I say a lot of stuff to myself during a race, some of it good, some of it bad, a lot of it complete and utter bullshit. As we rolled into Baxter, Iowa in the dark hours of the night at Trans Iowa V12, I thought to myself, “I am closer to home right now than I am to the finish line. We could ride there from here, and it would be tailwind all the way. Less than 3 hours to o’ bacon thirty…” It was an errant thought that lead to an elaborate fantasy and a few miles of pleasant distraction thinking about showing up at my house in the middle of the night with three filthy, smelly men and sharing a pile of bacon. Complete and utter nonsense, as I would never abandon a race for anything short of mechanical or physical devastation. But I had been thinking about Race Across the West coming up in June, and dwelling on the idea of RAAM, and wondering how I could possibly contemplate such long races when I was struggling with a 340 mile race just miles from my home. That was a very dark place I didn’t need to be in. Bacon. Better to think about bacon.
This was my third consecutive year at Trans Iowa. TIV10 was my first ever gravel race, and I had spent much of that spring recovering from a left ankle injury that progressed into a rip roaring case of tendinitis. I finished dead last and tied for first with the only other woman to finish that year. For TIV11 I was much more fit going into the race, but it was a washout and no one finished due to the weather.
For TIV12, I had ridden almost double the miles between January and April than I had for TIV10. And they were good miles too, quality training and really no junk miles. Luke Wilson (eventual third place male) and I had done most of our longer rides together, and having a strong and always cheerful training partner made the miles and bad weather much more tolerable. I felt pretty confident in my fitness, my gear, and my level of experience. My main concern was getting through the race without injury, and without a major mechanical problem.
For once the weather was not the main story going into Trans Iowa, although I doubted the forecast until the moment I was actually riding under blue skies and bright sun, and later not freezing to death during the night. We had some rain in the days leading up to the race, but it was not enough to devastate the roads like it had for TIV11. The B roads might be muddy, but that didn’t really worry me. I was more concerned with the amount of road repairs and new gravel that was being laid down in the area where I train. I’ve only been riding gravel for a few years now, but this was the most new gravel I’d ever seen laid down at once. On my last gravel ride before Trans Iowa, I got boxed in by a road crew that was grading and laying gravel. I paused at the top of a steep, curving hill covered in a few inches of new gravel to contemplate the ride down, and pray that the road crews in other counties weren’t quite so busy. Rocky gravel is my nemesis; I hate riding it and it beats me to a pulp. That day ended with me riding slowly through seven miles of deep, chunky rock and taking the ride of shame home on pavement so I could get home on time. Definitely not the confidence boosting ride I was hoping for to cap off the training.
Katherine Roccasecca signed on once again to be my behind the scenes support person, ready to bail me out if I needed a ride home from a tiny Iowa town in the middle of nowhere or to haul my sorry carcass home after I finished. We once again attended the pre-race Meat Up at the Grinnell Steak House, which has become a great way to catch up with friends I don’t get to see very often. Race director Mark Stevenson (aka Guitar Ted) never reveals much about the course, but he did make a point of saying to me at the Meat Up that it was different from previous years. Well, it’s different every year, so I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that but maybe that’s what you say when you’re a race director trying to say really nothing at all. What was different for sure was that the locations of the C stores were not identified on the cue sheets. That ended up being a small but vitally important bit of information that I really wished for late in the race.
It was a pretty stacked women’s field on the roster this year, which is always a good thing. Included in the list of starters was Janna Vavra, a two time Trans Iowa finisher and the first woman to ever finish a Trans Iowa, and Andrea Cohen, who has finished Trans Iowa in previous years as well as many other demanding and brutal events. I enjoy a good race, and it can be an especially mental experience at a race like Trans Iowa where you can never be certain exactly where the competition is unless they are within your line of sight. I lined up to start in the front of the field between Janna Vavra and Greg Gleason, and tried to enjoy the moment.
