A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
Trans Iowa: The Experience
Something didn't feel quite right, I couldn't put my finger on it, but something was definitely off. Nevertheless, I went through the motions of sorting through the piles of gear I had organized the night before. It was 3:00 a.m. on the morning of my birthday. I was in a hotel room with my wife sound asleep close by on the bed. Soon I'd be heading to the starting line of my 6th Trans Iowa. Nervously, I picked up my phone one more time with the hope that maybe, just maybe the weather forecast had changed for the better. It hadn't. Suddenly, an overwhelming feeling of anxiety came over me and internally I said, "You're not going to finish."
I pushed the thought of not finishing out of my mind. It was the first time that I had ever had that feeling. The feeling was foreign to me as I have always toed the line of ultra endurance cycling events knowing for a fact that I would see the finish line. But, this time things were different. An ominous forecast and a "spooky" vibe hung heavy over this Trans Iowa. I told myself that I'd find my way through it, I always do. With that I whispered to Amy that when I got back to the room from putting my bike on the car it would be time to go downtown, to the start of the T.I.
I stole a glance at the American flag as it snapped tightly back and forth in the wind as I ratcheted my bike into the rack. As if to mock me the flag hissed and spit at me in the wind, Sssssnap! Snap! Doing my best to ignore it I tossed my helmet and gloves into the car and headed back into the hotel.
There was a tension at the starting line as riders did their best to ignore the impending doom that hung over the scene. I joked that the only reason I was on the front of the start area was because I had arrived late. It was all superficial chatter while more serious issues were at the forefront of our minds. The wind seemed to swirl and gust through us like a ghost as we stood in place waiting for the sound of the horn. The rain was predicted to start in about an hour and if the forecast held true I would just need to make it through the misery until late afternoon and then I'd be left with just the wind, albeit up to 30 mph worth of wind.
Soon we were underway. I immediately felt the power of the wind as my bike and I were buffeted in sudden gusts. Ahead a group of about 15 riders were already threatening to separate from the field. I'd seen this before and I'd been a part of that group several times. This time however, I was in full rain gear with a temperature that hovered in the low 40's (it seemed). I did not want to start cooking up a sweat with rain on the way, staying dry for as long as possible was a top priority for me. "Let them go, let them go" I told myself, fighting the urge to close the gap that grew with each passing minute. Experience has taught me that riding the Trans Iowa as a leader of the 2nd tier can be a good thing. Floating around unnoticed off the lead group has it's advantages, this is where I planned to live for the next 30 - 34 hours. I watched my old friend's tail lights disappear up the road as they tested each other's strength.
SPLAT! A fat raindrop landed on my arm. Touching the screen of my gps I noted the time, "just like clock work" I thought as the time matched what the hourly forecast predicted. The initial splat turned into a repetitive crackle against my rain gear. Riders who had not yet donned the appropriate clothes were now diving for the side of the road to suit up. I joined them in order to make some small adjustments to the gear I already had on. Normally, I would have been able to make these small tweaks while on the move, but the winds made it too risky to ride one handed for even a few seconds, let alone no handed. It wasn't long before a full on rain storm was all over us. I made the decision to attach my hood to the rain jacket in an effort to keep dry the little wool hat I received for finishing T.I.v.3, my first Trans. Zipping the hood to the jacket proved to be more difficult than I expected with cold fingers and wind that would not allow the material to settle down for even a second. I was alone now on the side of the road wasting precious time fighting with a stupid hood, but at the time that hood was one of the most important pieces of gear I felt I had. It would be comparable to having a house without indoor plumbing, you could do it, but it sure would be nice to have it.
Eventually, I had everything in place and was focused on the job at hand, pedaling. A crushing easterly wind was consistently in my face and really hurting my average speed. The road was now saturated and sucking my tires into it enough to be bothersome. More concerning was the amount of power I was forced to dole out in order to contend with the forces of nature. It occurred to me that I was either at maximum power or a notch below for huge chunks of time in order to hold an average speed of 7 or 8 mph. Occasionally, the course would turn off of it's eastern direction offering some respite, but never for long enough. I surmised that Guitar Ted was definitely taking us east first, this wasn't good.
I began to hear concerns from other riders about making the check point in time. Quizzically, I looked at them wondering why they'd be concerned with such a thing. I'd never been in danger of missing a cut off in my life, it certainly wouldn't be happening today. I pushed on gradually growing more and more concerned about how slow I was going. The worry would quickly leave my mind as I concluded that we wouldn't be heading east for the whole morning, soon enough we'd probably catch a quartering tail wind, thus increasing our speed.
