This has been put off for long enough. Partially because I wanted to settle into my myriad of emotions, and partially because I needed a good bottle of beer to write with.
I went into Trans-Iowa this year with a years experience in the event, which both helped me prepare logistically, and was great motivation. After making it 240 miles the prior year, and having to bail due to mistakes made with insufficient calorie intake, I had a bonfire under me to defeat my demon.
I restructured my sleep patterns, riding lifestyle, thought process, my food, coffee, and alcohol consumption in order to optimize myself for this event.
Equipment was detailed and over thought. I rode every single day in the hardest winter in half a century. Two great nights of sleep were achieved the prior nights, and it was 4am Saturday downtown Grinnell. Game on.
This year entailed 336 miles of gravel, and Mark had said that there would be a considerable amount of hills and 10 B-roads. What Mark did not predict was the 30mph winds from the east all day.
Riding out in total darkness from the start with 103 other riders, my plan was simply to ride whatever pace my body was most comfortable with, and see who was around me an hour or two into the ride. I had numerous friends participating in the event, but I felt that getting into my personal pace was most essential at this stage of the event. After fifteen or twenty miles I was grouped up with two guys by the names of Dave Weis and Jerry Bilek. We chatted and got to know each other as we cruised over rollers at a reasonable speed to checkpoint #1 at mile 55 in Lynnville. The winds were starting to pick up from the east, and we rolled into the gas station to grab calories while some strong riders like Matt Gersib, Paul Carpenter, Mark Johnson, and others were hopping back on their bikes. If I recall correctly, we put about about 1.5 hours in the bank this leg, finishing in about 4 hours, about 8am.
This is about where we figured out the tempo for the rest of the day. We had previously been riding east to get to Lynnville, but while the winds had been substantial, we had no idea how long we would be riding into them. Turns out it would be just about all day until sunset.
The first of two sunrises.
Our group of Dave, Jerry, and I worked well together. Both Dave and Jerry were rookies, but both were quite strong and optimistic. I think one of the defining qualities of being able to ride your bike for a long duration is persistent optimism. All day long, we would talk about how many miles of tail wind we were putting in the bank for later. This type of thinking gets you through the day, and over the challenges that you are enduring. If you have to walk a B-road, that is simply a chance to eat some calories and stretch your legs. If you are in the middle of a 20% hill, well that one is a hard one.
1 of 11 B-roads. Some were ridable for me, some had to be walked, depending on if you were in a rain storm or not.
It was 120 miles to the next checkpoint, and during this time we saw a lot of riders. Sometimes they joined our group for a bit before falling off, and sometimes we joined their group before falling off. One instance was when we stopped to recruit a rider sitting on the side of the road hoping to increase our wind blocking numbers, and the Jeremy Kershaw train rolled up behind us. Jeremy had Andrea Cohen and another rider in tow, and apparently he had been the locomotive on the train for numerous miles. We figured we could boost our numbers to 8 and save some leg into the wind. Turned out Jeremy was pretty nonchalant about continuing to block the wind for everyone else as long as he could. And so the Kershaw Express continued into the 30mph winds.
Kershaw Express. Choo Choo.
After ten or fifteen miles our original group fell off of the train, feeling as if we couldn’t keep that pace and be fresh for the 220 miles to come. Dave was the only other one in the group that took a pull for the train and he was the first to fall back. I could tell him and I were in the same spot and needed a few calories, and Jerry had the same pacing feeling as us. The Kershaw Express roared into the distance as we sat up and ate some food.
We found a wild Doge.
A gas station came at mile 120 or so. During the stop I inhaled two pieces of Caseys Pizza. I noticed on the second slice that there was canadian bacon under the cheese, only notable because I haven’t ate (non-fish)meat in 11 years, and because I thought it was just cheese pizza. I removed the ham and ate the rest. Yum, calories. I also had another pepsi this stop, which while I rarely drink soda, the sugar and concentrated calories taste so good when you are trying to eat 300-400 calories every hour. I’ve heard sports nutritionists say the high fructose corn syrup is only bad if you are overweight, and is really good at packing on calories. Sounds like perfect fuel for a 34 hour long race, although they usually say to serve it flat to athletes. Dang Casey’s, you taste soooo good. I wonder how much Trans-Iowa helps the Casey’s economy? I probably created an entire gas station job personally. We devoured said food and about 15 minutes later we were pedaling again. About 11 hours of riding and 35-40 minutes of total unclipped time. Back into the wind.