The first few miles out of town were a neutral rollout behind Matt Gersib and Mark Stevenson in the lead vehicle. Matt pulled the vehicle ahead shortly after we hit gravel, but no one made a move to ride faster. After what felt like an eternity, but what was probably less than a minute, I asked Greg, “Don’t you think you should ride faster now?” I didn’t like the idea of hitting the hills with the entire pack right behind us. Greg obliged with a smile, and we finally launched off the front of the field, taking a much smaller group with us.
The first 53 miles to the first checkpoint in Deep River were completely benign, relative to the traumatic experience of last year. Last year was mud, rain, and struggle. This year was friends, smiles, and forward momentum. I made the first checkpoint without burning any matches and with plenty of time in the bank.
I rode solo for quite some time after that, but was eventually caught by a fellow Des Moines area cyclist Scott Sumpter. I was overjoyed to see a friend, and have a strong guy to ride with. We made a quick stop at the first C store on the route, and ended up catching my friend Joe Mann. Joe is crewing for me for RAW in June, and knows the drill when it comes to efficient stops. I was ready in a hurry and announced I was leaving, and ready or not Joe hopped on his bike with a sandwich in hand and we headed out of town. Scott hustled to get ready, and caught up just down the road. We picked up a few other guys soon after; David Swanson whom I had met at TIV10, a rookie named Jackson, a guy on a single speed whose name I never did catch, and smiling Joe Frost.
The wind was at our backs, and the sun was shining. Joe Mann and the single speeder guy dropped back after a few hours, and it was just five of us together the entire day. There were a lot of smiles and beautiful views. The course was tough, and there was so much new gravel, but with the wind at our backs we made great time. We made checkpoint two at the end of a sandy B road 5 hours ahead of the cut off time.
We stopped at the Casey’s in Hudson after the checkpoint, and I made sure to stock up pretty well. Mark had said to be prepared to go 100 miles between stops, which would surely take longer once we encountered headwind. Hoping to minimize our stopped time, I rushed the guys through every C store, to the point where the guys were eating in line while waiting to pay. Afterwards, Scott referred to it as “mom-like bossiness”, which is a nice way of putting it. They were really good sports about it. We were in the top ten and I was the first woman; it seemed a shame to blow our lead sitting at a Casey’s.
After Hudson we had a stretch of westward riding, and rode through the middle of prom night in Grundy Center before finally hitting a long southward slog into the wind. I’m pretty sure Scott and I photo bombed a few prom night photos on our way through town.
After a long and difficult southward stretch in the wind, David got a wild hair and took off and left the group behind. I had finished a long pull and resumed slogging along behind the guys in front of me, and when I looked up he was far ahead on the horizon. He made the right hand turn onto the bike path section past Grundy Center and was gone. And then suddenly we were four. We later caught back up to David on a B road, but then he had a flat tire and we lost him again. From the beginning of our little group early in the day, the odds had been against all of us finishing together. I knew we would lose people along the way, but for me that was the moment the race went from fun to grim.
I started to get really hungry, and despite having plenty of food along, nothing really filled the gnawing hunger in my belly. Anything I ate was like putting a drop of water on a raging fire. I’d eat, and five minutes later I would be starving again. It was painful. We all talked about how hungry we were, and every time we saw a town on the horizon I thought for sure that was going to be our salvation. Before the sun set, we turned north toward a town on the horizon that glimmered like the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz. We all got our hopes up, only to have them dashed. We passed near Marshalltown, and again no C store. I had only a few sips of fluid left by Marshalltown and had already been rationing it out to the point where I was pretty miserably dry. I had food, but without anything to wash it down with, I feared I would choke. We didn’t find a C store until State Center, after 11pm at night. I had been starving and dry for about 4 hours by then. It was pure misery. Had I known for sure the C store was going to be hours ahead in State Center, I’m pretty sure I would’ve opted to go off route before then to get water.
