Another crazy gravel road adventure is in the books, and somehow I managed to survive a really tough day and come out on top as the overall winner at Odin’s Revenge. I had heard nothing but positive things about this small event in Gothenburg, NE and was really looking forward to an epic challenge. It ended up completely exceeding my expectations on all levels, and became a good lesson in persistence and determination.
This year’s course was 170 or so miles of dirt and gravel roads. It’s a free event, and mostly self supported except water is available at points approximately 50 miles apart. The course winds through the countryside and is fairly remote. Cell reception is spotty to nonexistent, and unless you were fairly familiar with the area I imagine bailing out of this event at any point other than a checkpoint would be quite difficult. My friend Liz Bryant graciously agreed to come along as my support person to rescue me from the event if needed, and we rode out to Gothenburg with Dan Buettner, the only other Des Moines area cyclist signed up. In an attempt at brevity, I’m going to leave out some of the off the bike details, but the entire weekend was really a great time. Liz and Dan are fun people, and good company!
Race check in was friday night at the KOA campground, and it was nice to reconnect with some of the folks I had met at Trans Iowa. It was decided that support people would be allowed at checkpoint 3 (just 42 miles from the finish), but the rest of the time you were on your own. I usually carry most if not all of my own nutrition for events under 250 miles and don’t need much beyond fluid along the way, but planned to have Liz meet me there just in case I needed something unexpected. Planning what to eat for gravel events is way more difficult than paved road events. The course is usually unknown or remote, and I never really know how long any given distance is going to take because the road conditions vary so much. I’m a bit neurotic about what I will and won’t eat during an event given my food allergy; I don’t care to be 50 miles from nowhere and start having problems with my gut. So it’s an added challenge that requires a bit of planning, and I was thankful to have the possibility of extra food available if I went over my predicted race time.
I had pretty high hopes for a good performance going into this race. I really wanted to finish among the top couple of guys overall. I had struggled with injury prior to and after Trans Iowa, and also discovered after TI that my iron was low, and my hemoglobin was barely in the normal range. I think the long cold winter and my never ending sequence of endurance events sucked the life out of me. I ended up taking iron supplements for a few weeks. I’ve not had my blood counts rechecked, but things really started to come together with my training and I felt a lot better so I assume all is well now. I’m doing well in the Elkhart Time Trial Series, and knocked out a really stellar 400K brevet in May, so I had every reason to think that I could do well at Odin’s Revenge.
Rain soaked the roads during the overnight hours which promised to turn the course into mud. Race day weather was predicted to be sunny and 80’s. Chad Quigley, the race director, promised that things would dry out at some point. I’d not had the opportunity to race or even ride in much mud, so I knew that this could be a long day of learning things the hard way. The course was predicted to be tough in good conditions, and miles of mud was going to be a pretty extreme challenge.
I lined up in front, and decided I would try to hang out with the lead men as long as possible. I didn’t see any other women, although I thought a few others had signed up? We rolled out behind Chad’s truck for the section on pavement, then Matt Gersib and a few other guys pulled off in front as soon as we made the first left onto gravel. It was indeed squishy, wet, and thick. I ate a lot of dirt in the first few miles, and made one pathetic attempt to pull and not be a barnacle on Matt’s wheel. I ended up apologizing and dropping back behind him because clearly I had no idea how to pick a good line in mushy gravel. Matt was cool about it, and we had the opportunity to talk for a few minutes. He told me that there weren’t going to be many finishers that day, and that persistence would pay off. Sounded like words of wisdom to me. I felt pretty good, but noticed that my heart rate was climbing into the 170’s. That’s not really a zone I wanted to be in given the long, hard day ahead, so I dropped off behind the guys after 10 miles. I was having shifting difficulties already, which was very worrisome, so I just let them go. That was pretty disappointing, but definitely the right decision.
