First thing I need to do is thank my sponsors because they make it all possible Detours bags, Finish Line, Hawaiian Island Creations, Nathan Sports, Niterider, Showers Pass, Skins Compression, Speedfil, Sportquest Direct, Team Sho Air, Woolistic
I have tried several times to start this race report and each time I just don’t know where to start. Do I start from the beginning? How far back to the beginning? Or do I start from the end and work my way backwards? Or just hop around as the thoughts come to my head? Well I will begin again and this time from the beginning. I will write the events in chronological order and let my epilogue be the catch-all. However, I still reserve the right to jump around. See if you can follow along.
Ok so for the A.D.D. people out there here is the headline– I FINISHED TRANS IOWA V.5. IT WAS 314 MILES AND 31 HOURS AND 58 MINUTES OF GRAVEL CRUNCHING PAIN AND SUFFERING. ONLY 15 FINISHERS OUT OF 52 STARTERS. I WAS A TOP TEN FINISHER BUT FINISHING IS A TRIUMPH IN AND OF ITSELF. TO DATE, BY MY COUNT, THERE HAS BEEN ONLY 55 FINISHERS. MY EDUCATED GUESS IS THERE HAVE BEEN ABOUT 250 STARTERS.
This madness all started with another insane challenge. At the end of the 2006 season, I had this crazy idea that I would do Furnace Creek 508 on a Fixed Gear in 2007. Up until that point only 5 people in 32 runnings (that’s thousands of racers) of the race had ever done it Fixed.
I began my search for a steel fixie with road geometry and horizontal dropouts. I found a shop named Ben’s Cycle and Fitness in Milwaukee. They sold/sell a bike made by Waterford called the Milwaukee Bicycle Co.
I called the shop and spoke to Andy. We had many conversations on my bike build and in one of those conversations he mentioned Trans Iowa to me. I listened with some interest but I already had a full plate for 2007. I had scheduled a few Double Centuries Fixed, Race Across America and Furnace Creek 508 as my A race for the year. But there was one thing he said that stayed with me. He stated that the finishing rate was really low and that it would be a real test of my endurance. In 2006, there were no official finishers of Trans Iowa.
Fast forward two years and I’m talking to Andy again in Sept of 2008. I am driving to the Eastern Sierra Mountains to participate in the California/Nevada State Climbing Championships in a race called Everest Challenge, 29,000 feet of climbing in a two day stage race. Participate is all I would do since I use it as a training race for Furnace Creek which is 10 days later.
Brandy and I were stuck in traffic so Andy had our full attention now. He tells me again about the low finishing rate for 2008 (in 2008 there were only 5 finishers) and that I should REALLY try it for 2009. By the way, Brandy went on to finish the two day stage race (I was a finisher in 2005 and 2006). I had had a stomach thing beginning two days prior the race that precluded me from finishing.
What makes people like me and us so different? What is the allure of low finishing rates, high elevation gain to mileage ratios, extreme heat, extreme cold or remote conditions that turns us on so much? Why doesn’t a 60 minute Criterium satisfy me. I mean I’m racing right doesn’t that get it out of our system? I tried USCF racing. I wasn’t very good at it at the CAT 5, CAT 4 level. I seemed to be consistently in the 12th-20th places with no sprint to speak of. But I always was left wanting. Is that it? Is that all there is? Even after doing 2,3 or 4 crits in a day I was left unsatisfied. I tried some road racing as well. I got dropped. I also didn’t fit in with the totally amped up attitude. Playing Russian Roulette with my bike and my body every race was also not fun. I work in a shop I see so many USCF’ers coming in needing new bikes because they crashed on Sunday. Ok I’ll admit it I sucked at USCF racing but put me on a 200+ mile event I feel like I’m at home. Besides, I like to go somewhere on my bike not in circles. So that was the end of my USCF career.
