Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Trans Iowa V13 experience

Ok, so my Trans Iowa blog is a bit delayed behind some of the others, but nonetheless here it is! If you're not familiar with Trans Iowa or only have a vague idea of exactly what it is, i suggest heading over to Guitar Teds website and reading up a bit on it as it's a pretty interesting event put on by an interesting dude (Trans Iowa V13 website). I won't go into the gritty details of how Trans Iowa came to be, the history and whatnot but rather my point of view on the whole deal. I first stumbled across Trans Iowa on the internets many moons ago, and at the time the event had just been wrapped up for that year and it was tentative as to whether it would take place again, or at least so it seemed. A bookmark was created on my work computer under a vague tab labeled "bike stuff" and forgotten about as the summer of that year took over as well as favor towards my mountain bike. Flash forward to early spring of the next year and an email from one of my sponsors, Velocity USA, asking if i were interested in doing an event called Dirty Kanza as they had a free sponsor entry. Wasn't really sure what it was at the time other than a super long version of Barry Roubaix in Kansas. Went to Emporia that year (2015) and raced in some pretty rad conditions battling mud and rain. I'd say this is about the time i came to understand my capacity to enjoy the adversity in long, wet, muddy and rad events. Flash forward about a year after that experience, another Dirty Kanza and many gravel miles later to the winter of 2016/17. Surfing the interwebs at work i elected to dig through that "bike stuff" tab to see what other events i had either came across or heard of and saved for a later date when i came across that dusty Trans Iowa bookmark.

Weapon of choice

A cup of coffee or two and some mouse clicks later i decided it was time to fill out a postcard and follow the rookie procedure for trying to score a spot in Trans Iowa V13. There is a proper procedure in place for throwing your hat into the ring for Trans Iowa, and i would suggest if you want to do it (assuming it still exists) then you read them thoroughly and do it the right way. I dug a file folder made from card stock out of my desk, carefully measured the standard dimensions for a postcard onto it and as legibly as possible wrote down the required information, nothing more nothing less, and sent it via postal courier to Guitar Ted's attention. There's a lull in the time that you mail the postcard to the actual time that you find out if you've been selected (naturally) and true to his words on the post card lottery date names begin to show up in the roster. Clicking on that link that directs you to the participant list and scrolling down is something i'd compare to scoring an entry into one of those events that sells out in 2.5 milliseconds. Low and behold, there was my name hidden somewhere at random in the list of those chosen to undertake Trans Iowa V13. It was at that point that it truly sunk in that i was now obligated to ride my bike, regardless of conditions, approximately 330 miles on gravel roads in Iowa at the end of April 2017. No big deal right?

Bike preparations

Days turn to weeks turn to months during a mid-western winter. Fatbike racing demands my attention up until early March whence i can finally turn my efforts towards riding bikes on unpaved roads. Lots of things were going on this spring; preparing to "retire" from work, starting the Michigan Gravel Racing Series, and planning/preparing for our adventures to come over the next years time. During all of this in the back of my head i keep thinking "man, you better sort out what you're doing for Trans Iowa, seriously though...". I would say that my preparation for Trans Iowa may have been a bit unorthodox, but i suppose in the end it all worked out. I did spend some good time slaying grav grav in March, but at the start of our time off, Jenny and I headed south towards warmer climes and left the gravel bikes behind in favor or road and mountain biking in Appalachia. My original plan was to ride a Salsa Cutthroat that i built up for ultra-endurance events over the winter, complete with dynamo hub, K-lite bikepacking lights, USB charging, huge gearing range, and bomber components. Well, i only actually rode about 300 miles total on that bike up the the last week before the race and wasn't really dialed in to ride 330+ miles in Iowa. For once in my life, i used some of those thinks and thoughts from previous events and decided to stick with my tried and tested Salsa Warbird. This meant i'd have to run battery powered lights, carry USB chargers for my Garmin and phone and sort out a good setup to keep me comfy for 24+ hours on the bike.

A smattering of grub 

With mere days to spare i got the Warbeard all kitted out with aero bars i stole from my time trial rig, a smattering of Niterider lights, and battery packs duct taped and zip tied to random parts of my bike. It seemed my setup was all tuned in and then i looked at the weather forecast. Rain, rain, wind, rain, cold, and maybe some more wind for good measure. Hopeful thinking didn't do any good in this situation. Thrown for a bit of a loop i strapped a half-frame pack onto my bike to carry extra provisions and grabbed a bigger camlebak setup to toss more supplies into the night we were leaving town to make our voyage westward. Things were shaping up in an ominous way, don't get me wrong, i love adverse conditions, but the full stack up of the cold, rain and wind for 24+ hours was harshing my stoke level a fair amount. As we rolled into Grinnell, Iowa amidst the rolling hills, endless gray skies and tree bending wind the only thing left to do was shrug it off, and hatch a plan for survival. As competitive a person as i can be, with what was laid out before me i took a full on survival approach as opposed to assessing every gram i was carrying. I commandeered Jenny's small backpack from the car, stuff it with actual rain pants, jacket, two pairs of gloves, socks, and layers. My frame pack became engorged with calorie full morsels, repair items, hats, batteries, you name it. The last thing i wanted was to have to DNF because i didn't have what i needed, and i sure as hell wasn't going to skimp.


