Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trans Iowa, Part the Third

(Continued from Part the Second, which followed Part the First.)

The gloaming sky was clear and the wind had died off by the time we turned on our lights and rolled away from Checkpoint Beta with 150 miles of gravel to go. Just a short stretch down the road, a very large, white, newer crew-cab pickup came up from behind and slowed to our pace. The passenger window was down and a young man leaned out. I tensed a little, waiting for confrontation or ridicule.
"Hey, is this a bike race?"
"Yes" replied Grant.
"Where you headed?"
"That's a ways."
They pulled away in a cloud of dust.

Numerous farmers were still out on the land in the dark.

Night Field Work
The next 8 or 9 miles were uneventful but for the anticipation of the next convenience store. We followed the cues through a little town whose name I did not know (Gladbrook, as I later found out) and pulled into the flourescent-lit parking lot of a Casey's General.

Kansas Singlespeeder Matt and his crew were preparing to leave and offered us the remaining three slices of cheese pizza from a cardboard box on the sidewalk adjacent the store. It was one of the best things I had ever tasted.

There were a lot of other racers here. Matt, Matt and John; Chad, Ari, Special K, HB, Pete, Ben, and quite a number whose names I can't remember. The store was actually pretty busy because of us. I bought water, Fritos, a granola bar, and put on more chamois cream in the restroom.  Back out at the bikes, we refilled bottles and did a little housekeeping and traded stories with the other racers. Then it was time to go.

Rolling back out onto the route, the air temperature had dropped noticeably.
"Shit," Grant said with quiet, matter-of fact resignation.
"Here we go."
I knew the night was going to be rough. This was my biggest misgiving about Trans Iowa, and the reality was beginning to sink in. Apparently for both of us.

What came next really did not help. We turned onto a road that must have had fresh gravel applied just the day before—it was absolutely the worst surface we had been on so far. We tried to ride the grader tire track at the very right-hand edge of the road, but even that was slow going. After about a mile, Grant stopped at an intersection.
"We missed our turn."
"We missed our turn. We were supposed to turn on 160th and this is 150th. We have to go back."
A quick check of the cue wasn't really necessary, but it confirmed my fear—we were a half-mile off course according to my odometer and would have to go back.

We later discovered that one of Grant's LED headlights, the bright one that he turned on only for downhills, was interfering with his wireless bike computer, causing it to read incorrectly.
"I can't do this."
With those four words, Grant was done. He pulled out his phone to call Nate.
"Hey, could we at least ride back to the course so I  can watch for other riders?"
I knew some of other riders we had seen in Gladbrook would be along soon. He replied that he wanted to catch Steve and Nate before they headed back to Grinnell, hoping arrange to meet them back in Gladbrook. I started riding back while he placed the call.

Headlights appeared near the horizon. LED bicycle headlights. Grant was a good hundred yards behind me and appeared to still be stopped. I kept riding. At the intersection, I waited. Three riders passed, we greeted each other, and they continued on. Grant was approaching but still hundreds of yards away. Embarrassed though I may be to admit it, I was pissed at him for being so poky, since there was no way I could ride through the night alone. Then I got mad at myself for being so selfish. Three blinking red taillights receded to the east. I didn't know what Grant's plan was, and more importantly, I hadn't had a chance to say goodbye. I was torn.

So I called him.
"What's the deal?"
"It's good. Go."
"Are you sure?"
He was close enough now that I could hear his voice on the phone in one ear and without in the other. I hung up.
"You sure?"
"Yes. Go."
Memory fails regarding the exact words, but I said goodbye and good luck, stood on the pedals and launched the bike east down 160th, red taillights barely visible on the horizon.

The night was clear but at 22:30 the moon was not up yet. The gravel was pretty smooth at this point, so I figured I could make some speed for my bid to catch the three riders.

There was a rustling sound and movement in the tall grass of the right hand ditch at about two o'clock. A large, tan animal burst forth and leapt across the ditch and onto the gravel at my heel, and the barking began as I stood up to put the hammer down. His guy was a ninja, and it was immediately clear that there was nothing to be done but stomp on the pedals. As fate would have it, the flat terrain and packed road surface saw me doing 25mph in very short order. Big Fido was a little too lumbering to maintain that speed. Luckily for me.

