Most know that April showers bring May flowers, but to myself and a band of fellow crazies, April brings a little ride with friends around the gravel roads of Central Iowa known as the one and only Trans Iowa (TI).
Many that I have mentioned TI to say, “so, is that RAGBRAI?” I always then try to keep a straight face. RAGBRAI is a 7 day party/tour across Iowa on paved roads. Although that is a nice challenge, TI is a completely different caliber of ride.
TI is a 340 mile, self-supported, gravel road race that is done all in one go. The route is unknown to competitors beforehand and changes every year. At what is termed as Check Point Zero, riders attend a meeting the night before the race where they receive cue cards with turn-by-turn directions to Check Point #1. There isn’t a GPX file of the course, just the cue sheets. The race starts 4:00AM in Grinnell, IA and IF you make it to CP1 before the time cutoff, you will earn the cue sheets to CP2. Make CP2 in time and you earn the cues to finish. No course info. No exceptions. No excuses. Make it on time or find your own way back. You are on your own. No SAG support or rest stops. This is self-supported racing.
I signed up and made the start of TI in 2015. In what is typical April weather for Iowa, the course was a wash out and not one person finished. To make matters worse for me, I made the almost unthinkable call to quit really early last year. At the start, it was in the 30’s with winds howling in our faces at 30+ MPH. Shortly after the start the rain began. The course had been soaked with rain in the days leading up to the race and with the added frost heaving from freeze and thaw, the roadbed was a mess, affectionately referred to as peanut butter. Roughly 13 miles in, I was cold, wet, exhausted and watching my hopes of a finish go down the drain. I pulled off the side of the road, called Guitar Ted (the race organizer) with my DNF and rode back to my hotel with my tail between my legs. I was dejected, embarrassed and frustrated.
Determined to make 2016 a completely different outcome, I trained harder through the winter and spring months. I also worked my setup over and felt more comfortable with it. When Jeneen (my beautiful and supportive wife who is also my emergency bailout plan) and I rolled out toward Iowa last Friday morning, I was much more confident than last year and better prepared.
CP#0, or The Meat-Up at the Grinnell Steakhouse was exciting! Of course, I checked in, got my bib number and signed the release waiver. Then it was on to say high to Mark Stevenson (aka: Guitar Ted) and thank him for putting this on. It is truly a labor of love that he and the volunteers do this. No sign-up fees mean he puts a lot of his own heart, soul, blood, sweat, tears AND money into this. That is not something lost on the racers either. We love him for it. He’s a cool dude. 🙂
Jeneen and I found a seat at a table full of familiar faces. St Louis area racers Jason Kulma, Pete Matschiner and Dave Derfel were there with their emergency bailout guy Ryan. The four of us racers had done a couple training rides together back home and it was great to be able to have a celebratory meal with them. Shortly my good friend Scott McConnell from TABR15 came in. There were hugs and smiles. The last time I saw Scott was when he came through my home town during TABR last June. He introduced me to an old friend of his Bill Graves. Bill and Scott are a special kind of crazy- they were both riding single speeds for the race!
We all ate, then went in the next room for the race meeting where we were called up by name to receive our race packet which included a few items of super cool swag and the cue sheets to CP1. Afterward, it was off to the hotel room to sort out gear and try to sleep. It was a challenge to fall asleep, but eventually I did somewhere around 10PM.
Although my alarm was set for 3AM, I woke an hour early. Jittery I guess. I laid there till the alarm went off, then shot up and got my things sorted. I threw my bike in the back of our rented van and Jeneen drove me to the start. I believe there were 87 riders who took the start. We all lined up together and with a honk of the lead car’s horn, off we went. TI.v.12 was underway.
