200 miles of pavement is a training ride. 200 miles of Iowa gravel is something much more difficult. Here is the behind the scenes action at the very soggy, cold, and windy second edition of the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra. This is a tough course on a nice day, and we did not have a nice day at all. Only 8 finished the 200 mile race, and 17 finished the 150 mile race. The fastest racers averaged less than 14 mph.The Spotted Horse is a low budget, no profit, volunteer run project of mine that I do simply because I enjoy the hell out of riding my bike on gravel, and enjoy spending time with others that do as well. I put this race together for the first time over the winter of 2015-16 as I was training for Race Across the West. I enjoyed mapping out the route, riding it forwards and backwards, seeing what views I liked better, or what combination of hills and roads was the hardest. It gave purpose to my miles and was a great distraction from the sheer magnitude of the races I had on my own race calendar. And south-central Iowa terrain and weather are fantastic training for any kind of ultra racing. You can freeze to death, bake like bread, and get rained on all in the same ride. And the only true flat we have here is in the C store parking lots. 2016 race day weather was perfect, and the forecast a week out from race day 2017 looked perfect as well. Dry and sunny with mild temps. Minimal chance for rain. Very typical October weather! As the week progressed, the forecast got worse by the day with an expected 3+ inches of rain Thursday to Friday and rain continuing throughout most of Saturday. Add in 20-30mph winds out of the south with temperatures falling throughout the day into the low 50’s, and it was a recipe for a very difficult day indeed. The running joke among the Des Moines locals was that my race was getting “Sumptered”. Scott Sumpter, aka Mr. BIKEIOWA, has brought rain to almost every gravel race he has been to this year. Tropical Storm Sumpter rained pain all over the Spotted Horse, turning the gravel to mush and the dirt roads to mud. The weather and life took it’s toll on my roster, and the numbers fell from 81 to 59, and then only 48 showed up to start on race day. That happened last year too though, and the weather was perfect. It’s a bit discouraging, but as my own race plans since RAAM have completely imploded and I’m dropping out of races I have signed up for, I guess I can relate to the life stuff. The weather concerns, not so much. Suck it up and put on a coat. It’s only 200 miles.
The last two weeks before the race were a busy time for me. I’d promised everyone a rideable route regardless of the weather, so with 40 miles of dirt B roads in the original course, the route was in flux until just a few days before the race. I decided to leave 11 miles of B roads on the cue sheets I released, hoping that the rain would miss us but knowing I’d likely end up detouring at least 7 miles of the course during the race. Fussing over the route the way I do is not exactly the easy way to do this, but the route is the main attraction. It has to be just the right combination of beauty and pain or I’m not happy with it. There was very little in this year’s route that I was not happy with, despite having to remove most of my beloved dirt roads.After watching buckets of rain fall during Friday check in, I had dinner with some of the volunteers and athletes, and got a few hours of sleep before my alarm went off at 2am. I was down to St.Charles to set up by 3:30, and the volunteers began arriving by 3:45 to help me set up and get people parked. Several of my RAAM and RAW crew were either racing or volunteering, including Jill Marks who had driven all of the way from Minnesota to help out. Emily Shelton, who was a friend of an athlete racing, had also driven from the north country to help. She arrived just before 4am, worked all day, then drove back home in time to race the Filthy 50 on Sunday. With calm and capable Jill in charge of check in, and Emily helping Newbs with parking, I went and stood out by the entrance so no one would miss the turn in the dark. Stretch, my tall, tattooed friend who drives the rescue creeper van eventually came out to relieve me. Before he did, I saw a truck headed towards the driveway take the turn at the very last second, nearly missing it despite me standing right there with a flashlight. “That has got to be Mark Skarpohl”, I thought. Sure enough, Minnesota plates. He drives like he rides. I first met Mark a few years back when he and I both raced the Alexander 380. He kept missing turns and going off course, and after teasing him about it I ended up going off course multiple times myself. It hasn’t stopped me from teasing him though. It started raining again as we assembled on the driveway at 5:45 for a few safety reminders, and then started promptly at 6am. The Madison County Sheriff showed up right on schedule, and fell in behind the group to block traffic. Not that there was any traffic at that time of day, but it’s nice to have a deputy back there just in case.