Not long before State Center, Scott told me his shifter had broken, and he was going to be single speeding it from that point on. He dropped behind, and we lost another guy. That was a huge disappointment, and another pretty dark moment. At some point we had picked up single speed guy again, so we were still a group of four. But as rotten as I felt, I knew I’d be the next to go. Every time we came to a section of road layered in chunky rock, I would fall off the back of the group and get behind. There had been so much of that stuff to that point, it was really taking its toll on me. The guys rode so much better on it than I did. Sometimes the sections were miles long, and I would get pretty way off the back, and have to work pretty hard to catch back up. That stuff just absolutely beats the living daylights out of me. It hurts my feet and my hands, and my wheels seem to lose any ability to go forward in it. If I throw down power, my back wheel just spins and sinks. That stuff is my worst nightmare, and on a hill its awful.
State Center was probably our longest stop, as we all had to take time to put on coats and warmer clothing. As soon as we stopped I caught the chills. I took all of my bottles inside to fill them up, as I was shaking so bad I wasn’t sure I could manage it outside. I took the time to finally eat something standing in place for the first time that day. After four hours with only a gel and a few sips of water, it was too little too late in terms of getting any power back in my legs. I just needed to get through the last 80 miles to the finish. It wasn’t even midnight yet, and my addled brain thought we still had a chance of getting to the finish between 5-5:30am.
We had caught up with Major Matthew Kutilek in State Center, and he and I shared a few words and some potato chips. He had been riding solo for the last 130 miles, and he ended up riding solo for the last 80 miles as well. Scott single speeded his way in as we were on our way out, and he looked strong and optimistic that he would make it. It was still hard to move on without him.
The last 80 miles were terrible. I don’t recall at what point I lost the two younger guys, but sometime after I stopped dreaming about bacon I realized they had moved on ahead. It was just me and Smiling Joe Frost. I had been riding just behind the group solo for quite some time. I don’t know if Joe made a conscious decision to drop back and finish it out with me, but suddenly we were two again. My instinct tells me that was a move made out of pure compassion on his part, and I was most thankful for that. The last 40 miles were especially difficult. The hills were steep, the descents were fast, and there were endless miles of chunky rock gravel. I almost hit a rabbit, and the deer and critters were on the move. It was nerve wracking. That would have been much worse solo, and even together we hemorrhaged time in that section.
I finally rolled to the line at 6:14, and Joe right after me. Handshakes and hugs all around, and it felt so good to be done. After two years of gravel racing, I knew more people than not at the finish line, so it felt a bit like coming home.
I won a set of WTB tubeless tires. These are a brand new design, and right now there are only two sets out in the wild. I have one, which is just awesome. I can’t wait to wear out my other tires so I can get these mounted up.
All things considered, I survived Trans Iowa V12 pretty well. My hands took a beating, and I was exhausted, but other than that I am fine. Mark had said it would be different this year, and it was different for me. I was a more confident rider, confident in my decisions, able to move beyond my mistakes, and not dwell on my demons in the dark of the night. This race is always brutal, in good or bad weather. There is always something to be learned in the midst of whatever Trans Iowa dishes out. I think my good friend Luke Wilson summed the experience up best: in suffering lies salvation.
Thank you, Mark Stevenson for another Trans Iowa. Barely surviving TIV10 and tying with another woman never felt like a win to me. I have never called myself a Trans Iowa winner, and you letting me in as a past winner for TIV11 and V12 felt like a status I hadn’t really earned. I feel like I earned that title now. It was not easy, and I feel a deep sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. Thank you for the opportunity to make that right.
Thank you to the volunteers who make it all possible. I know so many of you now, it was like a day with friends. What could be better? You guys are awesome. Wally Kilburg, thank you for the photos that make us all look like heroes.
Thank you to the people who keep me rolling! Kyle Robinson, Katherine Roccasecca and the staff at Kyle’s Bikes and Discount Tri Supply; Greg Grandgeorge with Tri2Max Coaching; Ed and Jenn Veak at Beaverdales Bicycles for the dynamo hub lighting system; Amanda Lundstedt with Active Edge Orthopedic and Sports Massage Therapy; Pauline Tan with Spark Barre Pilates and Yoga. It takes a small tribe of people to keep my body and bikes going, and I could not do it without your support!