Not a half-mile down the road, farm buildings stood close to both sides of the road. A large, dark farm cur stood in a pool of sodium vapor light in a driveway to the right, barking a challenge and holding his ground. I didn't slow from my cruising pace, stood up, charged him and bellowed my standard "GO HOME!" as I veered left around him. I swear I could feel his hot, canine breath on my right ankle as I passed, but he and his shaggy white buddy turned out to not be all that interested in chasing me beyond their borders. Luckily for me.

The three taillights disappeared over the crest of another hill, so I stepped up the pace. In retrospect, catching them was inevitable, but sooner seemed to be far more desirable than later. Coming within 50 yards, I hailed them to no effect. Finally, I caught up.

HB and Ben were from Pennsylvania. HB was a big guy, in his forties at least, a veteran of Dirty Kanza and numerous other adventure races, riding a Fargo with fat tires. Ben was younger and riding some kind of geared cyclocross bike with skinnier tires. Neither could remember the lead rider's name, so I rode up and introduced myself to Pete; a slight, middle-aged guy from South Dakota astride a single-speed Cross Check.

From here on the memories are cloudy, but I rode with HB, Ben and Pete through the night. I gamely pretended to help navigate for a while, but Pete was on it and he was flawless.

Conversation was sparse, but we did talk a bit. Somebody asked whether we would see the moon, and I replied that it wouldn't rise until later. Pretty soon it poked its big head, all melted off on one side, over the horizon.

It was hilly. Really, really hilly, and there were long stretches of fresh gravel. Frankly, it was hellish. No scenery to speak of but the bit of light in front of the bike, illuminating that constantly-approaching patch of gravel. Sometimes the blinking red lights of radio towers or wind turbines would create a phantom bike on the horizon ahead of us. Ben and Pete both wore helmet lights, and their sweep often created the illusion that things were moving in the ditches. At one point, I thought I saw a large horse next to the road that turned out to be a bent-over tree trunk.

It was cold. The tops of the hills were not so bad, but the sweat generated while climbing them made for frigid descents into pools of cold, misty air in the valleys.

Maybe around midnight, we stopped for a food and nature break. I put on my jacket and repeated my newfound habit of peeing right in the middle of the road without bothering to get off the bike. Suddenly, there was a lot of barking. I turned on my helmet light and spotted a very large dog about 30 yards off the road; two points of light stared back, trying to figure out what I was.
"This was not a great place to stop."
"No kidding." 
If I kept the dog in the beam of my light, he would stay more or less still, but when I looked away for a few seconds, he took the opportunity to slink closer. We finished our business and began to move out. The dog deemed his job finished and turned to trot, still sniffing the air, toward home. Good boy.

I started coughing, and HB offered me a cough drop. Surprisingly, it worked really well.

At about 02:30 on Sunday, we came to a stretch of pavement and rolled through the sleeping town of Montour, Iowa. When I say that it was asleep, I mean that it was really asleep. We saw not a single waking soul. I don't remember seeing so much as a light through a window. Just outside of town, a single car passed us on E49 and we soon returned to the gravel.

Ben seemed to be new at this, and I got the impression that he may not have had a good idea what he had signed on for. We came to another stretch of really thick, fresh gravel, and we tried the old trick of riding in the grader track at the very edge of the road. Ben fell down and rolled into the deep ditch on the right-hand side. We were going slowly, and he got up right away, saying he was alright. Still, I was concerned.

There was talk of a truck stop at mile 80. We all began to look forward to a respite. Guitar Ted had told us before the race that we needed to carry enough supply with us at all times to make 100 miles or risk becoming pig fodder. Now I clearly understood why.

More hills. Big hills. More deep, fresh gravel. We walked up some of the steeper hills, but HB would bomb down all of them, blowing past us like a freight train, trailing a cloud of dust.

After a nature break, I crested a hill to find Pete and HB waiting at an intersection with a paved road. Ben was nowhere to be seen.
"Where's Ben?"
"Behind us."
I looked back across the valley at a huge hill about a mile behind us. Maybe a minute later, a pinpoint of bright, blue-white light appeared over its crest and began to descend the hill. I picked some food out of my bag and stuffed it in my face while we waited. Within a few minutes, Ben rolled up.
"My chain jammed between the big cog and the spokes. I had a hell of a time getting it back out."
More gravel and darkness. More hills. Ben fell down again. He was frustrated. We were working for every mile and for every line on the cue sheet. I was concerned about our speed, because my GPS was showing an average of only 8.5 mph since CP Beta. We really needed to make more like 9 or 10.