I led the group for the first mile on pavement, then pulled off and doubled back around to take a different road to get in front of the cyclists. Steve Fuller, who was supposed to be racing, had broken his finger the week prior, and was now my three fingered co-pilot. Our friendship survived RAAM despite me calling him an asshole several times, and I figured if I had to spend 20 hours straight with someone, he’d be a good choice. He was an indispensable help the entire day. I’m not sure how I would’ve managed all that I had to do without him. We just barely managed to get out in front of the group 5 miles into the race, and drove the course ahead of them. The road conditions were amazingly variable, and we saw everything from dry roads to complete mud. There were long stretches of peanut butter, and one road just outside of Murray that was pure mud. It was not a B road, but a regular gravel road that just happened to have a lot of dirt on it that turned to mud in the rain. It was warm, but lightly raining and the wind was coming straight out of the south and gusting pretty hard already. Steve and I made a quick stop in Murray, then headed straight to Hopeville to re-route Doyle road, a 2.5 mile B road. After hammering in the stakes, Newbs met us there, and he stayed there for a few hours to watch the riders go through. Steve and I headed back east of Murray to see how riders were faring with that first unexpected mud road on 170th. We stopped to help Jim Kozial, who needed a better allen wrench to fix his bike. His multitool was stripping the screw. This is a self supported event, so I expect people to carry what they need and be able to fix their own bike. But I do carry my tool box, and if I happen upon someone who needs help, I help. I just can’t promise I’ll be in the right place at the right time. I pulled out my tool box, and we spent a few minutes holding Jim’s bike while he fixed it. He called his thanks out as he rode away, and I yelled after him “FINISH!” He did, and ended up winning the 200 mile single speed category. The next victim was my coach, Greg Grandgeorge, who flipped his derailleur up into the spokes when he tried to ride through the mud. The one tool we really needed was a pair of chain link pliers, which were sitting on my dining room table back home. Kyle Platts passed by on his fat bike, and asked if we needed anything. Oddly enough, he had a pair of chain link pliers and loaned them to us. Greg wasn’t able to convert his bike to a working single speed, so we loaded him up, and did a RAAM style plier hand off to Kyle just outside of Murray. I made a call to Stretch for his first of many rescues that day, and had him meet me in Afton to pick up Greg and ferry him back to the ranch. Steve and I drove backwards on the route and parked at mile 50 of the course and took pictures of the riders as they went by until it was time to move on ahead to get to Orient in front of the leaders.
We headed back to Afton to check in with the group of riders that had stopped there, and then moved on to checkpoint 2. As Stretch said in his post race summary, things went off the rails for a bit there as we had a little fun with Jenn, Emily, Stretch, and Jill but then it was on to Orient to mark the 290th street detour. Things had begun to dry out a bit by that point and the roads were looking pretty good. But not good enough that a 5 mile B road was going to be rideable, or even very walkable. We met Holly Semple at the intersection of Trenton and 300th street near Orient, where I had arranged for her to babysit the reroute. Holly is another generous soul that contacted me when she heard I needed help, and sat for hours mostly by herself to make sure that riders stayed on course. I had intended to hang out there for awhile and keep her company, but had to leave after receiving a call from Luke Wilson saying that a section of the Rippy Dumps had been torn up and was now a pile of dirt and an excavator. I handed her the stakes, gave her some brief instructions about where to put them, and headed back to Macksburg. My phone was going crazy with texts about riders dropping out, Jenn was trying to find a rider that was waiting for pick up, two riders were MIA since the start line, Holly texted me to say she’d broken a reroute stake, I needed to call Newbs to help her, and we had a mountain of dirt in the middle of what had been an open road when I passed through just TWO DAYS before. It was oddly fun, and utterly crazy. Doing 10 different things at once is fun for me.
I had told Luke and Mark to pass through the construction zone if they felt it safe, and they did. I pulled up just as the next riders got to the far side of the mountain. I threw my truck in park and sprinted for the mountain, hoping to at least verify it was passable before anyone broke an ankle trying to cross it. Three steps up and my shoes were a muddy disaster. There was a river running through it as well. Pictures do not do this mountain justice.
