Paul LaCava | May 17th, 2013
Trying to digest and document the feelings and emotions of the following story and put them into words are hard. I am still sorting them out, and re-living the experience in my head, but taken outside of the element and delusional state of mind when they came about, certain elements are hard to put into words…This is my story of the 2013 Trans Iowa gravel road race…..
Not until a few days days prior to leaving for the Midwest does it hit me, and it hits me with the ironic dread of something that you chose to do out of your own nonsense. Yet, I am excited. The weight of it cannot be denied. It sits on the brain in an odd sort of way, but always very heavy. And I wonder if I may be crazy! I am less than one week away from this year’s 323 mile, self-supported, gravel road bike race across the endless farmlands of the Midwest: Trans Iowa V.9.
It’s been a long road getting to this point. There have been many hard battles, painful miles in training, endless hours of scrutinizing gear, planning travel, getting ready for it. If curious, you can read about them here.
The hurdle of the race itself seems almost insignificant compared to the effort spent readying for it. The whole affair is less of a single goal, and more of a mindset one needs to acquire for a long period of time leading up to it. A very long process. Until you remember that you could be racing a bike from the early morning of one day, all throughout that whole day, and finishing sometime the next morning or afternoon! Then it seems much harder. Or that moment when you felt good about riding 170 miles over about 14 hours on one of the biggest training rides of the year, my longest distance ride ever, and then realizing that’s perhaps half of what I’m up against. Ahhhh, those moments! But preparation was over, it was time to board a plane.
My support crew member and awesome girlfriend, Suzanne Marcoe, and I, would be leaving Portland, OR, and the beautiful 70 degree sunny April weather we’d been having and depart to Minneapolis, MN for a couple days to cool off. It had snowed in Minneapolis just days prior. Awesome. Iowa weather is notoriously fickle in April, as I could tell you from last year’s failed attempt at this race, which started in 38 degree sideways rain and wind and brutal 30mph gusts of wind. I made it 65 miles back then, falling victim to my own thoughts, poor sleep, and some ill-preparation and poor gear choices. But that was then, this is now.
Many good lessons learned that I would put to use before and during this year’s race. We could tell that the Midwest was still thawing out from a long winter upon seeing that the grass had barely a touch of green, and old snow banks crowded empty parking lots. But the weather was looking up, nice and sunny and bit warmer down south! The effect for me was added gravity to the situation, as there would be one less excuse for possibly not finishing this race.
After two great days spent relaxing and cooling off the effects of jet-lag, throwing some granite, drinking a few choice beers, re-acquainting with some old friends, and stretching the legs on a short ride in what I now understand to be one of the most amazing networks of cycling friendly routes around, we departed Minneapolis and headed south. Directly south! For 275 miles or so. The lakes of Minnesota part ways to show the true hand of what we’re about to endure: Gravel. Hills. Wind. The flat regions up north slowly morph into the endless pocketed rolling farmlands of Iowa.
We got to Grinnell, Iowa just in time to check into a hotel that I’ll only be sleeping in for one of two nights paid, dial in some last minute gear for the race, and then head over to the pre-race meet up. Or shall I say, Meat-Up! It’s held in the Grinnell Steakhouse, a fine establishment, where you grill your own cut of meat, Texas toast, and share a beer with your fellow comrades, future friends, and many folks that you will never see outside of the start line of tomorrow’s race. There are close to one hundred of us. We get details of the course: it’s supposed to be very hilly. But the weather supreme and the wind mellow. Sweet! I’ve been training on tons and tons of hills all winter. There is a palatable sense of equal parts excitement, fear, nervousness, and stoke in the air!
It’s back to the hotel, where all of tomorrow’s gear is laid on the ground next to my bike, ready to roll. I attempt to get a few hours sleep. Easier said than done, and one of the reasons I fell victim to last year’s race, sleeping not a wink that year. But this time I manage three solid hours thanks to a couple beers and some sleeping pills. I am awake by 1am in anticipation. I had been nervous about getting zero sleep, so I felt great! Let’s get this thing started! I toss back a cup of hotel coffee, if you can call it that, the remnants of yesterday’s cinnamon rolls, and a banana. Pretty shady breakfast if you ask me! Suzanne rolls out of bed and drives me to the start a few miles away in downtown Grinnell. Racers start assembling on what may be the least notable start line of any bike race I’ll ever do. But certainly the most significant. We line up in front of the local bike shop Bikes to You, mingle with racers, and I have a huge sense of optimism and am anxious to start riding my bike. And we’re off at 4am sharp!
