When Katherine and I were talking about Trans Iowa in the last few days before the race, she wanted hashtag ideas for tweeting during the race. The days of me sneaking off to a race and telling people about it after appear to be over for the short term. I don’t speak hashtag, I rarely tweet, and I am a silent observer on twitter. The only idea I had, but did not share with her until the day before the race was #TIV11#weareallDOOMED. No one appreciates a pessimist, or even a realist in the face of what was certain to be a really hard day, so I kept my doubts mostly to myself and a few friends. I continued to plan, and contemplate what I would need to do to complete all 331 miles, but as the weather forecast continued to disintegrate, it was hard not to think about the possibility of my first real DNF.
The extended weather forecast looked good, but it also did last year for TIV10. In the last three days preceding that race, the rain chances and wind speed were dialed up significantly. The same thing happened this year; the forecast went from sunny to progressively more rain and higher winds. One of my last texts to Katherine Friday night before I finally tried to sleep was “I hear thunder”. Grinnell ended up seeing more rain than was predicted for both Friday and Saturday, with 20-25 mph winds and gusts over 30 mph. I didn’t really expect good weather, but this was atrocious weather for riding, and would turn the course into a mushy, muddy mess. I rode through a thunderstorm at Heart of the South 500 just weeks before, and a drunk woman behind my follow car at a stop sign opened her window and yelled “honey, y’all neeeeeed to get out of the raaaaaainnnn.” I didn’t take her advice then, and the weather didn’t appear to deter many for TIV11 either. 94 people took the start, with only 2 no shows. I am proud to be a midwestern gravel rider. We are a hearty bunch.
The Meat Up at the Grinnell Steakhouse was excellent, just like last year. A great opportunity to reconnect with friends, and make new ones. I think I hugged everyone I had previously met at least once, and I’m pretty sure I got Mike Baggio at least twice. I may have hugged a few complete strangers too. I guess everyone deals with their nervous energy in different ways. I hug people, especially race volunteers. At the pre-race meeting, Mark announced that we could look forward to 14 B road sections, and three low water crossings. With a wet course, that would be quite a task.
I got up at 2:15 am, and Katherine and I headed down to the start by 3:30. Last year I rode the 3 miles to the start, but this year I asked her to drive me. My excuse was that I didn’t want to stand around wet for 30 minutes in case it started raining, but the truth was I just wanted a few more minutes with my sane friend before I went forth into whatever awaited. I hugged several more people, and then it was time to line up behind Mark’s truck. I started up front next to Greg Gleason, last year’s winner. After Mark pulled his truck away from us just outside of town, the entire pack stayed behind Greg Gleason. It was a little way before anyone rode up next to him. He truly led from start to finish.
Riding with the pack was both exciting, and a little scary. The road conditions were initially not as bad as they would become, but it was still difficult riding and pretty challenging to ride as a closely knit group. Two pace lines formed, with a short third line to my right that was nearly on the edge of the road. It was almost surreal to be doing that in the pitch black at 4:00 am, and to watch the group break apart and then come together again as we encountered hills, potholes, piles of mushy gravel, and standing water. It was one of the coolest things I have ever done on a bike.
I knew there would come a point when I would either get dropped or choose to leave the group, and it happened around mile 10. We turned into a long hill, and I lost momentum in the mush on the turn. I decided not to hammer up the hill to catch them. I mentally wished them all good luck, and hoped I would pick up a couple guys to ride with on the other side.
There was a brief stretch of tailwind, and I got some momentum on the downside of the hill. I caught Dave Mizelle and Scott Robinson, and had brief delusions of catching up with the main group. We kept them in sight for several miles, but never did catch up. It started to rain, and I asked Dave if he needed his coat. I was trying to suggest that he should stop and put it on, without being a bossy old lady. Dave must have stopped to do that, because soon I didn’t see him anymore. It was just me and another Dave from Wisconsin, and Scott Robinson. A few miles into a 5 mile eastward stretch into the wind, the gravel got really thick and peanut buttery and we lost sight of the main group. Wisconsin Dave and Scott moved on ahead of me, as I could no longer keep up. That was the worst section of the race for me. The wind blew me all over the road, and I could barely keep my bike upright and moving forward.
I caught back up with Scott and Dave and one other guy on the B road at mile 35. I ran pushing the bike in the ditch when I could, I jogged with it on my back, and at one point even had the bike sideways on my right shoulder with the tires rolling along on the hill next to me. In dry conditions, this would’ve been a pretty easy B road, but the rain made it just crazy. When we got to the end of the B road, I tried to switch to the next cue sheet, but they were wet and stuck together. A little water had snuck into my previously bulletproof cue sheet holder, and I now had no cue sheets for the miles remaining to checkpoint 1.
