My race bib
This past weekend, I completed the Trans Iowa, a 320-mile, 34-hour bicycle race on gravel roads in rural Iowa. It starts and ends in Grinnell, but the exact route is unknown until you are in the race.
I attempted it once previously, in 2011, and gave up at mile 97. I wasn’t ready mentally or physically. Mostly mentally. In the end, if you are a strong, experienced cyclist, I think completing the Trans Iowa comes down to mental fortitude. More on that in a bit.
This year was different. The weather was better, I made a number of small changes to my equipment, I made different and better nutrition choices, and I spent a lot more time riding over the winter leading up to the event. Multiple 3, 4 and 5-hour rides, on gravel whenever possible, and in every kind of weather. It became routine, to the point where the only thing I disliked about riding in bad weather was knowing I was going to have to clean & lube my bike.
I rode my black cyclocross bike, which is a Bike Nashbar frame & fork and a mishmash of parts I’ve selected based mostly on ruggedness and cost. It’s got a 1×10 drivetrain with a 40 tooth chainring, Microshift brifters, disc brakes, wide Salsa Woodchipper bars, bomb-proof Mavic wheels, and a Brooks B17.
I upgraded to an 11-36 tooth cassette for better hill climbing early this Spring. I ran a derailleur cable with full-length housing a few weeks ago for better shifting in adverse conditions. I stayed with tried-and-true Schwalbe Marathon tires, and didn’t regret that for a minute – they’re heavy, but tough. I had just one flat during the event, a nail through the tread and out the sidewall. Two years ago, I had sweated my choice of minimalist cyclocross race tires, and I didn’t want to do that again.
I added a set of Revelate Designs bags: a Tangle frame bag and a Mountain feed bag. Both are really nice, and served me well – though one of the zippers on the Tangle broke during the event.
I re-visited an idea I’d had early on in TIv7 prep and mounted two water bottle cages on the fork so I could not wear a Camelbak and still have enough water. I was really happy both with how the setup worked and with my decision to avoid the backpack.
This bike, set up this way, will never win a beauty contest – but it is as tough as nails.
I took a full-zip short-sleeve jersey, a thin windproof vest, arm warmers, leg warmers, 2 pairs wool socks, a light fleece beanie, a windproof beanie, regular full-finger gloves, and my lobster claw winter gloves. Regular SPD mountain shoes and a helmet rounded out the cyclist look. I crammed everything I wasn’t wearing into a stuff sack that I kept in the Tangle bag.
What I went with worked, in the sense that I finished the event, but it left something to be desired overnight. My gear was perfect for the start of the race, and for what ended up being a really warm afternoon. No complaints for the day portion. However, what I was not prepared for was an overnight low in the 33 degree range. This was much colder than the mid-40s on the forecasts I’d been watching. MUCH. COLDER.
I had a warm cap, double socks, and my winter gloves with me, so my extremities were OK, but my windbreaker vest and arm & leg warmers were completely inadequate for the conditions. I shivered a lot overnight and was pretty miserable. As my friend Mike noted in the Twitterspace for me to see later, that part is supposed to suck.
I had taken an emergency Mylar “space” blanket with me at my wife’s insistence, and was glad I had – I used it to stay warm for a 1-hour rest stop at about 12:30am, and then I wrapped it around my neck and torso & put my vest over it before I got back on the bike. I looked a fright, I am sure, but it worked. Sunrise brought a huge feeling of relief.
I made some good choices in this area. I took Twizzler bites, cashew/almond/raisin/M&M trail mix, chocolate-covered espresso beans, and Outside magazine’s incredible homemade energy bars. Next time, a way to separate the twizzler bites, trail mix and coffee beans is needed, since you can’t tell what you’re pulling out of the feed bag and they are good separately but not always together. Aside: a cherry Twizzler bite and an espresso coffee bean eaten together taste exactly like cherry cough syrup. This is not good.
Overall I carried too much food, but I’d take less of the the same things all over again.
The energy bars were perfect. I took too many with me, and they were hard to choke down at 3am (anything would have been), but every time I was hungry they took care of me and got my spirits back up.
I did not have a training “plan” per se; I had a schedule – blocks of time worked out with my wife around the rest of our lives where I could go out for 2 to 5 hours a couple of times a week. I did some lunchtime rides during the week, a short (2-3 hour) ride after work most every Friday, and a longer (3 to 5 hour) ride every Sunday, starting in December. I share my friend Mike’s training approach: I just go out and ride my bike a lot. If I were entering these events to try to win, I’d do something differently – but this works for me.
Practicing using all the same equipment was key, as was practicing consuming convenience store pizza and then riding for 3 or 4 hours.
I did my longest “training” day on February 23rd, riding from my house to Cumming, completing the awesome CIRREM race, and then riding home again for an even 100 miles.
Leading into the race, I felt completely ready physically. I’d logged some 2,500 miles in the months after signing up for the event; not as much as some folks, but a lot, and all I could do given my other life commitments.
The race itself:
We started from downtown Grinnell at 4AM sharp. A bank sign reported 51 degrees, and it was a gorgeous early morning ride through cold river bottoms and fog. The moon was nearly full, the land was quiet, and the miles were fast.
