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?"They pulled away in a cloud of dust.
"Yes" replied Grant.
"Where you headed?"
"That's a ways."
Numerous farmers were still out on the land in the dark.
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.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.
"Here we go."
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."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 missed our turn. We were supposed to turn on 160th and this is 150th. We 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.
"Hello?"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.
"What's the deal?"
"It's good. Go."
"Are you sure?"
"You sure?"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."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?"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."Clearly, my cognitive abilities were not improving as the night progressed.
"I know. We've met," Ben replied.
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."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.
"Where is he?"
"I dunno. He took off."
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.
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."Calm and businesslike. Positive thoughts. He offered me some water, and I replied that I still had some. I did mooch a gel.
"We were planning to just roll it on in."
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.
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.
Epilogue, at long last.
And then there was the attempt in 2014.