A "blue collar" cyclist's adventures from the saddle of a bike.
As a kid I grew up outside no matter what the season, no matter what the temperature. My Dad always said, "Weather is nothing, as long as you’re dressed for it". I never stressed about the weather. In fact, I never really even thought about it, I just let the door slam behind me. Not much has changed as the years have slipped past.
These days I swing my leg over my bike every morning for my commute to work no matter what Mother Nature is doing. Just the other day a teacher stopped me and asked, "Is there any weather you won’t ride in?" I honestly pondered his question for a moment and simply replied, "No, not really". "Amazing" he mumbled as he walked away. I thought to myself that it wasn’t that amazing; it was just a way of life for me, and something I no longer even think about. There are times when I will pedal through the entire ride barely conscious of what I’m doing. In those times it’s the cold wind on my face, the hum of my tires, and the rhythm of my breathing that become my whole world.
As I coast up to my building and dismount into an ocean of black top, pocked with islands of cars I know my day has started a little differently than everyone else’s. While I anticipate the pain of thawing fingers and toes I remind myself that I wouldn’t change my outside life for anything.
Some say when one chapter ends another begins. I guess that's true, but it's never easy to say what that new chapter will look like. Not to mention, it's never easy to say good bye to that last chapter.
As I head into the 2017 bike season I will still be riding as hard as I ever have, but I'll be without the Salsa Cycles family that I have grown so fond of. Salsa decided to go a different way than the way I was heading. I'm o.k. with that and I have nothing but gratitude toward them. So many friends were made and so many experiences were experienced. Seven long (but quick), years I rode with their logo strapped across my back. I wore that logo with pride! I still remember the day I licked the envelope containing my bike resume and sent it off to Bloomington, MN. I certainly had no idea what lay ahead of me after that envelope landed in the mail box. "Adventure By Bike" was going to be the new slogan. Hell, I was already having adventures on my bike, it was a perfect fit. Countless races, including several Trans Iowas, 7 Dirty Kanzas, 2 Vapor Trail 125's, a death defying experience at the Arrowhead 135, and a 5th overall at the Lutsen 99'er were just some of the accomplishments I notched into my handle bar while riding with Salsa. All the while I wrote my stories in an attempt to somehow preserve the experience for myself so that I'd be able to someday look back and try to relive these life changing moments. One particular story gained significant traction. I called it "Racing the Kansas Sun". This story's title eventually got changed to "Racing the Sun". The saga poured from my fingertips into the key board like water from a faucet. I gave the story to the Dirty Kanza (for free) and they ran with it. The participants, who like me, just wanted to finish, now had something to race for. It made me feel good and ultimately left me with some mixed feelings as well. I never dreamed my story would become a promotional angle, but it did. I still hold the story close to my heart, because I lived that day and the story is true. It really happened to me and it was really hard. Like so many of my experiences it was one of an average rider overcoming obstacle after obstacle and never quitting. I like that story.
So now, I move on to the next chapter. I will always ride bikes. I will always ride as hard as I can and I will always find the time to ride as slow as I can, keeping my head up and squinting into the setting sun.
Thank you Salsa Cycles for the support over the years, but mostly I thank you for letting me into your family and for the friendships that I hope will last a lifetime.
If you're someone out there looking for a dedicated, humble, rider who you need to represent your brand with whole hearted earnestness, and authenticity ... I'm available.
See you guys out on the trail,
Fatigue layed over my body like a wet blanket as I casually put my point and shoot camera into the back pocket of my jersey. Feeling good about the shot I just got of my three riding partners a peculiar sense came over me, something was different. I looked up to see Todd McFadden who had been riding first position shooting up a sharp rise with an intensity that had gravel spewing from his rear wheel. Ross Fraboni was second wheel and was now out of the saddle giving chase. The wheel I was connected to belonged to Matt Lee who was now laying the coals to his pedals. "This is it!" I said. Slamming the camera home in frustration, I had allowed a gap to form. Jumping from my saddle I went from tourist to full on bike racer in a split second. Fifty meters was what separated Matt and I, while at least one hundred lay between he and Ross who was stuck to McFadden's wheel like glue. "Don't get dropped, Don't get dropped..." I repeated to myself as I took huge risks while slamming through an ATV trail somewhere north of Two Harbors, Minnesota. It was day two of the 2 stage, 200 mile, Heck Epic.
The concept of the Heck Epic was spawned from the mind of Jeremy Kershaw, the man responsible for creating the Heck of the North, a 100 mile gravel race across northern Minnesota. The "Epic" is beautifully simple in it's design. All one has to do is load his or her bike up with the gear they feel they will need to not only sustain themselves on two very long gravel rides, but also allow them to camp overnight. Camping is required between stages, which brings a lot of decisions into the game. Should a rider opt for a light weight racing kit and run the risk of an uncomfortably cold night on the ground or run a little slower and heavier with the hope that a good nights sleep will pay dividends on day two? Being a man of simple means and lacking the latest in high tech, light weight gear I chose to carry more weight in hopes of a comfortable night of much needed rest after day one.
My good friend, Charlie Farrow knocked on my door at 5:00 a.m. sharp to find me no where near ready to go. He was my ride to the start line and my source of intel as he had completed the event last year. It wasn't long before we were on our way up the North Shore of Lake Superior to the sleepy little town of Two Harbors where we'd complete our final preparations. The start area is where I met Matt Lee who initially got my attention with his abnormally light set up. The man simply had nothing! I've taken more gear with me on afternoon rides than Matt had. Immediately, I began to question my whole kit. It was too late now, I was going to have "run what I brung". It didn't take long before I felt like a rookie as I examined other rider's gear choices. I had the overwhelming feeling that I had no idea what I was doing and they were all pros.
The starting line had some familiar faces and it was good to know I'd be riding with them. Ross Fraboni, Todd McFadden, Chris Finch, and the list goes on. Jeremy briefed us on some final course information and wished us good luck and confidently said, "I'll see you in Ely!" Ely, Minnesota on the northern edge of the state was our destination. I had no idea how we'd get there, but the cue cards mounted to my handle bars would show me the way.
Seconds before the start I was unclear how I would approach the day. With a recent family crisis involving my Dad's health I have been completely off the bike for weeks. I did not feel that I was in good shape, nor did I feel I had the mental fortitude to "race" this event. I was really leaning toward sitting back, telling a few stories, and just riding through the first day with some good company. However, with one turn of the cranks that all changed. I stopped thinking and let myself give way to the bike. I found myself stuck to last year's champ, Ross. He was gradually winding up the pace and it felt good. There was no rocket ship blast off like usual, just a slow methodical build up of intensity. Approximately twenty minutes in we were riding at a good clip and utilizing a pace line. I assumed that the rest of the field was strung out behind us, but I was wrong. There were five of us, with a large gap separating us from the main field. Soon we were just cruising along as if we were on really long ride together.
As the minutes turned to hours I couldn't help but absorb the vastness of the area. We were in a wilderness that was truly remote. I kept wondering who used these roads and how Jeremy ever found them. The times to take in the views came and went with the changing intensity of our riding. Twenty minutes of hard effort would give way to easy pedaling and casual conversation, followed by thirty minutes of short hard pulls and quick rotations. This pattern turned our group of five into four as Paul, from Kansas had drifted off the back. Little did I know at the time, but our little band of 4 brothers would make up the front group for the entire event.
The miles passed uneventfully until Todd was sidelined by a side wall cut on his rear tire. I didn't mind the quick stop for the repair. To be honest, I needed a little break. Ross and Todd diligently worked on the tire while Matt and I marveled at our situation and our location. We had no idea where we were other than what our little cards told us. The small two track road that stretched out before us was known as "Snake Trail" or something to that effect. It seemed to go on forever, straight ahead, leading us to some unknown destination. We hoped it was Ely.
With the flat fixed and us back on our steeds we pressed on. Eighty miles turned into ninety and the monotony was on me as was a general malaise. Drifting back after a pull I broke the silence by flatly stating to Todd, "I'm pretty tired". He responded in kind, but it felt more like he was being polite as I noted his smooth unaffected riding style. I knew this feeling would eventually end and I was assured that it would when we entered the tiny town of Ely. Ross knew the way to the camp ground and I gladly let him guide us while I rode second wheel. I watched him close as he seemed to have a bit of nervous energy about him. We hadn't discussed the finish so it was unclear how it would play out. Would we ride in like gentlemen or would we fight it out like dogs in the street? My question was answered when Ross suddenly rose from his saddle and started to sprint. "What? Is he serious?" I questioned. 109 miles in and I'm sprinting to a finish line that I can't see or even have a clue as to it's location. Finally, after a sharp downhill left turn I saw Jeremy in the distance. I rocked my heavy rig back and forth for the line to take 3rd on the day with Matt and Ross going 1 and 2. We laughed about Ross' antics and I teased him about the rude gesture, but it is a race after all. I was happy to have finished with these strong riders, but now it was time for some much needed rest, I had a big day coming up. I just had no idea how big.
Camp life was uneventful, save one major down pour that drenched the kit I had left dangling off the handle bar of my bike. The soaking rain came while on my way to dinner, there was nothing I could do for my riding clothes, except rest assured they were getting a thorough rinse. Dinner was relaxing as we shared stories from the day and had some good laughs, usually at Charlie's expense.
The morning of day two found me questioning my decision to carry a heavier load with the hopes of getting a good night of sleep. As it turned out I experienced a fitful night while my neighbor shook the nearby tree limbs with a level of snoring unlike anything I had ever heard before. Finally, I accepted the fact that I could no longer squeeze another minute of sleep out of the morning so I got up and started to work on getting things set for the long, rough trip back to Two Harbors. First and foremost, I needed to secure the load on my handle bar as it was shaking loose on the previous day's ride. With the purchase of some extra cinch straps at the local outdoor store in Ely and some redistributing of weight, my load was solid.
Jeremy pulled out all of the stops by having breakfast catered for all riders. This was a huge plus in my mind. A hearty breakfast before the days work would pay off later. I woofed down a meal and made some final tweaks to my machine. It was just a matter of time before we'd be under way. I was anxious to get started, but really didn't know how the day would treat me with 109 miles in my legs from yesterday combined with the fact that the 2nd day of the "Epic" is notably tougher.
Jeremy lead us out of Ely's streets and it wasn't long before we were cut loose. I took an initial long, hard pull on the front in an effort to get the four of us clear of the field early. To my surprise (and disappointment) the energy burn didn't take. A long line of some 20 riders trailed out behind us while the 4 leaders were the only ones wiling to work on the front. It was Todd who set the precedent and went to the back of the group forcing the newcomers to earn their keep. The pace seemed to increase, but was manageable. A look over my shoulder confirmed that our little "band" would be back together soon. The arrival of the first off road section of the day found the four of us clear of the field. Ross and Todd were putting on a clinic on how to ride rough two track, as their full suspension mountain bikes ate up the imperfections of the trail. Matt and I resigned to hang on to them the best we could as this was now mountain bike country and our rigs were not fully up to the challenge.
The riding was fun and intense at times, but it was the surges of energy that were starting to catch up with me. I was beginning to feel flat out tired! 45 miles into a 110 mile day and I was cooked! This wasn't good. It so happened that my "darkness" settled on me during a long stretch of gravel rollers. The three lighter rigs around me seemed to glide up the climbs while I went deeper and deeper for every summit. The boys were noticing that I was slipping, I could tell from their suspecting glances. I've never been too proud to admit when I'm tired, so I broke the silence by saying, "I'm in a dark spot guys". Immediately, my friends began digging through their cashe of supplies for whatever it would take to get me back up to speed, so to speak. Ross handed me a couple of E-caps, while Todd gave up an entire canister of them for me, "just in case I needed some later". These were the gestures that kept our little "band" together and in my mind made this ride so special.
I knew if I made it to the 50 mile check point with the boys I'd be o.k. There I'd get a Coke, some food, and a few minutes off the bike. In the meantime I languished in the back of our group, at times feeling bad about my inability to pull, but I knew they understood. These were bike racers, they'd been in my spot many times before. Soon enough the c.p. came and I followed my plan to a "T". Immediately, I felt better once I was back on my machine. I joked with the guys about how I'd see them at the finish, while I launched a mock attack breaking away. They laughed at me as if they knew something I didn't.
Ross hit the off road section that followed the check point as promised...HARD! He warned us that we'd be racing from here on in and he obviously wasn't kidding. I held my own with the attack, dodging the puddles and rocks the best that I could while we soared through the two track. Eventually, his strong push subsided and we were all still together. I doled out a solid effort on the front, but was unsure how it was perceived by the group. I wondered if it really tested them or was it more of an annoyance. I didn't know, the only thing I knew for sure was that I was doing the best that I could.
Todd broke next and with a level of intensity we had yet to see. He exploded off the front of the group with Ross immediately giving chase. I knew this would possibly be one of the last attacks I'd see before we broke up. Going FULL GAS I hung on for dear life as I took crazy risks in an effort to reel Matt back into my grasp. At the same time Matt had his hands full trying to nail back Ross who was on Todd's wheel. I could feel my bike loosing contact with terra firma as I blasted through huge puddles at 20 mph, my rig hydroplaning through the water gave me the uneasy feeling that disaster was imminent. The bends in my elbows burned from getting whipped by branches as I attempted to avoid the deepest parts of the water holes. Despite all of my problems I was doing it, Matt was coming back to me! I crested a small rise with a surge of speed and over took him on the top. We blasted down the other side a foot apart and closing fast on the two leaders. Finally, I saw Todd check on the damage he had caused and in realizing that we were back, he simply sat up. It was over. A twenty minute full on assault of power and I had managed to stay latched on. Todd later told me that he remembered that he was not dealing with normal bike racers on this day, he was dealing with guys who were mentally tough. I took that as a compliment and also took the opportunity to let him know that I would never go down without a fight.
Todd's attack had put a serious dent in my armor and I noticed that whatever was left in the legs for fighting purposes was now gone. I was very vulnerable and I think the guys knew it. I also know that I wasn't the only one who was tired as silence between us now prevailed.
Mile 82 had us turning off of asphalt and climbing up a rise onto the North Shore snowmobile trail. This would be the last time I'd be riding with Ross and Todd during the Heck Epic. Ross hit the climb so hard that he immediately separated from the group. Todd had the legs to give chase while Matt went off the back along with me struggling to simply clean the greasy climb. "That's it, it's over" I said to myself as the four of us were blown up by Ross' attack. The mountain bikes in the group exploited the section and simply pinned all the sketchy parts while I pointed my wheel at the safest routes I could see. Matt was a mere 25 meters ahead of me when the first snowmobile bridge appeared. The bridge was made for snow machines in the winter, not bike riding in the summer. Boards ran length wise from end to end with gaps between them wide enough to easily grab a bike tire. Hitting this bridge at high speed would spell disaster for even the most skilled rider. As I questioned my approach to the wooden beast my front wheel dropped into a slot while my rear wheel found a different track. I clipped a foot out and did the hop, hop, hop, move of a man about to go down. Somehow I stayed upright, but I was at a dead stop now and that's when I watched Matt ride away from me for the last time.
It was a solo flight for me now, but I was happy. I didn't even know I'd be racing the event until seconds before the start, now here I was destined to finish 4th, but more importantly I had done it with a great group of guys and in an effort that I could be proud of. With the remaining miles slowly passing I navigated alone, noticing from time to time Matt's figure a mile or so up in the distance fighting whatever demons may have been riding on his shoulders. My demons had left me somewhere after mile 82. I was riding in good spirits, my head was up, the sun was shining, and the critters of the wilderness were flitting about. I had started what I thought was another bike race, but ended what came to be an adventure of camaraderie and spirit. The Heck Epic lived up to it's name in every way. What a race, what a ride, what an adventure!