Event promoter, Mark Stevenson, a.k.a. Guitar Ted, rolls us out in a neutral pace through downtown Grinnell in the middle of darkness, behind his blue pickup truck. I keep thinking, “I bet that truck has seen more miles of gravel than I’ll ever see in my life!” Sorting out crazy ways to connect 300+ miles of gravel into a strange cocktail of routes that bewilder the mind, year after year. Racers are lit up with whatever method of lighting system will see them through to sunrise, and all of the next night, an important detail of preparation. Once we cross Hwy 146 we hit gravel and the race is on! This is likely the last time I’ll really know where I am for the next day or so. One of the elements that makes this race difficult is that it’s a self-supported system with only what you can carry, buy, or beg for along the way, with only a set of cue sheets to show you where to go, and a lot of willpower.
We get the first 52 miles of cue sheets at the pre-race meet up, and the rest we will acquire at two key checkpoints, basically piloting in the dark the whole time, not knowing where we will go, only where we all hope to end up, back in Grinnell. Our support crew’s are that in the loosest definition possible. In reality, they are allowed to do nothing except pick us up in a ditch or small town somewhere along the way if we get too tired to carry on.
I had mentally prepared to go into this race with only one goal in mind: to finish. That’s all you can really hope to do. As many will attest to, any big ideas beyond merely getting to the finish can quickly come unravelled, and the only thing you can count on is everything not going to plan. Trans Iowa isn’t about trying to beat another racer; it’s more about finding a friend along the way to help each other see it through. Yet as bike racer my whole life, I’d committed to the idea of staying with the lead group of riders off the start to see where it took me. I wanted the thrill of joining some veterans and finishers that knew what they were doing. Rookies who had never “toe’d the line” at one of these races were in for suprises. So would I. But sometimes not knowing what’s ahead is also a strength. Last year’s attempt left me a bit scarred, so I kept what I needed from it and let the rest go. At minimum, all you knew is that likely over half the field would not make the finish, and in some years nobody would. The odds are against us all from the start! Good thing I don’t believe in luck…I joined with the lead group of riders the second our tires hit gravel. It was on!
The crunch of tires on gravel is a scary sound at first, but you get used to it. The perfect bike for this sort of thing may not exist. Some take a glorified road bike with wider tires and run with it. Fast and light. Others opt for the stability from a mountain bike, yet likely not as fast. I took a variation of bike similar to the style that many would be on. Something akin to an adventure road bike that fits bigger tires, is more comfortable off road, has accommodations for more water bottles and frame bags to carry the assortment of gear that 323 miles may take. It’s sort of a hybrid cyclocross bike.
I also had meticulously looked over the gear I would need: clothing, lights, food, emergency supplies, and cue sheet system. Other odds and ends: duct tape, zip ties, spare pedal cleat, a couple tubes, patchkit, mini-tool, spare light battery, chamois cream, advil, and a county map of every county within 150 miles of Grinnel just in case I got really lost. I must thank my good friend and two time finisher of TI, Joe Partridge for his wisdom in this regard. I glossed over some details in year one, and this year I had what would end up to be a dialed setup. I also had a good friend Tony Batchellor build me a bike he calls the Tonic Fabrications Crusher. He’d built a similar version last fall that got me fired up when I had been thinking of signing up for the race again. It’s steel with a softtail rear end, steep and fast geometry, yet upright for comfort on the long haul, and it hauls ass on the rough stuff. It fits four 30 oz water bottles due to some custom fork mounted cages from Ruckus Composites, allowing me to keep nothing on my back aside from a few goodies in jersey pockets, and I ran tubless 40c Clement MSO gravel tires set to 45psi, which were the shit. Magic carpet ride.
I had ridden as much gravel as I could find out west, which is sparse and never enough to get a feel for the terrain in Iowa, but I knew the second we hit the churned up limestone gravel that it was going to be a good race. We immediately ran into a bunch of hills. There were reported to be a lot of fast racers in this year’s event. Right off the start I was surrounded by some giants of this event, chit chatting, and sucking wheels. By the time the sun rose over the hills in a dramatic showing and slightly foggy haze in the air, I’d gotten to meet a few of them. All such nice people! Unlike the start of a typical bike race, the start here is a slower affair. You can’t burn too many matches early when you have up to 34 hours to go: the time cutoff for finishing. The low light on the horizon near sunrise was impressive, the wind minimal, the air a surprisingly warm temperature. The start of this year’s race was hard not to be excited about; it felt like a big group ride on a sunny day, what fun! I’ve heard reports that the start of the race was fast this year, and it certainly wasn’t slow, with the good weather making it seem possible that with a solid pace that somebody would finally crack the sub 24-hour time that has never been broken. Each year the course is different, so nobody knew for certain how possible this could be, but it was certainly on the minds of a few that morning.