I almost blew by the turn onto Brushy Road, the first MMR (minimum maintenance road). It was pretty overgrown with grass and weeds, and caught me by surprise. Look at Guitar Ted’s blog for great pictures and an accurate description of the road conditions. I had never seen roads like this in my life. There were steep climbs and descents littered with big rocks and slick mud, and massive bike-eating ruts. It was very challenging, and fairly stressful to navigate with my narrow tires. About a mile or so into the first MMR the real battle with the mud began. The course turned into a complete quagmire, and I struggled to maintain any forward momentum. I definitely did not have enough clearance between my tire and my bike frame, and mud repeatedly jammed up my wheels and brought me to a complete stop after riding just a short distance. I got passed by several men after mile 15. Jim Cummins happily cruised by as I was wallowing in the muck, then Mike Johnson on his Muktruk. Both had kind words for me as they passed, for which I was most grateful. I watched Mike just float over the mud and up a giant hill. I cleared the mud from my bike near the bottom of the hill, and only made it partway up before the wheels completely jammed up again. I got off and started to push, but the wheels wouldn’t even turn. There was a guy with a camera at the top of the hill, and he offered some kind words as well when I finally got there, but also said there was nothing but miles of mud ahead. Fantastic. I really wanted a Muktruk.
There were some short rideable sections intermingled with pure quagmire. After passing around a completely flooded section of road, I could see a dry downhill section of dirt road ahead. I cleared my tires, but not completely. I thought the momentum from the descent would help fling the mud from my bike, but the dirt was soft and sandy and it stuck to the mud. My wheels jammed up again, the bike stopped, and I flew off into the dirt. My Hapkido friends will be happy to know that I still know how to take a fall, and all of the time I spent being thrown around in class is proving to be time well spent. I landed well, and got back up and moved on. I wrecked one more time before checkpoint 1 when I hit a canyon wall on a descent. I slid on mud, bounced off a rock, and T-boned right into the wall. That hurt. I finally made it to checkpoint 1 around 11, and heard that Matt Gersib had passed thru an hour ahead of me. Chad Quigley was there, and he reassured me that things were going to start to dry out and the back half of the course would be dry. With that dose of optimism, I topped off my water bottles and moved on.
Within a few miles of checkpoint 1, I noticed I was missing a water bottle. Instead of getting better, my whole day just got a lot harder. I think I lost it on a bumpy MMR, but can’t say for sure. I may have left it at the checkpoint. I only had two 25 oz bottles to start with, which was looking like a seriously stupid decision. I had already gotten behind on fluids, consuming maybe 40 oz in the first 5 hours it took me to get to checkpoint one. At that point, I had 10 oz of fluid to get from mile 55ish to mile 71, where there was known access to water. And then that one bottle would have to get me from mile 71 to checkpoint 2 at mile 86, where there would be access to a store. The temperature had climbed into the 80’s and to that point I had only been averaging just above 10 miles and hour when I managed to actually ride my bike, so I was looking at a really long time to be without water on a hot day, and I was already dehydrated. Fantastic.
I began the search for water, slowing every few miles when I passed a house to look for a spigot or hose. I finally found one after about 10 miles. I saw a house with a big garden set way back from the road. I knew they had to have some way to water that garden as way back as it was, and sure enough once I pulled into the driveway I could see a spigot. I dumped my bike in the front yard and took off running down a steep hill and over to the garden, hoping no one would come after me with a shotgun. I filled my bottle, drank the entire thing, filled it again, and ran back up the hill to my bike. It felt really good to get off my bike and run, so maybe I still have some triathlon left in me 🙂 Unfortunately, the water tasted like dirt. My shot blocks and food were also covered in crusty dirt as I had pre-opened the packaging, and dirt got in there when I fell off my bike. So I rolled on, eating dirt and drinking dirt water, hoping this was not going to make me sick. This kind of thing never happens in paved road events!