I crossed the finish line and into the handshakes of my buddies. Their slaps on my back and smiles let me know they were just as happy as I to have shared so many miles together. It was good to be off the bike, but I'll admit I took a moment to glance back down that gravel road, a piece of me wanted to go right back out there and do it again.
Amy Fullerton, in my mind and in my heart you were right there with me during those closing miles. Thank you for your support and thank you for reminding me that with all that is going on in our lives right now, I still need to get on my bike and ride.
Jeremy Kershaw and his crew, words cannot express what this event meant to me. Thank you for putting on such a professional operation. Most importantly, you know why we're all out there and that makes it even more special.
Rudy Project, once again I forget that your gear is even with me, which to me means it's working as it should. Thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe and for standing by me while I take on challenges that I'm not even sure I can do.
Schwalbe Tires, my Thunder Burts were durable, light, and fast rolling, perfect for the Epic. I never worried about them, not once!
FLUID Nutrition, you were with me for all 217 miles and you've been with me for thousands over the years. Cramping was never an issue and nothing was more important to me after day 1 than getting my FLUID recovery drink down, it made all the difference.
Charlie Farrow, not only did you get me to this race, but you've always believed I can do more than I think I can, for that I thank you. Thanks for all the miles!
Ross Fraboni, Todd McFadden, Matt Lee, I've ridden a lot of miles with a lot of people, but never have I felt more comfortable and more on the same page as I did with you guys. It seemed like we'd been riding together for years. Thanks for making my Heck Epic one I will always remember.
A glance to my heart rate monitor told me my ticker was already working hard at 55 beats per minute above my usual resting pace. I tried to breath through my advanced rate in an effort to slow it down. My hands were shaking as I moved through a series of mental gymnastics in an effort to calm down. I was standing at the starting line of the 2016 Lutsen 99'er and I was nervous.
Coming off a disappointing Dirty Kanza, where I failed to finish the event, I think I was more scared of a repeat performance than I was of the 99 hard miles that lay before me. I've tried hard to put Kansas behind me, but for some reason she kept tapping on me on the shoulder and reminding me of what she did to me, almost mocking me. I'd concluded that the only way to say "good bye" to that day would be to complete a race in a way that I could feel good about. I had over 6 hours of riding in front of me full of opportunity to do just that.
I positioned myself in the second row of some 550 riders waiting for the start. I chit chatted with cycling friends that I've shared some of the hardest miles of my life with and as I did so my mind kept replaying my game plan over and over in my head. The plan was the same as it was in 2013. I call the plan, "Give yourself a chance". Here's what it entails. Ride as hard as I possibly can right away in the hopes that I am able to latch on to a fast riding group, and then hang on for dear life with that group until the finish line. This has been the business model I've operated with at Lutsen and it has worked every time. I should add that this is far from the plan that I approach all races of this distance with. I'm not sure what it is, but the format of the Lutsen 99'er with it's mix of mountain biking and gravel agrees with me. But, a lot can go wrong in 99 miles while beating mercilessly on your bike.
I stared at the backs of some of the heaviest hitters in the Midwest as we cruised up Highway 61. Close behind the motos were Minnesota's hero Jeff Hall, Michigan's Matt Acker (and my Salsa teammate), and super stud Jorden Wakeley. It felt good to be close to their wheels in a bike race even if it was while I was still in the lead out. The motos rode side by side and escorted us up the highway for much longer than in years past. I kept my eye on them as I knew soon they'd be cutting us loose and the already quick pace would go straight to the moon as soon as they did so. Suddenly, the moto rider on the right looked directly over to his partner and made a swirling motion with his left hand. "This is it" I thought. In unison they squeezed their respected clutches, knocked it up a gear and their engines roared. The pace went up as I expected and we thinned out into a long line as if we'd all practiced it the night before.
The final selection would be made once we began the long climb from the shore of Lake Superior inland to the high country of northern Minnesota. Finally, the left hand turn came and Jorden Wakeley stood on his pedals and absolutely hammered away from the field. It was something special to see, his bike rocking back and forth as he moved away from some very talented riders. The big guys gave chase and it wasn't long before the men were being separated from he boys. I was one of the boys, well maybe a teenager.
I counted the chase groups in front of me and I was unfortunately sitting on the front of the 3rd group back. I didn't look behind me, but it was a big group and they were satisfied with letting the Salsa boy sit on the front and create the pace. I kept asking myself if I was going as hard as I could and the answer was always YES!
I needed to get off the front as precious matches were burning quickly and I hadn't even hit the dirt yet. My friends behind me must have noticed that my pace was slowing. They crept by me on my left allowing me to slide backward looking for a place to hide from the wind. Not a word was spoken as the line silently passed. Occasional glances toward me were their thank you. The moan of knobby tires on tarmac was the only sound that could be heard.
I checked my mileage and I was closing in on 8 miles. The right hand turn to the gravel was coming soon and I wanted to get through that turn unscathed. It sounds easy enough, but if one is mixed in with a dozen strong men riding their bikes as hard as they possibly can it can prove to be dicey. Coming off a strong draft and a bit of downhill I was able to move back into the front position of my group with some momentum. A few hard pedal strokes and I was 100 meters ahead of them and alone...perfect. I handled the turn by myself and was soon overtaken as the pace once again lifted.
This year I was on Salsa's 2016 Spearfish. The bike is tight and fast, but was still pretty new to me. I opened the suspension on the first two track section and it wasn't long before I forgot that the imperfections of the trail were even there. I felt good and was happy with where I was in the field, probably in about 40th position. While I settled in to the business at hand I noticed a familiar, friendly voice as he moved past me. It was my most trusted mechanic and friend Ross Fraboni. Ross is an exceptionally talented rider. He is steady and strong and watching him ride difficult single track is like attending a mountain bike clinic. The trick is you have to stay with him long enough to be able to watch. This day I was determined to watch.
Ross moved effortlessly up the rolling hills of Lutsen's forest all the while weaving in and out of heavy bike traffic. "Keep your eye on him, don't let him get away" was all I told myself. Ross had developed a significant gap between us and I was resigned to wondering if I'd ever see him again. It wasn't long before I saw him pulled over, his chain slack on his bike with the all too familiar sight of the derailleur cage curled in an ugly upright position. "He's done" I said to myself as I passed. I felt bad for him, what a way to go out and so early.
I put my friend's experience behind me and reminded myself to avoid the loose sticks in the trail and to ride smart. The pedaling was beginning to feel mundane and the focus centered on keeping the pace pegged on "very high" while the minutes slowly crept by. Suddenly, Ross' voice echoed in my head. He was back! He giggled as he moved by me again. "I thought you were out" I yelled. He laughed and made some light hearted comment about his silly little problem. This is Ross' way, he never gets worked up and reminds me all the time that this is the sport we love.
While working the bike for all that it had I was opening and closing my suspension depending on the terrain under my wheels. A strange rattling sound began to develop every time I opened the rear shock. "What the?" I thought. This was a new sound. I scanned my machine the best that I could while on the fly. Nothing jumped out at me as a problem so I chalked it up to the fact that I was really putting the Spearfish through her paces, harder than ever before. Maybe it was the sound of all the hits reverberating up through the carbon frame, I wondered. "Ross, I'm getting a weird rattling sound every time I open the suspension!" I yelled. I secretly hoped he'd offer some mechanic's advice that would make me feel better about the situation. His reply was simple, "You're going to hold together Tim and you're going to do fine!" I told myself he was right. I wouldn't worry about the problem until it was a PROBLEM.
The race was now in it's middle stage and my rattling sound was just back ground noise to me. Instead, I began to focus on the darkening skies above. My last check of the hourly forecast let me know that there was a mere 15% chance of thunderstorms, but this looked more like a 90% chance. My mind flashed back to the room before the start where I held my fenders in my hand debating whether or not to take them. Quinn, my travel partner, friend, and fellow racer mocked me for even considering it. "Don't you like to get dirty?", he asked. I dropped them where I stood and left the room, my bike in tow. I cursed the decision to leave the fenders behind as the first few rain drops hit my helmet with a resounding splat.
It seemed that the ominous clouds above offered a few false alarms as the storm failed to materialize initially. I didn't mind the little showers I was experiencing at the time, in fact they felt good. However, as I entered my second loop of off road the clouds were done kidding around. A clap of thunder went off above me and the tree tops...KA-BOOM!!!!!! A shudder went through my body as I shrunk closer to my handle bar. I had my hands full at the time as I was moving through either lapped riders or 69'er competitors. Needless to say the trail was busy. The explosion that occurred above me seem to be what the clouds needed to unleash all that they were holding. A torrent of rain began with such earnest that a spookiness came over the woods. I tipped my yellow lensed glasses down to the tip of my nose in an effort to see some semblance of the trail. My search for the single track turned into a decision to just put my tires in the middle of the flowing water. A mini flash flood was happening before my eyes. I marveled at the mist that hung in the air, a byproduct of the sheets of rain that pummeled down. Every few minutes a clap of thunder similar to the first would rattle my ear drums and pound my chest. "Man, this is serious" I thought doing my best to stay on top of the pedals despite the biblical weather situation going on around me.
Ross and I completed the second loop together and he mentioned that he needed to grab his drop bag at the aid station. I let him know that I would soft pedal in order to wait up for him. He thanked me as he pulled off for his bag. I decided to make a 5 second stop at the volunteer's table so I could spray off my glasses. I spotted several cycling style water bottles lined up on the table. I asked if they contained just water and was assured that they did. I grabbed one and blasted my face and glasses only to find out that it was a sugary GU mix, not what I expected. Disgusted by what was now mixed in with the mud on my face I left the aid station trying to keep my head in the game. I knew that another 10 - 15 mile off road section lay before me and once that was complete I'd be in the final stages of the race. The turn to the section came quicker than I expected and I was alone. Unsure of where Ross was I decided to get my speed back up to where I felt it needed to be. Suddenly, my bike and it's rattling sound became impossible to ignore. "Something is definitely not right" I thought. I looked down between my legs toward the back end of the bike only to notice the rear caliper bouncing around on top of the disc. "Oh my God! My brake is falling off!" I said aloud. I had no choice but to stop and inspect the situation. I laid the machine down and wiggled the caliper. It was very loose! In fact, one of the two bolts that held it to the frame was completely gone and the other was backed way out. As efficiently as I could I dug for my multi tool. My camel back was a muddy mess which caused the zippers to stick and fight me the whole time. Eventually, I retrieved my small tool bag and was ready to get started when I heard, "Ohhhh Tim". My friend had caught me and was riding past. I yelled to him a short description of my problem and went to work. I counted 7 rotations of the remaining bolt before it finally started to bite into the frame. It was almost all the way out. Losing that bolt would have meant a catastrophic end to my race as well as a slow death by mosquitos for me.
I snugged the bolt up as tightly as I dared, shoved everything back into the camel back and jumped aboard. My spearfish was as quiet as a church mouse for the following 35 miles. But, if a bolt backed out once, it could back out again. I must have looked at that rear caliper 200 times in those final miles. I couldn't get it off my mind.
I finished the two track section alone and was now slogging my way through the final miles of gravel. The beast of all storms had subsided and the skies were brightening. I felt I was riding agonizingly slow as fatigue began to take hold. My legs were like rubber and my mind was floating in and out of the task at hand. Just then a fast moving train of 12 riders overtook me and I made the decision to jump on the back end. I had to dig deep more than a few times to stay on, but I knew that riding by myself meant 15 mph and riding with these guys meant riding at 19 or 20 mph. "This thing will be over a lot quicker if you just stay with this group" I reminded myself.
I counted 13 riders in the group and I was holding my own in 11th position. The miles were coming down now and the final aid station was in sight. The pop up tent was positioned on the far side of a left hand turn and was located shockingly close to the finish. As we approached the turn I readied myself for the acceleration that comes after every turn when riding in a group. Inexplicably, the first 8 or 9 riders went to the tent. I took the turn hard and to the inside. Suddenly, I went from 11th position to 3rd of the group. I glanced over my shoulder and there was a gap. I went hard on the pedals as did the two riders in front of me.
Once I hit the trail I knew it was the end of the end game. It was all or nothing time. I could no longer make out anything on my GPS due to the mud so I relied on memory. "There's about 4 miles to go" I told myself. "Give it everything you've got!" The messages were sent down to the engine room, but there was nothing more than a rubbery response. I was certain that the other guys were feeling the same. "Stay on it!" I silently reminded myself. I entered the single track leading about 6 or 7. "Should I let them pass?" I shook off the thought, telling myself that if they wanted by they'd have to fight for it. An open section appeared as we traversed the side of Moose Mountain and two riders slipped by me. They quickly gapped me and definitely deserved the pass.
Down in the valley the only portion that remained was the mile long climb up Lutsen Mountain. I kept checking behind me and determined that the riders behind weren't gaining on me, they were hurting too. I felt I'd be able to hold my position and that quite possibly I'd met my goal of finishing in the top 40. I knew this section of trail well and I knew where the steepest pitches were and how many remained. With two hard, steep sections remaining I slowly turned over the pedals. A lone spectator stood next to the trail slowly clapping as I approached. "Nice ride, you're 23rd overall" (really I was 24th). "What?" I asked incredulously. He repeated his statement. A smile crept over my face as the pain slipped from my legs.
My eyes scanned the overpass above me from left to right, I climbed the final 100 meters. Suddenly, "Way to go Tim!" stood out among the cheers. There was Amy smiling and clapping, a sight I'd anticipated for 6 hours and 30 minutes.
As soon as clipped out of the pedals and dismounted the bike happiness replaced the hurt my body was feeling. I had overcome a mechanical, stayed on top of a very hard pace, and beat down the demon from the Dirty Kanza. In some ways I wonder if that beast of a storm was really the beast of Kansas challenging me, testing my resolve. If so, I'm happy to be able to say that I rode straight into the belly of the beast and came out with a smile on my face. Until next year Lutsen 99'er.
Amy Fullerton. You are the best support crew I could ever ask for. You inspire me to do my best. I am your biggest fan.
Quinn and Kari Williams. You guys made this trip so fun! Without you two my pre-race jitters would have been much worse than they were. Quinn, you killed it on your fat bike! Kari, thank you so much for your amazing photos.
Salsa Cycles. As always you make these experiences so much better and my Spearfish was the right tool for the job.
Rudy Project. Wow! Without you I'd be blind right now. My Rydons were light weight and the yellow lenses were the perfect choice for the overcast conditions. Thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe.
Schwalbe Tires. The Racing Ralphs are the best all around mountain bike tire on the planet. They are fast on gravel with just enough grip for off road.
FLUID Nutrition. 100oz of FLUID on my back was exactly what I needed for this race. The perfect ratio and taste. Thank you for being with me over the years. I will continue to spread the word about his wonderful product.
Lutsen 99'er and it's volunteers. This is and always will be one of my favorite events. So professionally run and organized. Course marking is perfect and your volunteers get it. They are excited by what we're doing and it shows through their tireless efforts to keep us moving in the right direction. Finally, thank you for offering your photos for free.
