“On a given day, a given circumstance, you think you have a limit. And you then go for this limit and you touch this limit, and you think, ‘Okay, this is the limit’. And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further.” –Ayrton Senna
  Content and Images courtesy of Alex Roberts As I start this, it’s been a week since Trans Iowa.  Sitting on my couch, I can’t honestly say I wish it was this time last weekend.  At this point, I was 11 hours in, and fighting a headwind.  After making great time to Checkpoint 1, the wind was starting to raise serious doubts about a finish.  But we’ll get to that. We rolled into Grinnell, Iowa just after noon on Friday, April 25th.  The hotel said check-in was not until 3, and the pre-race ‘Meat Up’ didn’t start until 4.  We hopped on the bikes to spin out the legs and find the start.  We found the start just in front of Bikes To You in the charming downtown area.  We met the shop owner Coop who was the first of many wonderful people associated with this event we’d meet over the weekend.  We grabbed a map, ate lunch, chilled with some IPAs, and waited for the pre-race meeting. Leaving the pre-race meeting, I started getting worried about being too fat.  Well not me, my bike.  I was seeing carbon bikes running Zipps and had to look hard to find bikes with tires wider than 35s.  Here I was with a steel frame, fat 2.0 rubber on 29er mountain bike wheels, and gear that put my total bike weight just over 40 lbs.  Had I made a huge mistake with this bike and set-up?  I couldn’t help thinking perhaps I had. After getting back to the room, I readied the bike, laid out what was going on me, and tried to sleep.  I fell asleep around 10:30.  Of course the 2:30 AM alarm came way too early.  After eating a sandwich and gearing up, I was rolling towards the start at 3:10.  Nerves and adrenalin kicked in, and I found I was soon surprisingly awake. It was nice to see the smiling faces of my mom and girlfriend there to see us off.  After a few hugs and pictures, I grabbed a spot mid-pack near Aaron whom I had talked into signing up for this madness with me.  Last minute instructions preceded a roll-out at 4 AM sharp behind Guitar Ted in his truck.  
Gathering for the start
Gathering for the start
The procession continued through the first few miles until we hit gravel.  Guitar Ted pulled off, and it was on.  Being a 337 mile event, there wasn’t the usual aggressive attacks you would find at shorter races.  The speed did pick up, but the group stayed pretty well intact.  I was rolling with Nickel and Aaron at a brisk, but not difficult, pace. For the 10th running of Trans Iowa, Guitar Ted had routed in 10 B Roads.  With the recent rains and storms, it was looking like they’d all be plenty nasty.  We reached the first about 9 miles in.  It was somewhat ridable, but I did walk a decent amount.  The mud instantly caked onto the tires no matter if I was walking or riding.   Shouldering a 40+ lb. bike with frame and tube bags everywhere is not easy, and I found myself pushing the bike a lot.  I finally decided this strategy was not saving my bike from much mud, so I rode out the rest.  Luckily, within a few hundred yards of clearing the B Road, most of the mud on the bike had slung off. There was a beautiful sliver of a crescent moon most of the early morning until it finally retreated below the horizon.  The race was starting to string out, and Aaron and I were making good time. Putting “time in the bank” was always in the back of my mind.  This year we were given 34 hours to finish.  This means it requires a rider to complete 10 miles every hour regardless of stops, mechanicals, checkpoints, missed cues, etc.  By keeping a decent average speed, you are assuring that you have more time for any or all of these.  But burn too many matches early, and you’re going to regret that later.  This race is a fine balance. Checkpoint 1 was just over 53 miles in.  Neither the terrain nor the weather was particularly challenging, and we flew there.  When we arrived, we were averaging 15 MPH and were 2.5 hours ahead of the cut-off.  Time in the bank. The next segment was 57 miles and took us to the second convenience store of the day.  This section was the beginning of the end for many riders.  Not only were the hills starting to really test the legs, but the headwind was getting quite nasty.  Throughout this segment, Aaron and I were yo-yoing with familiar faces.  There were a few short stints of group riding, but mostly we were sticking to a pace that we had honed over many-a-mile of training leading up to TI.
One of the early B Roads
One of the early B Roads