Steve and I flagged the 200 reroute, and redirected Joe Mann to turn around and head for the new detour, which cut a few miles off the route. 6 riders passed through the construction site before I had it rerouted, and I deducted 20 minutes from their finish time to compensate for that. It was raining again, and I couldn’t resist telling Joe that it wasn’t really raining, it was just water dripping off the trees. That was a line of BS Joe dropped on me during RAAM. I wasn’t out of it enough to believe that on RAAM, and I had a good chuckle yelling that out the window at him in a very treeless section of road. After placing the reroute stakes in one direction, it occurred to me that the 150 also passes through there from the opposite direction and those riders would be coming through next. Once we flagged the 150 route, it was utterly confusing. I ended up needing to park three volunteers along that detour, two of them for over 8 hours to babysit this monstrosity. It was a pretty long detour with multiple stakes. The resulting picture of Jess Rundlett at the Dirt Mountain Reroute has provided endless hours of hilarity, and almost made this worth the hassle. Stay tuned to the event Facebook page for the entire photoshopped series of Things that Disgust Jess, beginning with Dirt Mountain. After we had Dirt Mountain contained, Newbs called. He’d gotten his truck stuck just outside of Orient on a B road. I told him I had a tow strap, and Steve and I headed back to Orient to rescue him. We first checked on Holly and the 290th st detour, and all was well there. The weather had gone from gloomy and raining to sunny and warm, and the winds were now very strong out of the west, meaning that the riders continued to have a full on 20+mph headwind as they headed into Orient. The only upside to the wind situation was the potential for a rip rocking tail wind back towards Winterset and St. Charles. Or so I thought. The wind died out by late afternoon, leaving most of the field to ride without any tailwind after having fought a ridiculous headwind the entire day. Iowa can be so cruel.
Extracting Newbs from the ditch was actually quite easy, so we spent a few minutes talking with photographer Carolyn Marsh and watching riders struggle through the 2 mile stretch of B road just outside of Orient. I had driven down to this section on Thursday and actually ran part of it myself just to verify that the grass ditch on the side of the road was decent the entire way. It was a pretty mean stretch of road; a mile of hike a bike, a beautiful gravel intersection, and then a right turn onto another mile of hike a bike. Having been trapped on that section before myself, I can relate to the mental and physical anguish it delivers. As Carolyn verified with her photos, my name was thoroughly abused and there was much cursing. As is true of most gravel racers, they embraced the struggle with a smile and most seemed to enjoy it despite their complaining. There is a time and a place for complaining, and as most of life seems to require restraint and civility it’s not altogether bad to find yourself carrying your bike and bitching without restraint. It’s quite therapeutic, and often hilarious.
Steve and I headed back towards Winterset to check on Dirt Mountain and where we now had three volunteers babysitting the turns. Jess was at the mountain, Daren was down the road where the 200 mile riders needed to leave the course, and Greg Grandgeorge (who had DNF’d earlier and came back out on the course to volunteer) was farther down the 150 mile portion of the reroute in an area that I thought was confusing. Not only was there construction on the road, but one of the farms was also doing some construction and there were pink construction stakes freaking everywhere in addition to my pink reroute stakes. I couldn’t have imagined a worse mess to leave for people to figure out. It was much less confusing after it got dark and the construction markers were no longer visible. To my knowledge, we only lost Jon Duke there briefly, which was still something I felt pretty bad about. Getting lost is not the kind of frustration I want people to experience. He had the misfortune of going through the detour in the daylight when I hadn’t had a volunteer at that corner and he missed the marked turn.