As the Dirty Kanza 200 looms ominously in the not too distant future I’ve been determined to knock out some significant training miles in an effort to reduce the “hurt factor” of that race. I know it will hurt, but I’d really like to avoid throwing up in the bushes near the finish area like last year. So, with that in mind I put together a plan that included some pretty hard efforts. One of those efforts would include a solo overnight bike packing trip to the quaint, eccentric Madeline Island. Madeline is located just off the south shore of Lake Superior and belongs to Wisconsin. It’s pretty much the closest thing to Jamaica that can be found in the northern regions of the Midwest. It’s one of, if not the biggest of Lake Superior’s Apostle Islands. Beautiful sandy beaches touching crystal clear, ice cold Superior water, complete with a vibe that Bob Marley would be proud of… that’s Madeline Island. That’s where I was heading!
The plan initially was to travel as light as possible with the focus being on two back to back fast paced 100 mile efforts on the bike. But, of course Mother Nature had to get involved and decided to throw some unseasonably cool weather at Northern Wisconsin which meteorologists were scratching their heads over. Over night and early morning temps were predicted to be in the low 20’s, so much for traveling light. I needed to switch my kit to almost a full blown winter set up. Instead of a 40 degree summer bag, I now needed a bulkier 20 degree bag. Instead of shorts and sandals, I now needed a down vest, mittens, and pants. Despite the winter gear I felt I was running about as light as dared. I made the decision to forego cooking equipment and just grab my meals from a bar and grill or diner. As light as I tried to go, it still felt heavy, but I figured it would help with the work out.
Saturday, 7:20 a.m. I put the empty coffee cup in the dishwasher, gave lil Lucy a scratch on the head as she groaned out a sad meow. Charley got a kiss on her orange face and I let them know I loved them both as I shut the garage door. My little four leggers were on their own for a bit as their Mom was off conquering her own demons. Amy was crushing through her first 50K trail run, also in Wisconsin. The steering on my Cutthroat felt sluggish at best with the load on the front and the pedaling was deliberate, as it took concerted effort to get the wheels rolling. It wasn’t long before I was holding on tight while being buffeted by high winds on the big bridge between Duluth, MN and Wisconsin. Safely off the bridge and cruising through the industrial little town of Superior I considered my trip officially under way.
After a couple miles of gravel “rail trail” I was out of town and alone on the road. The rig still felt a little awkward under me as tried to make friends with its handling. I squirmed around on the saddle, changed my hand position every 20 seconds, made tiny adjustments to just about everything I could reach until it all felt just right. The sun was trying to break through an overall cloudy day and I was now doing what I do, pedaling. I was by myself, but I felt good.
Eager for my route to take me close to the shore I wondered what every hill and curve of road would reveal. My heart soared when I saw what I’d seen so many times before from the window of my car, Lake Superior’s south shore. I’m a born and bred north shore guy, so visiting the south shore of the big lake is always exciting, but to see it from the saddle of a bike was so much better. The air was brisk and I had switched to my mittens long ago. I wasn’t cold, but I did notice the salty dried tears on my face. Mother Nature may have dialed up some cool temperatures, but she also had placed her hand on the small of my back and made the pedaling easy. I moved through the rollers as a 15 mph tail wind pushed me into some of my hardest gears allowing me to travel upwards of 20 mph for extended periods of time with little to no effort. The livin’ was easy! Soon I saw the sign for the little fishing village of Cornucopia, Wisconsin and I knew I would reach my destination soon. What I didn’t realize was how drastically the small rollers would change into some pretty serious climbs. I’d never noticed the size of these hills during previous drives. It’s amazing what you can miss from a car, as the world zooms by outside the window. Despite the size of the Wisconsin “mountains” I managed them with only a moderate amount of pain. I did take note however of the descent down the other side that took over 3 minutes to clear. I shrugged off the thought of the climb that awaited me the next morning.
The little shore town of Bayfield unfolded before me as I coasted toward the ferry entrance. I glanced at my watch and gave myself an imaginary pat on the back, 6 hours and 8 minutes, “not too bad on a loaded bike” I thought.
A quick text to find out how Amy was doing in her race and the next thing I knew I was sitting on the ferry – freezing! I felt the fun factor rising though as I started talking with some fellow passengers on the trip over. They were interested in what I was doing even if they thought it was a bit odd. The views were spectacular and it felt good to be on the lake I’d been riding next to for so long. Despite the scenery and good company it was getting hard to ignore the fact that my cycling clothes were no longer keeping me warm. I needed to get into some street clothes fast as snowflakes drifted past. Yes! Snow in mid-May. I locked up next to some other bikes; even though it probably wasn’t necessary, not in this place. I donned warmer clothes over the top of my bike clothes right there on the sidewalk while some passersby questioned me about my trip. I answered all of their questions and in return they pointed me in the direction of a couple AA batteries that I needed.
The next thing on my agenda was simple; grab a beer and a hot cup of chili. It wasn’t long before I felt like I belonged at the “Beach Club”. The locals took me in and fueled me with stories from the island. I shared a few of my adventures in return. They even tried to hide my food when I went to the bathroom. I was one of their own after only an hour. I could get used to this kind of life.
Six more miles of easy pedaling and I was ready to set up camp. The campground was basically deserted, save 3 other tents. I scavenged up some wood for a fire and quickly made the little spot in the woods my home. With no more chores to do I decided to take a walk down to the beach and check out the view. I was presented with complete solitude. There wasn’t a living soul in sight; I strained to hear a sound, nothing…just the gentle swooshing of water kissing the sand. Forty minutes I sat staring out toward the Apostles allowing my mind to clear of my busy life back home. I could feel the weight lifting from my shoulders. All of the things that concern me daily seemed to float out with the retreating waves. I didn’t want to leave that log.
Taking down camp went smoothly and now that I was fully adjusted to island life I had taken a considerable chunk of time to accomplish the task. Glancing at my watch I noticed I had 23 minutes to make the ferry. A quick walk around the campsite produced no forgotten items, so I grabbed up what little garbage I’d created and headed for the dumpster with my bike in tow. “Man, I’m going to have to pin it!” I thought. Six miles in 23 minutes on a really heavy bike into a headwind, I had to try. Straight outta the sleeping bag and straight into a sprint was not really the way I wanted to start my 94 mile ride. I think I checked my watch 30 times on that ride, but I made it with 4 minutes to spare. The ticket taker tried to engage in some casual conversation as I fumbled for my pass. Finally, I managed to mumble out that I had gone full gas in an attempt to make it in time. He assured me that I could relax, I’d made it.
Now all I had in front of me was a big breakfast and a long ride home with the incentive of my buddy Charlie Farrow meeting me somewhere along the line. Charlie planned to ride toward me until we met, then escort me home. Satisfied with my meal I tipped my server and headed out to my rig. I began the long climb out of Bayfield and straight into the hard west wind. My speed was considerably slower and I was digging pretty deep. I needed to get my head right that this was going to be a big one. The miles were agonizingly slow as the wind showed no signs of letting up. I kept an eye up the road as far as I could see looking for Charlie, but nothing. I wanted to talk to him, just to get my mind off of the wind. My morale began to sink as I accepted that he wasn’t going to show. Maybe it was fitting that I finish this thing alone. Stupidly, I started counting down the miles at about the 30 to go mark. What a mistake! The countdown seemed to make time stand still. I shifted my thinking to one singular thought, “If I keep pedaling, I’ll eventually make it home”.
I did make it home in just less than 8 hours! I was completely wasted. I flopped onto my front lawn while my neighbor yelled across the street, “How was it?” I mumbled something to him and then pondered his response, “Better you than me”. Classic!
The Cutthroat got put right into her parking spot fully loaded. The only thing I took from it was aphoto and into the house I went. Amy wasn’t home from her trip yet, but I wasn’t alone anymore. On quivering legs and dehydrated muscles I limped up the stairs toward a hot shower with the sound of welcoming “meows”. I let them know, “Daddy’s home girls … Daddy’s home.”
I left Duluth looking for two back to back solid training rides. I got that and so much more. Loading up a bike and taking off for a trip of one’s choosing clears the mind and enriches the soul. I may not have traveled across the country or ridden over mountains, but I had my own little adventure and I found a little piece of the world just for me.
There are a lot of hard races out there, some of which have the potential to change a person. The experience of finishing one never seems to fade as the memories surface at unusual times. One may see a flag snapping in the wind and be instantly taken back to the fields of America's heartland or magazine photo of a mountain top may conjure the pain of a 45 minute hike a bike. These are the races that get in us and stay with us. These are the things that shape who we are. Going to a place so dark, so basic, and so very real is what I believe humans are meant to do. Going there once means you'll never be able to stop searching for that "place" again.
The Trans Iowa is one of those races. There's nothing flashy, nothing really note worthy as the miles endlessly tick past. Yet, there is something very special about the experience. The distance seems unfathomable, some 330 miles by bike, all at once! The enormity of the T.I. combined with the transition from night to day, to night, and back to day, while on one bike ride is something quite different than getting a long one in on a Sunday.
The Trans Iowa not only builds a sense of self, but it creates friendship or more accurately, bonds. I've competed in six T.I.'s and I've come away with friendships that I still think about almost every day. I may not talk to those guys often, some in fact I haven't talked to since, but I still think about them, they'll be a part of me forever. I've looked into their eyes when they were at their most basic state and I saw them looking back into mine. When I felt I had nothing left to give I'd see them get back on their bikes and it made me get back on mine. I guess it's in the knowing, the knowing that we were all in it together and together we'd make it to the end. So, that's what we did.
I may not be out there on those lonely gravel roads this time, but in a way I'll be right there riding with them. This one goes out to the one's who are searching, the one's who always want more. This one's for those who need to know who they really are.
Good luck Trans Iowa riders. I hope you find what you're looking for out there in the dust. Trust me, you'll know it when you do.
Fresh out of the box and out of my basement I was more than eager to get started on my new Salsa Cutthroat. I'd committed to commuting to and from work each day for a solid week of "shake down" rides. Each day would consist of a 50 mile round trip journey broken into obviously two sections of riding. Typically, the early morning rides are the most enjoyable as I tend to see more animals, get some dark miles in, and deal with less cars. The after work ride is more stressful, mostly due to traffic.
I started the week thinking about the performance of the bike, the fit, and the comfort. I ended the week wondering what the hell happened out there.
The flag in front of the school I work at gets a lot of looks from me throughout the day as the wind seems to always be on my mind. Will it help me in the beginning of my ride or at the end or depending on how you look at it, will it hurt me? Well, I happen to live next to a huge lake called Superior and when the wind comes off that giant it tends to be strong and COLD. This past week will now be known to me as the week of wind. Leaving work at the end of the day proved to be a breeze (no pun) as I cruised comfortably at 25 mph, being shoved along by the hand of mother nature. However, when I finally made my turn to head back home, OMG! This situation stayed put for the whole week, 20 - 30 mph winds. I know there will always be wind, but sheesh!
I love seeing critters on my rides and as I mentioned above it's usually in the wee hours of the morning when I get to have a little chat with my friends. Things were looking up when I rolled out in the dark on Tuesday morning. Not two blocks from my house I saw two eyes looking back at me. "That's not a dog" I thought as the 4 legger skitter skattered through my head light. "Oh, it's a fox" was my next thought. "Hey, little buddy, how ya doin'?" I asked. His ears perked up while he watched me roll by. A glance over my shoulder brought a smile to my face, there he was trotting along behind me. I guess he just needed a friend. Eventually, he peeled off and went back to his fox business. Things were pretty quiet in the animal kingdom for the remainder of the ride until the unthinkable. The sun now higher above the horizon of the big lake and I was mixed in with the hustle bustle of all the steel boxes heading to their respective parking lots. Up ahead something was down on the side of the road and it had fur. Immediately, I was bummed as I hate to see a critter meet their fate on some busy road. The colors of this particular fury beast struck me as different. Ugggggh! It was a kitty. Some of you may know that I am a cat lover. Clearly, it had just been hit by a car moments earlier and I won't give details as to how I knew that. I closed my eyes as I rode past, I couldn't bare to look. Across the street was a small SUV pulled over, damage to the underside of it's plastic molding, and a driver texting on a phone. "At least the driver stopped" I thought. It was upsetting to me for the rest of the day. Shook up, I pedaled up the big hill leading to my school when a tiny mouse darted across the road in front of me. He was a cute little guy and he seemed pretty intent on what he was doing. Once I reached the spot where he had disappeared into the grass he popped out again. He seemed to give me a little look as I passed. I wondered if possibly the spirit of that cat had somehow landed in that little mouse. I guess I hoped it did.
Duluth is a great cycling city, but unfortunately some who live here have not yet received that memo. I've experienced angry drivers many times, but what happened to me on the afternoon of the "kitty morning" was one for the books. As I rolled toward a stop light a junky truck pulled up next to me with it's passenger window already down. An older man then proceeded to literally scream at the top of his lungs at me through the entirety of the stop light, mind you every 10 seconds or so he would flip me off while screaming. I stared blankly at him, in shock while he unloaded what seemed to be all the anger he'd been carrying his whole life. It was as if he was ramping up, it was getting worse as the seconds ticked by. I began to wonder if he was going to have a heart attack right there in his driver's seat. At the pinnacle of his rage a thought raced through my head, "Is he going to shoot me?" That sounds crazy has I write the words, but that's how angry he was. Eventually, the light turned green and with that he flipped me off for the 12th time and gunned the engine, his truck sputtered, faltered, and eventually spit out a cloud of blue smoke and clunked away down the road. My adrenaline now pumping like I had just been in a 6th grade fist fight I attempted to ride on like all of that didn't just happen.
Less than 15 minutes from home when I noticed something flashing past on my front tire. Most likely a road salt stain on the rubber. Then, the cracks in the road weren't hitting as hard, the steering was feeling weird. My front tire was going down. I pushed harder thinking I could make it home before the rim bumped the tar. It wasn't to be as the tire seemed to let out one final big exhale. A tack, probably from the bulletin board at my school had found it's new home right through my tire and into the tube. Before the rim could touch I pulled over, checked the time on the gps and told myself, "let's make this a quick one". It wasn't quick and my hands were frozen solid, remember the wind? 13 agonizing minutes later and I was pedaling again.
The last 50 miles or the last commute was uneventful and for that I was grateful. It gave me time to contemplate my week on the bike (so far). I guess, my final thought on it is this...What the hell?
The good news is the Cutthroat is dialed in and built for comfort as well as speed. A great bike to be sure. I can't wait to see and feel all that it has to offer. This Sunday I plan to knock out a 100 miler in order to get some real "all at once" kind of time on it. Soon, I will be taking her out on a short bike packing trip. I can't wait for what that adventure has to offer.
See you out there,
Photo: American Birkebeiner Ski Foundation
Have you ever been a large group of people took a look around and felt like you were a little out of place? Well, as I stood in the start area of this year’s Fatbike Birkie with literally hundreds of people in front of me I took stock of my situation. Between my legs was my Salsa Blackborow weighing in at 33.5 lbs, a weight that I’m proud of as I’ve managed to shed a few pounds with adjustments to tubes and tire choices. All around me were the latest and lightest fat bike race machines. Most of their owners were quick to let me know what their steeds came in at, typically around 23 lbs. Now, I chose the Blackborow for it’s Swiss Army knife style, it can do so much, but had I asked too much by bringing a heavy weight to a feather weight fight? I’d soon find out as there was one minute to go before the start.