The sun, where was the sun? Typically, sunrises are very special times in the Trans Iowa, whether it be the first one or the second one. I always take time to let my mind drift no matter the situation as I contemplate the beauty of the sunrise combined with what I'm doing at that moment. Oddly, this time the inky black night just seemed to gradually turn dark gray as the surroundings seemed to become more ominous. I'd been at it for a few hours now and my energy level was waning. I'd been burning a lot of matches very early, way more than anyone should in this event. Sure, early nerves do cause one to ride harder than they should at first, but I was running wide open for extended periods of time with no soft pedaling ever!
I had yet to really join any riders for a significant period of time as all were fighting the elements in their own way. However, I found that I seemed to be going back and forth with a young man riding a machine that had me thinking he was on a single speed until it occurred to me that he was in fact shifting on the down hills. Huh? I examined his bike more closely and realized he had an internal shifting hub with a belt drive. Our strength was similar and it wasn't long before we introduced ourselves and began to ride together, his name was Ryan Lee. Ryan traveled all the way from Washington D.C. to ride the Trans Iowa. I appreciated his upbeat demeanor despite the conditions. Instantly I knew the two of us would be riding several miles together if not most of the day.
The dark gray morning reached a point where I was able to turn off my lights and really see the arena I was operating in. Iowa's barren fields absorbed the moisture as soon as it fell, turning the soil into a deep black color adding to a landscape that was other worldly to me. The roads had turned into a splattery mess, they could hold no more water, so puddles began to gather on the surface, causing very difficult conditions to ride in. Ryan and I slogged up the hills and splashed down the other side over and over again.
I'm not sure who mentioned it, but the topic of the check point came up and whether we'd make it in time. Swiping the mud off my screen I decided to take a peek at the stats. "WHAT?!" We had only covered 25 miles. The c.p. was 53 miles from the starting line. Immediately, I started doing math in my head and came to the conclusion that we would need to average 16 or 17 mph the rest of the way in order to make it. "It's going to be close, it could be down to the minute", I told Ryan. Certainly we'd hit a tail wind section with some hard road under our wheels and I knew we'd have to fly when that moment came. We'd been going east for most of the ride it seemed so I felt we were due. I have become familiar with Trans Iowa courses and how Guitar Ted lays them out. It's not uncommon for him to have us doubling back from time to time, in other words, heading west this year. I was counting on this, it would be our only salvation.
Guitar Ted had told us at the pre-race meeting there would be one "B" road in the first leg of the event. Most often "B" roads are about a mile long, a few are shorter, while others can be up to 2 miles. I figured we'd be looking at about a mile of hike a bike. As any T.I. vet knows allowing your tires to touch the "B" road mud only invites disaster, therefore it's best to hoist the beast and just carry it, unless you can push it in the grass filled ditch. Our first encounter with the minimum maintenance road would come at about the 32 mile mark, give or take. The conditions of the road were just as I expected, bad. As I trudged through the mud and slipped down into the ditch I began to assess my situation. The course hadn't turned to the west like I'd hoped, we had been traveling slower than ever, the rain was sheeting down at an angle, the temperature on my gps indicated 33 degrees, and now I was walking. I had done the math over an over, it was obvious, my Trans Iowa was finished. I stopped on the side of the "B" road, ankle deep in water, and I pulled out my phone. While water poured off of my helmet and onto the phone I waited for it to power up. At 7:30 a.m. I texted Amy these exact words, "Not going to make cut. My phone is on, will text at cp around 8:30."
Upon completing the hike I looked my bike over, cleared some stubborn mud and mounted up. Just then I heard my partner Ryan yell something to me about his bike. I turned to see him examining his rear wheel. I couldn't leave him so I doubled back, "What's up?" I asked. I don't recall what had caused his problem, but a new one had emerged. He could not get his rear wheel to seat into the drop outs. We both fought the wheel and inexplicably it resisted going into the frame. Our voices became more intense as the situation was quickly becoming very serious. Hypothermia was imminent if we did not find shelter or keep moving. We popped out his brake pads in an attempt to allow the wheel to slip in unencumbered, but it still refused the frame. What seemed to be at least 20 minutes had passed when Ryan asked me if there was any shelter near by. I couldn't believe the question. "No, just that farm house" I said pointing up the road. He urged me to push on and eventually I decided I'd better. I was soaked completely through now and the cold wind was biting at my core. As I got ready to push on I told him that he needed to get into a garage or something so he could work on his bike. There was no way he'd be able to walk the 12 or so miles remaining to the c.p. My spirit was crushed. What was I doing leaving him there? How could I do that? I rationalized that there was nothing I could do and that maybe it was better that I left, maybe I'd find him help? Just then up ahead I saw a pick up pointing toward me and looking as if it was taking on a rider. I made a direct line for that truck hoping the driver would see that my intentions were to have a conversation. As I pulled up I recognized a shivering Chris Schotz. We exchanged pleasantries the best that we could given our circumstances. I told him that I had a guy back down the road about a 1/2 mile that was in trouble. He had a broken bike and it wasn't going to be fixed, please help him. Chris barely let me finish the sentence and said, "We'll get him". This is what the Trans Iowa is.
