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Something flashed across Ed Barnowski’s eye, temporarily distracting him as he raced his dirt bike in a motocross event in Emmett, ID. That something turned out to be another dirt bike—with nobody on it.
The rider, who had been in another lane headed in the opposite direction, had fallen off the back of his motorcycle. Now, with nobody controlling it, the bike careened across the hay bales separating the lanes, went over a jump and headed straight for Chief Warrant Officer 4 Barnowski, who was going roughly 30 mph at the time.
He had no time to react.
The rider-less bike smashed into his left side, knocking Barnowski to the ground. When people ran to help him, he warned them not to touch him; he worried that he had a spinal cord injury. After a few tense moments, he was able to move his feet and his hands and realized he was OK.
In that 2013 accident, Barnowski suffered a mild concussion, along with a broken wrist and a black eye. But his spirit emerged without a scratch. The next morning, he used electrical tape to give a temporary “black eye” to the giant picture of himself on the trailer hauling his motorcycle.
“That’s one thing we’ve always been pretty good at, him especially,” says John Kipper, Barnowski’s friend of 40 years, “laughing at things, especially when they’re the worst.”
Despite finishing last in a couple of races due to the wrist injury, he went on to win the over-40 division of the Rocky Mountain Motocross Series for the third straight year and fourth time in five years. (Then 45, he also won the over-45 division.)
Whether in his successful motocross career or his three decades in the Idaho National Guard, Barnowski has learned to enjoy the ride, bumps and all, without ever losing sight of the mission at hand, thanks to a simple mindset.
“I’m never defeated,” he says. “Knock me down, and I’m going to figure out a way to get back up.”
A FIGHT NOT FORGOTTEN
The military and motorcycles have always been in his blood. Barnowski’s dad, Robert, spent 20 years in the Air Force. As a boy growing up in Idaho, Ed started racing in motocross—for the uninitiated, a form of off-road racing held on enclosed circuits littered with dirt trails, hills, sharp turns and often muddy terrain. He developed a no-nonsense racing style: steady and precise, as opposed to being a high-flying show-off. Don’t get him wrong; he loves to soar—some competitors can reach heights up to three stories high. But overdoing jumps can lead to disaster, and he loves winning more. The trophies that are now piled up in his office testify to the wisdom of his measured approach.
Still, that career almost ended before it began. Growing up, Barnowski had asthma so bad that doctors told him he should stop riding dirt bikes. He ate a special diet, took daily shots and had to wear a dust and pollen mask to school.
His asthma attacks were so severe that he spent days at a time in the hospital inside a climate controlled bubble. Meals had to be handed to him through an opening in the side. But Barnowski refused to be told he couldn’t do something. Going against doctors’ wishes, he raced, wearing a mask to keep dirt out of his lungs.
Eventually, like some other children, he outgrew his asthma. Today, he’s virtually symptom free. But he has never forgotten that experience. “I know what it’s like not to be able to breathe,” he says. That memory would come into play later in his career.
In 1985, Barnowski joined the Guard, fresh out of high school. For years, he balanced his motocross pursuits with his military duties. In 2004, though, he put his motocross career on hold when he deployed to Iraq, along with his new bride, Ann, as part of the 145th Support Battalion Transportation Company.
The worst part of the deployment came at the start: a three-day drive from Kuwait to Kirkuk, Iraq, in mid-December. The caravan, which included Ann (who drove a truck that was three behind Ed’s), would be exposed the whole way. Just before the convoy departed, Ann, then a sergeant in the Idaho Army National Guard (who has since left the force), placed their wedding photo on her windshield at her husband’s request.
On and on they drove. The fear of an attack never left them. Bitter wind ripped through them. Some Soldiers wrapped themselves in blankets and sleeping bags. But when the situation was at its worst, Barnowski showed his best. “When we stopped, his first priority was to take care of everybody,” Ann says.
One night in Tikrit during the journey, Ed and his unit leader, Chief Warrant Officer 5 Cliff Burdine, slept on cots outside. They shivered in the cold. “It was easy for a lot of the Soldiers to get down, because they were so beat down and tired,” says Burdine, who’s also a longtime friend. But Barnowski wouldn’t let that happen.
“He was always like, ‘Hey, we got that done, we’ve just got a little further to go, almost there,’ always trying to keep them upbeat. You’d see their eyes light back up again and fill them full of fire and head on down the road again.”