I reminded myself that I was there for a really hard ride and a good workout; there was no need to stress. The roll out proved to be shockingly slow as I was way in the back, due to this being my first entry into the race. People around me were chatting, laughing, and basically involved in some Fatbike merriment. I must admit I liked the low key approach, but time was of the essence after all. I topped out on a high spot and stole a glance up the field. I could see the leaders about a ½ mile ahead with their chins on their bars going full gas. The race had begun while I was eaves dropping on someone’s conversation about their weekend. It was time to try to start moving up the field. I began to carefully advance the best that I could without creating any danger to myself or others. Alas, we took a turn off of the icy road and onto the Birkie ski trail. "Uggh", the trail had a few inches of fresh snow on it and I immediately felt my tires squirming around as I had added a last minute pound of pressure to my 5 inches of rubber. "I should have left them alone", I thought while the debate began in my mind about whether I should stop and let a little air out or not. Ultimately, I decided to just deal with it and make any adjustments necessary with my riding style. I continued to try to pick my way through the field, but bunches were forming and passing was proving difficult. Many riders were faltering on the climbs, while others were getting sideways in the loose snow. I needed to sharpen up as the reality of a crash was very real. Climb, descend, climb, descend, and repeat. So goes the Fatbike Birkie. However, one should note that the descending was when things got very interesting. Some of these downhills were no joke and high speeds became something that needed to be quickly embraced. It took some time to get the hang of how to descend properly in the semi loose conditions, as well as how to navigate the inevitable sweeping turn at the bottoms. Believe me when I say I had plenty of opportunity to practice.
An hour into the race is when I felt that I had finally found riders that were similarly paced. I was able to latch on to little clusters of guys, 3 here, 4 there, even times when drafting was a reality. Up to this point I never felt like I was going as hard as I could, yet I seemed to be climbing well, in fact I found that I was out climbing riders around me. Weird, was it the larger tires giving me better purchase on the hills? No, it didn’t seem to be as I took a look to see if others were spinning out, they weren’t. I couldn’t find a reasonable answer; maybe I was just feeling good. I have to admit I wondered how I would be doing if my bike was 10 pounds lighter. Oh well, it didn’t matter I was getting what I came for and that was a good work out.
Soon, the 10K to go sign came and eventually the 5K sign. At 5K I decided to start pinning my effort to the "hard as I can go" category. Eventually, I came upon my Facebook friend (and starting to be my real friend), April Morgan the eventual 2nd place woman. She was riding smooth and fast. I noted how it wasn’t that easy to get past her, but she overcooked a corner, went into the soft snow and I took the opportunity to go around. I said hello and slowly moved away. I wanted to ask about her cats (we’re both cat lovers), but she had way more at stake during this race than I did. I decided to leave her to her business.
The final rollers came in the form of a power line and I had been trading punches with a guy that I named "the blue guy", due to his blue jersey. The blue guy was tough and he was riding with intention, I liked that and I needed to be around it, so he became my mark. We topped out on one of the huge power line rollers side by side. "You’re making this hard for me" I said to him. His reply was simply, "It must be my unicorn tights". Puzzled, I glanced at his legs to see a brilliant unicorn on his thigh. They were the best cycling tights I’d ever seen.
1K to go and riding comfortably in second position of a group of three. I decided to challenge the other two by standing with a short hard acceleration. They didn’t respond, but rather congratulated me on a good race. I replied in kind and rode in with a hard finishing effort.
A result of 69th place is nothing anyone will get too excited by, but I was happy with it. I felt I rode well and I rode hard. Most importantly I proved that not only can I go on adventures with my Blackborow, but I can ride her full blast in a race too. She may not be as cute or as light as the state of the art winter racing rigs, but she’s all mine, all 33.5 pounds of her!
Throughout my adult life I’ve resisted winter’s arrival and have spent too much time calculating when it would be over. I’ve taken almost yearly tropical vacations with the hope that somehow the trip would ease the pain of winter’s icy grip. This year I wanted things to be different. There’d be no week in Jamaica and I’d fight the urge to flip through the pages of my desk calendar counting the weeks until the temps would climb. This year I’d commit to winter!
Well, in order to commit I’d need to find something to keep me invested. Yes, I’d commute all winter like I have for so many years now, that wouldn’t change. I’d train like I do during the "dark months" with the goal of dropping a few pounds and catching up on some t.v. shows while mindlessly spinning the trainer. However, this year something emerged that was different. At first I attributed it to my newly obtained Salsa Blackborow, claiming that the bike had changed my approach to winter. I don’t know maybe it had or maybe it was the vehicle that helped to open my eyes.
All I can say for sure is that this winter I’ve been paying more attention. I’ve seen more than the single track unfolding before my front wheel. I’ve picked my head up and looked through the trees and into the forest searching for what my Dad taught me, "the thing that stands out". It worked! I began to see the deer leering at me as I pedaled past. I’ve smiled up at the crows cawing at me from above as I move through their neighborhood. I’ve stopped to gape at the hurried life of the chickadees as they fulfill their daily calorie needs, wondering if they ever just stop to play. So much life in what at first glance seemed so dead.
As my legs spin easy and my hands rest lightly on the bars I realize that the beauty of winter only reveals itself to those that want to see. I’m so glad I decided to look.
Growing up in Duluth, Minnesota I played several different sports. I was never the best on the team and I was never the worst. I guess if I had to grade my childhood athletic performance I’d give myself a B+. As I look back on those years with the wisdom that comes from being an adult I’m able to identify the barrier I faced in those early years and it seemed to be the common denominator that prevailed through all the games I played. In football I was leery of the "big hit", the one that seemed to pass through my whole body. In baseball it only took getting hit by a pitch one time before I began to give away a little more of the plate to the pitchers than I probably should have. Hockey just seemed to move so fast and with a violence of action that I chose to pick up the loose pucks that squirted out of the fray. The list goes on while the theme remained the same.
The experience of significant pain tends to be a powerful motivator when it comes to self preservation. I’m no stranger to mind bending agony. A broken arm, two broken clavicles, four broken ribs, a torn rotator cuff, torn spleen, and one torn meniscus has left me hesitant when my brain sends out the "red alert" signal in the face of danger.
So, when I grabbed my Horsethief and headed out to my local trail system this past fall I had one mission, face my fears. I was heading toward the trails with the black diamond and the squiggly line on the sign. "I hope I don’t break my neck", I yelled to my wife as I pushed out of the driveway.
I’m a cross country and gravel rider. That is to say, I’m most comfortable with my wheels on the ground. However, in order to get better one has to push out into the unknown. Throughout the next hour and a half I can’t tell you how many drops I rolled up to the edge of and stopped only to turn around and try again. The uncertainty of what would happen after my tires left the edge of a rock, sending me into gravity’s grip was getting the best of me. I was a little kid standing on the edge of the pool while everyone counted backwards from 10. What would I do when they were finished saying "1"? Eventually, I was able to take that deep breath and allow myself and my machine to fly. The feeling was like discovering gold. Like a little kid, I would instantly turn around, push my bike back up the trail, and hit the drop again, bent on making the landing just a little smoother. Now, these weren’t big drops by any stretch of the imagination, but to me they felt like I was hitting Red Bull downhill runs at top speed. Eventually, I was able to "clean" an entire enduro trail that had me walking 50% of it on my first try.
Time was running short, I needed to head home soon, but one feature still loomed large. I’d been thinking about the boulder for the entire ride, asking myself over and over if I had the courage to slip over its point of no return. I’m not sure if the rock has a name or if it’s simply called "Caution" with two ominous arrows pointing down. All I knew for sure was that I’d seen others ride it and that I’d ridden up to its edge probably twenty times. Now, "Caution" is not a drop that one shoots off, but rather rolls down, Here’s the catch, from the saddle of a bike the roll down appears as a near vertical piece of rock about 15 feet long that transitions into an almost flat exit line. This gives the rider the impression that if something goes awry after crossing the point of no return the front wheel will simply stop rolling upon hitting the flat section sending the rider to the orthodontist for the next decade. I slowly rolled up to its edge noting the view of a granite slab that slipped away into the horizon line of Lake Superior in the distance. My heart rate was increasing by the second as I approached the spot where I’d scout the line one last time. Reviewing in my mind the sequence of steps I would follow I stated them out loud, "Roll in slow, release the front brake, get your butt way back, let go of the rear brake as the front wheel hits the flat section. It seemed all that was left was for me to do was trust my bike and my plan. I turned and rode back up the trail far enough to ensure that I’d have enough time to clip in and make this thing happen. With my front wheel pointing toward "Caution" I snapped both feet in and began to roll. "5 … 4 … 3 …2…" the people on the side of the pool counted down. It happened, I was over the precipice and bailing out now would only result in a catastrophic end. "THE PLAN, FOLLOW THE PLAN" I yelled in my mind. Releasing the front brake my Horsethief eagerly went over the edge, but something began to go wrong, I was picking up speed! The back brake was not enough to slow my free fall down the rock. I squeezed harder and my acceleration increased. I was skidding down the smooth granite! I had not calculated this factor. There was no other option but to bring the front brake into the fold. Although time seemed to stand still the flat exit line was getting closer. My memories fluttered through a rolodex of pain, the searing agony of broken ribs, collar bones almost poking out of my skin, what would be next? "RELEASE!!!!" I silently screamed as I opened both brakes allowing the front shock to gently thud as it hit the bottom of its travel. I shot out of the exit line like a bullet from a gun. Pulling off to the side of the trail I looked back at the view of the rock I’d yet to see. I was on the other side. "Whew" I sighed as my hands shook on the bars and my heart pounded in my ears, "You did it" I said, "Time to go home".
I spend a lot of time on a bike and I have seen things many others haven’t, but to push myself outside of my comfort zone was a feeling I’ll never forget. I hung tight to the plate while the pitcher buzzed one under my chin. I filled the gap, taking the big hit from the running back that I didn’t think I could handle. I got out in front of the net and stole the puck when I didn’t think I had a chance. In the face of fear and uncertainty, I rode over the edge and came away with feeling I’ll never forget.
Bike rides are so much more than pedaling and steering. They can contain a myriad of technical facets such as proper form, efficient handling, and effort management. Rides can also take on a completely different focus which hone in on the surrounding beauty, the wind passing over you, and the freedom that you felt the first time you swung your leg over that single speed you owned as a child.
There have been times that I’ve come home from rides feeling frustrated and cursing my perceived lack of skill. I’ve beat myself up for not being able to clean a difficult climb or get through a rock garden without a dab. Those rides resulted in me mumbling, "I'm terrible" as I carelessly stowed the bike in the rack. Yet, there have been other rides where that last mumble was "Man, was I on today" as I contemplated the corners I railed, the climbs I made, and the descents that were handled without hesitation. Unfortunately, that latter thought has come with less frequency these past few months. What’s been missing? What’s been wrong?
I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what the missing pieces could be when it occurred to me that the answer is "nothing". Nothing is missing! All that I hope for from a ride is within the trail, the bike and me. The problem has been that I’ve been looking for that special something in all the wrong places. I’ve been equating technical skill and hard physical effort to great rides. I couldn’t have been more wrong. What about that feeling I had as a kid? I never demanded physical excellence from myself at age twelve and those bike rides were the best. Can I tap into that feeling at will or will it just show up sometimes?
After careful consideration I’ve come to the conclusion that finding the perfect ride lies in the art of letting go. When my mind goes blank, and I can hear the wind humming through the vents of my helmet I know I’ve found it. When I can no longer hear my bike or feel the imperfections of the trail I know I’ve found it. It’s when I am floating down a ribbon of single track with my heart beat in my ears that I know I can ride forever, it’s then that I know I’ve found the perfect ride.
As I pulled into the inaugural Salsa Ride Camp I quickly noted a small tent city popping up out of an expansive grass field with the occasional cyclist weaving in an out of imaginary streets. Distant voices and laughter were in my ears as took some initial instruction regarding parking and when the afternoon ride was to depart. "This is SO COOL" I kept repeating to myself as I looked for a place to stash my car. With only 13 minutes until my first opportunity to ride was scheduled to leave I ended up with a frantic start to what I planned to be a very relaxing weekend. Just like Superman in a phone booth, I changed from casual summer wear to a Salsa riding kit in seconds and was soon rolling toward a large congregation of cyclists. I made it just in the nick of time.
Soon we were under way and I was chatting with some old friends and saying "hello" to some new ones. At the trail head we re-grouped for some final discussion and words from Pete Koski, Salsa engineer, shredder, and creator of my all time favorite mountain bike, The Spearfish. Dropping into the trail I was quickly reminded of the sweet single track that the Chequamegon National Forest has to offer. It is a cross country rider's paradise! Wheel to wheel, 20 riders swooped through the turns as the crispness of the early Fall air flowed into our lungs. It felt so good.
Things began to move from good to great as a healthy fish dinner was served and a thoughtful speech was delivered by Salsa Marketing Director, Mike Riemer. Mike took the time to acknowledge the sponsored riders that were in attendance and I was flattered by his comments to say the least. The evening then moved into a presentation by Jay Petervary and his experience with this year's Continental Divide Race which travels a mind boggling distance from Banf, Canada to Antelope Wells, New Mexico.
The temperatures dropped quickly as darkness descended reminding us all that it really was Fall in northern Wisconsin. A trip or two to my car for another brew had my feet freezing and soaked as the dew laden grass seemed to hover just above freezing. It didn't matter as the weather forecast had me certain that all that moisture would burn off quickly in the morning. Plus, it was the aurora borealis that had all of our attention. Lights shimmered in the Northern sky while the stars burned brightly in nature's perfect painting. I couldn't take my eyes off of it.
I woke the next morning to the sounds of distant laughter and conversations that I just couldn't make out. This was quite the opposite from what I'm used to when camping with large groups of people. Typically, it's loud cars, or loud mouths that one deals with in these settings, not here. Rather than being annoyed by disrespectful people I was rather intrigued. The good mood and good vibe was palpable and running with this feeling was the back ground noise of free wheel hubs buzzing riders coasted past. "Is this heaven?" I asked.
I was surrounded by like minded, fun people who were all happy to be sharing a beautiful field of grass together. Could this get any better? I kitted up for the morning ride full of anticipation of another great day. This time we'd be heading a different direction on a piece of trail that I was vaguely familiar with. I couldn't wait to see what it had to offer. As expected the ride was everything I hoped for, tasty single track in an old growth forest, and good people.
That afternoon I could feel the miles in my legs, due to a few hard efforts I had thrown in for good measure. The fatigue I felt had me making the decision to take a little time away from camp for an old fashioned bacon cheese burger down at the Seeley Sawmill Saloon. The alone time was nice as I enjoyed the burger and a little Wisconsin Badger football action on t.v. Although I wanted to stick around and catch the game I knew the late afternoon and evening events were scheduled to get under way soon, I wanted to get back. As I pulled into camp I noticed a classic game of kick ball going on, each of the game's players had ear to ear grins plastered on their faces. "Man, this really is like camp, but with BIKES", I said to myself, a smile crossing my face.
My favorite presentation was Bjorn Olson and Kim McNett's story of their "Ring of Fire" expedition. Bjorn and Kim are from Alaska and two of the nicest people you'd ever meet. Their story was humble, honest, and compelling. They weren't afraid to discuss failure in a time when everyone expects success. I appreciated their style as they told their tale with class and dignity. Kim's reading of an article she wrote describing the adventure was riveting to say the least. I strained to soak up every word as well as the tone of her voice. The story was that good. I was moved and what's more is that Kim thought nothing of offering everyone a piece of smoked Salmon straight from Alaska. These were my kind of people.