We caught up to a group of riders. Singlespeeders Matt, Matt and John were chipping steadily away at the course. I think Chad may have been with them as well. The groups intermingled for a few minutes. I turned to a young man on a cyclocross bike and said:
"Hi. I'm Michael."
"I know. We've met," Ben replied.
Clearly, my cognitive abilities were not improving as the night progressed.

That thing about things being darkest just before the dawn isn't just a metaphor. Ben fell down again, and not having grasped the enormity of this race was playing with what little was left his resolve. He was supposed to be on a plane back to Pennsylvania at 16:00 on Sunday, and his mention of this was a telling indication of where his head was.

We carried on, with Pete in the lead.

The birds began to sing and the sky began to brighten for a second time. We walked another hill. Pete and HB pulled ahead, but I stayed with Ben as his mood continued to deteriorate. Shortly after dawn, Ben and I came upon HB waiting for us at an intersection.
"Our navigator is gone."
"Where is he?"
"I dunno. He took off."
I was thinking of doing the same, but the battery on HB's GPS unit was just about dead. I offered what was left of my auxiliary battery pack, and we got it connected. We were off again, almost to mile 80 and a respite.

Less than an hour later, my GPS ticked past the 80-mile mark, but we were clearly still in the middle of nowhere. HB seemed a bit defeated, and Ben clearly so. They decided to drop out at whatever town came along next. I asked HB whether they would be able to navigate from there. He thought so and returned my battery pack. I wished them good luck and took off at a swift pace. It was 07:00, I was 70 miles from the finish, and had to be there by 14:00. We had only managed an average of 8.5mph since Checkpoint Beta. The math was not encouraging.

It's remarkable what daylight can do for the spirit. I looked over at the shadow of my spoke cards making its brisk pinwheel mark on the gravel and was pleased to have picked up the pace. Unfortunately, I felt like crap. The caffeine that had kept me awake during the night was wearing off, and I was more than ready for a cup of coffee. What had been gas was turning into an urgent need to poop, but doing so in the field without a means to wash my hands and still having to eat was not an attractive prospect. My body was tired and beginning to get pretty sore. Desperation was setting in, and I remember passing a farm, yelling at myself,
"You. Are. Not. Giving. Up!"
Loudly. Not in a joking manner. I was also really beginning to question my motives for doing this thing in the first place. Why was I here? For a notch in my quiver? To prove something? If so, what? And to whom? Was I being tough or just irretrievably stubborn? What does it prove to face fear in a situation that you've created yourself?

It also occurred to me, that finish or not, I had come and had the Trans Iowa experience, and resolved I would never do it again. There are, after all, lots of things to do in life, and this particular thing was a big, risky time commitment. The weather could not have been more favorable. What would be the point? Never again. No way in hell.

The miles ticked slowly away under a cloudless blue sky.

Finally, around mile 92, a water tower appeared over the crest of a hill, proclaiming "BROOKLYN" in plain block letters. I navigated carefully through town and found a Casey's General occupying a building that had originally been built likely for Texaco or Mobil. I leaned the bike against the wall right next to a couple of half-full gallons of water left by other racers. I went inside and used the restroom to unload some solid waste and reapply chamois cream; I washed up a bit, and then did some shopping. I took a liter of water (after debating whether to get two), a cup of coffee and a breakfast biscuit out of the warmer up to the counter. A little punch-drunk and smelling like a farm animal, I chatted with the clerks. Having seen a number of other races by then, they seemed more amused than bemused.

I went outside and drank my coffee and refilled two of my three water bottles. I poked at the third and thought it looked to be about two-thirds full. Wanting to get back underway, I didn't use either the sports drink mix I had along or bother to drop in an electrolyte tab. I had gotten sloppy.

Just as I was about to leave, Matt, Matt and John showed up on their single speeds. They seemed tired but in a pretty good mood. We exchanged pleasantries and I saddled up and rolled out.

On the way out of town, I remembered that I hadn't lubed my chain in a long time. Stopping at a bridge, I did that and snapped a photo of Little Bear Creek. Less than six hours left to go 60 miles. Close, I thought, but I could do it.

Little Bear Creek

Then I was pedaling again, but things went off the rails with surprising quickness. The cue sheet read, from 160th St.:

R on 410th,
L on 145th,
R on 420th, then
R on 155th.