Barnowski was just as cold, miserable and afraid as everybody else. But he wasn’t going to give in to any of that. “One thing I always say—it’s something I live by: It’s about heart and desire,” Barnowski says. “Especially in a situation like that.”
The tension calmed after they arrived in Kirkuk, which is not to say the deployment was easy. They still were in a war, yet Barnowski excelled. As a chief warrant officer 2, he was in charge of 35 Soldiers in a maintenance platoon with oversight of 500 vehicles. One day, the battalion commander asked Barnowski to do the work of a brigade maintenance officer—a CW4-level job.
“It scared the hell out of me at first,” Barnowski says. “But once I got my feet on the ground, it actually turned out pretty good. I was pretty proud of that.”
Barnowski resumed his racing career after he returned from deployment in 2005. In 2009, Project Filter, a tobacco prevention and control program in Idaho, wanted to expand its tobacco-free lifestyle campaign into motocross and hired him to race. He quickly became a passionate spokesperson for the organization, educating the public about the resources available to help them quit smoking.
At first, when Barnowski and Trevor Newby, then the project manager, went to high school appearances together, Newby talked while Barnowski stood alongside the bike—which was always the biggest draw. Soon, Barnowski asked for a chance to speak to the students. He was so good, consistent and reliable that Newby stopped going to appearances, trusting Barnowski to do the job.
“It was like managing a pro [sports] team—let those guys go out there and do their job, shut your mouth, and act like you’re doing something. That’s what I did,” says Newby, who worked with Barnowski for five years and still talks to him regularly. “I had 12 athletes that I managed. He was the LeBron James.”
Today, Barnowski manages the Project Filter motocross program (which has a total of four riders), and he will soon start teaching smoking cessation classes. That’s on top of his full-time job as a surface maintenance mechanic supervisor with the federal government, his work in the Idaho National Guard as a maintenance readiness officer (915A), and his role as a dad to a blended family that includes his two teenage daughters and Ann’s two teenage daughters and 21-year-old son.
This spring, Barnowski spoke at an event in Potlatch, a logging and farming community in northern Idaho. Some farmers there pay their teenage workers with cans of chewing tobacco. After Barnowski’s presentation, a student approached him. He was 16 and had already been chewing for four years. He told Barnowski he wanted to quit.
Interactions like that fuel Barnowski as much as winning trophies. “I do this stuff, and I ask myself, ‘What’s a win?’ ” he says. “If I can help that one kid from that visit up there, that’s a win.”
ONE MORE HILL
As the 2015 motocross season dawned, Barnowski, now 47, appeared poised to continue his run of dominance in Idaho’s amateur motocross over-30 and over-40 divisions. He held sponsorships through Project Filter and Fly Racing, which supplies gear and safety equipment to Barnowski and his Project Filter team-mates. He had the continuing support of leadership at the Idaho National Guard. And he was in great physical shape, able to compete in two divisions at a time when most men his age (and even younger) can manage only one.
But in February, a crash sent him to the ground hard. He climbed back on his 2015 Suzuki RMZ450 and flew over the next jump. But when he landed, his left knee buckled. When that happened again on the next jump, he withdrew from the race.
The ACL in his left knee had snapped. “Not torn,” he says. “Snapped. Gone.”
He figured his season was over. But the doctor told Barnowski many people function without an ACL. Barnowski would need to learn to maintain his balance without the ACL and hit the gym—hard. “I am not one to back down from a challenge,” he says.
He revamped his workout routine to focus on his legs. He also changed the way he races. Consistency on the track long has been his calling card, and now Barnowski concentrates even harder on having good form—keeping his feet on the pegs, in particular.
Barnowski also keeps himself in great shape to maintain a rigorous racing schedule. He rides in two classes, which means he races in four “motos,” the equivalent of heat races, which last about 15 minutes, every race weekend. He spends the entire 60 minutes in the attack position, leaning forward, his whole body tense, navigating twists and turns and soaring over jumps. Unprepared racers burst out of the gate but lag at the end, physically unable to maintain their speed and intensity throughout the length of the moto.
Not Barnowski. He knows the old racing creed—to finish first, you must first finish. Which is easier said than done, considering that competing in motocross is like operating a jackhammer on a roller coaster. His shoulders, back, arms and legs take a beating with each lap, in which speeds slow to a crawl over tight turns and zip to 60 miles per hour on straightaways. The stress on the mind is just as intense. Fast—and precise—decision making is required to avert disaster, second by second. One unexpected bump can throw your bike sideways, requiring you to throw your body into the direction of the move while gripping your bike with your legs and holding the throttle open to have momentum when you land.