Furthermore, I’ve learned that you never knew what others may be capable of, and I find this to be especially true of endurance racers where the mind is perhaps more important that the body. I didn’t know what I am capable of. I didn’t feel that the pace was too fast off the start, so I kept up with the leaders, never quite at the front, but in the mix. It was very hilly off the start of the race, as it would be most of the course. They all seemed like downhill at this point in time. I’d enjoy it while I had fresh legs! When I looked at my computer later on, I noticed we’d averaged 16 mph for the first few hours, certainly faster than I’d thought we were going, or should go. But I didn’t want to lose sight of any of them just yet, holding onto the thought that I could be among the top placed finishers so many hours later. I didn’t even stop to go to the bathroom until absolutely necessary, to keep along with the group.
Somewhere in the first 20 miles I would meet and have fun chatting with Corey “Cornbread” Godfrey. Corey had a meaningful impact on my race, and I think was in contention for a top finish. He was stoked and had a great attitude! He had experience, both good and bad, to serve him, and I gleaned a couple helpful ideas during the morning. We ended up riding close to the first checkpoint, and Corey would end up riding off out front, to only be seen later on in the day. I rolled into the first checkpoint at mile 52 feeling great with a couple of other riders whom I don’t recall. We didn’t stop for more than a minute to get the next batch of cue sheets and reset my computer to match the new batch of cue sheet mileages. There were a few out front at the time that I figured we’d let go. I had it in my head that they were on their own, and the odds of trying to stay with them bad, if not consequential. It turns out one of the heavyweights of the race, and early leader at the time, Eric Brundt, who’d won last year had taken a wrong turn and I ended up chatting with him a bit near mile 65 as he caught up, and just enough time to take a picture. I thought maybe we’d be looking at a soon to be record holder! He seemed a bit tired, but then proceeded to ride out by himself after some rest in pursuit of the leaders. He only had enough gear to last what looked to be a several hour road ride!
Near mile 65 I found myself on my own, a fear in last year’s race, but I was oddly confident at this moment. I rolled into the first point where we’d have any sort of water/food access, the infamous Casey’s Convenience Store in the small town of, heck, I don’t know! I was happy in my decision to ride by myself at the moment, and took the time to gear up for the unknown.
The temperatures were to be record high for this event, and it later showed highs in the mid 70s and it felt warm. The route of TI will usually go through a few stores along the way, and this is where you need to make some critical decisions on what to bring. Water is certainly on most people’s check list, but food also would be on mine. I’d packed a bit light on the food, only bringing Hammer Fizz tablets for hydration, about a dozen packets Honey Stinger chews, some Hammer Espresso Gels for night, and a couple Snickers bars and a banana off the start. So here I opted for a cheeseburger, gallon of water, and another pair of Snickers bars. Part of the element that makes this race difficult is the food, or lack thereof. Not the stuff of typical endurance bike racers. A place where need and adaptability meet in the middle and my training as many can attest to is a very grey science of basically whatever feels good at the time. So it was worth the extra 5 minutes it took to wait for a burger… I’d need it. I recall Dennis Grelk, a former race winner that I judged to be a smart racer, making quicker work of the stop and after having an early flat tire and getting a bit off pace, seemed eager to take off down the road. That would be the last time I saw Dennis for many miles, but we would meet again.
What happened next surprised me a bit. I was only about 80 miles into the day, noting that I was over a quarter of the way through the race, when I felt a bit of pain in my hands while riding one of the few miles of pavement during the whole race. I typically ride without gloves most of the time if it’s not too cold, and am used to it, road or mountain, or gravel. But the roads had been fairly rough already, with lots of slower fresh gravel laid down, if not a bit bumpy too as it was drier and faster than it could have been, so the terrain had numbed my hands a bit. I was developing what appeared to be potentially horrible blisters on my lower palms! I knew from my experience watching ultra-running races that such things can quickly become a deal breaker, out of the blue. I’d started with gloves until just after 7am, but then had been only two hours of riding gloveless in this fair weather and was hurting. So I put on my long fingered gloves that were a bit hot, but would help avoid further damage. My backup pair was for colder conditions at night, so that was the only choice.
The course took us on some awesome roads at this point, winding somewhere west and northwest of Grinnell along some ridgelines on some winding scenic roads that broke up the long straight gridline stretches that are so typical of farmland in this part of the world. Did I mention hills? There were a few. Including a great stretch of road called Mormon Ridge. The wind was mostly at my back and the going fast. Cows stared, as if to say “what the heck are you doing out here?”. Farmers were out with the plows starting to churn up the ground for spring crops. They all waved. I got into a long period of feeling good, doing hard work, riding my own pace. Just zoned out all the other thoughts in the world except forward progress.
