I’ve been a student of Trans Iowa for a few years now, reading race reports, reading Guitar Ted’s blog, and following the events of the race. Things finally worked out this past year for me to buy a gravel bike after Ironman Canada and have a go at entering TIV10. I think I surprised a few people by jumping into this race. I’d never ridden gravel before August of last year. I knew there were going to be moments when my inexperience would shine, but I love a good challenge, and I wasn’t overly concerned with failure. I simply could no longer resist the call of Trans Iowa.
Unfortunately, I injured my left ankle and calf muscle after Sebring 24 hour in February. I’ve been blessed with some great mentors over the years, but I’ve had a few good friends tell me that it was time for more structured coaching and supervision before I ruined myself. I can be pretty damn stubborn when I want to be, but my injury forced me to realize that they spoke the truth. I found Mike Wilson from San Diego, and he agreed to be my cycling coach. Another friend, Pauline Tan approached me and offered to start working with me one on one for strength training. Between the two of them, they had me recovered and fit and ready to attempt Trans Iowa.
I planned to ride the entire event very conservatively if possible. Knowing my leg was healed but likely vulnerable to reinjury, that the weather forecast included rain, an entire weekend of high winds, and low night time temps, I knew the only way to survive that plus hills and crazy B roads with my loaded bike was to budget my energy wisely. Nutrition was likely going to be a problem at some point given my food allergy and limited options at the c stores. I decided I would ride my own ride, and never extend myself beyond what I could manage nutritionally, and see where it got me. I had done most of my training solo, I trained quite a bit in the dark solo, and I didn’t really have any concerns about managing on my own at any point in the race if I couldn’t find a group to ride with.
I picked up Steve Fuller, Vin Cox, and our non-support support guy Brian Terhark and we headed to Grinnell Friday afternoon for the pre race Meat Up. My husband Brian and the kids met us there, and it was great having them there. The kids really enjoyed the grilling experience. Race morning came all too quickly after the pre race meeting, as it was late to bed and up at 2am, departing for the start line at 3:15am. The folks in the hotel room above me were up late bouncing bowling balls off the floor, and I got maybe 2.5 hours of sleep.
I rode down to the start line with Steve, and we lined up behind the “truck with no name” to wait out the last 10 minutes until the start. We rolled out of town, hit gravel, and the first B road not far into the course. It was rideable a short distance, but I started to pick up mud and opted to hike. I stripped off one pair of the throw away gloves I had been wearing and stuffed it under the strap of my sports bra to pad my shoulder. I rested the nose of the bike seat on that, and it was comfortable to carry.
It was a beautiful morning, the gravel was in good shape, and things ebbed and flowed until checkpoint one. I made checkpoint one in decent but not fast time. The C store was an absolute zoo. I must have wasted 10 minutes just in line, and it was by far my longest stop. As I was stripping my tights and unloading gloves from my sports bra by the side of the store, Dan Buettner walked out the door and said hi. It was great to see him, but slightly awkward talking to him as I was dropping my drawers with one hand, and the other stuffed in my bra. I had bike shorts on, but still…. The only thing that could have made that more awkward would have been to pull my sweaty hand out of my shirt and offer it to him to shake.
The wind had picked up, and it was pretty fierce for the rest of the race. I continued on at my own pace, riding the hard parts easy, and the less hard parts hard. I hadn’t found any easy parts yet. My pacing strategy was making it really hard to ride with anyone as everyone seemed to be in a big hurry compared to me. I stuck with what felt like a long term manageable effort. I saw Dan again, and Kristin Riching and had a chance to talk with her. I rolled into the c store in North English and saw Steve and his group getting ready to roll out. There were less people at this store, so it went quicker and I rolled out within a few minutes. I had it in my head that we were surely going to pick up a tailwind soon, but it just ended up being a wicked cross wind and more miles of headwind. I rarely looked away from the road for fear of blowing away. My back began to hurt from the strain of trying to counter balance in the crosswind. I had an image of me getting off my bike with my hip permanently jutted out to the right.