I made the turn on 410th just fine, but then read the wrong line on the cue sheet, looking next for a right on 155th. I passed the left turn on 145th and panicked upon reaching 140th, thinking I should have turned left on 410th instead of right, thinking I was well over a mile off course, when I was in fact less than a half-mile off. Confused as you may be right now, I turned around and headed back east toward 160th. The single-speeders came along shortly, and I flagged them down. They quickly convinced me (over my objections) that nobody was lost and that I had just misread my cue sheet. I felt a little foolish.

So I joined up with them. They were businesslike in their approach, methodical and calm. Matt from Lincoln is an eight-time TI veteran and three-time finisher. They were a good crew to fall in with.

I was miserable and slowly but certainly losing my marbles. Somewhere in this stretch, each cue began to matter less than each mile, and I was struggling mentally for each one.

Things were going even worse physically. My left quadricep had begun to burn with every pedal stroke right above the knee, my right Longissimus Dorsi muscle had begun to cramp, and my triceps were beginning to waver. Worst of all, my lack of attention to my hydration was beginning to catch up with me. I discovered that my third water bottle was, in fact, mostly empty.

I told Matt from Lincoln:
"My hydration status is in question."
"We were planning to just roll it on in."
Calm and businesslike. Positive thoughts. He offered me some water, and I replied that I still had some. I did mooch a gel.

With about 40 miles left, the sky was still completely clear, and the sun shone on us with a relentless glee. I realized I was still wearing my arm warmers under my long-sleeve jersey. I wanted to stay with the singlespeeders, so I decided to take them off while riding. Unfortunately, I was sweaty enough by now that they wouldn't slip off just by pulling on the cuff. So for several climbs, I worked the left warmer down my arm by pinching and pulling at it through my jersey sleeve. I finally got it completely off at the next stop sign. My right warmer would stay on for at least another hour.

Matt from Lincoln and I chatted off and on. He told me that he had been to Madison once and had liked it quite a bit. That Lincoln and Madison had some things in common—they're university towns, seats of government, more liberal in their politics than surrounding territory. I thought I should visit Lawrence. Or Lincoln, maybe. The diversion worked, at least until the next huge hill.

I was becoming concerned, as the miles crawled by, that my control of the bike was becoming sketchier. Especially on the descents. Despite having focused on core and upper-body strength over the last six months, my triceps in particular were beginning to feel rubbery.

We passed a family out doing yard work around their home, which was right next to the road. I passed on an opportunity to ask for water without it even occurring to me that I should do so.

With less than 25 miles to go, I stopped to urinate. I stopped not for any normal bladder urge, but because my lower abdomen felt really bloated. Sure enough, I had to go. It was difficult to tell what color it was in the midday sun, but I thought it looked dark.

I got back on the bike and began catching back up with the group. In the process, I ran through what little I knew about the symptoms and effects of dehydration. My mouth was getting dry at this point and my tongue felt thick. I wondered if dehydration could cause brain damage, then thought about what I was doing out here and concluded that it was too late—I already had brain damage (Finally, some humor...big laugh!) And then, how would I explain all of this to a medical professional, should fate find me at an ER?

Eventually catching up to Matt, I took him up on his offer of surplus water. He gifted me maybe 6 or 8 ounces from his Camelbak. An exceedingly kind gesture. Too bad it was already too late.

Matt Wills
Around 14 miles out, the heat had gotten to me (even though it wasn't really all that hot) and I really began to slow down. I watched the three singlespeeders pull slowly away. The tide closed over my head.

Questions about my motivations came back. New questions about my responsibilities and my obligations arrived. I thought about my wife, my daughter, my family, and even my dog. How far away were they, really?

My smartypants self had looked around the internet for a bit before Trans Iowa, in search of quotes about fools. In the process, I read a bit of Homer by accident. Suddenly I found myself playing Euphorbus to the formless Menelaus of this thing. From the Iliad, Book XVII:
[... Menelaus said:] Even so shall I make an end of you too, if you withstand me; get you back into the crowd and do not face me, or it shall be worse for you. Even a fool may be wise after the event." 
Euphorbus would not listen, and said, "Now indeed, Menelaus, shall you pay for the death of my brother [the] time is come when this matter shall be fought out and settled, for me or against me." 
As he spoke he struck Menelaus full on the shield, but the spear did not go through, for the shield turned its point. Menelaus then took aim, praying to father Jove as he did so; Euphorbus was drawing back, and Menelaus struck him about the roots of his throat, leaning his whole weight on the spear, so as to drive it home. The point went clean through his neck, and his armour rang rattling round him as he fell heavily to the ground. His hair which was like that of the Graces, and his locks so deftly bound in bands of silver and gold, were all bedrabbled with blood. [...]
Unlike Euphorbus, I decided to go back into the crowd and skip the whole part with the spear in the throat.

