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


Anonymous said...

I'm hooked, keep typing son...

MrDaveyGie said...

What bikefriendlynorthshore said.....

Kate Geisen said...

Hey, thanks for the comment and advice! Now I'm hooked on your report...

Great opening! And monkey see monkey do-itis has gotten me into all kinds of crazy stuff, most especially Kanza.

On to part two...