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Trans Iowa v7


“It’s not an adventure if you know how it’s going to turn out”1
Trans Iowa v7 Logo

I do not recall when I first heard of Trans Iowa, but in that weird endurancy way this 300 mile, self-supported gravel road race peaked my interest. My curiosity mainly came from not fully comprehending what such a race really involved, despite its absurdly long distance and numerous warnings on its website. In classic fashion, I glossed over the exact repercussions of the vast undertaking and headed blissfully into destruction.

After all, wanting to do an event is about as equally easy as mailing a postcard six months out. No pain involved. You simply slip it in a mailbox without fully grasping for what you just signed up.


“Sometimes your best just isn’t good enough”23

As race day neared though, the enormity of Trans Iowa loomed large. I was not specifically training for it, but just wrapped it into my Ironman preparations. It is questionable whether this approach would have been sufficient had it been going well, but my training was off and my fitness not quite where I wanted it.

Two weeks before Trans Iowa I did a dry run on local bike trail. After Advent Service I headed out on this mixed pavement, grass, and gravel trail for a midnight century. This ride would ring out my lighting and bike setup as well as induce sleep deprivation. I made it through the ride, but just barely. Later that morning while trying to stay awake at work, I wrote the following email to some friends:

I did a dry run for Trans Iowa last night. My lighting setup worked great and I could see okay the whole time. The trail was in near perfect condition, and I arrived at the turn around about 2 a.m. The way back was going alright until about 25 miles out from town. There the wheels just feel off, and I had no energy left in my legs. I limped back, trying anything to get some power back in my legs, but to no avail. Even when I reached the pavement 3 miles out, it was all I could do just to poke slowly forward. I finally arrived back at my car a little after 7, with the sunrise now lighting the trail.

I handled the sleep deprivation okay (still going off my first true all-nighter in a very long time), but the way my legs completely blew up has me really second guessing Trans Iowa. I made it back in a sorry state, and I could not imagine only being 1/3 of the way done. This was on dry, flat, ideal trails as well — not what I’ll find next weekend. I think I pushed too hard once or twice, but if accidentally burning a match destroys me that early, I don’t have much hope. I have been secretly wishing that it would storm a lot next week, so I would have nice excuse to scratch Trans Iowa. I may do it now regardless. I think I bit off more than I can chew. And the way the race is setup, I would be 100 miles from nowhere when things went bad. Plus, Easter is very important to me, and when I signed up I didn’t realize the race was that weekend.

Through this dejected sorrow though my friends provided encouragement, giving me practical advice on ultras and reminding me TI is about the experience and journey and to just give things a shot. Despite my incapacitated state, this support was just what I needed to retreat back from the abyss and again think the starting line might be a possibility.

Even if this ride had gone well though, the naivety that I could be ready after an overnight ride is mindboggling. I had never done any ultra riding before, and to think I could everything sorted out in one nighttime ride two weeks out was just asinine.

So to recap, my reasons to skip Trans Iowa:

Race Meeting

Yet somehow, I took small steps in the days leading up to the race to prepare — started making piles of needed clothes, gathering food — all just in case I would go. With enough of these mini actions I eventually found myself loading my bike into my car to head to my destiny.

Dinner at Grinnell Steakhouse

Dinner at Grinnell Steakhouse

While driving over (through a monstrous rainstorm which lowered visibility to almost zero) I had a feeling of impending doom, and that I had no business being at this race. Usually I am blissfully ignorant when I rush headlong into less than ideal situations. Perhaps this was a little dose of healthy fear.

I showed up at Grinnell Steakhouse for a very good smoke-filled, self-grilled meal. I dined with bikers from Triple D, who gave this runner a hard time for being at a biking event. After the good natured jabbing we went to the race briefing, where we learned details for the next morning’s event.

Despite not trying to make any jokes, while Guitar Ted discussed the race occasionally the crowd had to burst out laughing, as articulating the actual specifics made the craziness and inaneness of the event jump out.

At the end of the meeting we received the first set of cue sheets. In my head I thought “maps” beforehand, despite the website obviously stating cue sheets, with me jumping to conclusions on that important detail. This paper with only had a list of roads, directions, and distances knocked me a little more off balance. Without a lot of work, the table gave little indication of where you were or where you were going, just the next turn. Miss one of those and you are out of luck. At least I was an expert navigator…

Race Day

I started the day with a new PR, with a 3:15 a.m. alarm for a 4 a.m. start being the earliest I ever work up for a race.

Although most of my bike preparations were finished the night before, I rushed through my last minute checklist and got to the start line literally thirty seconds before Ted blew the conch (a musically inclined set of handle bars) signaling the start. Right before this though, someone asked to check their cue sheets against mine, and as I messed with them, they slipped through my biking gloves onto the ground and the clothes pins which held my plastic bags for the cue sheets broke.

The full TIv7 route. I did only the first 50-some miles

The full TIv7 route. I did only the first 50-some miles

I do not blame the competitor for my troubles, as she merely exposed my lacking, completely untested system. Had it not died at the start, it would have done so shortly into the race. I tried to finagle my cue sheets back into place, but my sandwich bags, gloves, and small sheets of paper were not cooperating as I rolled through town amidst the pack. I eventually gave up and stuck them in my back pocket, deciding to follow the red taillights ahead and hope they knew where to go. I was literally the last bike in the race at this point.

At least being in the very back gave me an awesome view of the field ahead. Seventy five sets of red blinking lights going two by two though the pitch dark country blazed the path forward and was an amazing sight. That alone made showing up worth while.