I crested a hill at mile 312 and saw two dark blue pole sheds standing blank and dumb, baking in the midday sun. The bike rolled to a stop.

About 314 miles in 32.5 hours; 21,000 feet of elevation change.

Part One
Part Two

Epilogue, at long last.

And then there was the attempt in 2014.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Trans Iowa, Part the Second

(Continued from Part the First.)

The sky brightened a bit and we were buoyed by a light breeze out of the south. The cue sheets had us heading generally west and the sun would soon warm our backs. Surface conditions varied in stretches between large, loose aggregate and packed ones that could almost have passed for pavement.

The combination of fog and dry gravel coated the front surfaces of the bike with a fine limestone cake. My first real swig of sports drink, taken in the half-light, earned me an obstinate mouthful of it. Ordinary spitting and a rinse of clear water were futile, so I ended up scraping my tongue mostly clean on the back of my right glove.

Dust + Fog = ?

A brief nature break separated me from my crew and afforded me a chance to scope some of the other participants. There was quite a range of bicycles and people, from skinny twenty-some-year-olds on cyclocross bikes to big guys on Salsa Fargos. As we rolled along, I popped the occasional morsel in my mouth, snapped photos, and exchanged pleasantries with the other riders. Unspoken though it may have been, there was an understanding back here, in the non-animal echelon, that we had just barely begun to ride. The sun now peeked its big, bald head over the horizon and commenced its hunt for the remaining fog.

Trans Iowa
Steve, Grant and I were reunited at Checkpoint Alpha, 54 miles into the race. We had beaten the 09:30 deadline by just over 90 minutes. Walking around and stomping a bit brought the feeling back to my toes after more than three hours of wondering whether frostbite had set in (it hadn't.)

Here we met our first confirmed drop of the race. Two-time TI veteran Jared told us that his knee was cooked and asked whether we wanted any of his remaining supplies. Racers are not allowed to accept outside assistance, but are allowed to accept whatever other racers are willing to offer. I thanked him for a peanut butter, banana, raisin and jelly sandwich and ate it on the spot. Cue sheets were swapped out, computers were reset, volunteers were thanked, and we were back on the road within 15 minutes.

The three of us rode together then for a while. Road conditions had improved quite a bit, and smooth stretches were especially welcome on the descents. The first minimum-maintenance "B" road was, thankfully, dry and fast. Unlike many B roads, this one had quite a stretch with no grassy shoulder. Had it been raining, this clearly would have been a mudbath.

B Road
Soon came a little burg named Melbourne, and after a bit of non-debate (Grant was almost out of water) we went off-route to resupply at a highway convenience store. Here I made my first candy bar purchase, first application of chamois cream in the men's room and fielded the first bemused questions from the locals.
"How far? 325 miles? On a bike? In how many days?"
Back on course, our pace picked up and a young man named Connor tentatively joined us. Steve got up a head of steam and I hung with him for a while until I realized that Grant had dropped back quite a bit. Feeling a little taxed, I slowed and Steve and Connor pulled steadily away; Grant caught up and we settled into a more conversational pace. We passed through State Center (the Rose Capital of Iowa) without stopping. Back out in the country, the dodging of farm machinery began in ernest.

Sharing the Road

Before long, we came upon Steve, stopped in the left-hand ditch. We asked if he was okay, and he replied that his rear tire was a little soft and that he'd catch up. We played leapfrog for a while with Troy, a fellow Triple D racer from Dubuque, chatting when the opportunity presented itself.

Mormon Ridge road was one of the more scenic parts of the course, beginning with a long, gradual climb and cutting a curvilinear diagonal across its section. Verdant by comparison to much of the rest of the landscape, Grant mused that it almost made him want to go back to being a Mormon. Almost.

I don't remember how we got separated, but Grant got to Eldora first. Once in town, I had to ask where to provision.
"Back two blocks and to the right about a block, there's a Fareway."
Rolled up to find a few bikes already parked out front. The door of the Fareway grocery confused me. I stood in front of it, waiting for it to open, but it just stared back. When in doubt, push. How quaint.

