Well, that was sort of a bust, but at least it had a silver lining.
Training didn't go so well this year. About 6 weeks out, I came down with what I'm pretty sure was Norovirus, followed about a week later by a stubborn, flu-like respiratory ailment that kept me home from work for 3 days and hung on and on. The combination blew a huge hole in what was supposed to be the most intense period of training, and despite my best efforts, the miles just didn't get racked up.
Then there was the anxiety that normally precedes a big ride, exacerbated by the visceral memory of last year's meltdown. In retrospect, I'm pretty certain that what happened in 2013 was really a massive bonk. I just didn't eat enough during the overnight or in the morning for my body to be able to finish the job. The memory of that feeling, combined with frustration over having been sick for so long, did not put me in a good frame of mind for the task of finishing.
The trip down to Grinnell was similar to last year, except that it had rained a little over the previous week and that Grant wasn't racing this time. Nate had tried to get in, but the growing popularity of TI had crowded him out. The four of us arrived an hour or two before the meat-up, settled in to the hotel room, prepped the bikes, went to the pre-race dinner meeting and then to bed.
I'd had TI brain for weeks. It felt like I was in sort of a fog, stressed out and scatterbrained. Grant even mentioned that Steve and I did not seem our normal selves. I'd had no idea it was that obvious, but now there I lay in the hotel bed, unable to tame the monkey brain. I got a couple fitful hours of sleep, but nothing restful. I was already awake when the alarm went off at 02:45.
The start was very similar to 2013, but pointed the other direction on High street. I chatted briefly with fellow Madisonians Kristin and BJ, and we had our photograph taken by the representative of the Wisconsin Gravel Syndicate. Mark made his announcements, including a repeat of the previous night's warnings about some nasty rail crossings a couple miles in.
Trying to find a rhythm near the back, I have to admit that I really felt like crap. I was able to hang with the moderate and steady Slender Fungus crew for a little while, but fell off of that pace too. Decided it would be best to just bide my time and see whether I would perk up as time went on. Chatted briefly with early TI vet Sprocket, and was with him when we came to the first minimum-maintenance B road, still wet from the previous day's rain.
The Cross Check was sporting a set of full-coverage SKS plastic fenders, and I learned about 100 yards onto the B why almost nobody else had them. The soil in this part of Iowa has a high clay content, and sticks to everything, especially bike tires. Even walking the bike, they jammed up to the point where substantial effort was required just to push. I tried staying on the grass at the edges, and that helped, but there were also places where it was mud all the way across. At the end of the B section, I spent a lot of time scraping with my "B Road Buddy," a modified plastic putty knife made for just this purpose. Steve had it worse, since his Handsome Devil had less fender clearance, especially under the fork crown.
Full fenders were permanently scratched off the equipment list right then and there.
After the mud scraping, we were genuinely at the back of the field with a few other stragglers. One rider had both of his lighting systems fail long before the sun came up. Another had had a flat tire.
Just as the sky began to lighten, I watched Steve's blinkie light recede up a hill past the turn he had just missed. He was too far away to hear me yell, so I just continued on, missing the next turn myself by reading the wrong line on the cue sheet. Looking down at the road and seeing no bike tracks, I turned around at about a half mile and stopped the timer on the GPS. About a half mile after getting back on course, I re-started it and was remarkably close to having the GPS odometer and the cues back in sync.
Within a couple of miles, about the time the sun was breaking over the horizon, I caught up with Steve, now back on track. He told me that he had caught another rider's wheel and a rut, causing him to crash, and that he was in doubt about whether he would continue beyond the first checkpoint.
As we rolled along, the course turned from the southwest to the southeast, then primarily east, and the wind began to build out of the east. It hadn't really been noticeable until this point, but it had come to a very steady 10-12 miles per hour with some slightly stronger gusts. Nothing to write home about, but a factor.
We made the first checkpoint in Lynnville at 8:25 or so, over an hour before it closed. There was a convenience store right before, and Steve encouraged me to ride past the store and check in, mistakenly thinking we would otherwise not make the cutoff. So I did, happy to see a couple of familiar faces from the Slender Fungus and WGS.