That evening I had a chance to talk with my friend and teammate, Danielle Mustog. I asked her if she and her travel companions would be interested in skipping the group ride and joining me on a ride that would push a little further than the regularly scheduled one. She and her friend "Spoo" quickly agreed. We'd meet after breakfast promising not to rip each other's legs off- yeah right.
Breakfast was behind us and there we were once again promising to ride easy. As Spoo arrived Mike Riemer wished us a good ride and with that we were rolling. Holding true to our promises the ride was controlled, full of conversation, laughs, and beautiful country. What we thought would be 15 miles of single track gradually turned into 25. It seemed that we took turns complaining about how tired our legs were while laughing away the pain. It was one of those rides that didn't have a thing wrong with it, save my squeaky brakes.
Sadly, it was time to take down my temporary home. As I slowly dismantled my tent I contemplated the weekend. The memories were good and while I scanned the little tent city known as Salsa Ride Camp I asked myself one final question, "Is this a Utopia?" The answer was clear.
Maah Daah Hey, a phrase the Mandan Indians used that simply translates to
"an area that has been or will be around for a long time."
The act of swinging my leg off my bike activated three different cramps at once. I'd grown so accustomed to the shooting pain of muscles constricting to the size of golf balls that I barely winced. My left foot performed as if it were nothing more than a chunk of wood attached to the end of my leg as the tendons and muscles pulled hard against the bone for the lack of moisture within them. My stomach was hard against the left handle bar as I pushed the machine forward as a knot formed below my shoulder blade. While staring no more than six inches in front of my feet I noted that my right calf appeared to have a circus of hamsters running about under my skin. A strange geological landscape swirled around me. I closed one eye in an attempt to gain focus; an audible moan escaped my throat as I noticed the temperature on my GPS...108.5 degrees! I was deep into North Dakota’s Maah Daah Hey 100.
Although North Dakota is right next door to Minnesota the starting line of the Maah Daah Hey 100 (really 106) lies some 11 hours away by car from my house. Despite the distance I was bent on being a part of the race that I'd sniffed out a few years ago. In search of different races I felt this one located in Theodore Roosevelt National Park had the makings for the real deal. Although it didn't have the mountains of say the Vapor Trail 125 in Colorado, it still boasted approximately 10,000 feet of climbing. It also spoke of fantastic scenery, referred to as the "Badlands". This sounded like my kind of event. I wanted it to be hard and I wanted a story to tell. The only joker in this deck would be the heat. Extreme heat plays with my body like a kitten plays with a toy. I'd found this out more than once on the long gravel roads of the Dirty Kanza. I pushed the heat of the badlands out of my mind as I was determined to do my best to fend off one of Mother Nature’s nastiest elements.
My plan for the race was a simple one, load up my Salsa Spearfish XX1 and take just about everything I owned that had to do with summer biking with me to North Dakota. I'd make some "game time" decisions about gear choices when I got there. I said good bye to Amy, kissed the kitties, set my cruise control, and pointed the car west. I was heading to Medora, ND to hook up with Mt. Bike Radio founder, Ben Welnak. Ben and I have ridden together, raced each other, and he's even interviewed me a time or two for his show. Ben would be putting me and a host of other riders up at his house near the start line. After an overnight in Bismarck, ND it wasn't long before I was shaking hands with Ben and prepping for a little pre-race ride. Once on the ride I was immediately blown away by the scenery. "Wait, I thought the real badlands were in South Dakota" I said to myself as I pondered the expanse of mini mountains as far as I could see. The sketchy switch backs, strewn with little ball bearings on top of hard pack trail held my attention as one false move would surely spell disaster. The corners were not banked, there were no railings, and the drop offs were very real. My skill set was quickly put to the test. Ben railed the corners while yelling back to me, "This is what you can expect tomorrow!" I reminded myself to relax, let the bike work, and feel the trail. It wasn't long before it was feeling better, but I'd be lying if I said that I wasn’t just a little intimidated. One thing was for sure, I was a stranger in a strange land.
Straddling my bike at the start line I noticed a relaxed Kelly Magelky.Kelly is the record holder for the fastest finish and once again he had designs on finishing in under a lightning fast 9 hours, while I hoped to come in under 12. He was cool, calm, and collected sitting on his top tube chatting up other racers. I wished I was him in that moment. Meanwhile Nick Ybarra, race director and super classy guyreviewed race directions. Nick finished his speech with the inspiring quote from Theodore Roosevelt; "The man in the arena”. I was moved as Nick pulled the quote from memory with perfect intonation and feeling.
The traditional countdown was underway as the sounds of cleats snapping into pedals played in the background. In seconds I was done with the short 200 yard dirt road section and into the single track, positioned comfortably in about 15th position. The pace was controlled and easily held while riders respected each other as well as the trail. There was none of the senseless requests to pass in the first five minutes of what would be at least a 12 hour ride or more for the larger percentage of the field. As I worked to introduce myself to the trail I thought about the first main feature called, "China Wall". I was told it was a twenty minute climb up tight switchbacks to a large mesa. I was anxious to get the first test behind me.
As I negotiated the China Wall I couldn't help but notice the view as I climbed higher. A panoramic, breath taking scene unfolded in every direction. I found myself forcing my eyes back to the trail before succumbing to the spell of this place. Suddenly, a deafening whoop, whoop, whoop roared into my ears as a helicopter appeared rising up from below complete with a camera man in the open side door. I smiled to myself, thinking that it was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The chopper and its crew were there to film us, the riders and we were warned that we may see them from time to time out on course.
The coolness of the early morning was beginning to fade around 9:30 a.m. and this marked the first time I tugged the zipper of my jersey a little lower. Despite the climbing temperature I felt strong and was moving through the course quickly. My usual strategy of hooking up with a fast group was in place and I was just where I wanted to be, still somewhere in the top 15.
The morning flew past and so did the first 50 miles, in fact I had the first 50 out of the way in under 5 hours! Well ahead of pace and still feeling good, yet a little warm. I wasn't worried, because I was staying on top of my hydration and nutrition. Drinking fluids constantly would be paramount and I was prepared with 100 oz. on my back and an emergency bottle on the bike. With aid stations every 25 miles there wasn't a chance I'd run into problems, so I thought. After crossing the Little Missouri River with my friend Charley Tri I was at the second aid station where I'd planned to "re-fit" for the remainder of the race. It was at this aid station that I'd top off all of my fluids, get some fruit, have a Coke, and take care of some bike maintenance if needed. The volunteers were spectacular as they worked to help me and other riders. In one instance I politely asked a woman to hold my bike while I lubed the chain. Quickly, she dropped what was in her hands and in an unsure fashion took hold of my Spearfish. I spun the chain with some lube and thanked her. As I went about other business I saw her still holding my bike. I smiled and let her know that it was o.k. to lay it down I was done working with it. "No, that's alright" she said. That nice lady held my bike upright for at least ten more minutes while I took care of everything I needed to. She saw that I had no support crew with me and she wanted to help. These are the moments that make these events so special.
I pushed out of the aid station to a smattering of applause and some heartfelt cheers. I gave a humble wave and gently pedaled down the trail. Little did I know that things were about to take a turn for the unimaginable.
The thermometer was gradually being turned up by some mythological creature. I knew it was really just the sun, but I chose to blame the Devil, not that I believe in the guy or anything, he just seemed like a good one to pin it on. Along with the rising heat the jagged terrain was beginning to put the hurt on my legs as I grunted up and over each punchy little climb. With my jersey completely unzipped I let my thoughts wander back to a section of the course I'd crossed earlier that caught my attention not only for its harsh surface, but for its other worldly appearance. This little stretch of land was called "Devil's Pass". So, I confirmed that I was right to blame this heat on you know who.
A quick check on the mileage let me know that I was approaching the 65 mile mark and my attempts to deny the overwhelming heat were no longer working. I was beyond HOT and focusing hard on fluid intake as well as nutrition. Holding true to my plan, I was taking a drink of water every time the thought crossed my mind as well as eating twice an hour in an attempt to keep calories on board. As my pace began to slow it was apparent that not only were my legs "cooked" from the effort, but my being was beginning to literally cook. "Calories, Calories!" I thought. Despite the soaring temperature I knew that I needed to keep eating even though the idea stopped appealing to me long ago. I tried to tear into the package of some type of strawberry strudel thing that my wife packed for me and as expected I couldn't get it open while negotiating the rough trail. Finally, while bobbing and weaving the package unexpectedly ripped completely open dumping the little bundle of fuel into the dust below my feet. It looked kind of cool as a tiny explosion of ultra-dried dust erupted into a 3 inch mushroom cloud above the strudel. "Crap! I need that" I said out loud as I grabbed a handful of brake. Ridiculously, I scoured the trail for a little morsel of food that I felt was the most important thing in my world at the time. Eventually, I spotted a tiny corner of the bar poking out of the dirt, it was completely buried. I fished it out of the dust, examined its filth, gave it quick brush with a sweat filled glove, and popped it into my mouth. I was officially reduced to a primitive state.
I was riding extremely slow now and there wasn't much I could do about it. The sun seemed to be draining energy from me at an alarming rate. I felt like a flashlight that still held a beam, but that beam was yellow and fading fast. With nothing but time on my hands I considered the course information I'd read before the event and I recalled that the third aid station would be at the 75 mile mark. Once there I would certainly need to take some time to recover and most importantly cool down. 76 miles came and went and still no aid station. As I trudged up a climb next to my bike I spotted a small shadow of shade with two riders dismounted and on the ground in that spot. "Can I take a break with you guys? I'm so HOT!" I said. Immediately our conversation centered on the whereabouts of the aid station. We wondered if the late addition of some 6 miles of single track meant the 3rd station had been further along than originally planned and with no way of knowing for sure we settled on that conclusion as being a fact. Ten minutes later I thanked them for the shade and let them know that I was going to push on in search of salvation. One thing I knew for sure was that sitting still would never get me anywhere. The truth is I began to really believe that if I stayed put in that kind of heat there was a chance I could die.
The smallest climb caused me to dismount and push. I simply could not ride anything that required even a modest effort. My body was in trouble and protesting against my brain’s commands. Completing 15 yard sections were victories and eventually just moving forward felt like winning. I began to ask out loud over and over where the aid station was, yet I received no answer. Instead the "Devil" seemed to snicker while he turned up the knob a little more. Finally, I topped out on a ridge that I can only imagine the Mandan Indians would have used to spy their rivals off in the distance. High atop this spine I saw it! Lying innocently in a serene state of bliss was a 5th wheel camper down about 300 feet below me. I could see bikes lying on the ground while people hustled here and there clearly assisting others who weren't doing that well. I knew I'd be one of the ones needing help. I navigated a tight switchback drop down to aid station 3 in a manner that never should have been successful. Instead of riding down the trail it seemed to be more of a controlled crash that never really materialized. Through blurry vision I headed toward that camper.
My bike was taken from me the moment I got my leg over the seat. I stumbled away from it without a care in the world. I didn't know the man who took it from me or where he took it. The bike that means so much to me was no longer even a thought in my mind, it no longer existed. Amy Welnak, Ben's wife approached me and from the look in her eyes I could see that what she was looking at concerned her. "Are you o.k.?" she asked. "I'm in trouble. I'm so hot, I have to find a way to cool down" I heard myself say. She let me know that there was a well nearby and that she'd be willing to pump water on to my head if I wanted. "Let's do that!" was my response. She walked with me as I explained to her that things were going drastically wrong with my body. I went on to say that I felt my chemistry was off and I was experiencing wild swings of emotion. As I told her this I could feel myself beginning to cry. I fought off the emotion, but I sensed that she knew what was happening.
On my hands and knees under the pump my body recoiled at the shock of the blast of water that slammed into the back of my head. Drawing in a deep breath I fought the urge to retreat from the water, but I knew that cooling down my head was paramount if I wanted to continue. Earlier I felt my arms burning under the intense heat of the exposed terrain. I questioned whether it was sunburn, but upon examination my forearms I noticed that they were so covered in dirt that I doubted they were being burned. I concluded that it was one of the telltale signs of heat stroke. My body was beginning to cook from the inside out. Amy went on to pump the handle while I allowed the column of water to engulf my head and neck. Nearby, medics looked on from under a tent, their concerned gaze pulled at me like a magnet. I glanced over my shoulder as Amy and I walked back toward the aid station, returning to the medics was a serious consideration. I chose to re-enter the fight with the hopes that I could cool down enough to ride 26 more miles to the finish.
Ben and I agreed that a significant rest was needed if we were to succeed. He looked comfortable and under control, while I had stripped off my helmet, gloves, and jersey fighting for some semblance of my former self. While nibbling at potato chips, grapes, and sipping Coke I watched riders enter the aid station. Some were in good spirits and others had a distant look in their eye. Despite gaining the courage to push on I knew I was still a member of the latter group.
"My bike! I have no idea where my bike is!" I exclaimed to a volunteer. She gave me bit of a giggle and assured me that it was fine. I asked her if she saw #51 among the cluster of dusty machines lying in the parking lot, "Yes, it’s right there" she said smiling. Time seemed to pass slowly until Ben said, "You ready?" "Let's do it" I said, with a tone of certainty. I wondered how I was going to keep up to him as we slowly rolled out of our sanctuary. Ben is a stronger rider than me, but in a pinch I can hang with him when I'm fresh. I was far from fresh and his skill set exceeds mine on some levels. I set the tone by mentioning to him that he should go ahead of me and if I get dropped I'll continue to fight the Devil on my own. I could tell he didn't want to go it alone as he doubted that I'd be left behind. It was the first time I got the impression that he was hurting too. Together we pushed on doing our best to stick together, him checking on me after fast descents to make sure I wasn't dropped and I waiting for him to gather himself after difficult hike a bike sections that normally we'd have been able to ride with our eyes closed. A small gap formed between us with Ben out ahead of me. I'd lost sight of him until I came around a bend and saw him sitting next to his bike on the other side of a cattle gate. His head in his hands he muttered that he needed a few minutes. As I waited next to him I could feel the searing heat pulling the life out of me and there were still some 8 miles to go to the next check point, where I hoped cold water would be available. I was flush with fluids to be sure, but it was all piping hot. I needed ice for my hydration bladder and cool water for my stomach. My head began to once again spin while I stared out at the prairie grass, the heat waves shimmering above the weeds. A resounding voice in my head spoke up, "Keep moving or you'll never leave this spot!” I expressed this to Ben and he let me know it was o.k. for me to push on alone. I turned the cranks over slower than ever now as I actually wobbled down the single track. The heat beat down on my shoulders and rose up from the grass beneath me. The wind would blow as if to toy with me adding insult to injury as the Devil's breath reminded me of the feeling one gets when they open the door of the oven to check on a pizza. The blast of hot air that swept across the open prairie was more than I could bear, but what could I do? Where could I go? There was no escape. Delirious now, I glanced at the temperature on my GPS, it read 108.5 degrees! A wave of fear swept over me as I wondered if I was going to get out of this. I began to repeat a mantra out loud, "I can take it. I can take the pain." Over and over I said these words setting them to the rhythm of my marching steps as I trudged up inclines, or as I pumped my legs slowly up and down on the flat single track. If I wanted to live I needed to make it to the check point.