With Ryan in good hands I began to face my own demons. Alone again I resolved to make the first c.p. despite missing the cut off. There I would ask Amy to come find me. Meanwhile, the conditions had drifted from severe to dangerously intense. I remained in a riding state of full power with very little to show for it. The rain had turned to frozen pellets stinging my face, while my drive train creaked and groaned with every pedal stroke. I secretly begged the chain not to break. A mechanical under these conditions would have done me in. Up ahead, just in time, I recognized the riding style of my friend Scott Bigelow. Scott and I have ridden many miles of gravel together (he and I can be seen drafting off each other in the short documentary "Racing the Sun", about my experience with the Dirty Kanza). I had hoped before the race that Scott and I would be able to share some miles and it looked like my wish had come true. We said "hello" and agreed that we'd ride together to the check point. There was a lot to say, yet we said nothing. We fought the hills at impossibly slow speeds, barely above a track stand as we engaged the wind, neither side willing to relent. At times I'd notice that he was looking over at me the same way I'd looked at him while wondering how the other one was doing it. We were both doing it and we never spoke of the hardships we were facing. Scott would later tell me that he told his son that "you know you're in the company of good people when faced with an impossible situation and there are no complaints". I'd follow Scott's wheel to the edge of the Earth, he's that good of a guy.
Scott and I both knew that honor waited for us at the c.p. as well as a ticket out of the mess. I watched the 50 mile mark come to my gps and I knew we would be there soon. My text to Amy stating that I'd be to the check point around 8:30 would need to be adjusted. I quickly sent her this at 8:36 a.m., "More like 9:30 till I get to cp". 9:30 a.m. came and went. It was now close to 10:00 a.m. and I still wasn't to the c.p. I wondered if she was worried, but I remembered her telling me that people always ask her if she worries and she responds with, "No, he knows what he's doing." That comforted me, but I'll admit I was starting to worry. We were getting very cold!
Ahead, with only 2.5 miles to go I saw another truck pulled over with the driver talking to riders. It was some of Guitar Ted's best in that truck, the volunteers. Somehow my spirit lifted, if only just a bit. They'd have information for us, maybe they'd pick us up. We rode straight to the drivers door and I put on my best "I can handle this" face. Mike Johnson, the man who lead my group to the finish line in T.I. v.9 jumped out of the passenger seat and rushed over to me. He saw through my brave face and knew what was really going on. With a hand on my shoulder he stood in the pouring rain and sincerely asked me how I was doing. "I've had better days on the bike", I told him. "I know you have, I'm in awe off you guys, you're warriors", he said. Quickly, he and his partner began to pour over a map in an effort to get us to safety as fast as possible. The driver began giving me directions that I couldn't comprehend. I had stopped listening right after he told us we had to double back. The thought of going backwards on course made me sick. It was then that the town of Guernsey was mentioned and Scott's eyes lit up. "My wife's in Guernsey!", he said. "What the....? How in the hell?", I thought. It didn't matter why she was there I just wanted it to be true. My mind zoomed in on the notion of her being close by and possibly picking us up. Scott fired up his phone and through a spotty connection he managed to have a conversation with her about where we were and how we could get to each other. A mild panic swept over me as I sat listening to him describe where we were when all of a sudden he started saying, "Can you hear me? Maggie are you there?". He ended the call and calmly looked at me without saying a word. The silence seemed to last forever until I said, "Do you think she understood where we are?" "Yes", was all he said as he snapped his foot into a pedal.