I made the first checkpoint easily, at 7:35 AM (cutoff was 9:30 AM), and was elated at that. Not wanting to repeat a mistake from TIv7, where I dallied at the checkpoint and lost valuable time, I was in and out in just 8 minutes this time. Had a bite to eat, bought a water bottle from a vending machine, reset my cyclocomputer and stopped/started the Strava recording on my iPhone.
Then, I crashed.
I misjudged the road conditions when getting a drink and caught my wheel in loose gravel while leaning over to put the bottle back in its cage, and I had a single-rider crash about 10 miles into leg 2. It tweaked my derailleur slightly, though a cable adjustment got it working well enough for the rest of the race. I also skinned up my right side pretty well. But there was little blood and I wasn’t about to quit the race over it, so on I went.
All through the morning and early afternoon on Saturday I built my lead over the 10 MPH minimum pace, and was feeling really good until late afternoon. I ran out of water a few miles before Checkpoint 2, and I knew the next source for water was not until 20 miles after the checkpoint … stupid on my part. Another racer gave me half a bottle, which carried me through.
I made Checkpoint 2 about 6:00 PM, which felt great as cutoff would not be until 9:45 PM – I was almost 3 hours ahead of the time cutoff (which is based, loosely, on a 10 MPH pace).
I went on from there to the Casey’s in Gladbrook, which ended up being a hard place to leave. A number of racers were congregating there: a few were continuing on the route while a few were calling it quits right there … and a few more were obviously thinking about it. The sun was beginning to set, and I had 130 miles to go. One hundred and thirty is a big number, and it was cold in the waning sunlight. I began shivering uncontrollably. I put on my super-warm beanie, arm & leg warmers, and winter gloves, but was still trembling.
This was the hardest moment in the race for me. Gladbrook is only an hour’s drive from my home in Des Moines or from my mother-in-law’s home near Cedar Falls, and at that time (8 PM or so) I could have DNF’d, called for help, and been home for dinner and a hot shower before midnight. That knowledge made it really tough, but I started repeating (in my head only. I think.) some advice I had read from a past Trans Iowa finisher: “always get back on the bike.” So I did.
It still was not easy after that, but I slowly ticked off miles and was comforted/encouraged by always being well ahead of the cutoff pace. This is the opposite of my TIv7 experience, where being behind the pace exacted a huge mental toll that caused me to pull the plug on an otherwise decent day of riding.
I was beginning to get loopy, and was feeling really cold, about 12:30 AM, and decided to pull over to rest for an hour. I picked a spot with a couple of grain bins and a grain truck, wrapped myself up in my space blanket, and rested fitfully while propped up against a tractor trailer tire under the pale bluish glare of a farm light.
I had a wee bit of a scare about half an hour in when another racer popped up out of the grass where he had been resting, unbeknownst to me, about 30 feet away . He had a wee bit of a scare when he turned around and saw me. We waved and wished each other good luck and he went on his way.
After my rest, I was still incredibly cold, but the space blanket described above helped, and I knew that riding would make it better overall, even with the cold air in river bottoms. So I kept moving, and slowly I passed 70, 80, 90 miles, then had breakfast (three cheers for hot coffee!) at the Casey’s in Brooklyn. I rolled out with 60 miles to go and about 8 hours to do it; not bad.
After that there was really no question I was going to finish. The sun was out, the temperate was going up quickly, there was no wind to speak of, and it was a clear blue sky. A picture-perfect day to be on a bike, and I had enough time. The course at that point was southeast of Grinnell, and it’s really quite hilly there, so this time did not pass without effort – but I knew I would make it, and a feeling of pure satisfaction set in.
This event was the hardest thing I have ever done.
I ran a 43 mile ultramarathon in 2010; it took me 8.5 hours, I limped/walked the last few miles because I literally could no longer run, and I sat down and cried at the finish line. Running Brew to Brew was harder physically than Trans Iowa (for me; I’m the wrong size and shape for a runner). Trans Iowa, however, going overnight, was so much tougher mentally – to be honest, I don’t know how I talked myself into leaving the Gladbrook Casey’s. By most measures, I shouldn’t have. And yet I am so glad I did.
On a picture-perfect bright Sunday morning, I rolled past the southern edge of Grinnell under a warm, sunny blue sky on a Normal Rockwell gravel road with a smile on my face and a full heart. I turned up a short country lane to the finish line, to the applause of 20 people who were as good as 20,000 strong. I got a hearty handshake and “Congratulations on finishing Trans Iowa!” from Guitar Ted – and the way he said it, the earnest way he looked me right in the eye, I knew that those words were about the highest compliment he has to give a fellow cyclist.
I didn’t feel like crying; all I could do was smile.
I spent an hour chatting with other racers and support people, enjoying the weather and the company. My wife & children arrived to pick me up, we had lunch together, and I drifted off to sleep quickly in the car ride home. Tired, sore, bloodied, filthy, and (according to my kids) stinky — and happy as could be.
Next year? Don’t ask. I’m not telling.
Dan at the TIv9 finish
My #TIv9 tweets