SEQUATCHIE, Tenn. — Katie "Goon" Carder and Jackie "Mayhem" Townsend were standing in the woods on Saturday afternoon debating the virtues of two-stroke bike engines when a dirt bike sped by and sprayed them with fragments of the forest floor torn up by its back wheel.
The pair cheered, as did the dozens of other dirt bike enthusiasts scattered around the hairpin turn known as "Up Hill Swamp," one of six skill areas tackled by bikers in the Kenda Tennessee Knockout Extreme Enduro Race.
"I love the smell of the dirt. The smell of the gas. Everything," Townsend said with an enormous grin plastered across her face.
For bikers like Townsend and Carder, the TKO race — in its seventh year — is one of the most entertaining events of the year, partly because of how brutal it is for the racers.
The two-day challenge has brought more than 200 bikers from around the world and recently was listed on DirtBikes.com as one of the 10 most extreme enduro challenges in the world — the only American race to make the cut.
"Sometimes people who don't ride dirt bikes don't realize how hard it is," Carder said. "These enduro guys are just the toughest people. They're crazy."
The race is organized with a knockout format that pits competitors against each other and a grueling 23-mile off-road course designed to beat even the most seasoned riders. Riders have to weave around trees, boulders and roots blocking the path, all while contending with the heat and humidity of a Tennessee August.
Of the 200 riders who started Saturday morning only the 125 fastest advanced to the next round, which started just a few hours later. The top 30 from that round will compete against professionals in today's three races.
The spectating spot chosen by Carder and Townsend marked the halfway mark in Saturday's second race, and from where they stood next to the yellow tape, they could have touched the passing racers.
Dirt-bikers themselves, the pair know how hard the hobby can be on those who try their hand at it. Townsend said she broke her leg a few years ago.
"I was trying to learn how to brake-slide into a berm and I didn't do it right, so I went over," she said.
"I was lying on my back and I saw blue sky. Then I saw everybody's faces saying, 'Are you okay?' Then I said I think I'm going to vomit and I saw blue sky again because everybody backed up," she laughed.
› What: Kenda Tennessee Knockout Extreme Enduro Race
› Where: Trials Training Center, 300 Woodland Road, Sequatchie, Tenn.
› When: Today, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. CDT
› For more information: 423-942-8688
With one 23-mile race under their belts and half of another race left, the expressions on the competitors who passed showed little but outright exhaustion. One young rider simply stopped in front of the watchers at the foot of a hill, looked up at the climb and shook his head before revving the engine again.
"I would love to see what they just came through," Townsend said. "You can see it in their faces — some of them are just dead."
As if the physical toll on the racers weren't enough, the track savages bikes, sometimes crippling them in the middle of the race. A professional, Wade Young from South Africa, finished second last year but had to stop mid-race to replace a broken clutch lever.
"It's hard on the bike. I know that one's going to need some help. It's hot and probably out of antifreeze and the clutch is probably fried," Zach Stuckey said while pointing to his bike after competing on Saturday.
"It's tough on the bike, it's tough on us. This is one of the hardest races I've ever done."
Stuckey advanced into the second round despite having to fix a chain that popped off his bike in the first round. But he said the extraordinary difficulties faced by competitors, lost chains and all, are what bring them back every year.
"When you make it through one of the really hard parts where you've just pushed for half a mile through rocks that are the size of my head and all of the sudden it opens up, it's really fun," he said.
For the spectators who don't have to grind through dozens of miles of rough terrain in the August heat, it may be a little more fun. Carder and Townsend whooped and yelled as a friend they ride with carved through the turn in front of them, showering the small crowd with dirt.
"We call that 'getting roostered,'" Carder said.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at email@example.com or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.