This was what I’d wanted, to go my own pace for a long while, making sure it was what I needed. Well it turned out to be fairly fast. I’d average about 15 mph all the way to the next checkpoint. At one point I put my head down and just sat in the drops for hours on end, the stretch in the back actually feeling good for once. Not much else to do, except get where you need to be, and going fast seemed easier than going slow. I can’t recall much about my thoughts during this time, but I can taste the feeling. And it was good. I hadn’t seen another racer in hours…the hours started to mesh together. The stare down the road grew a bit longer. I started to crunch numbers, pacing, distance. …The math was growing fuzzier…There appeared to be no shortage of rolling hills. The Who song “I Can See for Miles” kept playing on repeat in my head, which was no longer screwed on correctly.
Somewhere around mile 140 I had to outsprint a couple of dogs that were pretty menacing. This is a real hazard in Iowa, and hard to gauge the proper protocol. I used my legs and outran them. Easier said than done! Later on I’d hear of two riders that had gotten bit by a dog on the course, wondering if it was from these hounds. One rider bit turned out to be Eric Brunt who’d worn himself out in the heat going perhaps too fast. His race would end sometime around then, a shame! I wondered what could have been for him. I ended up going through 120 oz of water in this stretch, and bummed one more 30oz bottle from a farmer about 160 miles in. Side note: Iowan’s are a great nice bunch of people! I never met anyone who didn’t smile at you or at least be nice while thinking you are bat shit crazy. The lady who’d given me the water said she couldn’t think it’d be a good idea riding a bike in this heat, yet took the time to go inside her house to fill it up. I kept quiet how far we’d been and how far we’d go. It probably would have been dumbfounding…
I was glad to have taken so much water, as I rolled into Checkpoint #2 at mile 172 with nearly nothing to spare. The heat was wearing on me a bit, but really I felt great this whole stretch and my optimism was growing by the hour. I was over half way through! A few previous race veterans or finishers were staked out in the middle of nowhere, at the end of a dirt section of B-road, along with a photographer or two, volunteering to work the checkpoint. They were putting in some serious time to be there for us, killing time by doing heck-if-I-know, and I was very thankful to get the next set of cue sheets!
I also was shocked to learn that I was now in 4th place! Having let perhaps 8-10 riders go on ahead in the first 60 miles, I didn’t know how this was possible..but apparently a few others had dropped out or gotten lost…Interesting…it affected my mind, in some ways good, and some ways bad…with that few people ahead…Who would I ride with during what was likely to be a very long second night? And where was everyone? I wanted company! Also, I was a bit amiss when learning that the next convenience store was 10 miles further along, which I’d convinced myself was to be right here. Oh well, I took off fast, thirsty. Then stopped a ¼ mile later to remember to reset my computer, which I did by switching to a second Garmin 500 computer that should have enough batteries to last the next 150 miles to the finish! I was 12 hours into the race. The next section didn’t appear to be any big hills, but faced the wind pretty solid, and just kept climbing. Somewhere in here I wondered just how much corn the world actually needed, as it seemed they were about to plant an endless supply of it…. only person I saw were farmers with plows.
The pace up until now was seemingly too fast, yet I felt good. Even after going solo for many hours. I lost track of which way the sun was hanging in the sky, and the heat had done some damage. I still had no idea where the heck I was, aside from that I was told I’d gone about as far north as we would… which meant the next third of the race we would face directly into a S/SW headwind…
A slight fear grew in the mind as the miles set in. What cards would we be dealt during the next 150 miles? How many hills would there be? What is there that I don’t know and don’t know how to handle? How will the body fair? How will the mind be? Was there any chance of breaking 24 hours? I sort of thought there may be. Probaly not the best thing to try and accomplish with more important goals in mind… Should I race as fast as I can and risk complete physical and mental shutdown, or race to finish?
Questions…I’d been looking at the altimeter and I’d only climbed 9,000-10,000 ft of rollers in the first 172 miles…Seems like a lot, but I’d been told it was a really hilly course, and I feared there were many more ahead…
Rolling into the next small town, I was happy to see a second Casey’s Convenience Store, and it was much needed!! I had been riding for 5 miles without water, feeling dehydrated despite the huge volume of liquids I’d consumed, and hungry as all get-out. I’d been dreaming about what to pick up from here, and was overwhelmed with the possibilities. The previous stop had been early in the morning. Apparently too early for them to stock the pizza oven that Casey’s is famous for, but this time we were here about 4:30pm and it was time for some pie! I was also happy to see Corey Godfrey sitting out front! We chatted for a few minutes. He was seemingly in odd spirits, and mentioned he’d been riding with Chris Schotz, a top finisher from last year, at the front. Chris had bypassed nearly all food and water stops, and was making fast time, but potentially digging an early grave in the process. Corey had caught up to him recently. And there was an unknown rookie shortly behind named Rich Wince. The competitor in me started thinking…could I catch up to them? They were perhaps 45 minutes ahead.