In the distance across the windswept prairie I saw cars parked along the side of a road. It was the c.p. Cramps came and went through my legs every few minutes as a liter of water sloshed back and forth in my stomach. My gag reflex was occasionally kicking in just to add to the myriad of problems my body was experiencing. With 14 miles to go I knew the only thing that would make it possible was to once again start the cool down process and somehow get the fluids to leave my stomach and enter my body, but really deep in my mind I knew enough about how it all works to understand that it was much too late for that now. If I were going to make it through that final leg it would be done so on nothing more than fear and the will to survive.
Crossing the gravel road I saw a woman check off my number as I panned the area looking for a canopy or something that would offer shade, there was nothing. Then, two images jumped out of the scene as if highlighted in yellow, one was a crumpled up pop up tent lying behind the volunteers in a heap, clearly taken out by a strong gust of wind. The second was about 4 large office cooler jugs full of water sitting out in the blazing hot sun. Just as I processed the opposite of what I hoped for I heard the woman’s voice say, “We have no shade, and no ice”. Whatever shred of hope I had left just as quickly as the wind gust that took down that canopy. I was crushed! To take another sip of hot water while my core temperature continued to rise was unfathomable to me. Nevertheless, I accepted a small bottle of water and made my way over to sit with a few other riders in a spot of shade near a pick up. A young fit athlete who I had convinced to push on from aid station #3 quickly let me know that he was done for the day. He seemed to have a hint of joy in his voice as if the decision somehow lifted his spirits in knowing he no longer had to keep dying a little each hour. My body seemed to move in slow motion as I tried to unscrew the cap to the plastic bottle. I took a small sip of the steamy hot liquid and as it ran down my throat a thought rushed into my mind. While these two riders continued their conversation I interrupted them, expressing the thought out loud, “I don’t think I’m going to finish”. As soon as the last word escaped my lips it was as if my body had been waiting for that sentence. My gag reflex jerked into action and I thrust a hand up over my mouth and staggered to my feet in full retreat to the back of the truck. For 10 minutes I emptied the contents of my stomach into the crispy, dry grass at my feet while I hung one arm off of a stranger’s bike rack. The owner of the truck came back to see what was happening. The look on his face was as if he were looking at living dead man, “its o.k.” was all he said. I knew my Maah Daay Hey 100 was over and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it.
The events that followed were confusing to say the least. As I collected myself following the episode behind the truck a heavily damaged Ben Welnak wobbled into the check point. He flopped lifelessly into the hot grass. I headed toward him to let him know that I could not continue. I was barely finished telling him my news when he announced to me in a matter of fact tone that he too was finished. Ben continued to bake in the relentless heat despite my efforts to get him to the shade; he simply would not or could not move. Moving on from Ben I shifted my focus to trying to get us out of there and to the finish area in Medora. Eventually a ride to town presented itself and we took it. Crammed into a back seat with my legs shooting into cramps every couple of minutes I did everything I could not to throw up. It would be a lie to say that I was disappointed about pulling out of the race, I wasn’t even thinking about it. The only thing on my mind was cooling my body temperature.
Fifteen minutes in a cold shower and my skin was still hot to the touch. The slightest efforts had me taking a break in a lawn chair. It took me 30 minutes to set up a tent that normally takes about 4. As I rested in the chair after pulling out the tent poles I pondered all that I had been through on this day. I rode some of the most spectacular single track I’ve ever ridden, I was filmed by a crew flying in a helicopter, I saw beauty that I couldn’t have dreamed of, and I experienced heat like I never have before. I went to a place I’d never been, a place so extreme that my well-being came into question. Throughout all of this I’m proud to say that I rode into the Devil’s Furnace and although I did not complete the event I emerged intact and with an experience I’ll never forget.
The stats on this ride.
Special Thanks to:
Nick Ybarra, race director and all of his volunteers. I love entering races so hard that most people can’t or won’t finish.
Ben and Amy Welnak, thank you for allowing me to stay at your home and showing me the beauty of western North Dakota.
Salsa Cycles, my Spearfish performed flawlessly and I’m sure it was more than confused when I stopped short of the finish line.
Rudy Project, thank you for keeping my head and eyes safe.
Schwalbe Tires, the Racing Ralphs were the right choice for this course.
"10...9...8...7...6..." I shut my eyes and took a deep breath while the world around me slipped away into silence. A tiny movie began to play in my head with the opening shot being of myself spinning freely on pristine gravel, then fading to a deep water crossing, my bike held high upon my shoulder, followed by a view of the ground with two mud clad cycling shoes alternating in and out of my sight as I mindlessly trudged on like a World War I soldier ordered to march to some unknown destination. Finally, my mind's film cut to a brisk no handed finish, as I rolled into Emporia Kansas' embrace. My senses whooshed back to the here and now as the P.A. system rattled my ear drums, "5...4...3...2...1..." My Dirty Kanza 200 adventure was under way.
My thoughts were immediately on the finish as I found my place in the pace line. I felt that I was sufficiently prepared as I seemed to be ready for any scenario. First and foremost finishing was what mattered. Amy and I had driven over 10 hours for the event and reports of extended periods of rain and flooding were buzzing throughout the venue. A last minute decision had me changing my bike set up from a simple top tube "gas tank" to a "tangle" bag capable of a larger amount of tools as well as my nutritional needs. Experience has taught me that the nation's bread basket is not bike friendly when mud is present, therefore I was ready for what could end up being a full on drive train explosion. Equipped with a chain tensioner that I'd mount to the bike in case of a destroyed rear derailurer I felt there was nothing that would keep me from riding into Emporia later that evening.
It was early enough that my nerves were still on high alert when I noticed a congregation of riders dismounted up ahead. "Must be some mud" I thought, "here we go". Hoisting my machine I joined the masses in what would turn out to be the march with no end. We walked and walked, turned some corners and walked some more. It just didn't seem to end. A few brave souls attempted to ride, mud flying in every direction, their bikes protesting with every pedal stroke. Later I'd see them on the side looking perplexed as their rear derailures hung precariously by nothing more than a shifter cable. "Keep walking, this will end" I told myself. I was determined to keep my bike safe. Early on in my gravel racing career I figured out that life on the dirt for hours and hours takes on a different meaning, things get simple and it becomes quite clear the bicycle underneath is the most important thing in your world, without it you are nothing. I promised my Warbird I'd take care of her even if it meant adding hours to my ride.
The 3 mile walk took about an hour and a half, but it did end. Deep grooves on top of each shoulder reminded me of what I had just done as they marked the spot the nose of my saddle sat through the mud march. It felt so good to be back on the bike and covering some ground again. It also felt pretty good to be riding next to my friend Scott Bigelow whom I spent some of my most difficult hours on a bike during this year's Trans Iowa attempt. Funny how two souls bent on meeting the same types of goals tend to find each other. It wasn't long before Scott and I were tapping out a rhythm we'd become quite accustomed to.
Things were calm now and I was doing what I'd come to do. My thoughts now had room to roam and I began to contemplate the ride as a whole. "Wait! You're going to finish in the dark!" I thought. That walk really threw off my timeline and with so many things to consider while preparing for the race it occurred to me that I was not prepared with adequate lights. Stupidly, I never really felt that a night time finish could be a reality. Well, it was now. Equipped with a small commuter light and a small helmet light as a back up I wondered if I'd be in trouble when the dark set in. I let those worries drift away as that scenario seemed to be a lifetime away.
Scott and I were several hours into the race when a feeling came over me. The 2015 DK was no longer a race for me, but an adventure that I dove into head first. I no longer cared about my finishing time or my average speed. I was riding next to a man who'd become my good friend in a most peculiar way. If I were to zoom outward and observe the birth of my friendship with Scott it would be obvious that it was built on very little conversation. So much of the bond that we've developed came from shared experiences. Together we've struggled, pushed on, and succeeded through what seemed to be impossible at the time. I guess words aren't really necessary for times like those.
Closing in on the first check point I mentioned to my partner that I'd like to continue on past c.p.1 together if he was o.k. with that. He agreed. Quickly we attempted to set a meeting point as we entered Madison, Kansas. I was glad we'd be riding together through the second leg as it was a monster section. We parted ways amidst the hustle and bustle of volunteers, support crews, and riders.
"Crew for hire?" I called out to the spectators on the side of the road. Crew for hire was a group of people hired to take care of your every need while in the check point. Also, proceeds from their service went to an extremely worthy cause. "Up ahead at the purple tent" was the answer I kept hearing, but when I scanned the street I saw a sea of pop up canopies. "Purple, purple, where are you?" I questioned as I've been challenged my whole life in the realm of color identification. I resorted to my old trick of continually asking where while paying attention to the direction the person would point, soon enough it worked. A volunteer from the "crew" spotted my wrist band and motioned me over. I'd made it!
Immediately, I was impressed with how swiftly all of my needs were being met, even the things I intended on doing myself were being taken care of. One volunteer even allowed me to wipe my mud covered glasses off on her t-shirt! I was ready to be on my way much faster than I imagined I would be, but where was Scott? I waited, but with nothing more for me to do I began to get anxious about the precious time that was ticking by. I stared down the road hoping for a glimpse of him coming, but still nothing while groups of riders left the check point I was just standing there. I couldn't take it anymore I had to get moving. I explained my situation to a stranger who seemed to have noticed my pacing. He assured me that he'd keep an eye out for Scott and let him know that I was up the road soft pedaling, waiting for him to catch me.
Alone now and a few miles down the road I was overcome with guilt. After all, it was my idea that we would leave the c.p. together and I had left him behind. Solutions came and went as I searched for the best way to resolve the situation. I stopped for nature breaks, I swerved slowly back and forth in the road constantly looking back over my shoulder. I even considered doubling back to look for him, but that seemed insane. The name calling and self loathing I directed at myself was off the charts, it was a very low time. Just as I started my effort to shake it off I spotted him coming on fast with a smile on his face. "I'm sorry!", I yelled. "I freaked out when I saw all the riders leaving the check point" was my explanation. He chuckled and told me not to worry. Within seconds we were back to what we do, it felt good.
The middle leg was 73 miles long and it was comprised of what can only be described as "no man's land". Our energy ebbed and flowed and in my case it seemed there were extended times when it ebbed. There were times when I felt that all I was doing was sitting in while Scott pushed hard into the wind. I told myself I needed to pull more so I made a conscious effort to do so. As I came to the front more often I noticed Scott staying behind me for longer periods. "He's tired, help him" I said to myself. I knew he'd been doing it for me, it was my turn to repay the favor. It wasn't long before Scott rallied and we were back to regular turns at the front mixed with some side by side time. We began to take it all in as we found ourselves alone in a treeless land scape without a man made object in sight. The spectacle that is the Flint Hills really is a thing to behold. We were visitors in an ecosystem that thrived without us, that struck me as a good thing. Now deep into the open country side we continued to take care of our bikes, at times getting off to carry them through more sections of ankle deep mud never once complaining, but rather accepting it as some type of rare gift.
The second check point pulled me in as each mile ticked off. I sent Amy scattered text messages in an effort to let her figure out my approximate arrival time, which was much slower than what it would have been under more normal conditions. The c.p. would come at the 155 mile mark and as I rounded the final turn I spotted the Salsa tent with the blue timing matt under it. While crossing the matt a deep breath of accomplishment left my lungs and that's when I noticed them. Bobby Wintle and Dustin Burgardt began cheering, yelling my name, and running along side me as I cruised toward the "crew for hire" tent. A broad smile formed across my face as their enthusiasm and encouragement were so truly genuine. Dustin is my dear friend from Kansas that I met on my first trip with Salsa to the great state. He was rooming in the house that hosted us, Dustin and I hit it off immediately. Bobby Wintle is the man that I give credit to for getting me to the finish line the year that the idea for Racing the Sun came to me. If I could capture Bobby's spirit in a bottle I would and every once in a while I'd open the cap just a bit and breath some of it in. My eyes scanned the spectators as I searched for Amy. Unable to spot her I kept rolling for the tent I needed for my resupply, I hoped she was there. It was when I was coasting to a stop that I heard her voice jump out above the others, "Tim!", there she was hustling toward me, making her way through the crowd. I barely had my leg past the rear wheel of my dismount when my bike was swept away from me by Dustin and Bobby. They went to work on it like a NASCAR pit crew, tuning the shifting, lubing the chain, and mounting my pathetic little light. I managed to plop into a lawn chair while Amy worked on my nutritional needs. Typically, when I've reached Cottonwood Falls I have been so worked over that it was a pretty miserable experience, but this year was different. I was happy! I felt sincere gratitude for I was doing what I loved and I was being supported in doing so by people I loved. My heart was full. It didn't take long and I was ready to get moving again with 45 miles to go. I looked to Amy as I got ready to approach my bike and she simply said, "I'll see you at the finish." She never has a doubt and in moments like that one, I believe her.
Rolling out of c.p.2 was an experience I'll never forget. I put Amy and Bobby in my review mirror and started off down the road. Shortly after leaving I saw Dusting walking with his wife, "Dustin, see you later", I said. Our eyes locked, he smiled and offered me some words of encouragement. Pedaling through the main street of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas I noted the throngs of people along the sides of the road. What an event! Just then, Nick Legan jumped out into the road, slapped me five and yelled "GO EKI! AVENGE ME!", a line we came to love while watching Red Dawn together in our host home during one of my first visits to Kansas. Nick and I have been friends ever since. Soon, I began to hear "YEAH EKI, GO!", "ATTA BOY EKI", "YOU GOT THIS TIM", from both sides of the street. I waved and smiled and wondered who they all were. I didn't know all of them, but they seemed to know me and it was a feeling I can't describe. As the crowd thinned out I realized I had tears in my eyes, as I was overcome with emotion.
Another thing I noticed on my way out of town was Scott working on his bike on the side of the street. I can't be sure, but I thought he had his rear wheel off. Earlier I told him that if I got out of the check point first I'd take it easy until he caught me, but as I rode past him I assessed my condition and truth be told I was tired and I wanted to get to Emporia. Dustin had calculated the exact amount of miles I would need to continue north and into the wind, the number was 11. After the 11 miles I'd be turning east for a spell and then finally south for the home stretch into Emporia. I wanted to drill this last section and get to the block party!
A few miles out of town I managed to get my ear buds in and some music on shuffle. Somehow my tunes got stuck on Journey's Greatest Hits for two complete run throughs, that's a lot of Journey. So while I hoped for some inspiring, upbeat, hard driving music I had "Open Arms, and Separate Ways" to listen to, pretty funny now that I think back to it.
Ahead I could see a fast moving group of what appeared to be five with a solo strung off the back, his body language suggesting to me that he was digging deep to get on a wheel. I wondered if I could get to him and if so, the two of us would be able to get to the five. I put my chin on the bars and went for it. There were times that I'd close some distance, but lose it again on the next downhill. I felt I was climbing well, but I was unable or unwilling to take the risks that I needed to on those downhills. Therefore, it didn't seem that I was getting any closer when it all shook out. However, I was on familiar terrain now and I knew the route and the general landscape. In other words, I knew when to go full gas and when to conserve. As I approached the turn to head east two guys came by me like a freight train. "NOW! GET ON THEM!", I screamed in my head. Going 'all in' I floored it to grab the wheel of the second man. I'd done it and I could feel the pull of their draft. "Stay with these two and you'll finish strong", I told myself.