When I returned from Everest Challenge I contacted a fellow epic adventure seeker and after a few email exchanges we were committed to doing the race in 2009. Now even though I was mentally committed to doing the race I had a few challenges ahead of me.
This might be a good time to tell you about my equipment and logistical challenges. I didn’t dare tell the field at the start line in Williamsburg some of the things I will bear to you today. They might not have let me in their paceline had they known.
1. I don’t own a MTB or a CX bike. I didn’t want to “have to” buy one for just this race.
2. I had never ridden a Mountain Bike
3. I had never ridden a CX bike
4. I had never ridden gravel.
5. I had never been on tires wider than 28mm which I put on our tandem so Brandy and I would have some comfort on our Ultras. I also had done only one Rough Ride up to Santiago Peak but it definitely was more of a fire road than GRAVEL and it was on my Cannondale CAAD9 Road Bike.
6. My dilemma, which I’m sure I shared with others racers, was what bike was I going to ride?
7. And of course the x-factor what would Mother Nature bring to this years race?
I committed to the race organizers in November. I sent my postcard under the specific instructions provided by Guitar Ted. I figured I had months to figure out my LACK of bike and LACK of skills situation.
As the winter months went by, I communicated with G-Ted on several occasions about current weather conditions, bike choices, tire choices and so on. He was so patient with me. I thought for sure at some point he would tell me to stop bugging him. I guess I was being introduced to the goodness of the Midwest folks.
Another example of this goodness came in the form of a comment on my blog by Buckshot77. He commented when I found out I had made the race roster for TI V.5. He just said lightly if I had questions to let him know. Little did I know that Buckshot77 would turn out to be the golden ticket.
Fast forward to just a couple of weeks before race day, I still didn’t have a bike for Trans Iowa. The economic downturn had affected our home as well. Buying a new bike for just this race was just not in the budget. I sought a bike sponsor but the obscurity of the race precluded someone from taking a chance on me.
Buckshot came to the rescue and offered his bike err…frame. Now all I had to do is fly into Des Moines and rebuild his frame with my components, work on my fit on CX geometry and I would be set. Sounds easy enough right?
So the question you are asking yourself is who is crazy enough to fly into town, build someone else’s bike to his spec and race it the next day on a 314 mile Ultra endurance gravel race? Umm…someone who really didn’t have another choice. Someone like me!
Buckshot77 not only lent me his bike but he hosted me. In addition to all his hospitality, he even hooked up a ride for me to and from the race start/finish with another Trans Iowa racer Steve Fuller.
Buckshot77 took me on two hour ride on Friday morning so I could check over the build and the fit. We stopped a couple of times to adjust my saddle height and fore and aft. He gave me a taste of gravel roads and a B road. I was feeling really discouraged about my race based on the condition of said B road. The mud was so black so sticky it seized everything and clung to my brand new MTB shoes. Did I mention I had never been MTB’ing? Well I also had never used MTB shoes or MTB pedals SPD in this case.
NOTICE MY BRAND SPANKING NEW SHINY MTB SHOES
After our bike check it was time to meet Steve Fuller at Rasmussen’s Bike shop in West Des Moines. I walked around aimlessly wondering if I had forgotten anything. While there, I met Sterling, a great guy with a sense of humor. I won’t forget him running around in a Mavic compression shirt stretched down below his shorts and…let me stop there. He was nice enough to hook me up with some Schwag! Thank you.
Pre-race meeting was short and sweet. Get your goody bag, sign a waiver hear a few last minute admin notes and we were out of there. I felt like an outsider. I was many miles from home and I was entering a new field of racing …Gravel.
Race day I’m up at 2:30 am. I ate an English muffin with peanut butter and took my SPORTQUEST supplements Vantage and Recover. My nutrition plan was simple. I would use CarboPro 1200 in my Nathan Synergy Hydration pack.