One problem: I had an interesting pain develop when I had cruised into the town. A pain I associated in the kidney region, and it worried me. (It hurts a bit today, as I type this with a numb left hand from nerve damage I’m still feeling three weeks later, and a bit of lower back soreness) Feeling good otherwise, and no previous experience to guide me outside of the pain of lightly bruising one while crashing on a mountain bike last year, I wondered what it was. Corey was a voice of reason. Caution, but confidence seemed the approach. It was possible dehydration, or maybe just the fatigue in the lower back that comes from racing 180 miles of rough gravel roads. It turned out to the be the latter, but had a small impact on my philosophy of the race from that point forward. It was to be the only point in the race I had doubts of finishing. The pain seemed odd, and scary. Looking back on it, I focussed from this point onwards to finish the race, not get there too fast. I drank 40+ ounces of Gatorade and water at this stop, stopping for about 30 minutes, the longest time I’d not been pedaling the whole race. I sent a message to Suzanne to let her know I’d made it this far and to get some good sleep and definitely don’t come and get me anywhere in the next 12 hours, no matter what nonsense I could mention in the middle of the night if feeling bad! I then stocked up on 3 slices of pizza, another couple of Snickers bars, a bag of Chex Mix (Bold Party Blend of course!) and a shit ton of water. We’d been told we’d see a 24 hour convenience store near mile 280, 100 miles further, and I was to take no chances. In retrospect, I wished I’d taken a whole pie….
Meanwhile, Corey told me he was done! What?! I was sad for him, but he put in a solid effort. He had a bad pain in his knees, and I respected his decision and would miss the possible company. Eager to hit the road, as I was now feeling good again, I took off just as a few more racers caught up to me. I didn’t want to be there when Corey’s bail-out crew showed up, a vehicle that was likely to be destined for a pub nearby if I were in his shoes.
Despite the urge to join forces with other riders for the evening and night, I was more concerned with making progress, as fast as possible. I left, only the 3rd rider to cross whatever roads we’d be seeing ahead, with a bit of an urge to go fast, and a cautious voice that told me to monitor the pain I’d felt in my back. I reminded myself the importance of finishing this race and kept that in the back of my mind. It was all unknown territory from here… the distance, the time, the night…
The next few hours were good ones. The hills kicked in and they were serious. Lot’s of stair step rollercoaster sections that required lots of energy. Definitely the biggest hills, or at least the biggest I can remember seeing, because there would be many more at night that induced pain! For those who haven’t ridden in this part of the world, the terrain is hard to explain. You try to average a consistent pace, keeping speed up where it counts, and not pushing too hard where it doesn’t. The hills are 50-150 ft tall and probably look like a bell curve. There is almost no flat ground in any part of Iowa I’ve ridden a bike in. So ironic since I live in a flat valley surrounded by mountains. You come into them with decent speed, especially on a fast downhill sometimes letting off the brakes entirely, then kick in with a bit of power to gain momentum to fly up the hill. If a headwind is present, as they increasingly were in this latest stretch, you’d feel it at the top of the hill and on the flats. Repeat this process about a thousand times during the day and each roller reminds you of the previous many. A pain builds in the legs. I found it hard to judge how bad it may get later, as I was a bit worse for wear by now.
This was the most beautiful time in the race for me. The sun hanging lower in the sky… enjoying the scenery. My mind still lingers on these moments now, and the feeling is hard to let go. Perhaps I enjoyed it too much. Trying to conserve energy and food for what I rationalized what may be a long 10 hours at worst until the next food stop. Upon hitting 200 miles in this stretch, it felt great! I’d made a goal of getting this far by nightfall, one I’d been ready to let go, but was happy to do it. And I’d been riding for about 16 hours now, nearly a personal best. There was the weight of one critical detail, however, that lay heavy on my mind. There was nobody around. What would that do to my spirits during a long 9 hours or so of darkness? I didn’t know… despite lots of experience deep in the wilderness of Oregon stumbling around on mountain bikes at night by myself, this scene, this situation seemed an odd one. I had done three especially dumb training rides that prepared me for these moments this winter/spring, all involving some sort of extreme cold, wet, and long stretch of night riding solo at a time that mimicked the hours a graveyard shift worker would encounter, but none of them suddenly seemed that relevant. I’d never ridden a bike all night before. Again, the unknown…
I began to layer up for the night by putting on a light Rapha wind/rain jacket, wool cap to cover the ears, and leg warmers on top of the base layer and long sleeve wool jersey I’d used all day, and my light Rapha shorts that were great during the peak of the heat! About as comforatable as one can get while pedalling for this long. The hand issue didn’t seem bad anymore so I put away the gloves for a while, and kept some shoe warmers, a warmer jacket, and thicker cap in the seat pack for later in the low points of temperature I may face near the next sunrise. Low and behold while I was taking in the sunset and snapping a good picture, here comes a few soon-to-be friends! After racing for 150+ miles by myself, I was eager for some company! It was a group of 3, here was Dennis Grelk catching up, while in tow were Monika Sattler and Aaron Gammel. I shouted to keep going and that I’d catch up in a few minutes and quickly packed things up and took off in a hurry.