Day was turning to night and the two riders I was with meant business, we were really moving (at least it felt that way after 14 hours in the saddle). Finally, one of them flipped on his light and the reality of my lighting situation came rushing back to me. I looked at my handle bar and saw my little commuting light sitting there. How could I have been so stupid to bring this light when I have one back home that is the same size and 5 times brighter. What a rookie mistake. I vowed not to turn on the light until absolutely necessary, because embarrassingly I wasn't even sure how long the batteries would last - they weren't fresh. The three of us would eventually pick up some other riders, some of which tried to jump on and failed, while others succeeded. At 9:20 p.m. I counted six, including myself hauling at 22 mph on flat, fast gravel. I felt bad for "sitting in", but I simply didn't have the lights to take a pull. I had been hovering near the back of the group poaching their lights as mine just wasn't powerful enough to be effective, let alone at high speed in a pace line. Oddly, there were very few rotations to the front. A few very strong boys pulled for the majority of that closing hour. I was impressed.
Traveling at 22+ mph with a rear wheel 4 inches ahead of your front in the dark is a sketchy situation to be sure, but that was my world. Just as I was thinking about how I couldn't see any obstacles in the road due to shadows and the rider in front of me blocking my view it happened. The guy ahead of me slammed a pot hole with everything he had and in a nano second so did I. He violently veered left as his foot shot off his pedal. While he careened for the ditch I noted his skill as he made an amazing save, avoiding a catastrophic crash. Meanwhile, I crushed both tires to the rim in my meeting with the pot hole. Somehow, by some miracle I did not flat (Thank You Schwalbe Tires). I let a gap form while I recouped my nerve, shook some cobwebs loose and reminded myself that I'd come too far for a silly mistake, "FOCUS!".
I knew that once we hit the black top this thing was as good as over. According to my estimation we would have about 2 miles of city riding before the finish and I was ready to be done. Finally, it happened the lead rider in our group called out for a right turn and I felt my wheels hit smooth tar. Hours and hours of vibration instantly disappeared, while up ahead lights of convenience stores and shops illuminated the night. The ride through the university went by quickly as we ramped up our speed, each rider anxious for the finish. Into the lane marked out by traffic cones we all rode with the finish now in sight. Crowds lined the chute, the volume of their cheers stood in stark contrast to the silent beauty I was part of some hours previous. My mind spun back through the day as I contemplated all that I'd been through. The "march of the damned", the water crossings, the dead fish in the middle of the road, the expansive views untouched by man, the wind, the friendships, and the emotions.
When I lined up at the start line some 16 hours earlier the only thing that I knew for sure was that I was surrounded by people whom I considered "The Tough". As I rode across that finish line I let myself believe, even if just for a second, that I was one of the "Toughest of the Tough". Thank you Dirty Kanza for giving me the chance to believe.
Special Thanks to:
Jim Cummins, Lelan Dains, Tim and Kristi Mohn, and all of the D.K. volunteers
Salsa Cycles - The Warbird Ti, what a bike!
Rudy Project - Keeping my eyes and head safe for hours and hours.
Schwalbe Tires - Not one flat, that's huge for this race!
Amy Fullerton - I'll always see you at the finish.
Bobby Wintle - Your encouragement stayed in my mind for that whole final leg.
Dustin Burgardt - Your calm, supportive demeanor means so much to me.
Fred and Lillian Spellman - Thank you for opening your home to us and for your gracious hospitality.
To all the riders who approached me and mentioned that my writing has resonated with them, even inspired them, I can't tell you how much that means to me. I am so grateful.
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.
At 3:59 a.m. on Saturday, April 25th I will be straddling my bike on the main street of Grinnell, Iowa waiting for a man who goes by the name of Guitar Ted to sound the horn of his vehicle. The sound of that horn will cause me to put pressure on one of my pedals, launching myself into perpetual motion for what could be the next 34 hours.
Getting ready to toe the line in 2013...
This will mark the sixth time that I have stood at the starting line of the Trans Iowa, or what is often simply referred to as the "T.I.". To me, Trans Iowa is much more than a bike a race or a very long ride, it has proven to me to be a test of my determination, my confidence, my constitution. Pedaling a bike for over 330 miles on gravel is far from easy. In fact, it takes riders to another dimension, a place where mind and body crisscross in a confusing display of reality and dreamlike states. Oddly enough I long for these transformations as much as I fear them.
One might think that having experience on his or her side in such an event would offer an edge, but I tend to lean toward the notion that "ignorance is bliss". That is to say, going into this event knowing what I know only gives the butterflies in my stomach more fuel to flutter, and flutter they do. I have bolted awake in the middle of the night on and off for several weeks now, with thoughts like, "Don't forget to bring an extra derailleur hanger!" or "What if I forget to bring money?" The T.I. is a completely self-supported ride. The only help comes from you or the rider by your side. Those riders by your side tend to play an instrumental role in you making it to the finish line. Over the years I have received compliments and congratulations from people regarding the completion of this event only to have me respond with "Thanks, but I couldn't have done it without insert assorted names here."
This year I hope for many things, but above all I hope that I am lucky enough to travel with a good group of riders willing to look out for one another as I will look out for them.
Band of brothers...2013...
There are so many things to consider when tackling a ride of this size. One of the main things is the training. How much is enough? How to structure the training and how many long rides should there be? Should they be ridden hard or easy, alone or with others? I've struggled with all of these questions, but mostly I've always felt that I have never trained enough. The fact remains that I'm not sure if all the training in the world can make that feeling that comes over you after 20 hours of non-stop riding? It's the dizzying feeling that comes when one contemplates the distance covered, the obstacles that have been overcome, and the body’s refusal to go on.
For me this moment has presented itself in a sudden blast of overwhelming exhaustion. A deep yawn while staring at the blinking tail light of the rider in front of you, followed by the notion that the legs are really tired, then finally the panic that races through the mind when the feeling of not being able to continue becomes all consuming. Somehow, maybe driven by fear…I don't know…but somehow you keep pedaling making a promise to yourself to be there for your new friends, the way they've been there for you. Surprisingly, the moment passes and you find new ways to motivate yourself, usually the second sunrise is a good one. With the brightening sky in the east come new life, new energy, and a new reason to keep going.
The demons live within us all and to willingly push ourselves into something that invites them to open doors most would keep locked forever is a peculiar thing. I've met my demons, I've embraced their company, and I've had them turn and exit through the door I unlocked. It's a good feeling to see them leave, but it's also a good feeling to understand what they've brought to the fold and what to do with it. It's during these confrontations that I've forgotten I was even on a bike despite the gravel rushing under my wheels. It is during these moments that we begin to truly understand who we are.
The Trans Iowa is a living thing to me, an entity all it's own. It is so much more than another bike ride. A chance to look through a window many will never know is there. Looking through this window helps you find something more valuable than you could ever imagine; a better you.
Edit: Mike Riemer
Charlie Farrow shares more of what keeps him going in the wild with the conclusion of "The Spirit of Adventure: An Interview with Charlie Farrow"
A personal note: I'd like to than my good friend Charlie for taking the time to provide these well written and thoughtful answers. I hope all of you were just as excited to read these answers as I was.
Bravo Old Chap, Bravo!
There’s a myth floating around the gravel cycling world that you once pulled over in the middle of the night during a Trans Iowa and went to sleep, covered in news paper. Is there any truth to this story? If so, would you mind sharing the events that lead to this decision?
There is a simple rule that I follow that has it genesis from back in the day when we first started to go on climbing trips to Alaska. Rookies, from the flatlands of Minnesota, on our first couple of trips, we would get ourselves all fired up during the preparations leading up to the actual effort, but then we would get out there on these massive Alaskan glaciers and stare up at these incomprehensibly huge mountains and inevitability get ourselves completely psyched out. We would start up the route, get really nervous, then really scared, then super intimated, and then bail out—all within the first day or two of the climb. Then we would spend the rest of the trip drinking at the bars in Talkeetna and playing what-if scenarios. On the third trip, we resigned ourselves to committing to at least five days on the mountain, no matter what barriers we encountered, psychological and/or geographical. This resignation morphed into a simple rule. A rule that I try to apply to long distance bicycle racing, as well— When in doubt, take a nap. Of course the idea being that, just like your mom always told you, “things always look better after a good night’s sleep.” So yes, there have been several instances when I was ‘for sure” going to quit a bike race, when instead I remembered the little When in doubt, take a nap rule. I must say that it has worked every time. Corollary to the rule is therefore: Never quit a race until you have really calmed down, rested, and even (if possible) taken a little nap. Of course, now that I am getting slower, in several of the races that I like to do, the naps have to be very short or I end up not making the time cut-offs. The Trans-Iowa in which I slept in the cemetery was one of Guitar Ted’s earlier efforts, so I was faster (and the course shorter) so when I did decide to take a nap I had built up enough of a cushion of time to allow for a significant respite and yet still finish the race within the official parameter. Still, it is my sincere contention that there is great value in gutting out a tough race even if the final result puts one at the very end of the finishers.
In the past you’ve received awards for finishes that had you near the back of the pack. These finishes have at times gotten more attention it seems than the finishes of the top group. Why would you say that is?
I have “won” a couple of these highly subjective accolades for finishing back in the pack or near to last (or not even finishing), but I would not agree that such “awards” are viewed in the same light as those efforts produced by the really top finishing racers in a given event. I want to emphasize that I have always greatly appreciated and valued these kinds of honors, yet at the same time I have always felt that others were clearly more deserving, thus the subjective nature of such things. Jay Barre’s effort at last year’s Trans-Iowa on a fixed gear bike and Jason Buffington’s effort on a standard mountain bike at Tuscobia several years back immediately come to mind. Of course, these kinds of participatory awards are designed to acknowledge a job well done by the average wanker and is reflective of our culture’s ideological manifestation of equality. There is certainly value in recognizing the achievements of the common man and yet too much attention paid to such arbitrary performances can be counterproductive, leading perhaps even to a devaluing of the really impressive achievements of the highly talented. It is a straightforward process to reward those on the podium and rightly so. In contrast, it is a much more nebulous process when selecting by such personal factors as motivation, perseverance, or degree of suffering, etc. The allure of bike racing in this country stems not from a spectator’s view of witnessing a display of amazing athleticism from the bleachers. The draw is that an average guy can actually compete in the same game with some extraordinarily gifted athletes. I think nordic skiing and long distance running hold the same appeal. So I think that rewarding an average guy for pushing it to his limit is a good thing, but should not ever overshadow a winning performance.
What drives you to keep searching for the next adventure? Do you see yourself ever going in a direction that takes you away from previous modes of travel (i.e. bike, skis, foot travel)? Next adventures…
I really enjoy being out in remote places, that’s why I enjoy living in Duluth. It would be great to learn how to sail and I plan to pursue it when I retire from my teaching job. At this point, however, I still really enjoy a good physical challenge as well as the required planning and logistical work that goes into pulling off a meaningful race or trek. Winter is my favorite season and thus my short-term goals reflect this: I really want to attempt to travel the entire Superior Hiking Trail in winter unsupported or unaided. I would allow myself to deviate from the trail few times to purchase food and fuel during the effort, but otherwise I believe that the completion of such a trip is possible and would be extremely fulfilling. I also want to ski (or bike depending on conditions) north to south (~90 miles) across Lake Nipigon in winter with my man-dog, Hondo. And journey west to east along the Border Route in the BWCA in winter using an old school tent, compete with a wood burning stove. To be honest, I am not that interested in biking on snowmobile trails anymore, even the wild ones. Seems like a large majority of “them” don’t want us there, aren’t interested in sharing, and my thinking is that if a drove of out-of-shape sled necks can do the same route as I can and a lot faster, leave it to them, it really isn’t a recipe for a symbiotic relationship. As far as racing goes…I really want to go back to Alaska and complete the longer version of the Iditarod Trail Invitational. The Colorado Trail Race has great appeal to me as does the Tour of the Great Divide. I have heard great things about a mtb race that crosses Georgia. So many great opportunities out there….
My interview with Charlie Farrow continues as he shares some insight into how he views "limits", what he thinks of quitting, and some fond memories of riding with yours truly. So, grab a cold one and enjoy some thoughts from a modern day adventurer.
Have you ever legitimately feared for your life while pushing your limits?
Fearing for my life while pushing limits? I cannot say that I have ever gotten that far down the wormhole. To be honest, both physiologically and mentally, I am simply not cognitively advanced enough to really break down or break through what David Epstein has called psychological “limiters” within the context of endurance endeavors (see his compelling book, The Sports Gene, for a much more in-depth explanation). In a compelling TED talk Epstein maintains that "Our brain acts as a limiter, preventing us from accessing all of our potential physical resources, because we might hurt ourselves, tearing tendons or ligaments. But the more we learn about how that limiter functions, the more we learn how we can push it back just a bit, in some cases by convincing the brain that the body won't be in mortal danger by pushing harder.” I agree in part with Epstein, in that I do believe that there are highly motivated athletes amongst us that can “push” their limits beyond what their brains want them to do (or not do), but I am worried about the second part of his conclusion, that is, the part where he states that the brain of such athletes can convince the body that irreparable danger will not occur once these limits are surpassed or even transcended. You may recall that truly epic 24 hour national race that pitted the great Trek Rider Chris Eatough against the indomitable Aussie, Craig Gordan, in which they essentially rode each other into the ground. Gordan won, but the price was severe kidney failure and ultimately compromised health for a long time. My sense is that these limiters are in place for biological reasons and that to break through these limiters, may be to invite serious health problems down the road or even a shortened or compromised life span. Recently there has been a real interest in looking at the long term effects of endurance racing on its practitioner’s cardio-vascular systems. The evidence is still very new and to some extent confusing, but from what I have been able to glean from various ‘Google’ searches and in speaking with friends-in-the-know, pushing the limits a few times a year is probably okay, but breaking down biological “limits” is also not a healthy choice and thus doing more than three or four extended (24 hours or more) events per year is probably too much for most athletes. Below is a link to an interesting website that offers access to several recent studies done on endurance athletes and the long term effects on their cardiovascular systems. Nowadays, during a long race, like for example the Arrowhead 135, when I get really really tired and/or start to feel really exhausted, I lay down and take me a little nap or if I have the time, even a long sleep,…Its amazing how just a fifteen to thirty minute nap can revitalize one’s outlook on life’s little challenges and a good six to eight hour sleep can simply work miracles.
Often times it is the successes that we talk about, not the failures. Tell me about some of your failed attempts; were these "soul crushing" or motivating "I can’t wait for next time" moments?