The wind was continuing to pick up, and even the crosswinds were significantly dropping the sustainable pace. Casey’s around mile 110 was a huge relief.  I was starting to crave real food, and I was ready to pause for a bit.  The 57 miles between CP1 and the store felt more like 100.  There weren’t many smiles on the faces of the riders resting there.  Aaron and I rolled out after a 20 to 30 minute stop.  We were on our own and had watched a lot of riders head out before us.  By the time we left, we had no more time in the bank than we did after CP1. It was between the convenience store and Checkpoint 2 I was hit with stomach issues.  Hunger pains were becoming frequent, yet my stomach wasn’t much happier when I did eat.  Forcing calories in was quite a chore.  By mile 160, the stomach issues had led to a slight dizziness, and I was thinking my race might be over at Checkpoint 2. This was also the section where we latched onto a small group.  The group varied between 6 and 10 riders at times, and the group dynamic was such that it both offered some shelter from the wind, and it motivated me to keep trucking.  By the second checkpoint at mile 172, I was hungry, but feeling better.  Knowing there were only 7 miles or so to the next convenience store and a proper dinner, I was able to motor on. Lots of arithmetic was going on for the 7 miles between CP2 and the store.  We were told that the last convenience store would be a further 120 miles and would not open until 6 AM.  Knowing our pace, we had figured it was possible to pass through before it opened.  Therefore, it seemed prudent to treat the 180 mile stop as the last.  That meant eat plenty and load the bags up. It got dark and a chill was felt in the air while we were at the stop.  Again, many left before us, and Aaron and I rolled out heavy and alone.  Darkness was anticipated to be a demotivation, but it turned out to be the opposite.  Not only did the chill and change of scenery due to the tunnel vision of the lights perk me up a bit, but our spirits were lifted by the first sustained tailwinds of the ride.  For about 20-25 miles, we were pushed along by a tailwind that was quite welcome.  What wasn’t so welcome was the sight of lightning in the distance.  We ignored it hoping the wind or the route would keep the storms out of our path.  This was quickly proven to not be the case.  The wind got much colder and a light drizzle was felt.  We decided to go ahead and prepare for rain.  With rain gear on, we continued. The lightning got to us just before the heavier rain.  Bolts were striking the fields close by, and we could actually see the sparks fly up after the strikes.  At mile 241, we saw a group of people standing with some riders stopped.  I assumed that this could be Guitar Ted calling an end to TI due to the lightning.  Honestly, I was somewhat hoping it was.  Turns out it was a reroute due to a closed bridge. Aaron and I latched on to a small group that was many of the same riders from our earlier group.  Soon after, the rain really started.  With lightning dangerously close, pelting rain, and what felt like hail pummeling us, we decided to seek shelter.  It wasn’t even 100 yards later that we came across an abandoned farmhouse.  The doors were unlocked and even in a greatly deteriorated condition, it was welcoming.  We cleared spots on the floor and waited out the storm.
Shelter from the storm
Shelter from the storm
The stop for the storm and the overnight rain delayed us such that we were actually going to be late enough to roll by the next convenience store after it opened.  Still no more time in the bank than we had earned on the run to CP1, but this was fine with me.  I was looking forward to some real food and a cup of coffee.After leaving the shelter, we rolled at a decent pace as a group.  We eventually caught up with the tail-end of the storm and rode through rain for a while.  A lot of the rest of the night is a blur, and I found myself hypnotized by taillights while fighting sleep.  Espresso Gu, caffeinated Shot Blocks, and chocolate covered espresso beans were my main defenses.  There were several descents where I thought to myself, “You’re way too tired to be going this fast.”  With some stomach issues continuing, I found myself sometimes struggling on the back. Around 5 AM, the group started to splinter.  Steep hills were the main culprit.  With my stomach better, it was soon Aaron, John, and I off the front.  We fought a nasty headwind as we neared the next convenience store.  This greatly slowed the pace.  But, as luck would have it, we rolled in at 7 AM to see that the store actually was just opening. Breakfast…coffee…and the realization that a lot of the last 40 miles would have us fighting the nastiest winds of the ride. The daytime sky provided a sort of reset.  