I caught up to Steve’s group not too far out of North English, and rode with them briefly. We hit a few mile patch of tailwind, which was my cue to ride harder so I left them. Blissful tailwind! After that, it was more headwind, crosswind, and solitude until checkpoint 2. I plugged my garmin into my charger as it was down to 20% battery life, and then moved on. The B road after checkpoint 2 was bone dry, as all B roads had been to that point with the exception of the first one. I stopped at the c store 7 miles after the checkpoint, and readied myself to enter the night alone. I still felt ok, not great, but not horrible either. I was pretty happy with how I had paced myself to that point. Steve and crew had rolled in not too long after, looking like they were having less fun than when I saw them last. I mixed up a small packet of chicken bouillon granules I had brought, and it was heaven. I only had cold water so it was still chunky, but it was salty, chunky heaven. I’d definitely bring that along again.
Night fell and the wind was still not dying off, if anything it felt worse. There was one long stretch of tailwind, followed by another rideable B road. A little slice of ‘as good as it gets’ for TIV10. Then it was more relentless crosswind and headwind and hills. The lightening show had started off in the distance as well. I blew off my bike twice in this section, but fortunately both times I managed to slow my bike down and got a foot down before I fell. I jammed the bar end into my quad, which really hurt. One of those times I landed off kilter on my left foot, and I felt something give in my lower calf and ankle. Fantastic. The temperature had dropped by then, so I sat down in the dirt to assess the damage and changed into my tights and long sleeved jersey. A rider I had seen earlier fixing his chain passed me back, and it was nice to know he’d gotten it working again.
My calf was definitely strained, and my ankle wobbly. It felt stable in the shoe, just sore, so I got back going again. Within a few miles I hit a warm pocket of air and began to sweat. I had a good laugh at that point, because I was definitely getting Trans Iowa’d. There had been no comfortable or easy moments at any point during the ride to that moment, so of course I would end up damp and sweaty, which of course was followed by more cold and wind, which is just great when you’re damp and sweaty. I knew I’d be fine as long as I didn’t stop for long, but that’s really when the wheels started coming off my bus. I knew with rain coming, low temperatures, a strained calf muscle, and several B roads to go, my odds of finishing had just become very slim indeed.
As I was riding alone in the dark nowhere, a very aggressive Rottweiler mix farm dog charged at me out of a ditch. He would run alongside snarling and snapping, then dive into the ditch, then charge at my front wheel, then run along side for awhile. This went on for a mile or so, and then he made a leap at my leg. I had finally rolled up onto a farm house that had lights on, so I decided this was a good spot to make my stand and either make friends or do battle. As soon as I stopped, his posture completely changed to one of submission, and he ran off and hid in the ditch. I knew he’d come after me as soon as I moved, so I called out to him and he came slinking out of the ditch like a puppy that had just been caught doing something bad. I fed him my coconut bar, and pet him and had a new best friend. He hung out with me while I switched out my light batteries and put foot warmers in my shoes. He was great company.
The storm was really close, with frequent cloud to ground lightening. I turned my phone on and tried to look at the weather radar to assess the severity of the approaching storm and see if I should go knock on this farmer’s door to find shelter. I only had one bar and no 3 G coverage, so was unable to load a radar map. I decided personal safety trumped the psuedo rule about contact with the outside world at that particular moment, so I called Brian for a report on the weather. It was a pretty amusing phone call, as I had no idea where I was or where I was going, and he had no idea where I was, so how was telling me where the storm was headed going to help me and why was I bothering the poor man? I had just wasted a solid 10+ minutes on the dog and pointless weather checking. I saw headlights approaching and it ended up being Steve and company. I rolled on with them, and we soon saw Mark waiting for us with a course reroute. The dog continued to follow us for several miles, making a general nuisance of himself and running in front of bikes. He almost died running in front of a car when we crossed a highway, and I didn’t see him after that. I felt my first powerful pang of loneliness at that moment, despite being with more people than I’d ridden with the entire day to that point. I’d bonded with the crazy mutt.