The roads were a little squishy from the rain in the past few days, but were still very fast and rideable. I was not hammering these initial miles but did not feel I was going slow either. Yet I was still at the very back of the peloton and not making up any ground. I felt way in over my head. Of course I had one of the fattest tires of the field on my mountain bike. A cross bike was much more appropriate for this event, or at least a skinnier mountain bike tire. But my mountain bike was what I had, so that is what I sat atop.

While covered in darkness, we came across one of TI’s infamous B roads. I would later learn this one was not on course, with the entire pack missing a reroute sign, but I was blissfully ignorant of such at the time and dove headlong in with the rest. The road was unrideable and we plowed through the quagmire, resorting to the ditches to avoid the mud. Unfortunately I did not remember to carry my bike over the mud, as even just pushing the contraption left it covered in muck.

As I reached the end of the B road I saw an army of headlamps coming back at me. They must have missed a turn and were backtracking to get on course. Others were still at the intersection looking at their cue sheets, not thinking either road was right (because they were not, we added that extra B road). Not being one to stand around even when taking a breath to double check can save time overall, I elected to follow the herd coming back.

The caboose at the park in Baxter

The caboose at the park in Baxter

I could only assume the leaders made a wrong turn but was not certain. No one was around to ask either, as I was riding in no man’s land. The other bikers had dropped me, and no one followed behind (not sure what those looking at the cue sheets after the B road decided to do). I kept worrying whether I was on course.

The riders in front kept pulling away, and eventually I could not even see the red blinking light of the next bike up. At some intersections I could only follow the still fairly obvious direction of bike tire tracks, since my cue sheets were of questionable value in my back pocket, without a decent system to mount them to my bike. Navigating by tire track marks is far from the best way to go, but somehow worked for me this time.

The morning said hello as the sun popped over the horizon. I kept spinning steadily, just putting in my time and keeping my mind free. After a while, I even caught and passed a few riders.

Despite overtaking a few bikes, my ride progressed very slowly. I battled a relentless headwind for many miles winding through the gravel roads of rural Iowa. I was thankful for any abatement, even if the course only turned out of it for a quarter mile. Steep hills were even a thankful respite from the gale. I did not have a bike computer (another really dumb move, especially with cue sheets), but I imagine 10 m.p.h. was rarely hit.

The clock kept ticking, and I was starting to realize the 9:15 cutoff at the first checkpoint in Baxter, IA, barely over fifty miles into the race, might not happen. Although beforehand I had a backup plan of bailing at that checkpoint anyway, not making the cutoff never entered my mind until now. This realization was a slight letdown, but I was neither greatly distributed by it and keep moving forward, at least for an unofficial time.

At least the roads were in very good condition, and riding was very easy (except for the wind). They were dry and well packed, providing a smooth rolling surface. As I slowly neared the first checkpoint and the clock kept advancing, it became obvious I would not get there by 9:15. I caught another group that had also accepted they would not make the cutoff and had easy ride with them through the last stretch.

Although probably horribly wrong, somehow on my way to Baxter (now with the wind) I thought if not for the prior headwind, I could have actually done Trans Iowa. (Of course, dealing with weather is almost always a big factor of TI.) Contemplating the sheer number of miles was inconceivable, but keeping up a relatively easy pace going — just riding, nothing hard — and just not stopping seemed plausible. In reality I doubt it was, but on that stretch after I already missed the cutoff and knew I would not be able to continue, it was a delightful idea to entertain. That evening, however, relaxing in my warm house, I was glad to not still be on a bike. I was tired that night after having only ridden less than half a day, but could the force of the race have kept me up? The idea of trying to finish intrigued me. But the next morning while eating a delicious Easter breakfast at church celebrating our Lord’s resurrection, while the leaders still raced, I was none too upset over the DNF.

Myself after my partial Trans Iowa jaunt

Myself after my partial Trans Iowa jaunt

I arrived in Baxter about 10:05, and hung out with others rides that had also missed the cutoff. No one was too upset about their predicament, and accepted where the chips fell. Even the few riders that barely went over the deadline, and would have made it if not the extra, accidental B road pushing them over the time limit.

I had a nice hammer fest with a couple other riders along the twenty miles of pavement back to the start (we took the scenic route out). Back in Grinnell, I had the nice surprise of a flat tire on my car from when I hit the curb in the morning parking. Just imagine if I had made it through all of Trans Iowa, only to have got back to my car on Sunday, totally deranged, and find a flat tire I would have to change. Although I am no grease monkey, I can change a tire, but this one was stuck to the rim. Even with all the lug nuts free nothing would not budge. I visited the nearby bike shop and put on my best pity face to see if I could borrow a hammer to knock it loose. Their mechanic tried, but his biggest instrument was a claw hammer that was too small to loosen anything. A tire store was nearby, and since the big hole in my tire meant it could not be repaired, I drove the couple blocks on the flat. Of course the place was closed Saturday afternoon. After a sigh, I went to the car dealership next door and of course their mechanics did not work weekends. Breaking the stereotype, the salesmen were exceedingly nice and let me borrow a 20lb sledge from the garage, which finally knocked my old tire free. I put on the donut and traveled the back roads home on that, avoiding the interstate.

Post Race

Although an adventure already, I missed out on the true Trans Iowa experience. I did get the surprise B road, but only got through 1/6 of the miles and missed full night of biking through utter exhaustion and hallucinations. Maybe next year, but I have a lot of undecided stuff that could make that implausible. Plus I would not attempt TI again on a mountain bike. A cross bike setup with the proper gear bags, accessories, and fit is a must. I hate to buy yet another bike though, that would not get used a lot. Still…

1 Jon Krakuaer describing Christopher McCandless view on life, which may have contributed to his early demise
2 Gary Cantrell providing inspiration for the Barkley Marathon
3 So I did not put my best into this race, but it is still a good saying