This year's TransIowa would mark my 7th riding of the event. Every time I take on this journey I learn a little more about myself and what it takes to finish a 300+ mile endurance ride. I had experienced three finishes and 3 DNF's (all for different reasons) in my prior starts. I was hoping this year would put me over the .500 hump, but a dismal weekend forecast of rain, wind, and cool temperatures made it look like my chances for a finish would be unlikely.
While resting with my nine year old in bed the night before my departure for TransIowa, we talked about what I would be doing over the weekend and why I would be gone. I told him that there was a good chance I might not finish this year because of bad weather. I asked him how far he thought I might ride before I had to quit? He randomly told me 182 miles. I liked his thinking. It was an arbitrary number, but it stuck in my mind throughout the ride.
My friend Jeff and I were both going to be riding TransIowa this year. It was Jeff's first year to ride and not have to wait back in Grinnell as my pit crew. We both ride a different pace and didn't plan to ride together, but it was still nice to know another friend from home would be out there.
The evening before the ride is always one of nerves and seeing familiar faces of TransIowas past. The Grinnell Steakhouse, where the pre-ride meeting and dinner is at, probably has some of the most delicious meats in Iowa, but unfortunately my mind and nerves never allow me to fully enjoy it. Looking around at the riders who attend always leaves me feeling a little intimidated. There are some pretty amazing specimens of riders out there with thick gravel and endurance resumes that are very impressive. It isn't that I necessarily want to be like them, but I deeply respect what they do and have done. That being said, these people, and all the riders for that matter, are all the kindest people you could meet.
Jeff and I already had most everything we needed ready to go when our alarms went off at 2:45 Saturday morning. I never sleep well the night before a TransIowa ride. But this year was different. I actually slept pretty sound. I think the inevitable bad weather might have taken away the self appointed pressure I normally put on myself. It was something well beyond my ability to control, so why stress about it. I felt like I had packed fairly light for the ride. Other than basic bike supplies, my pack consisted of multiple pairs of gloves and enough food/water to get me 100 miles. Everything else I was already wearing.
The beginning of TransIowa is always a beautiful site, with headlights and taillights flickering across the countryside in the dark. The weather didn't call for rain until mid-morning, so my goal was get to the first checkpoint before the cut-off and not have a TransIowa 11 experience (where only one person made the checkpoint in time). Somewhere in the first 46 miles I did some yo-yo'ing with Charlie Farrow, a character of a rider who I met during one of my first TransIowa rides. We talked a little. I asked him what he thought about this years ride and the possibility of anyone finishing. "A fools errand" he replied. Boy was he right!
Checkpoint 1 came and went with no difficulties or rain. Just me and my single speed, plodding our way across the Iowa landscape. The next checkpoint was about 140 miles off, so it was a good time to get into a groove and keep things steady. Somewhere among these miles I began riding with Dan Lockery and Bailey Newbrey. I had ridden with Dan last year some and he was a solid rider with a steady cadence and an ever resilient attitude. Bailey was a friend/acquaintance from Chicago who I respected for completing the 2016 Tour Divide. I figured these would be great guys to ride with who would keep things steady. We rode mostly together until we made it to Casey's for lunch in Madrid, Iowa. It was at this time that the rain finally began to fall.
Convenience store breaks along the route of TransIowa are always a great respite. Prior to stopping at one, you feel like you are the only person within miles of the route. But then you stop and all of a sudden you start seeing other riders stopping with the same intention. Corey Godfrey, another rider I met years ago at TransIowa was one of those riders I met at Madrid. He always brings a positive spirit to the event, and wherever he goes. So it was nice to see him briefly. I go with the feeling that it's never good to stop at these stores for too long. So it was back on the road after maybe 20 minutes and back onto the course. For the rest of the ride I would be riding into intermissions of rain, with the wind slowly building into a grand crescendo.
After logging about 150 miles of the route, things start to get a little more real. By this I mean that you no longer feel like you are just starting your ride. Your legs aren't fresh any more, and you no longer have that slight adrenaline push that you one had at the start. You begin to settle into a rhythm that you know will take you the distance. You ride just hard enough to not go slow, but just slow enough to not blow up at any time. My mind starts to become focused more on the road ahead of me than the surrounding world. I'm not worried about my place or time or keeping up with anyone. It's a peaceful place mentally.