Luck would have it that Grant and I met up in the beverage aisle. He held up a couple of bottles of Gatorade and asked what I thought, since he had no source of electrolyte. I thought that would do. We also bought a half-gallon of V8 and some water.

Back outside, we had a protracted conversation with an octogenarian on a Rascal scooter about the race and its route. Sharp though he seemed, he pushed back his VFW cap and wondered aloud why we hadn't gone through Marshalltown and why we didn't really know where we were headed next. I wondered to myself whether he might have been sharper than us.

After brief debate, Grant and I went and got a couple of deli sandwiches at an old drugstore on the town square. We sat out front watching the course for any sign of Steve, not knowing whether he was even still in the race.

Hardin County Courthouse
After polishing off the V8 and sandwiches, we saddled up and got underway. Passing Troy with a wave, it didn't really register that his "have a good ride" greeting meant that he too was dropping out. Maybe a mile north of town, we hit gravel again. We had gotten into town just before 14:00 on Saturday. It was now almost 15:00. A whole hour.

Trans Iowa
The gravel out here was mostly smooth and fast. Around 16:30, Grant complained that something was going on in his belly; a flutter up around his diaphragm that hinted at nausea. Though I didn't know it at the time, this was his first experience with Gatorade. Gatorade is loaded with sugar, which his digestive system was beginning to reject.

A little while later, we stopped and Grant drank a bunch of the plain water I had in my bottles. We emptied one of them and filled it with the Gatorade from his Platypus drinking bladder. I tolerate it pretty well, so it was resolved that it would serve as my hydration until we reached the convenience store two miles past checkpoint Beta.

We turned east, and the light wind came at us now from the one o'clock direction. The terrain here was flatter, so Grant settled into my slipstream and we kept a slow to moderate pace. We took a breather at Q and 160th, and he showed me his determination to continue:

Game Face
...so, continue we did.

Somewhere out here, maybe on 150th, or maybe not, we came across Connor. He told us that not only was Steve still in it, but was somewhere out ahead of us. It was resolved that we would try to meet him at the next checkpoint.

This was a long stretch, especially for Grant. He worked on drinking more plain water and on eating; he began to feel better, but was definitely not feeling himself.

The Struggle, Part 2
More farm machinery, more dusty motor vehicle traffic, and the shadows began to lengthen. Connor joined us on and off, and we counted down the miles to the second CP one cue at a time.

Just before sundown, we turned onto the rutted B road that would take us there. The erosion here ran perpendicular to the course of travel, so we had to cross the 6- inch deep, foot-wide rills with caution. Then we arrived.

B road coming into Checkpoint 2
(Photo by Ari)

(Update 11-2014 Grant and I rolling into CP2, photo courtesy of Jeremy Fry)

Steve was waiting for us at the checkpoint with news that there was a stabbing pain in his knee and that he was dropping from the race. He sat on a grass bank, next to the little cemetery, with a number of others waiting for their respective rides. The end of the line.

Connor was there too and I returned to him the sunglasses I had found out on the last B road. He and Steve offered us food, and we accepted. Grant lent Steve his phone to call Nate, since Steve's had no service. It turned out that the next convenience store was not two miles from here, but ten. Not great news.

Steve arranged to have Nate meet him in Grundy Center, four miles north by freshly-paved road, and we watched him roll away. Grant joked that it wouldn't take much convincing for him to drop out right there. In retrospect, I should not have brushed this comment off so hastily.

Update 5-28: Part the Third

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Trans Iowa, Part the First

Even a fool may be wise after the event.
— Homer, the Iliad

The bike rolled to a stop on the gravel next to a pair of dark blue pole sheds standing blank and dumb but for the occasional pop of sheet metal expanding in the midday sun. Before I could stop it, vulgarity fell out of my mouth.


In spite of my current predicament, this was not a phone call I was looking forward to making. I wanted badly to finish. Even though I wasn't hungry, I rummaged in my bags for something to eat—mainly for comfort, I suspect, but nothing looked appealing. Hard to say whether I could have been able to swallow anything with a dry mouth, swollen tongue and no water.

Mile 312 of 325.

The phone came out and I heaved a sigh. A text from the boys read:
"Faster... We have beer for you!"
Wan smile. Pressed talk and Nate answered.

"I need you to come and get me."

"Okay. Where are you?" 
"F-46 and 60th"

"46 and 160th?" 

The phone beeped a warning about low battery and went dead.

That's how I came to be as close I have ever been to becoming pig fodder.