It was a neutral roll out as we headed out of town behind the lead car. Once out of town and on gravel, the car took off ahead. Unlike last year, things were pretty chill out of the box as we all rolled along in one big group a mile or so. Folks started jockeying around a bit and I noticed that there was a break between where I was riding and some riders ahead. I didn’t want to get out in a lead group, but I didn’t want to get left too far behind either. Feeling fine, I jumped out and caught the group ahead. As we rode on, I could see in the distance that we weren’t the lead group. That made me feel good. I knew I had no business trying to hang out front, so chilling in the second group sounded good.
The roads were in primo shape at this point. Mostly wore in gravel with easy lines. Nothing wet or muddy and super easy rolling. The hills weren’t even that bad. It was a really nice ride!
The group rolled along at a comfortable yet fairly good pace and we were making good time. Somewhere around 25 miles in, I felt the pressure in my bladder swelling. I needed to go, but didn’t want to fall off the group. After a few miles, I decided to just go and made my stop. As I stood alone on the side of the road, I watched the pack roll away. Not what I wanted to happen, but nature calls.
Once back on the road, I sprinted to chase the group down. In what turned into about a 7 mile sprint to catch them, I burned up “some matches” and was a bit smoked when I finally caught them. Once back on the pack, I kinda felt like I was struggling to stay on. A couple miles from CP#1, I let them go and decided to roll my own pace. I didn’t slow much, but I figured it was going to be a really long day and there wasn’t any sense in going faster than I wanted just to hang with the group. I ended up rolling into CP#1 (53 miles) about 7:30AM, a full hour ahead of the cutoff and less than a minute after the group.
Most of the group was organizing gear, eating, adjusting cue sheets and whatnot. I grabbed my cues for the next leg, put them in my holder and rolled on. My thought was I would get out in front of the group rolling easy, when they came by I would chill with them a bit saving some energy, then drop off to my own pace again and just do my own thing.
It took longer than I thought for the group to catch up and when they did, I realized that it had splintered into several smaller groups. Basically folks were adjusting to smaller alliance groups that they intended on riding with into the night. It was still really early, but smart strategy. I felt like I just wanted to do my own thing. As the miles wore on, I would ride with folks here and there, but really I was on my own. Once in awhile I would get passed by small groups, only to find them sitting on the side of the road later fixing a flat, adjusting clothes, mulling over cues or answering nature’s call. It felt a bit like the tortoise and the hare. I just kept moving. Folks would pass, but I would eventually make up the slack.
At one particularly interesting possible turn, there was a large group stopped at what was signed as 13th Ave Trail, a nasty looking B-level road (these are low-to-no maintenance roads that are mostly dirt and not passable with a regular vehicle) that went up quite a hill. I had been utilizing my cheap bike computer, zeroing it at every turn and doing the math on the cue sheet to determine how far it was to the next turn. It showed that I had come 2 miles since the last turn and my cue said to make a right on 13th Ave at 3 miles. While the group “discussed” it, I rolled on through and ahead. Sure thing, a mile ahead was 13th Ave. I was now out in front of the group, but it wouldn’t stay that way the whole way.
Somewhere around that time, Balvindar Singh (who was riding a fat bike!) started riding with me. We chatted and seemed to ride together well. On the climbs, he would get away from me, but I would catch him on the downs. On the flat areas we seemed to be very well matched. It was a good fit so we rode on together. This would be the arrangement for most of the remainder of the race.
With tail winds and mostly flat to rolling hills, the miles in the middle flew by. Soon we were approaching CP#2 (160 miles). As we watched the cues, we continued to tack north and west with a steady south wind. Not really knowing where we were, we still knew that eventually we would need to turn and go back the other way. My hope was that when the sun went down, it would (hopefully) reduce the wind and make that turn easier. Just 4 or 5 miles from CP#2 we made that first turn south. For 3 miles it was straight into a stiff headwind. It wasn’t much fun. The night would be long and difficult if the wind didn’t lay down.