If there was ever a low point in the race, which there really hadn’t been any of, this crew would raise you out of it! They seemed stoked on how things were going and had been riding together for the better part of the race. Aaron and Monika had ridden together since the beginning, I recall, while Dennis had pulled off for some grub and attitude adjustment somewhere after I’d seen him at the first Casey’s, and met the two somewhere along the way. This meant Dennis has put a good pace in, despite a few setbacks. I knew he was strong, and Monika appeared to have no end of energy, and was eager to chat up a fellow racer at 210 miles into the dumbest thing any of us had ever done, tried, may do all year, or perhaps our whole lives. Meeting the group renewed my desire to go fast, and I did some work to rally the group and we all took pulls at the front, keeping the band on the road.
The next five hours or so are quite hazy. The night began to wear, not on the spirits for me, but on the body and eyes, and memory. I recall helping to do a lot of the cue sheet navigation during this time, as Aaron had been having some troubles with fatigue, and Monika had learned a tough lesson in gear choice upon realizing her helmet mount on the light didn’t work the previous morning, so she was left with only a bar mount, making it too hard to read cue sheets. Dennis seemed to have highs and lows, and appeared to be fighting some of his own battles, yet I can’t recall him ever complaining about a thing. This was the time of day when a long silence from anyone could have meant anything, and somebody was likely fighting some demons. I checked into a Zen state of mind for a quite a while, the darkness blurring the lines between uphill and downhill, loose gravel and fast, and focused on doing work and helping the group however possible. I suspect there was more suffering than I remember now, moments were blacked out, the mind hazy, memories that perhaps I don’t wish to recall.
I was still grappling with the idea of racing a bike for more than 24 hours, and wanted to get closer to this number than the possible 34 hours we had to finish, a number that seemed daunting in comparison. There had been a moment or two during this part of the race where I was a bit curious to know what would happen if I rode ahead to try and chase down someone that lay ahead, but I was happy with our pace and quite concerned about the state I could find myself in if I had tried to push too hard. But I enjoyed the company and also felt it in the spirit of the race to keep together for as long as possible. Somewhere along the way, my memory does not serve me well, a new rider and singlespeeder Mark Johnson would join us. Where had he come from? I cannot say. The details of Mark’s race up to that point escape me, but I recall he was riding strong, often surging at times we relaxed, definitely working around the different approach that a singlespeed would offer. We were now a powerful group of five! I think I started singing at some point in here, but it may have all been in my head.
Descending loose gravel in daylight while fresh in the start of a typical bike ride is hard enough when done on any bike. This becomes much harder at night, when your eyes are bug eyed, retina’s rattled out of their core, complete with the thick fog of 20 odd hours of riding and the stone cold stare. The urge to go fast down them is strong, so you can gain speed for the next roller, but risky at best, and race ending at worst. I was pretty cautious during this stretch as the mind and body didn’t have much extra to give to bail me out of a bad situation during these times. There were close calls with all of us during this time, I remember Dennis was hauling ass, this wasn’t his first gravel rodeo.
I took a fair bit of espresso gels during these hours to keep the fire lit. I think we all had troubles keeping the bike upright…Not to mention the complete and utter shortage of pizza! Hell, I’d go for a taqueria truck right then if I had my choice! Monika had been surviving off Advil-laced cinnamon rolls all day, and seemed eager for something different and asked about pizza. I mentioned I had one slice left, which she seemed dumbfounded by. We split it sometime soon thereafter. It was amazing, but the supplies were limited and I wasn’t too interested in the energy food I had left. We were approaching the 24 hour convenience store sometime in the next 20 miles and I dreamed of creating a four course meal out of the deli isle, junk food, hydration, and fried foods selection. What if it weren’t open?