The improvised feel of the Trans Iowa website and the story it tells is intriguing. The race is self-supported—a hilly loop equivalent to the distance the long way across Iowa, all on gravel, all in one shot, regardless of the weather, with a time limit of thirty-four hours. I had also heard stories from others racing the Triple D of the second Trans Iowa, when the entire field ground to a sticky halt in the thick mud of the first minimum-maintenance road, only a few rainy miles into that year's race.

Bonkers. Why would anyone want to participate in something like this? Are these people crazy?

Then, along came a short documentary titled 300 Miles of Gravel.

Okay, I got it. The organizer, Mark "Guitar Ted" Stevenson wrote in the announcement for this, the ninth annual race:
"I am a heck of a lot closer to not ever doing another Trans Iowa ever again than I ever have been. Make of that what you will..."

In light of this statement, and feeling at the time as fit as I ever have, I sent in a postcard in the middle of November. I was sort of hoping that the roster would fill before it got there, but no such luck. Friends Steve and Grant came down with a case of Monkey-See-Monkey-Do-itis and their names soon turned up on the roster as well. Like it or not, we were in.

Attention then turned to my fifth annual attempt at the Triple D Winter Race. The course was icy and rough this year, and I crashed three times. The landing on the first crashed messed up my thumb, which has continued to bother me to this day. I did well though, and took a few weeks to ride less than usual  to allow my body catch up a bit.

Heritage Trail
About the beginning of March, I started making an effort to pile up some miles in whatever conditions came along. Day, night, snow, rain, wind, fog—whatever.

Snow or Shine or Snow
Soon a TI subset of our club formed, with we three willing co-conspirators and the occasional sympathizer or two. The idea was to embark on a training regimen set against three fronts: high mileage, sleep deprivation and disagreeable weather. About mid- March, we got our wish for bad weather on the very first "real" training ride, with temps in the single digits and a stubborn wind out of the northeast. Six hours to go eighty miles. It was a good start.

There is no indoor bike in my life, so a routine soon developed of taking the long way home from work, punctuated by long weekend group rides in the rain, wind and snow. There was a Friday century with Nate on the TI-equipped gravel bike, a 14-hour, 160-mile, multi-county tour, and the odd, fast 64-miler. The lot of us constantly discussed equipment, food, strategy and logistics while riding, over beers or via the interwebs. Nate offered to join us as our support person for the race, and I found myself very glad to not be going into this all by myself.

Race weekend arrived. On Friday morning, bags were packed, lists were checked, and bikes loaded. The drive from Madison to Grinnell is not very exciting, but spirits were high. We set up camp in the little hotel room and rode into town to find the start line and check out Bikes to You. Back at the hotel, we parked the bikes and walked to the pre-race to register and get our first set of cue sheets. After dinner it was time to pack the bikes. Steve had brought a power strip so that myriad lights, phones and bike computers could all be charged at the same time. The lights went out at 9:30.

Honestly, I didn't sleep very well. I had forgotten to charge the batteries for my GPS backup, so I did that very quietly at around 12:30. Grant roused me at 02:45 on Saturday.
"It's time."
We dressed and there was coffee. I ate the oatmeal and hard-boiled eggs that I had brought. Final items were loaded onto the bikes and we joined a number of other racers rolling their bikes into the hotel hallways. Breakfast was served in the hotel commons. Around 03:30, we rolled out of the hotel parking lot, into the chilly darkness of highway 146, headed for downtown Grinnell. I ate an apple and threw the core into the ditch. All of our shoe covers lay on the floor back in the hotel room.

On Broad St., the racers were arriving in twos and threes. Photos were taken and nervous conversations made. Nate came with us to see us off and snapped a few as we waited.

TI Trio
At 04:00, 91 riders rolled out behind the Truck With No Name. After a couple miles of easy pavement, we crossed highway 146 and hit the gravel. Fresh, coarse gravel. Riding in about the middle of the pack, I was mesmerized by the swath of red blinkies and dust snaking up the forthcoming hills, watched over by the waning gibbous moon.

Our group split up a bit in the darkness, re-uniting eventually only to split up again. The low areas were shrouded in mist and cold. My toes got cold and then numb, but everything else felt good. We passed sleeping farmsteads and crossed a river full of peeping frogs. The birds woke up as the eastern sky began to brighten, and soon, having no alternative, the sun made its first appearance.


Update 5-13: Part the Second.
Update 5-28: Part the Third