With a turn to the west, we were out of the wind, but soon the road turned to B-level and got very sandy. My 35mm tires wouldn’t hold up, so I was off and walking. Bal was on 5″ fatty tires, so this was gravy for him. He rode on ahead and reached the check point a few minutes before me. Once I got out of a gullied area, I was able to get back on and ride on the side of the road in the grass where there wasn’t much sand. I rolled into CP#2 at 4:25PM a full 3 hours and 5 minutes ahead of the cutoff. This was super exciting for me! I had done the first 160 in 12.5 hours. Now I had the cues to get to the end of the race AND a whopping 21.5 hours to finish the next 180 miles. I was in great shape!
I rolled on ahead, catching up to Bal and in just a couple miles we came across a c-store (it was actually the third or fourth one). Time to fuel up and prepare for the night!
After eating and loading up on fluids, we were back at it. At this point, things really started mushing together in my brain. I know we road another 20-30 miles, then came across another store. It hadn’t been very long, but I was feeling pretty low. We stopped, I ate (again) and we saw a guy who was pulling the plug. I can’t remember his name, but he was the first I had heard of pulling. He said his gut was tore up and he couldn’t handle any food. Without being able to fuel, he didn’t want to risk going into the night. It made sense. My gut was feeling pretty rough too, but I wasn’t ready to even begin thinking like that. As I tried to get my head in the game, Will Ritchie was there and suggested I drink a Coke. I did, then used the restroom. I was taking too long and in the mean time, Bal wanted to get going so he rode on.
When I got back on the bike, I felt like a new man! The sun was setting, but I felt really good and was laying down the miles. Soon it was dark and not too far ahead I came across Bal. We settled in on the road together and prepared to battle the sleep monster as we cycled into the night.
Here lies another bit that seemed to all run together. I know it was dark and the road was gravel. Eventually I was running desperately low on food and liquid. We had skirted several towns, each time teasing me thinking we might be getting ready to pass through and hit a c-store, only to go on past the lights and find nothing. When we finally rolled into State Center, I just KNEW we would find a store. I had zero water left and just a couple little things to munch on. It was all a mute point if I had no fluid. We came into town, crossed the tracks, turned down the main drag and nothing. Absolutely nothing but closed business and houses. It was nearly 2:30AM and I was getting desperate. I started eyeing the sides of buildings looking for a hose bib I could grab some water out of. I didn’t want to do that at a house for fear of getting shot, but a business might work. Nothing. As we rode on ahead, I was feeling pretty despondent, when all at once I could see the lights of a gas station!!! The heavens parted, angels sang and I probably yelled a little. I apologize to the good people of State Center if I woke you.
We pulled up to the Casey’s and it looked like a used bike lot outside. As soon as I stopped, I got chilled. The temps were dropping a bit and I was needing water and food. I dove inside to find a whole bunch of racers there. Jason Kulma, Bill Graves, Andrea Cohen and Vin Cox, plus others. We were a haggard looking bunch. I bought food and drink, then plopped in the floor and started taking in the supplies. Soon I was warm, but realized I had forgot to bring in my bottles. I went out to get them and immediately started shivering uncontrollably. Everybody was saying the same thing. We were all sweating, it was warm in the c-store and the temps had dropped. I went back inside to fill my bottles, added an extra layer and went to the restroom to wash my hands with warm water. Best to get a head start on it and try to keep things as warm as possible. In the mean time, Jason had left to go chase a group he had been riding with. Vin Cox had been riding with them as well, but wasn’t feeling real well. He waited and left just ahead of Bal and I, saying he thought we would catch him. I wouldn’t see him again.
Once back on the bike, I warmed up pretty quick, but then again, we started seeing pretty good hills too. Soon we made a little loop along a bike trail and through a small town. A missed turn put us back on a road we had already been on. It took a few minutes more than it should have in our sleep deprived state to figure it all out, back track and find the right road. The hours ticked off, but once again, it all ran together.
