After months of focused training, weeks of optimistically watching the weather forecast, days of frantic packing/repacking and tweaking the bike set-up, and hours of restless sleep, the time arrived for my second attempt at the epic race known as Trans Iowa. This time I had a better understanding of what I had gotten myself into but was still apprehensive about how the next 30+ hours would unfold. My goal was to finish, have a great time, push my self to the limit, lean on my faith in tough times and create some memories to last a lifetime. Mission accomplished!
The organizers strongly encourage you have a bail out plan. This would be someone staying in the start and finishing town of Grinnell that could be called to pick you up in case of a mechanical, physical or mental break down during the event. This race is not supported in any way. If you don’t have a bailout plan you are on your own. I was flying without a net because quitting was not an option. Last year I headed back to Grinnell on 40 miles of pavement knowing I would not make the next checkpoint. If I would have kept riding they would have stopped me 30 miles later and I would have been a finisher instead of a quitter. That was not going to happen this year. I was not stopping until I reach the finish line or somebody pulled me off the bike. My plan was that each time I wanted to quit I would say a quick prayer asking for the strength to continue. There would be times I was “tossing them up” quite regularly.
The race starts at 4:00 am and is located 3 miles from the hotel I was staying in. At 3:30 I rolled out of the hotel towards the start. It was 45 degrees, nice breeze out of the south and foggy. Almost a repeat of last years except there was no rain in the forecast. Temperatures were forecasted to be mid to upper 50’s, sunny and breezy out of the west. The night before we received the cue sheets to the first checkpoint 53 miles into the race in the town of Baxter. We would be going into the wind right away.
The opening pace over the slimy roads was controlled for the first hour and I was not having any problems hanging on. My plan was to stick with the lead group as long as I could and build a time cushion for cut-offs. I did not want to blowup so I would have to keep the ego in check and make sure I knew when to let them go. I had no aspirations of competing in this event just completing. Our first mud road came at the 12.5 mile mark. There was some navigation confusion already because the cue sheet said we had a left turn at mile 13 on 110th street and the intersection was 108th street. The group consensus was to continue on the mud road looking for 110th. This mile long mud road was not rideable so walking in the ditch was the only option. This would have made a really neat video with 40-50 red lights, single file, snaking through the pre-dawn darkness in the middle of no where. Looking the other directions would have shown the line of head lights. Once off mud we continued for about a mile before realizing we should have turned left BEFORE the mud road. 30 minutes of lost time. By the time we got back to the mud road the last riders we just finishing the section. Like lemmings everybody followed the leader. This would be costly for the over 30 riders not making the first time cut-off at 9:15.
30 miles into the race as the steepness of the hills increased along with the headwind I found myself drifting off the back. At this point I settled into a comfortable pace and was ready to be on my own for the rest of the ride if needed. A few miles later I was passed by Eric Brundt. We were soon joined by a few other riders including Jeremy Fry of Cedar Falls. Jeremy and I played leap frog last year during TI, rode last years moonlight madness ride in Iowa City, and completed a 200K together this year and last. I knew we were pretty even in strength so we would prove to be great riding partners for the next 30 hours. Our little group rolled into the first checkpoint in Baxter with 45 minutes to spare.
On long rides I like to minimize stopping by running through my stopping strategy in my head before I get there. I compare it to a pit stop in Nascar. Anybody that has ridden with me knows I am a splash-and-dash guy. My chain was screaming under pressure and skipping in most gears so working on the drive train was the first priority. We knew the next checkpoint was 120 miles away with the town of Norway noted on our cue sheets 115 miles away. I had plenty of food so water and bathroom break were the second priority. I filled up a the grocery store and was ready to go. Eight of us rolled out together for the next section of this great adventure. The race was now a ride. The wind was at our back, the roads were dry, the sun was shining, we had a nice group, so this was going to be a great section.
The second section had the most level B roads of the event. There was a stretch of road that it felt like every other mile was mud. The first couple were rideable then the mud just keep getting worse. At least they were flat and had good ditches for walking. As I walked I was able to eat a little and give my butt a break. One of the last mud section had a pretty flat ditch with tall grass and I was debating whether to try riding in the grass instead of walking. Just then a couple riders from a different group passed us riding in the grass. They were moving a little faster then us but it was rough going and they seemed to be using quite a bit of energy to keep moving. Before they reached the end of the mud road they had pulled over and we were overtaking them again. As we passed them we noticed that one of them had ripped his derailleur off his bike. The tall grass had gotten tangle in the chain and just pulled it right out of the hanger bracket. They were all going to call it quits and said they would be drinking beer before us. After that the walk or ride decision was easy. I seemed to be the slowest of our group on the mud sections. I had the widest tires and the least amount of mud clearance. I have a head light bracket mounted with the front brake that sits pretty close to the tire as well. It did not take much mud to force me to get out my tire lever and dig the mud away from the brake so I could continue pushing the bike. If there was no place to walk you had to carry your bike and with the mud plus the rack on the back full of clothing and food it was not the lightest.