The hours blend into one another, the gravel all seemingly the same. Loose and hilly. And endless. My thoughts turned to cyclocross racing, and how short and awesome the pain is, and how the pain in my legs felt something on the order of having done about twenty of these races back to back. Uggg… not good! Somewhere around 3am we get to a small town where we all thought the last convenience store should have been. Turns out there was an open bar here, so perhaps this was closer to 2am, and a few people were mingling outside thinking we were definitely a few beers short a six-pack. And we were. All of them! I most certainly could have gone for one, and there were none present, and our minds had pretty much left the building too! We keep rolling, without much talk of stopping. We then come to a train crossing and ironically get stopped here by a passing train. We wait just outside the barriers, 15 feet from this rushing mass of steel, pretty numb to our senses and laugh at the delay. The noise seems harsh, but almost wakened the mind a bit. It won’t matter in the end, but stopping at this point is bad. Perpetual motion is key. Every second that passes you must get closer to the finish. At the end of the town, confused by a lack of a store, we all sorted out the cue sheets to find that the store was listed in the directions, but ten miles further. This may be the first point where I recall following cue’s was difficult.
Aaron had been falling asleep at the wheel for a bit now, and was really struggling just to stay awake. The fatigue had got him, despite him pulling an impressive pace for the group for quite a while. We were at mile 270 or so. So close! But his day was not to be. Dennis, who a few miles prior I’d pointed out his rear wheel was not looking terribly round, decided to pull the plug when it became apparent that it would not hold out for the rest of the race. He stayed with Aaron and made the call to Guitar Ted that they were out. A setback for sure! It seems odd to depart from recent friends made in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere, and it was. I was sad that we’d lost two of five, but eager to keep moving. I put on some warmer clothing then and passed around the Bold Party Blend, a key member of the salt food group. Dennis gave Monika the last of his water and we rolled out, Monika, Mark, and I in the total and utter darkness. The temperature was likely in the lower 30’s by this point, a bit colder than I thought it may get. This seemed a dry stretch, chock full of horrible hills, but I knew there would be many more. Did I mention loose gravel?
It’s around 3:30 am and we have 40 odd miles to go. We are nearly 24 hours into this race, and had powered on pretty good to get to the much needed 24-hour convenience store. Wow! And what a store. Options, all of them good. Mind rushing at the possibilities, I settle for three rolled tacos that’d likely been spinning in the fried food deli for longer than we’d been awake, a cup of black coffee, enough water to make it another few hours, and a hotdog. Coffee and a hotdog at 3:30 and no, we weren’t driving a semi-truck all night, but we might as well have been! We were on a roll!
The cashier lady didn’t seem to think it too odd, given our circumstances and all, and mentioned that there was only one other rider she’d seen go through there about an hour and a bit ahead. Interesting…That meant further attrition ahead, and it turned out to be Chris Schotz who’d pulled the plug near mile 280, I think, after a bold and fast affair that left him out of the race. I then put on a pair of booties on the shoes, a thicker set of gloves and maybe a warmer wool cap. I sent another message to Suzanne to let her know we’d likely be at the finish in a few hours. (Turns out she had been awake nearly the whole night too, nervous, so heck, why not just race it next year, Sue?) The support crew(s) for every racer become a hidden safety net at this point, a blessing and a curse. Almost bad for the mind. What you need is full commitment and the balance is hard to find. I will be endlessly thankful for her being there. It was getting a bit cold at this hour, but the thought of those behind the scene gave an odd warmth.
We’d thought there may be another rider behind us when we hit gravel again, and felt that they’d taken the slight detour of ¼ mile to the convenience store after us, so perhaps at least a few minutes back. This was a point of conversation, and Mark thought it was perhaps another singlespeeder. I was reminded we were in a race, and our group of three seemed to dissolve for a while. The hills were endless. These miles were dark and eeiry, both in the sky and the mind. Mark and I pushed a pretty fast pace during these next twenty miles or so, and I recall seeing some large hills ahead in the pre-dawn twilight. I’m not sure how many there were, but they were far too many, and steep! And lots of fresh chunky gravel. Just dark forms juxtaposed against a sea of blackness and the odd light of a farmhouse. And there were plenty of dogs barking in the dark as we passed. The hounds. Not much energy left at this hour to do much if they gave you chase except offer up a rolled taco in payment if you have the wherewithal to do so. Fortunately this was not needed.
At some point close to nearly 20 miles to go, we were still thinking we’d seen the lights of another racer behind us, which turned out to be confusing as we’d later find that nobody was within one hour of us. It must’ve been our minds playing with us, and we trudged onwards and hit a horrible 5 mile loose section of flat gravel. And then a two mile stretch of pretty rutted out rough B-road. I was pretty shelled. This is where my vision went to shit and it was pretty much a blur until sunrise. The effects of 300 miles of this stuff had taken their toll. Of the 19,000 or so feet we’d climb during this race, over half of it was in the last 150 miles. Monika was putting in an effort that seemed heroic at the time to keep up the pace, as Mark kept turning on whatever that single god-awful gear he had on him.