Right about 6:30AM, we rolled into a little town. I was looking for the c-store Guitar Ted had mentioned that should be our last stop. He had said that the early guys might miss it because it wouldn’t be open yet, but I swore he said it opened at 4AM. Surely I wasn’t fast enough to miss it. As we rounded a turn and a closed store came into view, I realized my fate. I wasn’t that fast, but I had certainly gotten there before they opened. There would be no more stops for me. Taking inventory of my supplies, I was concerned I had enough. I would have to make it enough.
We rode on. The hills got hillier. The gravel got MUCH chunkier. I got pretty thirsty and REALLY hungry! The legs were going away. It wasn’t long and I just didn’t have the power to push the legs up a hill. On the steepest ones, I was walking. At first I felt defeated. Then I didn’t care. I was near 300 miles of gravel! That’s a pretty big deal!
Soon I was cranky. I think Bal was too. He was also stronger at this point than me and seemed to have no trouble climbing the hills. I was now paying for my 220lb body on the nasty fresh gravel climbs. Bill Graves, Brian Gillies and Keisuke Inoue caught us. I tried to hang on with them and Bal, but it was no use. I let the four of them go and once again was on my own with 20-30 miles left. I knew I was ok on time. I could nearly walk it in from this point, but I was spent, the wind had picked up and I just couldn’t keep a decent pace.
As I got to what would be the last B-level road, I slowed to a walk, ate most of the last of my food and drank the last of my water. Once I reached the top of the hill, I hopped back on and dug deep for my last push. I was a little over 10 miles out, I had nothing left to drink, almost nothing to eat and nothing left to give, but I would not let this race beat me. I would finish.
Those last ten miles were a death march. The first 5 or so were heading East, but then the route turned south and into the wind. It was brutal, but I knew I was close. Soon enough, I saw the edge of town and found myself on pavement. Civilization! And only a mile or so to go!!!
I rolled into the finish line to cheers. Guitar Ted, volunteers, other riders and their friends/families were there. Most important to me, Jeneen was there and I hadn’t needed to call her! I had finished at 11:12AM, 31 hours and 12 minutes. Well before the 2PM cutoff, but that wasn’t all that important. I had done it!! To finish was the prize. Time was irrelevant to me.
The remainder of the day was a blur. I was exhausted. I rushed back to our hotel, stripped down naked and fell asleep in the floor. Jeneen said I didn’t move a muscle for 2 hours. Even then, I only needed a blanket as my sunburn and the AC was freezing me. After another two hours I woke to find myself famished. I showered, dressed and we headed to downtown Grinnell to find food. We ate at a great Mexican place and saw Crystal Wintle and Jon VanDis. They had come in after the cutoff, but finished none the less. I soon found out that my good friend Scott McConnell was still out on course! Jeneen and I headed to the finish line to wait for him.
It was bitter sweet seeing Scott come in. On one hand I was heartbroken for him that he was after the cutoff, but on the other hand, he had not only done the deed, but in my opinion, in the most heroic fashion! After finishing TABR last year and having major issues with achilles tendonitis, he took months off to recover, even into the winter. With work and family obligations, he had spent almost zero time on his bike this spring in prep for the race. Knowing full well he was severely behind the eight ball, he made the start anyway and did it. He unofficially finished Trans Iowa….for the 3rd time. This man does’t know the word quit.
Seeing Scott come across the finish line in such a fashion and hearing stories about folks like Bill Graves who have tried literally for years and years, only to be rejected by any and all sorts of issues, really put things in perspective for me and humbled me. Yes, I finished Trans Iowa and I will always remember that, but it was under the best possible conditions. Over the prior 12 years of TI, most of the other finishers have only been able to call themselves finishers after years of trial, error and disappointment and more than likely, through much worse conditions than I can imagine. I don’t say these things to take away from those that finished this year. I only say them to acknowledge those that came before. Those who finish TI are few and they are hardened, gritty, bad-assed men and women. I consider it a privilege to be on that list, even if it is at the bottom.