Even if you were riding alone, you would always find a group of riders at the gas stations. Circa mile 120.
To give a quick spoiler, Dave, Jerry and I ended up riding together about 26 hours total. I couldn’t have had better guys to ride with. Dave was from Milwaukee and had been down to one of our shops gravel events before and was carrying our water bottle paraphernalia. Jerry owned a book store and was a multiple time Arrowhead 135 competitor. It was obvious that both these guys were very strong, and all of us being on the same page as far as speed and efficiency was amazing. If I was honest I would say both these guys were a bit stronger then I, but they seemed to appreciate the fact that I had experience from the year prior. Riding together never felt like anyone was off pace or being held back, and this is exactly what I was hoping would happen. Riding alone at my own honest pace the first hour or two was a good strategy.
Jerry Bilek is a good riding partner. He is tough as nails.
Fast B-road, shortly before checkpoint #2.
Rolling the rest of the way to Checkpoint #2 the hills continued. Dave would routinely mention the last hill hit 18% grade, and then we would be on the downhill and pedaling to keep our speed into the wind. It was relentless in a way that can only be endured if you remember that you are putting tailwind in the bank. Even when the wind was at our side, it was a struggle to keep the bikes vertical, but as a whole we never seemed to end paying into our savings. We finally rolled into the mile 176 checkpoint #2 at about 8pm, shortly before sunset. We had the last set of cue sheets in our hands now, there was only 160 miles to go!
Riding the ten or so miles from the checkpoint to the gas station at Norway the sun had set, and we arrived to find a plethora of riders looking shelled and waiting for rides. 185 miles of 30mph winds on hilly gravel will do that to anyone. I have to admit, sitting in an actual chair, eating “real” food, and being out of the wind felt incredible. I could just hear the sirens off in the distance, promising more. While taking oasis I proceeded to consume another pepsi, a quart of chocolate milk, mozzarella sticks, a fish sandwich, some trail mix, and another gel. The prior year my critical mistake was not eating enough and falling victim to sleeping on the bike, so I had been extra careful to eat a lot this year. As such I had been eating tons of food all day and hitting my 300 calories/hr goal, so I was feeling strong, but gas stations are always an uplifting oasis. Warm food tastes so good 200 miles into an event.
Rolling out into the night we were excited to cash in on the tailwinds we had been banking away, while also conscious of the 120 miles till the next gas station resupply. We made good time this stretch, but our pace was brought back down a bit by a flat tire, and trepidation from an imposing lightning storm. We caught Charlie Farrow(SS), and then Jay Barre(Fixed) along the road, and then went on ahead into the storm, which got nasty quick. It rained here and there, propelled by 30mph winds, and you kept looking at the cue sheet hoping you weren’t turning east into it, but sometimes you were.
During one particularly heavy rain fit we took shelter behind a barn, probably around 2am or so. During this respite I decided to satisfy an urge I had for the prior few miles, one that I was hoping would be a one hit wonder. Something had happened in my stomach during the 4 hours since we were at the last gas station, and it wanted out fast. Thankfully, I always pack wet wipes.
Something like 23 hours of riding at this point. Raining, windy, walking a B-road.
Bibs shorts are the best. I mean they really are better then any other option out there when it comes to comfort. Perhaps the only exception is when they require you to strip down completely naked in the middle of a cold 2am April thunderstorm, with varying amounts of shelter. Perhaps the only time they are even worse is when it’s not just a 2am thunderstorm, but also a 3am thunderstorm, and a 4am thunder storm, and a 5 am thunderstorm.
I don’t know where I went wrong. Most people think it was trusting a fish sandwich from Casey’s. Some people think it was eating 20-30 gels over the days course(recent study backs this up). Others think it was that tiny bit of Canadian Bacon hidden in the pizza. Jerry gave me some pepto bismol and we kept riding. Those guys were so good, they stopped and waited for me as I hid behind middle school garbage bins doing terrible things to the areas that janitors would see the coming days. Dear janitors, I am sorry. Love, anonymous.