Normally, Barnowski prides himself on being a “Top 3” guy, no matter the race. Because of his knee injury, for much of this year he has had to settle for finishing in the middle of the pack. By June, Barnowski started inching up in the points race. He figures a championship is out of reach. But creeping into a top three spot by the time the season ends in September isn’t. He plans to have surgery after that and get right back into training.
Because he always gets back up.
STRENGTH THAT ENDURES
Motocross requires a lean, strong build and tremendous stamina. CW4 Ed Barnowski builds his workouts accordingly. “I let my body drive the frequency [of my workouts],” he says. “Some weeks I work out six days, others only five, depending on how I feel. Three days a week I do two workouts in one day. I do my early morning workout and then at mid-morning I do another workout. When I feel exhausted, I rest for a day, then jump back into my cycle.” Here’s how a workout week for Barnowski might look:
MONDAY, WEDNESDAY AND FRIDAY
EARLY MORNING WORKOUT
STATIONARY BIKING: 30 minutes on a spin bike, alternating between hills, sprints and normal riding
TUESDAY, THURSDAY AND SATURDAY
EARLY MORNING WORKOUT
STATIONARY BIKING: 30 minutes on a spin bike, alternating between hills, sprints and normal riding
LOWER BACK WORK AND A LEG WORKOUT
SQUATS: Six quick sets (30 seconds apart) at 155 pounds, 15–20 reps per set
LEG EXTENSIONS (single and double): Six quick sets. Single leg, 70 pounds, 15–20 reps per set; double leg, 110 pounds, 15–20 reps per set
LEG PRESSES: Six sets, 150 pounds, 15–20 reps per set
HAMSTRING CURLS: Six sets, 110 pounds, 15–20 reps per set
FULL FLOOR WORKOUT
HEAVY BAG: Four sets of punching, three to four minutes per set
BOX JUMPS: 18 inches high, four sets, 15–20 reps per set
STRETCH BAND: Side-to-side wide leg steps with band around ankles for 25 yards
BALANCE WORK: Balancing on one leg at a time, integrated with step down and rear crossover dips from a platform
LUNGES: Walking lunges with weights, 25 yards at a time
TIRE POUNDS: Six sets of 10–15 reps with a 16-pound sledgehammer
TRACK TIME: Walk 1 mile, run 2, walk 1; (before the ACL injury, he ran 3 to 4 miles)
ROWING MACHINE: 20–30 minutes on level 10
BICEPS: Tri set method—seated barbell curls with 25 pounds on curlbar, seated dumbbell curls with 25-pound dumbbells and standing straight bar curls with 60-pound bar. All three exercises count as one set, with no rest in between except for getting from one to the other. 10–15 reps, four to six sets.
TRICEPS: Lay down reverse triceps to the forehead with a curl bar of 65 pounds for 10–15 reps, four to six sets. Dips and tricep press downs on a machine, 10–15 reps, four to six sets.
SHOULDERS: Pulls to the chest, 110 pounds, 10–15 reps, four to six sets. Squatted shoulder raises to the chest, 45-pound plate, 10–15 reps, four to six sets
STOMACH: Flutter kicks, incline sit-ups, traditional crunches and butterfly crunches. 15–25 reps, four to six sets
RIDING MOTOCROSS: “On race days I ride my first moto of the day, wait two to three hours, then ride another moto,” Barnowski says. “[It] helps to simulate the fatigue that I experience every couple of hours.”
EARLY MORNING WORKOUT
STATIONARY BIKING: 30 minutes on a spin bike, alternating among hills, sprints and normal riding
With workouts six days a week on top of his practice and competition schedule, Barnowski needs to eat properly to keep up. His diet features a lot of low-fat protein and water (and almost nothing else to drink). He preaches moderation but confesses: “I’m a sucker for ground turkey tacos; those nights it’s hard to be moderate.”
Protein and carb drink; supplements for endurance and motivation recovery; an electrolyte pill; and a fish oil tablet
Yogurt fruit cup and a banana
One cup-size portion of last night’s leftovers
Mostly peanuts, apples or a banana and sometimes an avocado. If he plans to ride a mountain bike or dirt bike that evening, he drinks another protein/carb drink in the afternoon.
A protein—chicken, ground turkey and salmon are common; he rarely eats beef—paired with a salad