The Synergy is a dual chamber bladder. It has a total capacity of 100 oz. You can put 80oz in the water chamber and 20 oz in the fuel or electrolyte chamber. I personally NEVER carry straight water. I consider it a waste of precious capacity. Especially when doing unsupported Ultras every liquid carrying vessel will have fuel in it. The Synergy hydration pack was awesome. It had just the right amount of storage. I was able to carry my Topeak Morph pump in it. In the two front pockets I carried my Vantage VO2 and Recover Amino Pro in one and my camera in the other. It was comfortable and very practical. It was very light feeling and cleaned up very easily after the event. I highly recommend the Nathan Synergy pack.
I poured four bottles of CarboPro 1200 (that’s 1200 calories per 16 oz bottle) 64 oz of fuel and 36 oz of water. My plan was to just need water as the event went on. Basically I was carrying 5,000 calories on my back.
5,000 calories @ 400 calories/hr = 12 hours worth of fuel.
I nursed the concentrated fuel mixture for hours and hours. Even in this highly concentrated strength I never had an upset stomach. By the way SPORTQUEST doesn’t recommend such a high concentrate but in my opinion this race course, with so many unknowns demanded it and it worked for me.
I strongly recommend using Sportquest products. If you have had digestive issues with other nutrition products Sportquest is really easy on your stomach. You could experiment with Carbo Pro to start.
Fuller knocked on my door right on time and we roll from the hotel at a little after 3:30. We arrive at the start area which was a cemetery. In a weird way it felt appropriate. We had arrived with plenty of cushion before the 4am neutralized start.
The weather was cool but very nice. I was wearing a Skins Long Sleeve compression garment as my base layer, and three short sleeve jersey with my Rough Riders jersey as my top layer, and my Skins Bib tights. I believe it was in the mid 40’s.
We roll out and the pacelines begin to form. I can’t tell you how nervous I was… ok I was scared shitless. We were going 20+ MPH in a pace line at 4 O’clock in the morning on gravel. The bike was bouncing all over the place and holding a line was nearly impossible. The riders in front of me were all over the place as well. Just as I would get comfortable with how the bike was handling the gravel BAM! we would hit fresh gravel and everything would change. If you haven’t experienced this— it is nerve-racking until you relax and let your instincts take over. Remember this pure instinct because I can’t rely on experience I HAD NEVER RIDDEN GRAVEL much less RACED in it. But here I was doing it. In a short amount of time we had destroyed the main field and we were less than 25 then less than 20 and then less than 15.
I arrived at CP#1 Washington 40 miles into the race, at 6:23 am (there’s no way I’d remember that it’s from my cycling computer), with about 15 racers. We got our cue sheets for the next leg and within seconds the lead riders were rolling off. Luckily I was vigilant and jumped back on the bike. There were six of us leaving town together. We got a little lost. Charlie Farrow and I shared some quick laughs and once back on course we resumed race mode.
Things were going well for me as far as my nutrition. I also felt like I had good legs. A few miles out of town Joe M puts on an “attack”, probably more like a surge, and I think to myself, REALLY? I think whoa it’s too early in the race for this. We were a small break of six riders and we could really put a serious time gap on the chase group. The attack caught me off-guard and I didn’t chase. I hesitated and it cost me dearly. By the time I decided to chase the gap had opened up to 15 seconds and there were two up the road. Charlie F. was the first to react and he and Joe were gapping the four of us. We got strung out and I was caught out. I was now fighting a headwind and in Time Trial mode chasing. I closed within 10 seconds but just couldn’t reel them in. I just didn’t have it. I remember saying that’s the winning break. Why? Because the riders in that group were strong, really strong.
I was disappointed with myself for my hesitation. I was now in the proverbial no man’s land. I then backed off and waited to get picked up by the chase group.