I road with Dan during much of this time. His geared bike pulled ahead of me going downhill, and my single gear pushed ahead of him go uphill. We weren't competing with each other. We were just riding in our zones which just so happened to be of similar speeds. Somewhere along this time we lost track of each other and I rode solo until all I rounded a corner and suddenly found myself with another group of four riders walking a stretch of "B" road. It wasn't a typical B road. It reminded me of the swamps of Mordor. It was here I was introduced to Luke Wilson and Sarah Cooper, two very strong riders who I was surprised to find myself in the company of. Scott and Josh were the other two riders in the group (still don't know their last names). They all seemed to be looking out for each other and had a "keep the pack together" mentality.
Somewhere before Checkpoint 2 I pulled ahead of this group too. Riding a single speed bike can lead to a lot of solo riding time in an endurance event. I always have to push it in hills just to make it to the top, but then I also have to watch those with gears pass me by on downhills and tailwind sections. A single speed bike has to go its own pace. That is both the peace and frustration of such.
Around 8:00 Saturday evening I finally found myself in Cummings, Iowa at Checkpoint 2. Cummings is small enough to not have any convenience stores, but it has a great little bar and distillery that looked very inviting on a cold, wet evening. The volunteers told me I could go inside to warm up and grab a beer and some pizza. But I knew if I went in, there wasn't a good chance I would want to continue on riding. So I grabbed my cue cards and avoided the sounds of the sirens and made a quick decision to head back out onto the course. The rain and wind were starting to pick up more now , but I had my core heat and wanted to keep the good spirit of my ride going. So off I went into what I knew was going to be a long and trying night.
I don't know what mile we were on or what time of the night it was. But it was raining pretty hard now. I know that based on where the checkpoint was and where the finish was, we would be riding a lot of head winds and cross winds all the way to the finish. My gloves were soaked and my hands were getting chilled. My feet weren't any better. My core was still okay. And I was riding with a group now. Strength in numbers. Right? Luke Wilson was seemingly the leader of the group. He was navigating and the others were following his lead. I placed my trust in his skills too. Still, this was the doubtful time of the ride. How far could my body go? How far would my mind choose to let me go?
Around 10:30 (I really don't know) our group rolled into a town (whose name I also don't know) and found a Casey's to stop at. I felt bad for the store. We were filthy, cold, and wet. The goal of the group was for everyone to get their heat back, fuel up, and then head back out into the elements. The managers and workers of this store were the kindest and most hospitable people we could have hoped for. They offered us giant trash bags for insulation, found us some old heat packs from the winter (for shoes and hands), and didn't complain once about the mess we were making. The resolve of the group was to head back out onto the course. I don't know if I would have made this decision had I been there alone. But I didn't want to be the member of the group who chose to quit. The instant I went back out to mount my bike I was a shivery mess.
Things began to get shuffled after we finished walking the B road. For the first time in any of my TransIowa rides I started to become sleepy while riding. I didn't know what to attribute this to. Maybe it was the cold wet weather that was slowly creeping in on my body. Maybe it was the pace that was slower than I wanted to keep (while trying to keep the pack together). Maybe it was because I wasn't focused on cues and I was allowing someone else navigate. Or maybe it was because it was now 3:30 in the morning and I had been riding my bike for the last 23 plus hours. Regardless, I was frustrated by it and was a little worried when I found myself often times not keeping a straight line. It was at this point in the night when I begin to hear from others about how bad they were hurting, and the concern of hypothermia was now on the mind of my riding companions. We were all suffering in our own way at this point. But when you are in the middle of nowhere what real choices do you have? If we had called for a ride at that point, it would easily have been at least an hour before anyone would have found us. My only thought was to keep on going.
I recall crossing a paved road and being at the front of our group. Dan and Scott were right behind me. Shortly after crossing the road I looked back for Luke, Josh, and Sarah, but their headlights were not to be seen. What? Our navigator was gone. And where had they chosen to go? I didn't wish to be insensitive to the conditions of those left behind, but I felt like in order to take care of our own health, the three of us needed to press onward. With our navigator now gone, we stopped at a corner where I could situate my cue cards and get a bearing on where we were going. While looking at my cues, I saw a street about 25 miles ahead labeled "Main Street". That was a good sign that we only needed to make it another 25 miles before we would hopefully make it to another nice warm convenience store. At one point during this stretch I recall Scott saying "We aren't going to make the time cut-off at this pace." We had until 2:00 to finish, why wouldn't we make it I wondered?