My tiredness was gone, and I was ready to finish.  The rain picked up as we rolled out.  A few other riders were seen arriving as we left. 123.5  L  On N. 107th Ave E.  The worst cue of the entire ride.  Knowing the wind direction, this was going to put us straight into a sustained 30 MPH plus headwind.  Seeing the following cues, it was calculated this would be a 10 mile march.  This was the worst 10 miles of the entire race.  Distances were measured in tenths.  John, Aaron, and I took short pulls, and we even had to stop a few times to stretch the back and legs.  Every tenth of a mile was small victory, but it seemed the war would never end.  The hills were ramping back up too.  This was nearly a knockout combination, and I think it would have been had I been riding solo at this point. After clearing this section, there was only 27 miles left.  Looking at the remaining cues, it didn’t appear that there would be any more long sections of headwind either.  I knew it would require a little help from Advil, but barring a major mechanical, I was going to finish.  We hit the last B Road around Mile 320.  It was a little sloppy, but definitely ridable.  We commented that there were not a lot of tire tracks there (or footprints) but assumed that the rains had washed them away.  We had no clue how many riders had passed the last convenience store before it opened, but surely many more had been through than the number of tracks indicated. We cleared the B Road and got a big push from the wind that was destroying us earlier.  I sent a text with 5 miles to go to my mom and girlfriend that we were on our way.  Those 5 miles flew by, and we still caught them off guard rolling into the finish. The finish was at the bottom of a descent (I guess Guitar Ted is not purely evil).  We could see the barn for a bit before turning for the last cue and crossing the line.  I shook Guitar Ted’s hand as I crossed with a finish time of around 32 hours and let the realization that I had finished Trans Iowa take over.  I was in disbelief when I was told that Aaron and I had tied for 6th.  At that point, all but 26 riders had already DNF’d.  Later it was learned that only 19 were able to finish; the highest attrition of a complete Trans Iowa since the first one. It was so great to see so many smiling faces at the finish and to have Kristin and my mom waiting to hug me.  The IPA Kristin had for me tasted mighty fine! Trans Iowa seems to instantly bond riders, and there were many who had withdrawn waiting to cheer for the finishers.  It was something you don’t see at other races.  With people like that, it is not surprising that I made many new friends at Trans Iowa.  More than I have made at any other cycling event I’ve been a part of.  
Aaron and I at the finish
Aaron and I at the finish
Guitar Ted puts a helluva lot of work into this event.  There is no entry fee, so he’s not motivated by money.  I’m not sure why he wants to spend countless hours routing the course, checking cues, getting sponsors for prizes, answering questions, and updating the web.  Not to mention driving 600 plus miles and going 43 hours without sleep the weekend of the race.  But he does.  And he does it with a big smile.  All I can do as a repayment is say Thank you so much, Mark!  You’re in a class of your own, man.  I truly appreciate everything.  Trans Iowa was the hardest physical and mental challenge of my life so far.  I learned a lot about myself on those 336.4 miles.  I honestly went in expecting to find my limit and DNF.  I know with my stomach issues and the headwind later, I brushed the limit of what my body and mind could handle.  But I persevered, and I finished 6th in the Trans Iowa that Guitar Ted has said is “the toughest of the 10 so far.” So…what’s next?
Guitar Ted!
Guitar Ted!

3 Comments

  1. “123.5 L On N. 107th Ave E. The worst cue of the entire ride.”

    While all of Trans Iowa is of course an unforgettable experience, this section of road in particular will always stay with me. The group I finished with was the last to make it before the final time cutoff, and I remember just feeling our chances of success slipping away as we crawled mile by mile into that wind. Battling the wind and crunching the numbers as we approached the next turn… Desperation was setting in for sure. Those 40 miles after the last store were so tough. Thanks for the write up!

    • Cheers, Jacob. I just saw this comment. And even 9 months later I still remember the feeling of the legs screaming and the mind turning on me as we crawled along that section.

      Hopefully you’ll have sunny skies and tailwinds for your next ride. 🙂

      Alex

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