Jake, Agatha, and Derek were just leaving the c-store as I arrived, but Steve, Giggles and a couple of other familiar faces were still there. Suddenly I realized that I had forgotten my wallet back in the hotel room. I knew exactly where the damn thing was too: in the back pocket of my jeans goddammit. I talked to Steve, and he had decided to drop, so he lent me a pair of twenties and called the boys for a ride. I went into the store and got water, a slice of breakfast pizza and a small candy bar, determined not to repeat last year's mistakes—I'd be leaving this stop with about 100 ounces of fluids. When I came back out, I refilled, said my goodbyes to Steve and headed out. Stopping briefly at the CP to reset my odometer, I chatted up and thanked the volunteers again. Overall pace for the first section was just over 10 miles per hour.
Completely forgot my plan to change from the Garmin 500 to the Garmin 200.
Completely forgot my plan to change from the Garmin 500 to the Garmin 200.
Then I was alone. Rolling out of town, it was obvious that the wind had already gotten stronger and steadier. It was a nice day otherwise, with the sun shining brightly, but that wind resisted every turn of the pedals. Now came a long grind though open spaces, with hills arrayed to the horizon. Fortunately, the gravels were in great shape with a nice smooth hard-packed track over the vast majority of the course so far.
Not too far west of Lynnville, I came across a rider (in Rassmussen kit, I believe) struggling against the wind across a broad river valley. I offered a pull, but he declined saying that he would be too slow.
A short while later, just before the second B road, I turned south and uphill along a cut in the road, lee to the wind. There, among the weeds in he cut, lay a rider and his bike, enjoying a full-on ditch nap in the sunny calm. I felt bemused and a little envious.
The second B was much better than the first. The clay had dried leather-hard, and following the track of the 80- or 90-some riders ahead of me was cake. Stopping in the shelter of another cut to eat a bit, remove my shoe covers and adjust my errant front shifter, I was soon approached by another rider.
"Ay, you wanna work together a bit?"
"Sure thing. I'll get packed up."
Dave was from Winnepeg, an area he described as conspicuously devoid of hills. This made efforts to draft...well, interesting. It didn't help that his bike wasn't really geared for Iowa rollers either. If I recall, he was running a 38t chainring with maybe a 28 or 30 large cog in back. Flatlander gearing. I'd pull him on the flats, but he'd lag up the hills and outrun me on the downhills. Still, it was good to have somebody in league against that unrelenting wind, and his company was pretty good too.
After a little while, we took a break in the wind shadow of a garage right next to the road to eat something. Remarkable was the sensation of not having the wind noise in our ears—it was like closing the door on a noisy machine. A woman came out of the farmhouse to chat with us, asking what kind of ride we were on. She seemed relatively unsurprised and entirely Midwestern nice, asking whether we needed anything. We thanked her and continued on.
80-some miles into the race at this point, and I had begun to cough regularly. I hadn't really managed to kick the respiratory ailment from a couple weeks back and I was beginning to feel it, especially in the face of what was now a constant 20 mile per hour headwind. There wasn't much to do but put our heads down and push against it.
"Aw shit!" Dave called out at the crest of a hill.
"Dave, what is it? What's wrong?"
"There's another hill up there."
"Dave. This is gonna be your day now. Better get used to it."
We actually managed to reel in a few people at this stage, including Troy from Dubuque, making his second attempt at TI. He was in good spirits and gamely tried to help with our sporadic attempts at making a pace line. He ran out of water around mile 100, but found an understanding farmer willing to offer him some. Dave and I left him at his request and pressed on.
We also came across Mick from Nova Scotia (which spurred a lively discussion about transporting bikes to the states) and a couple of others including a guy on a fixed gear. We stopped at the top of a hill around mile 100 to eat and drink and shoot the malevolent breeze.
I ran out of water just as we rolled into North English, about a mile shy of our next stop. Almost 100 ounces in 52 miles. The wind was just sucking it out of us.
The Casey's General convenience store at mile 115 was busy. Busy with people dropping out of the race, phoning to throw in the towel, and with support vehicles and crew picking them up. John from Nebraska, one of those who had witnessed my meltdown the previous year, was there, sitting against the wall and waiting for a ride. The wind had done him in. Taco Sam was holding court on the sidewalk out front, chatting with the drops. Dave and I went in to buy refreshments. Water, pizza and chips to start.