The sunrise certainly wasn't spectacular on Sunday morning. Light just sort of faded in on us. Still, it was better than riding in the dark. I saw a sign for Pella and wondered if that was the town we would be stopping in. We had stopped at Pella about six years ago in a previous TransIowa and I knew we'd find some place there to warm up and refuel. That place in Pella we stopped at ended up being Wal-Mart. All of the other stores were closed at the time, so that would have to do. Heading into the store to refuel, I recall Dan saying we would should try not to take more than 20 minutes or we would be pressing for time to make it to the finish. I was more concerned about warming up and refueling than heeding his words, but they ended up being more truthful than I could have known at the time.
We departed Pella with about 55 miles to go until the finish. The final countdown. The three of us headed down the road with a ferocious tailwind at our back. No complaints about that. But then I realized that the numbers on the roads we were passing weren't matching the mileage on my cue sheets. We had missed our turn. Now we had to back track a mile and half into some serious headwinds. Our turn we needed to make had been right next to the Wal-Mart we stopped at and we overshot it without looking. Stupid! As the person navigating I felt responsible for this error. And now looking back at how the rest of the ride played out, it may have been the error that prevented our group from finishing together.
Once back on course, our group quickly became separated. I don't know if it was because of the wind or hills or the physical drain on our bodies, but within a couple of miles I found myself out front of Dan and Scott by a considerable gap. I wasn't trying to race away from them. I was just riding at my single speed pace. I wanted us to ride together, but I also knew I had to ride a pace that suited my riding style and the gearing I had. It was here I encountered another B road. It wasn't too gnarly, but it was slowing me down. And it was darn right annoying too at this juncture. It was at this point when I actually started looking at my clock and started becoming concerned with finishing on time. It still seemed doable, but things would have to go smooth the rest of the way.
But things didn't go smooth. About eight miles later, another B road reared it's ugly head. What?! And so it goes. It was 10:00 after I finished walking this B road. I had 40 miles to go. I needed to average 10 mph in order to make it to the finish and be an official finisher. It seemed like a doable ride average, but it didn't leave me much time for error. Especially if there was another B road ahead.
Headwind, crosswind, headwind. Over and over. Hills too. Big hills. I was pressing the pace as best I could. Mostly pressing the pace to not go too slow. While heading north and cresting another giant hill, I passed a photographer who seemed like part of the TransIowa event. He shouted words of encouragement. His presence for that short moment was appreciated. There was still hope for me to finish on time.
A couple of miles later, my cue sheet indicated that I turn right and head east straight into headwinds for the next 11 miles. These was pure punch me in the gut headwinds. The rain had subsided thankfully, but this wind was oppressive. During this section I rode some monstrous hills. I looked down at my odometer and saw I was struggling to ride 4 mph at the steepest part of the hill. I just got off and walked. My knees were shot. My single speed wasn't doing me any good at this point. At 12:30 I still had twelve miles to ride. It was here I knew I could make it. Or at least I should.
I recall heading directly north into Grinnell for previous finishes. Climbing monstrous hills that were torturous. Once I turned out of the head wind for the final five miles, I knew I could make it regardless of the hills. The rain started to pick up as I rode onto the pavement for the final stretch of the ride. A passerby in a vehicle stuck his head out and cheered for me. I recognized him as one of the Checkpoint volunteers. I turned into the park and saw Mark (Guitar Ted) up ahead at the finish along with my friend Jeff and his step-dad Vince. What a strange feeling it was to finally make it here. It was unceremonious for sure, but it was a fitting ending to the ride. I gave Mark a giant hug. And Jeff too. I recall saying "What the heck took me so long to get here!" And then it was off into a warm car and back to the hotel.
I don't really know why I keep going back to TransIowa. Regardless of weather, the distance and terrain are brutal. It's a challenge that is out there that somehow fulfills part of me. It does something to my mind. I tell people that for 340 miles(ish) it's like being on an uninterrupted vacation where the only focus is me, my bike, and the Iowa country side. It's an experience that is hard to describe unless you have ridden it and finished it yourself. And even then, it's hard to explain why doing something so irrational can seem so rational.