I turned my phone on, and miraculously was able to get a call thru to Liz to let her know that I was going to be hours behind schedule, but I definitely needed her at checkpoint 3. If I could make it to checkpoint 3 without collapsing from dehydration or dirt poisoning I could get a second bottle from my truck for at least the last 42 miles to the finish.
The terrain was pretty relentless and rough, but the scenery was beautiful. I found the water spigot and hose at mile 71, and washed all of the mud off my drivetrain and re-lubed the chain. The roads were definitely drying out by then, and I hoped I had seen the last of the mud. I drank an entire bottle of water mixed with the Skratch labs mix I was carrying, and took some salt tablets. I left with my one bottle full of water, which not surprisingly tasted like dirt. Since I had mixed it with Skratch labs lemon lime mix, I now had sweet lemony dirt. It was a unique flavor for sure. The bitter irony of this is that I chose to carry bottles instead of using my camelbak pouch because I had hung my camelbak in the laundry room for weeks, and it had absorbed the scent of my laundry soap. I had tried everything to get that taste and scent out of my water, and exhausted the power of google in my efforts. I opted to limit my fluid carrying capacity simply because I had no time to replace the pouch, and did not think that I could bear to drink laundry fresh sports drink for an entire day. I’m guessing it would have been better than lemon dirt.
Some time after that, I caught my front tire in a rut on a downhill MMR section and crashed again. It was a hard fall, but miraculously the bike and I were both ok. I definitely should have slowed down in that section, and my “the faster I go, the sooner I can stop” philosophy ended in a more abrupt and painful way than it usually does. Just to add more discomfort to the situation, as soon as I hit the ground the horseflies descended on me and started biting my rear end. I had slid a little ways, and lost a little skin off my knee but was otherwise ok. My skin offering to Odin didn’t hurt too bad, so I rubbed some dirt in my wound for good measure and moved on.
I rolled into the town for checkpoint 2 and miraculously was somehow well ahead of the original cut off time of 4pm. I saw the grocery store and stopped there before checking in. I felt dazed and lightheaded, and everybody was staring at me. I guess tall, mud encrusted women with pink hair don’t wander through there very often. I bought Gatorade, a few candy bars, a banana, and a coke. I stood at the cash register smelling like a cattle ranch on a hot day and told my entire tale of woe to the cashier before leaving. At the end of my long story, there was a brief and awkward moment when I thought she was going to tell me to get the hell out of her store, but she just wished me good luck.
I slammed 20 oz of Gatorade, filled up my bottle with more Gatorade, and put one 20 oz bottle of Gatorade in my bottle cage, the coke in my sports bra, and biked off to checkpoint 2 down the street. I was surprised to find Jim Cummins there, and Mike Johnson and Matt Gersib were still in town at a nearby store. Jim said he wasn’t sure how many of them were going to be going on from there. I felt better after getting some fluid and calories in, so I got my cue sheets in order and moved on. Checkpoint 2 volunteer Matt Bergen told me I was moving into the lead, but it felt a little surreal and I didn’t quite believe him. There was still a long way to go yet.
The back half of the course was mostly dry, and really hot. There were fewer climbs in this section, but they were tough. Each ascent had an extra bit of something, whether it be rocks, ruts, loose gravel, or just bumpy dirt to make it that much harder. I only had one functioning brake which made the steep descents a little tense. Despite the challenges, I was really able to appreciate the beautiful surroundings. I started to run low on fluids once I hit Government Pocket Road (31 miles into the second half of the course). I passed a creepy looking house with the window shades drawn. There was a five foot metal gate locked with a big loop of heavy chain, and a water spigot and hose just on the other side of the locked gate. I decided to stop for water and scale the gate. I turned my phone on first in case I needed to call 911…It looked like the kind of place you might disappear into never to be heard from again. Still no cell signal, but I scaled the gate anyway. I intended to climb down the other side, but ended up falling off the gate. If there was anyone in the creepy house, they were probably laughing at me now. I got my water bottle filled and got out of there in a hurry.