After a mighty crack of thunder and lightening, we made a stop to don rain gear. I put on rain pants, water proof gloves, and my wetsuit socks. If there is one thing I had done right on this entire adventure, it was bringing along my Blue Seventy wetsuit socks. My feet stayed warm even in 32 degree temps, wind, and rain. They are useless for swimming, but outstanding for cycling in cold rain.
We rode on, and then abruptly stopped and the guys bolted off the road for an open barn. I stood in the road by myself, contemplating my options. My friend Ken had made a Forrest Gump joke on my facebook page prior to the race, and I thought briefly of riding off and doing my best Captain Dan, yelling and screaming into the storm. Why was I still standing there waiting to get hit by lightening? I was having a hard time committing to the hide in a barn plan, yet not relishing the idea of riding in a storm of unknown severity with lightening. I rolled off into the barn with the men. I knew that I had lost complete control of my race at that point, and was at the mercy of Trans Iowa to finish.
It was a tight fit in the small barn with all of the guys and bikes. I had a Spinal Tap moment, as every good ride does, and thought of the line “How are we going to fit 14 people into a king leisure bed?” Steve made a call into MTB radio, and I asked him to let my husband know that I was not dead. My husband and I are fans of Spamalot, so I was thinking of the song Not Dead Yet. I was hoping he’d hear that and know I was still fine and in good spirits. I am not dead yet, I can dance I can sing…. All long events become unpleasant at some point and my sense of humor gets me through, but not knowing these guys at all I just kept my goofy thoughts to myself. I thought of my cycling buddy Daren Munroe, and I knew that if he were there we’d be giggling like a couple of idiots.
I got hypothermic as we sat there in the cold barn, and my wonky leg stiffened up. The temps were in the 30’s, and every minute we sat, I could feel precious calories burning that would be difficult to replace. I added another dry wool base layer, but unfortunately was still stuck with my sports bra that had gotten sweaty and damp. My emergency plan had I been alone was to just strip naked by the side of the road and chuck it off into a ditch if it became a liability, but being trapped in a small barn full of men I was stuck with it. Beyond its obvious function, the sports bra is useful for carrying food, clothing, and cans of soda. If I’m looking to be more endowed than I usually am (which is not at all), it’s because I have lunch squirreled away in there. But when wet, the sports bra is a complete liability. I’ve not found one yet that dries out quickly, and it just makes me feel colder.
I had no idea the time, but Steve tells me we were in the barn for two hours. We finally got rolling, got rained on briefly, then briefly off course. I tried mental math to assess the state of my hypothermia, and it was pretty bad. As we picked up steam, my left leg really hurt and I was so cold. We passed Robert Fry, and soon after my tire went flat. I yelled out that I had a flat, and the group rolled on without me. Robert stopped while I fixed it, and he was shivering badly and slurring his words. He had been outside in the rain, and was dangerously hypothemic. I had my tire fixed pretty quickly, gave Robert a caffeine tablet, and we pressed on together.
I warmed up a little, Robert revived, and other than my leg I felt ok for awhile. Dawn finally arrived, and I had myself a Dos Equis moment. “I don’t always watch the sun rise, but when I do, I prefer to be sleep deprived and riding my bicycle.” Robert and I got off course in the tiny town of Montour. We figured it out pretty quickly, but it was a 2 mile mistake, after 2 hours in a barn, so really not a minor incident given the miles we still had to go. I ran out of food soon after, and the ride just became survival for me. Had I not fed the dog and spent so much precious time shivering in a barn, I would have been fine for calories. After slogging along at a slow pace for miles, I finally fessed up to Robert that I was out of food. In my hypoglycemic state, I thought that statement was giving him permission to go on without me, as he was obviously the stronger of us at that moment. But then he offered me a gel, and I took it, and wondered why I hadn’t though to ask him to spot me something earlier? I really hate to be a burden on anyone, which is a completely moronic thing to be thinking when I obviously had a good guy right there, willing to help.