Steve and I made a quick stop in Winterset to gas up the vehicle and wait for 150 mile leader, Michael Conti. Michael is my friend from Utah, and while he has done several gravel races before, none had been in the midwest under conditions like these. I’m not entirely convinced that Michael didn’t accidentally add on a few bonus miles but he eventually reached the finish line looking thoroughly worked over and with a barely functional drivetrain. 2nd place overall and first place single speed Mickey Boianoff arrived a short while later, also looking throughly worked over. My participation in their finish line celebration was short lived, as I received a series of humorous and also frustrating phone calls from Luke Wilson, who was still riding with Mark Skarpohl and holding a 30 minute lead over third place Chris Schroeder. There was an oddly placed street sign and a frankly wrong street sign that weren’t an issue for folks that were using a GPX file, but were for folks only using cue sheets. One of the street signs was labeled 165th street when the map clearly shows 168th street on Ride with GPS, Google maps, etc. Both of these were roads that I ride frequently, but I had verified the roads only by maps and checking the turn with the GPX file; I had not visualized that particular street sign in any of my wanderings. You look at things differently when they are on routes you ride all of the time. I sent Greg to hang out in the vicinity of the two questionable signs to make sure no one got lost. Greg ended up staying in that area for hours after dark making sure that riders stayed on course there. Volunteering is not an exciting job.
The rest of the evening was spent hanging out at the finish line waiting for the finishers to come in. Kathy Fuller managed the prizing back at the ranch while I waited for finishers up on Valleyview Avenue. Kathy escaped the entire weekend without having her photo taken… We may have to photo shop her into one.
The finish line is one of my favorite parts of this race director deal, and I now have two big files of photos with finishers of my race. It warms my cold, black heart. I’m a big fan of ultra racing, carbon bikes, and all things aero AF. But gravel racing is not always about fitness, and who is the fastest. It’s about decision making, mental toughness, and being humble enough to let go of your expectations and embrace the struggle and the adventure of the day. A day spent with like minded people who enjoy that kind of experience is a day well spent. Even the texts I received from folks who couldn’t finish were uplifting, as many of them offered thanks and were willing to come back out on the course and volunteer. The volunteers that had been out in the sticks at checkpoints or detours eventually wandered in and kept me company throughout the evening before they tired and went home. The final finishers rolled in at 1:30 am, including Matt Miller, Andrea Cohen (the only woman to finish the 200 mile), and the rain maker himself, Scott Sumpter.
Newbs ended up driving the course backwards to look for Kate Ankofski and Aaron Duncan who had been unaccounted for since morning. Both had gone down one of the B roads that had been detoured and lost quite a bit of time there. Kate was picked up near Macksburg and Aaron continued on all the way to Winterset and was just barely shy of making the time cut off. He was Jenn Borst’s last pick up for the day before we all headed home, just over 24 hours after my day had started.
Despite the weather being rather rotten most of the day, I’d say this year’s event went well. The course came together well despite not using the dirt roads I wanted to share. As of this writing, I am planning on a 2018 event. I am committed to keeping the cost to the participants low, the size small, and the profit non-existent. I hope to have all new routes for 2018, including a rideable rain route, just in case!
If you enjoyed yourself at my event, please thank your volunteers! They drove many miles, missed sleep, lived on gas station food, and gave up part of their Friday and all of their Saturday to make sure that you went home with stellar photographs, a tired body, and a smile. Thank you to Eric Roccasecca, Carolyn Marsh, Daren Munroe, Kathy Fuller, Steve Fuller, Stretch Wilson, Amanda Lundstedt, Jess Rundlett, Jennifer Borst, Jill Marks, Emily Shelton, Holly Semple, Greg Grandgeorge, Scott Newbury, Saraleigh Munroe, and Bill Lorenz for your time, energy, and willingness to help me make this event happen. These volunteers truly made this race enjoyable for me as the race director. They are all amazing people, so generous with their time, and so willing to do whatever needed to be done to make sure the riders had a good experience. They took my pins on a map and turned them into epic photography, less stressful detours, and fun and energetic checkpoints. This event would not happen without them!
This has been an epic year for me in life and in racing. I’ve tackled extremely difficult ultra cycling events. I’ve finished most, and ended one hypothermic and delusional, huddled on a dog bed in rural Iowa. The strength that I have found through taking on these great challenges has carried over into every aspect of my daily life. I no longer worry about my limits, the expectations of my gender, or what people think of me. I have always enjoyed the caregiver role as a nurse, mom, and friend. But it hasn’t been until this year of my life that I have found myself in the position of needing so much from my friends and family to accomplish my goals, without being able to give back as I would like. I now have a better understanding of what generosity truly means to someone who needs it. I have received much assistance, generosity, and support in all that I have taken on in life this year. Thank you all for your support.