Back outside, I lent my phone to a racer who had no cel service. I talked to John and Sam for a while, and Dave lay down on the sidewalk and fell asleep using the brick wall for a pillow. I considered my options. Our average speed for the second leg had been about 9.4 miles per hour. As always, I had watched my GPS closely right before the 100-mile mark, which had been crossed at about 13:48. Almost ten hours to go 100 miles. No time in the bank. After refilling my water and downing an entire Gatorade, I went back into the store, where I had a pretty serious coughing jag in the candy aisle. I held the lugi in my mouth while I paid for my candy and granola bar, hocking it into an out-of the way corner once back outside.
Troy pulled in and said that he was ready to drop. He called his wife back at the hotel. Checkpoint two was still over 50 miles away, it was pushing 16:00 and I had no idea which direction the course went from here. Not that it mattered, since the crosswind was almost as bad as the headwind, and I was pretty sure we wouldn't be going west for a while. I felt my resolve ebb as I went back into the store for an ice cream bar.
Troy's wife and daughters were having fun in the hotel pool, so he decided to just start riding back in the direction of Grinnell, and I agreed to go with him. There seemed little point in riding further out on the course if I had no intention of pushing hard to make the 21:30 cutoff. Why make the inevitable decision farther from my support? I called the boys and let them know I was out, then Mark to let him know that Troy and I were both done. In one way, it felt like I was giving up too easily, but in another it just seemed like this year was not meant to be. For a lot of reasons.
The only map Troy and I had was a highway map of the state, which showed only the numbered paved highways and none of the gravels. We rolled west out of North English on the pavements, with the intention of getting picked up in Montezuma, maybe 20 miles out of Grinnell.
The tailwind was heaven itself. On one of the paved highways we averaged one 3-mile stretch at over 27 miles per hour. Then we hit the gravels and actually followed part of the course backwards for a while, this time with the wind's blessing. Troy was good company, and I found that I was truly having fun for the first time that whole day. We rolled and talked about Dubuque and the Triple D, family and friends, jobs and bikes and life in general. We were in no hurry but we were making great time. Navigation was a little bit of highway map pavement and a lot of seat of the pants guesswork. Mostly west with a little bit of north thrown in, we used water towers as waypoints. One turned out to be just a water tower, alone in a cornfield, not Montezuma.
We stopped at a c-store in Montezuma and were feeling good, so we decided to press on to Grinnell. There were no county maps to be had, so we asked a series of cheerfully curious locals what the best route might be. Nobody had an answer we much liked, so we decided to wing it.
We called support again to update them and rolled west on F57, a pavement with a paved shoulder and signed as a bike route! We turned north on a town road just before Lake Ponderosa and almost immediately came upon a gravel, marked as a B road running off to the west. Neither of us had to even pretend to convince the other, we just took it.
This area had been looking very familiar, but not 50 yards after making the turn, a wave of recognition washed over me. The farmstead on our right was the very place that last year where I had seen a family out mowing and failed to stop and ask them for water. Along this stretch ran the very floor of the meltdown, less than 10 miles from where I threw in the towel, only this time I felt great.
Unloading the burden of not finishing either year felt great. We zigzagged north and west as the sun set, knowing that if we came to highway 146, we'd be due South of Grinnell. Two more B roads later, we crossed I-80 on 100th and could see the lights of a town off to the northwest. We picked up the aptly-named Diagonal Road, where my GPS died and then north onto a westbound gravel toward town.
Just as it was really getting dark, we rolled onto pavement. A couple of dogs ran out from a farm and challenged us in the roadway. The younger was not vicious, but quite enthusiastic about not allowing us to pass. Then a bit of mistaken northbound travel to the GAR highway and finally, into Grinnell itself.
We had strayed quite a ways north and had to ride two or three miles south once in town to get back to the hotel. Members of the Slender Fungus were there to greet us at the entrance. As stories were exchanged, we noticed the first few flashes of distant lightning. We were going to miss the storms.
Trans Iowa 2014: started in the dark and finished in the dark, with big, hairy demons slain between.
Photos are over on Flickr.
Photos are over on Flickr.