Like you and the majority of the guys reading this, to me the achievement of finishing a race is very important and thus quitting a race should only be considered under very extraordinary circumstances. I take pride in the fact that I have really never simply quit a race because things were not going well for me. I remember a passage in Ned Overend’s classic, Mountain Bike Like A Champion, in which he stated that he will never be good enough to quit because he is having a bad race. In recent years, as I have gotten older, fatter, and slower, I have missed making the cut-offs on a couple long races, the most recent one was at the Tuscobia 150 where I made an ill conceived attempt to ski it and in doing so, missed the third time-cut-off at the 68 mile check point, but I have never just said, “the hell with it” and quit a race. We all have very busy and hectic lives and so these long races or endurance efforts act as a form of cathartic escapism for our regular and predictable routines. Quitting just is not an option. My amateurish advice or basic rule, for those in the game for the long haul— When things go wrong, I recommend to take the attitude that since you have taken the time and paid the fees to get into the race, use all the time allotted and see how far you can get. Remember that conditions do sometimes change for the better, so hang in there and hope for positive change. I remember five or six years ago, Jeremy Kershaw and I were battling really tough conditions going into the last couple hundred miles of the Trans-Wisconsin, including torrential rains and strong head winds. We were in tough shape, really dragging, but the circumstances were such that we couldn’t really quit, even if we wanted to (those are the best kind of races, in my view). Then, miraculously the skies cleared and the winds dramatically shifted to the point that for the last hundred miles, we honestly felt like we did not have to pedal and yet we were flying. It seemed as if we were heading downhill for the rest of the event. It was an amazing transformation. I guess in summary, I have always felt that there are very few reasons to quit a race. Obviously, one would be if a vital piece of equipment breaks and yet even in these rare situations, I have been able to borrow a bike or a seat post, etc. Last year at Chris Shotz’s ThunderDown Race, hitting a rock just after the start, I bent my chainring significantly, to the extent that I believe most riders would have quit because by the time it took to get it off the crank and then find some guys to help me hammer it back into functionality, I had already been lapped by the entire field. Yet, I soldiered on and actually started to turn some fast laps and while I finished near the end of the group, I remember that race with fond memories. In short, unless you are a professional cyclist, you are simply not good enough to quit a race unless you are really seriously hurt or if you have experienced some kind of catastrophic gear failure. If you are just getting your butt kicked by a bunch of faster guys, hang in there, eat the humble pie, and then feel good about guttin’ it out…
You and I have ridden literally thousands of miles together; many of those have taken place while laughing hysterically at the ridiculousness of what we were in the middle of. Tell me about some times where you’ve paused and contemplated a situation that you were in that even you had a hard time wrapping your head around.
have enjoyed every minute of our time together. Throughout my life, whether it involved playing football in high school and college or rock and ice climbing in my twenties and thirties or riding bikes in my forties and fifties, my strongest and most meaningful friendships have always resulted from doing athletic feats with other people. The power of shared experiences while pursuing adventures coupled with shared exposures to misadventures seems to really solidify personal relationships. The act of doing something challenging and the shared experiences that results are the building blocks for solid friendships. One memory that really sticks in my mind is the time you and I were riding together in the Trans-Iowa chasing the two leaders. At this point, you were essentially pulling me along as I was intellectually at the level of an aged mollusk. It was late night and somehow as we left a little town, ultimately confused, we got totally turned around, and thus started heading back the way we came. In a most surreal moment, far out in front of us, we spied a series of lights heading towards us. I thought it was perhaps the lights of a tractor and you were as confused as I was. It was such a strange thing to be riding towards the lights but not realizing what was happening. Eventually as the lights came closer we realized that it was a group of two comprising Troy Kraus and the eventual winner, Dennis Grelk. We were stunned and also incredibly thankful that we had run into them. Dennis was feeling very strong and thus lead us for many miles, until we encouraged him to push ahead. Of course I eventually fell apart, while you and Troy finished 2nd and 3rd respectively. I will always remember watching those strange lights coming towards us on that remote gravel road out in the middle of Iowa…
Part III, the final installment coming soon.
Approximately 15 years ago, give take a few years, I began riding and racing mountain bikes in and around Duluth, Minnesota. It didn't take long before my joy and interest in the sport became a passion. Cycling slid into a slot in my life that used to be occupied by baseball, softball, and running. I noticed these sports falling by the wayside as I found that being on two wheels was often at the forefront of my mind.
As my interest in the sport of cycling morphed into regimented training and competition that I bumped into a charismatic local named Charlie Farrow. I'd heard of him, but didn't know him. He was always the guy at the races that had a crowd of people around him, seemingly hanging on his every word. There was something about him that people liked, I needed to know more. It wasn't long after my curiosity had piqued that I was racing my bike in some unknown event somewhere in southern Minnesota that I discovered the real Charlie Farrow. I had performed terribly in this particular race. In fact, I was so far back that I was no longer in touch with the main field. I struggled on and on until I finally crossed the finish line alone. I was completely dejected and feeling like a failure. As I collected myself near the finish line I noticed one more rider coming in. "Wow" I thought, "this guy is super happy and he's really close to the back end of this race". It was Charlie! He recognized me from Duluth and we began to talk about the hardships we faced in this little two hour event. I took note of his upbeat humorous attitude regarding our performance. I also noted how he wasn't beating himself up like I was. We parted ways, heading towards our respective cars when I heard him mutter to himself, "I think I was last". I recall smiling to myself, even laughing out loud. I knew I liked him, but more importantly I knew I had a lot to learn from him.
Since those early days Charlie and I have come to be best friends and I don't use those words lightly. We've logged more miles on bikes than I could ever pretend to count. We've driven long hours to races while solving the worlds problems with answers that were obvious to us. We've discussed more books than anyone should and analyzed the state of the universe over and over. I've been at the front of ultra endurance events with him, accomplishing more than either one of us ever thought possible, most likely because we were together. I've also been at the other end of many events wondering how we'd made it as far as we had, only to find that it was most likely because we were together. I don't know how many times I'd question my own readiness for events such as the Trans Iowa only to hear my friend tell me, "I think you're gonna win this thing". He's picked me up out of the dirt and I've promised him I'd get him to the finish line. This is the kind of bond that develops when two guys go to places physically and mentally together that many will never even conceive of.
Charlie is my inspiration. To me, his soul was made for adventure, he understands it, he craves it, he lives it. Adventure is a concept that he has taught me and I've been chasing it's elusive shadow ever since.
I've decided to interview my friend in an effort to give you a glimpse into a world very few know about.
This is Charlie's story:
Adventure seems to have always been in your blood. Can you tell me a little about what you did early on to satisfy your desire to seek out your own extremes?
As a youngster, I was very fortunate to have great parents that always were very supportive in going along with any and all of my crazy ideas that I decided to bring to fruition. We were allowed, even encouraged, to frequently camp out in our wooded back forty, no matter the weather conditions. Yet, several early experiences come to mind that I feel acted as catalysts for what has turned out to be a life long love of adventure. A course in high school in which we planned and executed a week long trip to the Boundary Waters Canoe Area in Northern Minnesota, a National Outdoor Leadership School course involving a seventeen day winter camping trip into the heart of Yellowstone during my sophomore year in college, and a summer of jumping on and riding the rails, and then vagabonding out West with a former professor of mine after graduating from college…All these experiences, early on, combined to cement my passion for rouging it and experiencing the world at a real basic level. Post-college, I was lucky to attend the University of Colorado for graduate school and so it was in Boulder, Colorado where I fell in love with all forms of climbing. When I first started climbing (back in the mid 1980s), it was generally assumed that if one was really serious about the sport, one would eventually progress to the point of being an alpinist. To be clear, in our little world in Boulder, the title of “alpinist” was a special, exalted, title that was only bestowed upon a man or a woman that could essentially practice, with great skill and efficiency, all of the various types of climbing on a remote and cold mountain with complete self-sufficiency. I still believe that the guys that are climbing the hardest alpine routes in the world are some of the most committed and resourceful athletes in the world. Of course, I never was anywhere close to being a skilled alpinist, but I came to love the alpine realm and the challenges it afforded. Climbing was my passion for something like twenty years, but it is a sport that requires one to live in the mountains (and/or to be willing to travel extensively) so once we moved to Duluth, I began to look for an activity that would be similar in commitment and preparation but would not require big mountains. Endurance cycling fit that bill very nicely. Now I include the guys that can full-on race such impressive unsupported events as the Great Divide, Iditarod Invitational, and the like, to be some of the most committed and resourceful athletes in the world. Thinking about this question reminds me of a classic Hemingway quote: “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” I think what he was getting at was that a true sport requires a very intense level of personal commitment.
I’ve heard it said many times that you always seem so happy while competing, seemingly immune to the "dark times" that many ultra endurance athletes talk about. Are you afflicted by these so called "dark times"? If so, how do you get through these periods?
This question reminds of a great exchange that occurs between the two principal characters in Truman Capote’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s:
"You know the days when you get the mean reds? Paul Varjak: The mean reds. You mean like the blues? Holly Golightly: No. The blues are because you’re getting fat, and maybe it’s been raining too long. You’re just sad, that’s all. The mean reds are horrible. Suddenly you’re afraid, and you don’t know what you’re afraid of. Do you ever get that feeling?”
I am happy most of time and I am especially so during endurance cycling events because the whole endeavor is based on a very positive and essential, fundamental, aspect of the human condition; namely our innate desire for getting from Point A to Point B. I love the simplistic nature of it all. Of course, I am still mostly content doing big loops, but it requires more effort on my part to remain positive during events like 24 hour mountain bike races that are commenced on short courses. Long races that require one to do many loops are mentally draining because I begin to feel like a caged gerbil may feel as it continues to run but never gets anywhere new. In any case, it has been my experience that the guys that do these things are really basically happy people. At least the ones that stay with it for more than a few years. I believe that happiness is quite contagious and its fun to be around happy people. Happy people are also usually confident people as well. In any event, to be honest it goes against my nature to get “the blues ” during a long distance event, most of the time I am able to finish long events with my positive attitude intact. Yet there have been a few races that have really smashed my psyche. The most recent one was last April when I made an attempt to ride a single-speed in the 320+ mile Trans-Iowa. Clearly the last fifty miles of that race forced a wave of “mean reds” into my consciousness. I was keeping a pace that was just barely, minutely, fast enough to make the cut-off for an official finish. I was estimating that if I could just maintain the pace I was on that I could finish the race with about five to ten minutes to spare. It would have been easy to just quit (ego and genteel nature intact) had it not been that I was so close to making it with less than fifty miles to go. Yet, as the last hours burned away, it became maddeningly apparent that it was going to be so, so close. Although I can tell that I nearing the end of my endurance, my positive nature kept expecting a break. A break or at least a respite in the form of a shifting wind or an easing of the constant rolling hills…but nothing but stronger headwinds and more dramatic rollers appeared. I became uncharacteristically despondent and as the desperation grew within me I began to panic and I was overcome with an intensity of sadness and regret that clearly came from some very dark recesses in my mind that had absolutely nothing to do with finishing the Trans-Iowa. It was as if the lonely situation coupled with the exhaustion brought upon by the thirty plus hours of self-propelled movement, had acted as a kind of key to opening a hidden door that led to some troubling inner turmoil. I made a turn onto a kind of blind corner and then looked down the road and spied another huge hill followed by yet another one. I pulled off the road and just collapsed onto the grass and laid there encased in self-loathing and despair (Thanks a lot Guitar Ted). I was less than six miles from the finish and yet the time left was something like fifteen minutes. I finally calmed down enough to call Jeremy Kershaw and he came and picked me up. I was too embarrassed to go to the finish line because I knew that the guys there would be super nice and supportive and yet I was too broken to face them…I was worried that I’d break down in front of them. So how does one get through something like that? My advice is to sign up for the same race and go out there and try again…but this time use gears. Riding the Trans-Iowa on a single speed is only for really strong riders, riding it on a fixie is only for those from another realm…
All athletes make mistakes form time to time. Can you recall any colossal mistakes that you’ve made?
Back nine or seven or even five years ago, when the Arrowhead 135 (AH) did not attract the number of quality of riders that it now does, I use to have a chance of finishing up near the top. When an average guy feels like he has a legitimate chance at being towards the top in such a race, he or she may make impetuous gear decisions based on saving weight in favor of staying warm and thus safe. In fact, a rational case can be made that going light in the AH is prudent because it allows one to finish up faster and thus forgoing the need to be exposed to the cold weather for longer periods. But mine was not a rational decision, mine was a stupid decision. Several years back, I think it was the 2009 race, I felt like I had a chance to do well, so I elected to go super light. A strategy that included leaving my warm neoprene overboots at home. At the start, the temperature was around twenty below and while it warmed up during the day my feet never really followed suit. I arrived at halfway checkpoint with the top chase group so rather than taking the time the warm up my feet, I followed the guys out the door after a quick reload on fluids. As is my usual routine in this race, I started to fall apart about five hours out from the finish, got unceremoniously dropped by the chase group, found myself alone with my thoughts, and then suddenly realized that my toes were completely numb. Thankfully I was coherent enough to realize the implications and thus made every effort to warm up my toes by swinging my legs vigorously and walking a lot to try to get the circulation going again. I am convinced that had I not done the extra work to warm up my feet, I would have suffered extensive frostbite, but even so, for some odd reason I was not able to get my right big toe warmed up enough to spare it from a pretty significant frostbite injury. I was lucky that Duluth has one of the best burn units in the Midwest and so with their expert treatments my injury eventually fully healed. That was a really stupid thing to do…and I was lucky that I did not lose my big toe because of it…
Words like "epic" and "adventure" are tossed around pretty frequently these days. It seems that a bike ride to pick up some milk can even be lumped into the "epic" category. What are some official or nonofficial events you’ve been involved with that you’d call “epic?”
Yes, I totally agree that the terms “epic” and “adventure” get overused nowadays. I have done a handful of epic or adventurous climbing trips in my day, the most out-there being a successful ascent of the East Ridge of Mount Logan way back in 1997 with just two other climbers. As far as cycling goes I’d say a very early solo-effort that I made to ride around Lake Superior when I was twenty-two and a complete neophyte, qualifies as a true epic. It took me something like thirty-five days, but it was a real adventure given the equipment I used and my lack of experience. Recently, I would have to say that my ride around Lake Nipigon, located about fifty miles north of Lake Superior, a couple summers ago, could be termed a real adventure. I think I am the first guy to ever bike around that huge lake and the remoteness of the landscape and the complicated route-finding made it feel like a real old-school adventure. Out of the five day effort, I went three full days without seeing another human being. When is the last time you went half a day when you did not see another human being? In terms of official races, in my small world, the most epic or adventurous race that I have done is the Trans-Iowa, with the three hundred+ mile Iditarod Invitational a close second. I believe this to be so because of the fact that these truly unsupported races are often commenced during very difficult weather conditions. I think the Trans-Iowa, while being much shorter in time spent battling the route, is perhaps the most “epic” because adding to the potential for tough weather conditions, the time cutoffs are unforgiving, and the route finding requires intense focus and vigilance. The Trans-Iowa truly is a classic adventure race. I wish there were more events like the Trans-Iowa and the Alaskan race. Most of these so called “adventure races” are really nothing more than serious endurance contests. Don’t get me wrong, I am in awe of the athleticism and mental toughness inherent within these guys that can go for incredibly long periods of time in constant and fast movement. Take a twenty-four hour mountain bike race for example, the guys that win those things are incredible athletes in possession of equally incredible mental toughness, but there really is no adventure involved. The top guys have full-on entourages that take care of their every need, the rider’s only job is to ride as fast as he/she can for everything else is done for him or her by their crew members. Adventure racings needs to be differentiated from endurance racing. A true adventure requires complete self-sufficiency, serious commitment, and a high degree of personal resourcefulness, along side or combined with a test of endurance.
Part II Coming Soon...
Have you ever worn out a piece of gear and couldn't afford to replace it or just couldn't bring yourself to throw it out? Welcome to my world. Riding a bike is a very simple thing to do, but the deeper one goes into the rabbit hole, the more expensive it all becomes. I've found that I need to prioritize my needs mostly based on whatever season I'm in at the time. My wife and I own one car which she needs for work. That leaves me with my bike, year round. I justify whatever money I throw toward gear with the fact that I'd either be buying gear or maintaining the expense that comes with cars. Top priority goes toward items that will keep me as comfortable as I can be on the commutes, typically that means staying warm. Unfortunately the life span of a lot of this stuff is just way too short. I'm sure many of you can relate and maybe some of your gear looks as used and abused as mine does.