At some point we hit a pretty muddy road and I see Charlie Tri. He says his rear der. is AFU and he is converting his bike to a single speed. I offer some assistance but it’s apparent that this is a one man job. I decide maybe this a good Kodak moment and snap his picture. We roll off together just as the chase crew comes along and envelopes us. Charlie’s bike just didn’t want to cooperate with his three goals. The chain didn’t want to remain in the gear he had chosen. I found out later he broke his chain many more times before his ordeal was over.
I tried to stay with the chase group but I had cooled off a bit from hanging out with Charlie so I got dropped by the second group. The details are hazy so I don’t really remember why I got dropped. I remember the headwinds oh I remember the headwinds.
I was again in no man’s land as the lead and chase groups were up the road and I had no idea how far behind another paceline would be. A SS’er came and went. And then along came Jeremy. I don’t remember what mile it was but it was somewhere around or after North English. Or maybe before oh heck I can’t remember. What I do remember was Enduro Snob rolling out of North English before me. His pink Indy Fab bike is so recognizable. I remember seeing it in pictures from previous TI’s. I do remember the headwinds. We were heading Northwest and West and the headwinds were demoralizing me. Yes the headwinds bear repeating. Just like the rollers later.
The only other thing I remember about the long haul (only 111 miles 😉 to checkpoint #2 was the incessant rollers. I couldn’t believe how you could string together sooo many rollers. Oh Guitar Ted and d.p. I was cursing you guys then. But it’s ALL GOOD NOW! On and on they went many of them so steep that Enduro Snob, on his SS, would dismount and walk up. After muscling up my fair share of these rollers I decided to swallow my pride and dismount and walk with him. Jeremy was struggling as well but he looked the best out of the three of us.
Being an experienced Ultra cyclist, I knew that energy conservation was the key to finishing this endurance event. However, even with this knowledge ingrained in my psyche I was getting my ass kicked! Mentally, I was not in the game. This rolling terrain was not what I had expected. Why had I thought that Iowa was flat? Or at very worst gentle rollers.
The other thing I was struggling with was how many hours it was taking me/us to cover the course. We weren’t at Checkpoint #2 yet and I was feeling overwhelmed with the slow-going nature of this event. I was falling asleep and feeling lethargic. At one point, I just pulled over, dismounted and sat against a fence post. It was only 4pm and I could’ve really used a good long sleep at that point.
It was a good seven minutes later before I got back on the bike. I couldn’t believe what I saw as I crested one of the rollers, Jeremy and Enduro Snob were waiting for me at the top of some distant roller. As I dipped down, I lost sight of them. I felt as though I was bobbing up and down in the ocean and every now and then I would catch a glimpse of the ship I was swimming towards. It was that glimpse that would give me hope as I crested and dropped into another chasm. As I climbed back up yet another effing roller there they were waiting for me. I said the only thing I could say “thanks for waiting”. And that my friends was a line the three of us would repeat to each other until checkpoint #2. Jeremy and I had the distinct pleasure of continuing that said process until the finish.
We arrived at Le Grand at 5pm two hours before the cut-off. Jeremy had talked about DNF’ing while enroute to CP#2. Enduro Snob was having Achilles issues and pulled the plug at Le Grand. My Achilles tendon was hurting as well but not enough to DNF. This was a “new bike build”. I was 151 miles into this race and my saddle height wasn’t perfect yet but I wasn’t going to mess with it now.
I was hungry and feeling ok considering. It was 13 hours into the event and I still had some of my CarboPro 1200 mix left in my Nathan Synergy pack. I topped it off with water. DNF’ing was the furthest thing from my mind. I learned a long time ago that your pain and malaise would be temporary but a DNF would haunt me forever. Well at least it has that effect on me. I wasn’t going to fly all the way from California to DNF in Iowa.
My theory on DNF’s goes like this if your machine can not be repaired or jerry-rigged to finish the event then you call it a day. If you have an injury that will take more than two weeks to heal then you also have no other option. I got that two week thing from somewhere and I apologize that I can’t remember where.
