I couldn’t sleep. I knew I had a concussion—I’ve had them before—but I wasn’t nauseous, and things improved by race time.
If you’re going to run into a horse, you’d better be as strong as one!
Horse or no horse, this year my strategy going in was to keep up an output of 80 percent, hopefully finishing in 30 hours. But I’d never started a race at night, and that lack of experience ended up getting me stuck behind a string of guys I’d normally be able to pass.
The first year I raced the 1000, they started us at 5 a.m. This year they got things going at midnight, releasing racers every minute on the minute. By the time I left at 1 a.m., I figured out pretty quickly that I couldn’t pass other racers safely. The terrain is dangerous enough during the day, but at night with all these racers going out close together, there was so much dust that it was like looking into a snowstorm. I would catch guys, but I couldn’t get by, because once I got within 50 feet of them, I was faced with a wall of white, my light bouncing off all the individual particles.
For about 4 hours I was pretty frustrated and doing the best I could, just waiting for daybreak.
I pulled into a pit when the sun finally started to come up, and my team told me I was 55 minutes behind first place and in sixth or seventh position overall. That lit a fire under me. I took off and I rode as hard as I could ride—almost at 95 percent output.
I shot across desert and along the water. I saw the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez. I was on the beach, I was in the mountains, in the trees. I was on riverbeds. I went through villages with 300-year-old churches. Approaching San Felipe at 3 a.m., I encountered spectators lined up shoulder to shoulder for the entire 20 miles into town. There were drunk people and dogs and bonfires and fireworks. It was a surreal scene, almost straight out of an apocalyptic-style Mad Max movie. I watched the sun come up, and then I watched the shadows lengthen and the scenery change as day turned to night again. In every village and community we went through, everyone was out—so friendly and so psyched.
Eighteen hours at that high-output effort brought me to within 15 minutes of the leader. I felt clear, strong, and hyper-focused. I barely had any fatigue—no leg fatigue, no cramping. After so much time and energy spent training, I was having the best race of my life.
Had things been a little different, if I had maybe a couple more hours in the fuel tank, body-wise, I would have been battling for first all the way to the finish line.
Relatively quickly, however—within a 20-minute period, about 24 hours into the race—I started having a hard time holding my line. For this huge chunk of time the bike had been an extension of me; I just looked and the bike went. Suddenly the bike wasn’t responding the way it had been. I thought I had a front flat tire, so I pulled over and checked it, but it wasn’t my bike: it was my upper body—my shoulders, my back, my forearms. I no longer had the strength and stamina to control the handlebars.
The fear kicked in, and I started to slow down and sit on the bike instead of stand. These bikes are designed to be ridden fast, but all my instincts were telling me not to fall, not to crash. And then, as if on cue, I lost control and went down while going about 40 miles per hour. I didn’t get hurt, but it was a wake-up call. The bike with fuel and gear is about 250 pounds, so it takes some work to lift it, but it’s usually not that difficult for me. This time I had to back-squat the thing to get it upright. I was like, Oh shit, we’ve got a problem. That’s when it really registered how fatigued I was.
I rolled into the next pit, where my dad and Bill were, and I ate some food and slept for 20 minutes while they changed the front tire and did some other work on the bike. It would be 60 miles to my second support vehicle, then another 180 miles to the finish. I got up from the nap and took off.
Over those next 60 miles, nothing improved. Nighttime fog reduced the visibility to 50 feet, and I continued to ride slowly and tentatively. Then the first of the big trucks caught up to me (the motorcycles start 8 to 10 hours ahead of the four-wheel vehicles), and I felt even more exposed. If I were to crash in the race course, there’d be no way for the trucks to know I was there. A lot of racers have been hit and killed that way; I’ve had quite a few of my friends die racing in Baja, and during one of the races a couple years ago I actually saw two guys die. I gravitate toward things that make me uncomfortable and scare me, and I function really well under pressure, but at that point it was getting too scary.
I came into the next pit in a distant third, having lost all the ground I’d made up. I’m not one to quit, but I had to be honest with myself: I couldn’t control the motorcycle safely, and there was a really good chance I was going to get hurt. I’ve been hurt many times—I’ve had 17 surgeries—so not getting hurt is pretty high on my priority list at this point. I’d had a strong race, but I wasn’t going to win. It was time to tap out.
We loaded the bike into the truck and headed south to the finish in La Paz, bypassing the final 180 miles of the course.
Despite hitting that physical wall, I couldn’t believe how well I’d performed. Sam and I will make some changes to the training—move the taper to the prerunning phase, when I’m already down in Mexico, and work more on my upper body—but I had an amazingly fun time with it. That is the most exciting part for me: to see how I could improve. It’s incredible at the age of 49 to glimpse so much potential. It’s like I’ve figured out another piece of the puzzle.
Next year I’ll be back in Baja, and with Coach Naney’s help, I’ll be fitter than I’ve ever been.