We turned east into the headwind, and I had the same trouble keeping my bike straight as before. I have ridden in all kinds of crazy wind, but I have never struggled that much to keep my bike straight and moving forward. I could at least see the men ahead of me, and with the ruts in the road from the bikes that had passed through before me, it was really no trouble navigating for the rest of the race. I passed a few guys pretty late in the ride, and one of the German fellows kindly told me the next turn after I passed him. When I got to it, the ruts from the bike tires turning were so deep and obvious there was no way to miss it, and they were for the two remaining turns after that as well.
I knew before the B road that time would be pretty tight, and there would need to be some seriously easy flat roads in the remaining miles to get me there on time. I knew after the B road that I was not going to make it on time no matter what. I made getting there before 9:00 am my new goal. I had a little hope that maybe Mark would extend the cut off time, but in my heart I knew that was not going to happen. It was just my effort to remain optimistic and provide an incentive to push through to the checkpoint as fast as I could. At 8:30 am, I was under 5 miles from the checkpoint. I made it there by 8:50.
Arriving at the checkpoint was bittersweet. Mark told me Greg Gleason was the only guy to make it, with just minutes to spare. The remaining field of 93 riders was not going to finish. Greg made it to mile 123 before it was over for him too. Although the weather ended the race for all of us, Greg was declared the winner of TIV11, and that is as it should be. He led from start to finish, and persevered through bad conditions long after the rest of us were warm and dry. I am proud to know him.
My initial emotion after hitting the checkpoint was disappointment. Profound disappointment. Disappointment in myself for not riding fast enough to make it there on time, and disappointment that I would not get to see any of the remaining course. No more crazy B roads, no beautiful scenery, no making friends along the way, no struggle to get through the cold night, and no dawn to celebrate. Mark is a genius at designing gravel road courses. He finds the biggest hills, and the best B roads in places that I will not otherwise have the opportunity to ride. I feel a keen sense of loss that I will not get to see and experience any of that, because I’m positive that it would have been awesome. And that is the worst part about this for me.
I’ve gotten some really nice messages from folks after the event, and I honestly don’t feel that bad about the DNF, just the loss of the experience and the weird sensation of being done with an event before I was physically “done”. The only other time I’ve not finished an event was when a friend of mine crashed, and I stayed with him instead of riding on. It was the right thing to do, and never felt like a DNF to me. I have persevered through terrible weather and road conditions before. I’ve raced sick, finished injured, coughed up blood for miles, and ended up in the medical tent after races so many times it’s embarrassing. But I’ve never ridden through pouring rain in cold temperatures for the first 53 miles of a 331 mile event before. It may not have ended well had I continued, and my desire to continue until exhaustion was purely selfish. While this event is self supported, it is not a brevet. This is a real race with volunteers and a race director dealing with the same rotten conditions that the racers were. Mark cares about everyone that shows up to Trans Iowa. That much is obvious to all who have met him and have been to Trans Iowa. I am thankful that with only one person making the cut off, at least he had far fewer people to worry about.
There were more soggy hugs at the checkpoint, and after a brief stay in Steve Fuller’s SUV, Katherine came to my rescue. It was scary how fast I went from feeling warm and well while riding, to shivering and hypothermic after stopping. We gathered up the two muddy German guys who needed a ride back to town, showered, and grabbed breakfast. Then it was on to home. I was home to help my family with some spring cleaning, and made it to my son’s jazz band concert that I otherwise would have missed. I ended up with scrapes and bruises on my legs and hip from the B road, and a good sized lump on my shin, but otherwise weathered the experience just fine. I had just woken up from a nap when I saw two texts telling me that the race was over, and Greg was done at mile 123. Well done Greg, well done.
Thank you, Mark Stevenson, for another incredible Trans Iowa experience. I am so grateful for the opportunity to start a second Trans Iowa. I still feel the loss of what was surely an amazing and challenging course, but I know that things played out the way they should have to the benefit of all involved. It wasn’t the experience I hoped for, but it was one I thoroughly enjoyed nonetheless. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat, no matter the weather, and no matter the outcome.
Thank you to Katherine Roccasecca for being my support person, my cheerleader, and for your endless optimism and faith in me. You are a good friend, and I am lucky to know you.
Thank you to the tireless volunteers for all of your efforts before the race, for being out there in terrible weather, for your concern as we came into checkpoint 1, and for the hugs. Thank you to Steve Fuller for letting so many of us stink up your SUV.
Thank you to Kiley Mars and Ronni Scott for praying for me during this event. Both were up early, and I know Kiley actually set her alarm before dawn to begin praying for me. Your faith sustains me, and inspires me, and I am beyond blessed to have friends like you!
Thank you once again Kyle Robinson, and Kyle’s Bikes for checking my bike over before the race. I had no mechanical issues in severe riding conditions, and that is simply fantastic.
Thanks to everyone who offered support and encouragement going into this race, and after. I tried to dial down your expectations as the weather forecast worsened, but some of you would not be deterred. Your faith in my ability to get it done was inspiring, although somewhat delusional! Thank you!