HERE IS AN EXAMPLE OF THE MACHINE NOT BEING ABLE TO BE JERRY-RIGGED BROKEN CARBON HANDLEBARS FROM CRASHING INTO A SNOW STAKE 10 DAYS BEFORE RAAM 2007 ON THE EASTERN SIERRA DOUBLE CENTURY ABOUT 70 MILES IN I FELL ASLEEP AND RAN OFF THE ROAD. SINCE THAT INCIDENT ALL NEW BIKE BUILDS HAVE ALLOY HANDLEBARS.
I DNF’d a 400km brevet once after 225 miles and another 40 to go (including two long climbs) and about 4 hours left of a 27 hour time limit. I had gotten lost several times in the desert east of San Diego. I was in terrible shape even after sitting an hour in a casino, having had the breakfast special. But you know almost immediately after I called for that ride I felt good. And once I got in the car for the long ride back to the start I felt great!
I went into Trans Iowa with no real bailout plan. Sure I had Fuller’s number but I was not calling anyone to pick me up. In addition, my flight back to California was not until Monday morning so I was either going to ride back to Williamsburg or Des Moines. Either way I was not calling for a ride.
I was able to convince Jeremy, remember he wanted to DNF at CP #2, to continue and we rolled off without Enduro Snob. For some reason, much of the next section is mostly a blur. Jeremy and I made our way to Checkpoint #3. It was around 1am I think. The store was closed but someone was nice enough to provide pizza for us late-comers. I was very appreciative regardless of how cold the pizza was. So a big thank you to the responsible party.
It brought a smile to my face to see Enduro Snob at Trear CP#3. He could have easily gone all the way to the start/finish and get some sleep or ice his Achilles. But no, there he was, still on the course volunteering at CP# 3. I suited up for the overnight ride behind the building. I had to strip down and get re-dressed. Purely by chance I discovered a little piece of heaven. One of the HVAC fans was putting out air that was warmer then the ambient air and it just enough to get my mind off the cold night air and take off the chill. I put on my Woolistic 100 % Merino wool long sleeve base layer put my jerseys back on arm warmers and my Showers Pass shell.
Jeremy and I rolled off together and it was time to face the demons. If you haven’t done overnight Ultras the next few paragraphs are going to go over your head. But if you have then we are brothers in arms. First phase or symptom is the overall fatigue. The calorie and fat deficit from the 20+ hours of riding really come into play now. If there has been extreme heat or cold during the previous daylight hours you are typically in really sad shape before you begin your overnight adventure. The heat has left you dehydrated most of the day and you pray for sunset. On the other extreme, the cold of the day has required more calories to keep your body core temperature where your body likes to function
Second phase or “symptom” comes in the form of your battle with the Sandman — your sleep deprivation battle. The battle between your conscious mind and your Circadian rhythms. You play games now where you trade two seconds of shut-eye with misguided and unfounded hopes of magical alertness that will follow. You wonder why you can’t have this type of sleep when you’re at home on your comfy bed. It continues to worsen as you believe you can actually ride with your eyes closed and nothing will happen. But then you snap back to reality as you find yourself inches from impending doom– the ditch on the side of the road or heading into oncoming traffic.
Then your conscious mind takes over and you become rational. You pull over and think if I can just take a 10 minute power nap I will be ready to go. I don’t know if this happens to you but as soon as I pull over and dismount I’m WIDE awake and there is no way I can catch a nap. So I get back on the bike and start the cycle over. This cycle repeats itself for hours and hours. For me this weakness manifiests itself between the hours of 2am and 5am. No amount of caffiene, sugar or calistenics (yes I’ve done them and push-ups) on the side of the road helps. Some overnighters are better than others but at varying levels I experience all aforementioned “symptoms” of sleep deprivation.