The road for awhile after that was filled with cattle, and I had to herd them off the road with my bike. I saw vultures, wild turkeys, hawks, snakes, deer, and a panicked calf ran down the road in front of me for a good half mile. It was pretty fun, but I was starting to feel pretty bad. I was dehydrated and really nauseous. When I got to checkpoint 3, Liz wasn’t there as she had gone up to the ridge to try and get a cell signal in case I had called her. She had left a cooler with coke, gatorade, and potato chips, so I refueled and filled up bottles while the other people at the checkpoint flagged Liz down. I asked how many people were still on the course, and at that point there were still 11. They verified that I was actually in first, and that the guys were trying to catch me. Liz got back to the checkpoint with my truck so I pitched the rest of my dirt covered food and grabbed a few things that were clean, although I wasn’t optimistic that I would actually be able to choke any of it down. The potato chips and soda were not sitting well. Liz asked me how I was doing, but I never admit to not feeling well during a race. If I ever do, you might want to call an ambulance. I hurried out of there before I threw up on her.
There were a few tough sections in the last 42 miles, but the road conditions were so much better by that point that it went fairly quickly despite the fact that I was coming unglued. I remained really nauseous, although the threat of actual vomiting went away once I got moving again. I did not drink much despite finally having two full bottles on my bike. After turning on to pavement with just a short stretch to the finish, I finally took a minute to look down the road behind me and saw no men in sight. The finish was pretty cool. Just a handful of people clapping and taking pictures, but totally awesome. Winning is always fun, and being first overall was just great, but I really just had to pause for a second and take in what I had just accomplished. I signed up for an adventure, but that was a bit more I expected! What a really challenging and difficult day! Chad told me that I am the first woman to ever win overall at a gravel event. All I can say is that I’ve been working pretty hard at this for the last several years, and I have the support of my family and many really awesome people that made that possible.
I was so excited to win actual prizes! Really quality and practical stuff! Most of the ultracycling events I’ve done don’t offer prizes to the winner, or they just offer something to the overall winner (usually a man). There is nothing quite like that moment when you tell people that you rode your bike for some crazy amount of miles, finished first, and got…. nothing. For some reason that makes the whole endeavor sound even more ludicrous to my family and friends. I obviously don’t do this for the fame and fortune, but I do appreciate a nice prize for winning now and then 🙂
After the event, it was nice to visit with Matt Gersib and some of the other athletes and volunteers who made the weekend special. The aftermath wasn’t pretty however, and I almost passed out in the shower when I got back to the hotel. Liz took great care of me, and sweet talked the bartender at the bar across from the hotel into opening back up the kitchen so Dan and I could get some real food. I have a million bug bites and minor scrapes, and my right leg looks like I’ve been beaten with a stick, but I’m otherwise just fine. My bike may never be the same though. I damaged the carbon frame, and it needs repair 😦
Thanks so much to Chad and Merrie Quigley, Matt Bergen, and all of the volunteers who put so much work into this event. Thank you Chad for answering my pre-race questions and for putting together such a stellar course. Challenging all the way through, and a grand adventure!
Thank you Liz Bryant for coming along to support me on my adventure, waiting for hours for me at checkpoint 3 despite the rattlesnake, for feeding Dan and I after the event, and for chauffeuring my sorry carcass home the morning after. You are the best!
Thank you Mike Wilson for everything you’ve done for me this year. Hell yeah, I’d say it’s all coming together pretty well 🙂
Kyle Robinson, Bret Whitaker, and Darrick Watson at Kyle’s Bikes thank you for keeping my ride in good shape. This event was really hard on my bike, but I made it through some rough conditions with only minor mechanical difficulty. Thank you so much for spending that extra time checking things over on race week, even though it completely freaks me out when you start taking my bike apart, piece by piece. I couldn’t do this without your support.