I considered briefly leaving with Mark for the finish, still worried about a possible rider close behind. I was excited about getting to the finish in the top three. Our group of three was broken up and we let Mark head out ahead while I stayed with Monika. We were all pretty delusional by this point, and I think the navigation and pace had taken their toll on Monika who clearly wanted to finish with the group. I hung back a bit and we rode together, with a close eye to any followers.
As the sun emerged from likely some huge hill we’d just crossed to the east, I was stuck by a powerful sense of awe and appreciation for where we’d gone. The stark endless fields coming to life with the light of a second sunrise is a surreal experience to endure while racing one’s bike. This is the moment I’d come for, and it all made sense! We were within ten miles, a distance I was sure I could stumble across with a broken bike if something had gone wrong in that final stretch, as I’ve heard others have done in years past! We would get there. I had a renewed sense of energy that felt like it could take me further all day if I needed it. I stopped to take a few photos and take in this moment. I really didn’t want this to end. It was like a really good book that gave you escape from every other complex situation in life, and it all boiled down to the simple joy of nearing the end, hard work, and the satisfaction of an insurmountable goal nearly complete. It was amazing!
The rest of the miles were gravel, hilly, and sandwiched between fields of farmland just outside of Grinnell…… That’s all I know. We rolled up to the finish, a small group of folks huddling around a fire pit outside of a red barn in the foggy haze of a sunrise on a day you know will be warm, despite that it was near freezing at this early hour in the day. Monika and I roll to a stop and I gave her a high-five at the finish line and Guitar Ted is there to congratulate us at the finish.
It felt so amazing to stop moving, yet so unnatural. At this point moving was the only thing I knew how to do. Stopping immediately left me with a sense of confusion, but the sense of accomplishment and feeling that crept in quickly filled the void. I knew this moment would be both incredible, yet was scared to get to it. The time is about 6:30 in the morning, we’d just ridden for over 26 1/2 hours and climbed about 19,000 ft of rolling hills over the course of 323 miles of gravel. I’m still not sure how we did it. Turns out that lone racer Rich Wince had come in about an hour and a half before us, riding an incredible race, our friend Mark was just a few minutes ahead, and we were the third ones to finish! A record 30 or so more racers would make their way to the finish out of about 90 starters. How awesome! There would be a record high number of finishers due to the good weather and lack of serious wind, but there was still about 50% attrition even late in the day. Nothing for certain on this day.
Suzanne was there and it felt amazing to see her and get the best hug of my life! I shook Guitar Ted’s hand at the finish. He was just standing there with a big grin on his face. It had been a long night, and a long day prior. It’s not every time you get to shake hands with a race promoter anytime during a race, let alone at the finish line of a life changing event by a guy who’s been driving around in his pickup truck for over 24 hours trying to make sure everything is in order, the gravel loose, the hills still there. What a guy! Guitar Ted, thank you very much for what you do! You’ve changed my life and given me the biggest challenge I can think of overcoming. Trans Iowa is something that will never be forgotten and it will be hard to avoid going back. The mere idea of the race is as inspirational as the feeling I got when I got to that huge red barn. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever been able to accomplish in my whole life, and just thinking about it today gives me the same tears that crept into my eyes upon getting to the end.
I stood around the fire with Suzanne and a few folks as the sun crept over the myriad of hills surrounding Grinnel as the fog slowly lifted. Somebody offerred a cold beer, and it didn’t take long to toss back two PRBs for breakfast, which didn’t seem too odd on this particular morning. The next group of finishers rolled in about one hour later. It was cold but the mind was warm. Body and mind were completely destroyed, I could barely walk, yet the spirts were high. I tried to hold onto the feeling in this brief moment in time.
And that’s it. That was my experience of racing a bike 323 miles across rural Iowa! I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!
THANKS TO THE FOLLOWING PEOPLE IN NO PARTICULAR ORDER: Tony at Tonic Fabrication for building me a sick bicycle. Suzanne for believing in me, and being there! Chris at Rapha for keeping me warm, cool, and comfortable. Caveman, for the endless inspiration. Nick, for being stoked about TI, even though it’s the last thing he’d want to do. Joe, for the advice, I told you I’d come back! Josh and Christine at Roam Life, hey, this is their blog site! My family, for being so awesome. Kate, for the massages and keeping my body working. And everyone else, thanks for everything!