Traveling backwards on the course I repeated the directions we needed to follow in order to run into her, as she would be driving toward us, "two miles up this road, left for a quarter mile, then a right turn on tar..." Suddenly, Scott slammed on his brakes and frantically started digging into his food bag that was mounted to his top tube. He fumbled with the zipper with frozen fingers, his phone was ringing and he couldn't get to it. "Please answer Scott, please..." I said to myself, but he couldn't get to it in time. Eventually, he got the phone out and returned the call, "It was Maggie" he said has he waited for an answer. The wind howled into my hood making it impossible for me to hear his side of the conversation. I could only see him struggling to position his body in such a way that the wind would allow him to hear her. While putting the phone back into his bag, he told me that she had Troy Krause (another past finisher that I've ridden with in Trans Iowa) with her and they'd be coming from behind us. It was a matter of minutes until I saw headlights in the distance, "That's her!" he said.
Text to Amy 9:56 a.m. "I'm safe. In a car and coming home soon. I'm frozen" We were cold and beaten. I didn't want to unzip, wipe my nose, or remove my gloves, because any movement just meant that I'd be pushing wet clothes against frozen skin. I sat still as my emotions darted all over the place. I was safe now and soon I'd be warm. The reality that my Trans Iowa was over was very real. It was o.k.
Maggie passed a chocolate chip cookie back to me and after I unwrapped it I instinctively took a chunk off and gave the rest to Scott, who sat shivering next to me. It never occurred to me to eat the whole cookie, you just don't do something like that in these kinds of situations. Scott encouraged me to eat the whole thing, but I hesitated. Maggie then added that they have "a whole bunch of them". I devoured the cookie as I contemplated what I'd consumed in the last six hours, one salted nut roll, and only one bottle of water...that was it! I know that seems ridiculous, but while battling the elements eating food and drinking water seemed like a distraction, an extra amount of work that I wasn't willing to commit to. I know this was flawed thinking. Common sense suggests that one should eat and drink twice as much under those circumstances, but common sense went back to the hotel long before I did.
Amy greeted us in the parking lot of our hotel as I peeled myself out of the car seat. She later told me that my lips were blue when she first laid eyes on me. I was covered from head toe in sand and mud. Any movement caused dried dirt to cascade off my clothing. I determined my best course of action would be to undress in the shower and try to rinse my gear off as I did so. Not long after I started the process the bath tub plugged up and the warm water began to pool at my feet. It felt good as the blood returned to my toes. Mud splattered everywhere even though I was being as careful as I possibly could. I didn't care, I was happy to be "home".
One shower later and I felt human again, but I needed food. We set out for downtown Grinnell for some lunch or dinner...I didn't really have a handle on what time of the day it was and as we entered the restaurant my eyes locked with a guy that seemed familiar to me. It took me a couple seconds before I realized it was Ryan. I shook his hand and told him that I was glad he was back safe and sound. I asked him if Chris Schotz had picked him up, he confirmed that he had. I was glad he was o.k. We parted and went on to enjoy our lunch. Half way through Ryan gave me a wave as he and his wife walked out of the restaurant. I told Amy about my time with him and how bad I felt leaving him. Our server approached our table and asked us if we needed anything else. I told her that we were good to go. She then mentioned that our lunch had been taken care of by the gentleman who was sitting over there - Ryan. So goes the spirit of Trans Iowa. Thank you buddy!
That night we enjoyed the company of fellow riders down at the local establishment. We shared stories and marveled at how Greg Gleason made it past that first check point, the only rider to do so. Scott and I covered a lot of topics, many of which had nothing to do with cycling, which was a good thing. As the night wore on I realized that it was never really about the distance we covered, but rather the stories we shared. Recently, someone very close to me reminded me that it's not things that mean the most to us, its the experiences we have. She couldn't have been more right, thank you Amy.
The Trans Iowa has become like a piece of art to me, sometimes it's beauty holds you in disbelief, while other times it's raw and hideous nature won't allow you to turn away. Someone once said, "Art is never real unless you believe in a little magic". Thank you Trans Iowa for all of your magic.
Special thanks to:
Amy Fullerton for understanding all of it and for never doubting me.
Bob Ek for putting up with and taking care of little Charley (our kitty) back home.
Salsa Cycles and Mike Riemer
Schwalbe Tires and Stephan Moser
Rudy Project and Chris Lupo
Guitar Ted and all of his volunteers.
Ryan Lee, thank you for your kind words, but most importantly your positivity.
Scott Bigelow, thanks buddy! When the chips are down and all the cards are on the table, when nothing is left I want to look over and see you riding by my side.
Maggie Bigelow, thank you so much for that ride. Sorry about saying I wanted to kiss you.