I pressed on. I had told myself I was going to ride until I was passed out in a ditch, and had an emergency bivy in my bag to prove it. So I kept eating as much as I could, putting miles behind me, and waiting for the second sunrise of a long day on the bike. During the night, as we had made our numerous stops, we had been leap frogging a few riders for a while. We eventually formed a group of 7 riders as the sun rose over the horizon, for the second time. The group consisted of Dave, Jerry, and myself, plus Jay Barre, Jake Kruse, Agatha, and Peter. Jay, Jake, and Agatha have been riding friends for years, so to be with them this late into the event was pretty special for me. I was really pleased to see how strong and steady they were riding. We rode on, up more big hills, some hills walked for efficiency and some hills rode for pride. Into the growing sunlight we rolled.
After a while, the inevitable happened. Somewhere around mile 265-270, I did the one man wrestling match with my bibs behind a tree again while the others briefly changed clothing before remounting. I hopped back on my bike and pedaled off to catch the group a bit up the road, and it took effort to catch them. I had been getting mentally tired the last hour or two, and I was constantly thirsty despite drinking a large quantity of liquid. I could tell that my body was simply not absorbing any water or calories, and just spitting it out the back each hour. I had tried to push through the inconvenience until the end, but with seventy something miles left and no possibility of my body letting me refuel, I knew it was too far. I told Dave and Jerry, whom I had spent the last 26 straight hours with, to keep going without me. I crawled in a ditch for a few hours and waited for a ride. This was heartbreaking, as my legs felt strong, my bike was still comfortable, and all my prep had worked well. I need to be more cautious with what I eat apparently. There is always more to learn.
After a few hours of laying in the ditch, Gumby found me and took me back to the hotel to shower. I then ate some food and headed down to the finish line party.
I walked up the drive and gave Mark a hug, a tad bit moist in the face as I was hopping to do so under different circumstances. I gave a brief ride synopsis, he got me up to date on finishers, I walked briskly to an outhouse, and then we waited for more riders. Soon enough Josh Brown, Steve Fuller, Pat Lackey, and Mike Johnson all rolled in within minutes of each other. Steve Fuller won the race to empty his beer first, and exchanged words with Mark about how hard the course was.
After another half hour we realized there was less then an hour till the 34 hour time limit, and our friends were still battling the wind out there. The suspense was palpable, and we discussed how we thought they were doing. Ironically, just after we finished this conversation, another rider rolled down the last hill, it was Jerry Bilek. It was amazing to see Jerry roll into the finish, knowing that we helped each other get as far as we did. It made all of my expended energy valuable for a purpose other then my own memories and gratification. I shook his hand, retrieved my gore pants off his legs, and while I was talking to him another herd appeared over the hills crest. It was Jay, Jake, Agatha, Sarah Cooper, and another rider. We went nuts, and got quite emotional. It was an incredible experience to see our friends across the line, and intensified both my joy and heartbreak of sharing miles with them for so long, yet falling down short. We hugged, laughed, and did our best to look composed as everyone told stories. It was one of those grandiose moments that had it been a movie would have played in slow motion, with booming music, just before the credits rolled.
I drove home immediately following this. It was hard, and those 43 hours beginning at 1:40am Saturday were the longest I have ever stayed awake consecutively. So many thoughts. Probably why I haven’t put anything into words until now.
Trans-Iowa is an emotional experience. It is not a small investment of ones time and commitment if taken seriously, and I did.
Coming out the other side of this one, two weeks after the fact, I do find some solace in how well my preparations and training went. A lot of things went very well, and while the heartbreak is still there, I can look forward and know that what I learned getting ready for Trans-Iowa V10 will help me in what else is coming up.
I wouldn’t trade the memories and experience of April 26th-27th for anything. Thanks to Dave and Jerry for being the best guys I could have possibly rode so long with, all the other riders I shared smiles and miles with, everyone who helped volunteer, all of Grinnell, Salsa and Ergon for making bike stuff that I can ride forever and still smile, Wally and George for taking awesome photos, Slender Fungus for their work and for picking me up from a cold ditch, Ari for inspiring this madness in me years ago, North Central Cyclery for letting me go on so many adventures, and Mark Stevenson, for all the hard work in putting on the high water mark of all gravel events, ever.
I deeply love all of you.