Before the second checkpoint we hit two convenience stores. When I say we “hit” them that is what I mean. It was like piranha's and a feeding frenzy. Pizza slices, sandwich wraps, sub sandwiches, Gatorade, candy bars, cookies were flying off the shelves. Riders were eating plus stocking up. The store clerks are probably still telling stories about the starving, mud splattered, riders that overtook the store. At the Norway store I thought I would take care of some thing on the bike and give the line at the check out time to go down. Bad idea as all the real food, pizza and sandwiches, were gone and I was stuck with a Rice Krispy treat.
The eight of us arrived at the second check point as the sun was setting. It was 8:15 and we made the cutoff by 1:45. We were only halfway done with what had already been a really long day. Thoughts of how was I going to be able to ride for another 16 hours staring creeping into my head. The mind was now battling the flesh. The flesh says this is way too hard and you should quit. The mind says you knew this was going to be hard but this is what you want to do. This was the first of many me vs. me battles that would take place in the next 16 hours.
The hours before sunset our plan for our little group was to stay together and have numbers on our side through the night. With extra eyes to check for turns and review cue sheets this seemed like a pretty good strategy. The only draw back to that strategy is there are more stops and each stop takes longer. By midnight we had only covered 27 miles in the last four hours. We did have a really nasty mud road that provided little places to walk and two flat tires but still our forward progress was slow at best.
The darkness provided some interesting sections of road. The first was a bridge that was out. This was a wooden blanked bridge that was missing about three feet of planking on each end of the bridge. Once the road closed signs were successfully navigated you had to carry your bike and tight rope the 3” wide beam to cross the three foot gap. This process was repeated at the opposite end. The second “adventure” was a left on 78th street. A half mile before 78th St. was 78th St. Dr. We did not notice the “DR” on the sign so we turned left. The road was a level “C” road. These roads are gated and the farmers have taken them over. We were able to walk in the field next to the road and once at the other end realized we had made the wrong turn. There were enough mud roads on this course but now we had added two extras. Unfortunately for me there would be one more before I hit Grinnell.
The killing of the Easter Bunny at 11:00 PM by an owl, a 1:30 AM stop in Belle Plaine for water at the bar and a 4:00 AM discussion on whether to head towards a sign that looked like a Kum-n-Go a couple miles off the route were the only other eventful things that happened prior to the sun coming up at 6:00 AM. That is if you don’t count the endless hills and a few more missed turns as eventful.
We were headed towards a water tower as the sun was rising. As we got closer the words North English could be made out. Three of our group of eight had gotten a little gap on us and did not realize the gold mine that was in North English. A Casey’s store and they opened at 6:00 AM. Jeremy, Charlie, Jonathan, Mike and I took the opportunity for a breakfast stop and re-fuel before the final 65 mile push to Grinnell.
The hills continued to be relentless but the road surface was dry, fast, hard packed clay. If we had gotten any rain during the race this section would have been a nightmare. At one point someone looked back and noticed there were riders approaching in the distance. Jonathan picked it up a notch and I went with him. We thought we would keep the pace up to try to hold off the upcoming riders. We moved along pretty quickly for 4-5 miles on 100th St. Looking for a left on 500th Ave. We passed 520th, then 510th then took the next left for one mile before making a right on 90th street. Reaching 90th street we saw a road closed sign and the behind it the worst level B road you could imagine. They were in the process of digging the mud out of the ditches and building up the road. That meant there were no ditches to walk in. We looked for a re-route flag but did not see one. We checked to make sure this was 90th street and it was. Not 90th Dr. or Ave. just plain 90th street. Onward we pushed. We had to cross a little ravine and then over a barbed wire fence to get to a field to parallel the road. One mile later we were back on gravel. Up ahead we saw riders that had passed us by going around this road. That wasn’t fair we had to go on the road how come they didn’t. We found out later we turned on 505th St a half a mile too early.
Just down the road we stumble upon Jeremy and Charlie fixing Charlie's flat rear tire. Jonathan had the only tire lever that was able to get the tire off back on with out breaking so it was a good thing we took our detour or I am not sure they would have gotten the flat fixed. After the repair Jonathan pushed ahead and Jeremy, Charlie and I rode in together. It was demoralizing to see the hotel my van was park by and still have 10 miles until the finish. There were a few hills around Grinnell we did not hit on the way out of town and they wanted to make sure and include them before we finished. Left to right Charlie, Jeremy and me.
Finishing did not have the emotion I thought it would. I am not sure if I was just too tired or maybe it was because I was trying to hurry to make it home before my youngest Caleb headed back to college after the weekend at home. I only stuck around a couple minutes before riding the three miles back to the hotel. There was a pit stop on the way to the hotel at Taco Bell for some lunch. Before the tough drive home.
People seem to be amazed/impressed that I accomplished this feat. I am just a average guy who likes to ride my bike. I am not a super gifted athlete and never have been but I have chosen to use the talent God gave me to the fullest. Long distance cycling gives me a chance for solitude and an opportunity to enjoy His creation. When viewing a gorgeous sunrise, a picturesque sunset or climbing to the top of a hill overlooking a sundrenched valley it is easy to see there is a creator and all this is not by chance. On your next ride take a look around and you will know what I mean.