We got rained on once more, but finally made it to the c store 40 miles from the finish. We had five hours to get it done, but Robert was dubious of our chances and considering quitting. I said I was going on, so Robert hustled to be ready. I was very rattled by the possibility that we might not make it in time, but optimistic that I could get through what remained. My ankle up to the calf was swollen and painful, but stable and I could walk on it fine. Pain I could deal with, as long as things were functional. My gloves were soaked and I was freezing, so I stripped off my jacket, put on a trash bag underneath, then had another rider who was dropping out help me stuff foot warmer into my still dry cheapie gloves and put latex gloves over the top. I hoped if we got rained on, that ensemble would at least keep my hands functional. Several riders rolled up, including Agatha, Jake, and Jay. I asked Agatha if they were going on. She said yes, and was so calm about there being plenty of time to finish. Her calm confidence reassured me, and I felt the anxiety leave my body as quickly as it had come on. I would not normally have expected to receive such warm reassurance from another female competitor, but this was Trans Iowa, and not your average bike race at all.
It was still cold and windy as we quickly left the C store, but not too long after the sun came out and it warmed up and I was baking. Oh, Trans Iowa. Of course now I would over heat, after being so cold for so long. I stripped off my gloves and pressed on, but didn’t dare waste any time stripping my rain pants. Agatha, Jay and Jake soon joined Robert and I, and the five of us rode in the same general area for the next 35 miles. It was mostly a grim get it done ride at that point for me. Sometimes our group was together, sometimes apart as we each had our strengths and weaknesses over the varying terrain (I was mostly weakness), but it was nice to have friendly souls to chat with at times. Jay walked some of the steeper hills with his fixed gear, and I jumped off on a few to see if that was a little better. It wasn’t better, but it was a different pain, so that was almost better. Seeing a back to back B road section gave me another short fit of anxiety, but it ended up being dry. It looked like Trans Iowa was going to let me pass. Agatha and I talked for several miles, and then I asked her if she wanted to finish together. She was cool with that, so that’s what we did. Robert had fallen a little behind, but managed to catch up just a few miles from the finish. We all rolled in as the last official finishers, with less than an hour on the clock to spare.
Thank you so much to Brian Terhark for being my Trans Iowa non support guy and post event chauffeur. Thank you for being my guru, and giving me the gentle shove towards brevets and gravel cycling.
Thank you to Kyle Robinson, Katherine Roccasecca, Liz Bryant, Daren Munroe, Bill Lorenz, and SaraLeigh Monroe for waiting on me so long at the finish line. Seeing you all there at the end of my very long adventure was one of the best experiences of my life. Sorry I took forever! Katherine, thank you for compiling all of the race reports, keeping me positive, and for always being a good friend. Thank you for the finish line food!
Thanks to Mike Wilson for taking me on rather last minute, and getting me ready to tackle this challenge. I am very excited about the challenges that lie ahead!
Thank you Pauline Tan for approaching me about strength training. Without your attention to my very significant weaknesses, I would not have been strong enough to make it through.
Thank you to Kyle Robinson and Bret Whitaker of Kyle’s Bikes, and George Vargas of Rev Endurance Cycling for ensuring that I had the proper gear for this challenge. George, thank you for your support of my crazy dreams, and for the quality kit that has gotten me through some really bad Iowa weather. Kyle and Bret, you guys spent a ridiculous amount of time talking with me about gear, teaching me how to repair my bike, and keeping my bike in good working order. Kyle, the entire shop’s enthusiasm for my race and your very positive attitude kept my spirits high in that last week before the race when I was beginning to have my doubts. Thank you!
Mark Stevenson, Thank you for all of the time you selflessly pour into this event. Thank you for “the most difficult mix of course and conditions ever in Trans Iowa’s history”. I’ll cherish the experience always! Please have TIV11 🙂