Jeremy and I rode, walked and trudged through gravel and B roads through the night. We were inseparable and many times we went what seemed like hours without talking to each other. It’s incredible the bond you can create when suffering with someone else through the dark of night. The bond is unspoken. The respect is earned and given without question. We are in this together and we’ll come out the other end together. Sounds melodramatic? Go do an unsupported overnighter “out there” and report back.
We were on the bike 24+ hours when we came to the Hwy 30- Hwy 63– W Ross point of our race. We were lost. We had come out of a B-Road and couldn’t find W Ross. We went up a long gentle climb (but a climb nonetheless) and then down the hill back to where we started. Yep we were lost. I was very frustrated. This is the final phase of the battle with the overnight demon. This is when your resolve is tested. This is what separates the heros and the also-rans in our story. The hero, in his weakest and most vulnerable state, must slay the overnight demon. Someone lesser and not up to the task will just break down on the side of the road.
Picture if you will, two fatigued, sleep deprived, and hungry cyclists on the side of the road in the dark of night with a cue sheet that only has the essential left and right turns with no other descriptors to aid you. You look at your computer and compare with the other rider. You try to act in control but inside you are first frustrated then you’re seething because there should be no doubt. You seek clarity. You doubt yourself wondering if you missed a turn. You wonder if you were awake enough to notice anything that would have kept you on course. Time precious time ticks away as you waste time trying to find your way. You know you are quarry to another rider/riders coming behind you so you dare not tarry.
This was not the first time we were off course that night or that day for that matter. But there is that one time in every race you remember the most and this was it. Finally, I said let’s find food (I was starving AGAIN) and then we’ll figure it out. Lo and behold when we pull into to a gas station in Toledo (I think) there are three (I think) other riders one of which is Ben Shockey.
It was 4:48 am of Sunday morning and we were about 50 miles from the finish. I ate a roller dog. I should’ve had two. I just didn’t know how my stomach would react to it. Ben informs us that they have found the W Ross turn and that we are close to it from the gas station.
We all (five riders I think) rolled off together but Jeremy and I were feeling good so we found our pace which was just slightly faster than Ben’s group. The countdown has begun. We are counting down the miles and the clock is still on our side to be considered official finishers. I’m in a strange and unfamiliar role. It has been years since I have had to worry about making the finishing time on an event to be considered an official finisher. But this is Trans Iowa and things are different for me here.
Soon after leaving Toledo you could just see the beginning of a sunrise. It is amazing the hope and relief that first light brings to a downtroddened and defeated cyclist. To that overally fatigued cyclist, the colors in the sky are just as beautiful as a sunset. First you see just the outer edge of this fabulous fireball. Then as if the curtains are opened, and the leading actor takes his mark on the stage, the sun, oh glorious sun, blinds you with it’s brilliance. I felt refreshed. I felt like this new day would wipe away all the pain and suffering of the previous 24 hours. I felt like no matter what happened next I was going to finish now. We were only a “club ride” away from the finish.
All was going well for Jeremy and I. The new day had dawned. We were resupplied and more importantly back on course. Wouldn’t you know it, his rear der cable snapped or something like that. We pulled over to repair it and even though he urged me to go on without him I insisted that I would stay with him and we would cross that finish line together. As we are repairing Jeremy’s bike, here comes Ben’s group and they have picked up another rider, Charlie Farrow. They stopped and asked if we needed anything and then rolled on.
One more fuel stop at Belle Plaine (39 miles from the finish) where we see Ben and Charlie’s group. Once back on the road I was on fire. I was a horse heading back to stables. We hit some flatter roads before another section of those GD rollers. But I was Big-Ringing them and feeling on top of the world. Jeremy was not feeling the same. I had made my decision a couple of hundred miles ago that Jeremey and I would finish together and so I throttled back. We crossed the line with a couple of hours to spare before the cut-off. I was a Trans Iowa V.5 finisher. My placing didn’t matter as much as being able to say I finished. The cowbell and the cheering brought up so many emotions but all I could do was smile … and smile.
Photos courtesy of K. Steudel