The pre-race Meat-up at the Grinnell Steakhouse was abuzz with talk of the conditions, strategies, gear selection and how to survive. There weren't many familiar faces there other than Salsa teammate Greg Gleason, whom i had never actually met in person, Ben Mullin and a few others. We sat down at a table with a group of riders including Walter Zitz whom i didn't know at the time i would literally ride the entire event with. As we finished our meals attentions were turned towards the actual meeting where knowledge would be dropped upon us on how things would go down the next day. Jenny and I both took note of critical times (4AM start), locations and race information then made our way back to the hotel for final preparations. Not much sleep was had that night between the 11 pm bed time and 2:30 am wake-up. Forcing the body to accept food in the middle of the night isn't the most fun thing one can do, but necessary. Rolling back into town in the pitch black night, blinking red lights of fellow riders could be seen all along the way, and re-assured me that we were all in this together. Standing around the start line, exchanging greetings, and making final adjustments the tension can be felt almost as palpable as the cool wind blowing through the streets. Jokes are made, a Subaru wagon is backed up and before we know it the sounds of SPD pedals engaging with shoes fill the small town and we're off. Small cycling lights are all we have to venture forth into the night. I'm thankful the rain has yet to start and riding in a pack is a possibility. Slowly and surely the group of riders dwindles as folks settle into their respective paces in alignment with their goals. I look around me, making salutations with riders whom i am not familiar. These are my people, these are the ones i will need to work with for the unforeseeable future, these are the ones i'll need to boost my spirit when it is failing.

Toeing the line

The first few hours pass rapidly and as the sun rises there are few of us remaining together in the front group after the first minimum maintenance hike. Despite the small grouping, i'm pleased with who i see surrounding me; Greg Gleason, Dan Hughes, Walter Zitz and Jackson Hinde. I figure myself most fortunate to be surrounded by riders of such pedigree and it helps to ease any anxiety i have over the journey ahead. The hours pedaling distill ones thoughts to the immediate and necessary only. Time to eat, have a snack. It's been 3 hours, should have a couple bottles down by now. Chain is grinding a bit, lube at the next opportunity. Navigation by cue sheet is aided with the daylight and lack of precipitation. My custom cue sheet holder with sliding ziplock bag is doing the trick. It's an exciting moment each time a cue sheet is discarded to the bottom of the pile. Event more exciting is passing through checkpoint one and being allowed to advance along the route. As the hills continue to roll i can't help but begin to feel the full weight of my pack and bike being pulled upon by gravity. My power meter has long since gone haywire so heart rate is what I've got to track effort. Dan Hughes is running a particularly svelte setup and it becomes a topic of conversation between myself and others. What's his plan for when the rain comes? What's he going to do when the night falls and all hope is lost (ok, exaggerating a wee bit there)? For the time being, his setup is paying off, Dan is spry up the hills and steady in the flats, pushing forward like a diesel engine in the freshly spread rock and dirt. I begin to feel the brunt of the pace as has Jackson, and we joke about our drifting backwards from the group to ease the struggle. Now, we have a sixth member in our group, the rain.

Resupply candid shot

As the rain comes crashing to the earth from the sky we all begin adjusting our barriers to keep us safe from its menace. The groups cohesion is tenuous at this point with a few of us dangling on the precipice. I've come to terms that the pace is too much for me, and if they go, they go. The rain increases in intensity and we begin to face the full wrath of a hefty cross wind. I know i can't wait much longer before i put on my rain pants or it'll be curtains for me. Jackson and I have an unspoken alliance at this point as we're riding in the back of the bus, and as i look ahead i notice Walter slow to a stop. The first flat tire in our group has reared it's ugly head in the midst of heavy rain. Walter tells us to keep rolling, but this is a great opportunity to don those rain pants and have a snack. The alliance has grown 3 strong. Rolling once again, our terrific trio pushes forth against the elements towards that storied checkpoint 2 at 190 some odd miles. Heads are down and miles are ground out with a steady efficiency. A point comes where Jackson must bid us adieu as our paces differ too greatly and we wish him the best on his journey. Pedaling onward Walter and i take note of increasing evidence of civilization and a perceived pep in our step has us pressing onward rapidly down a bike path and into the warm hearth of a Casey's General Store. Not long after our arrival and Jackson is with us once again. Gloves changed, hands dried, food consumed and chains lubed.

Respite from the rain

For the sake of monotony i'll just say that we continued our regularly schedule program until checkpoint 2. Walter and i together and Jackson not far behind. There is no prior knowledge as to when or where a "re-supply" stop will be so it's always a pleasant surprise to find respite from the rain. Arriving at checkpoint 2 we are excited to find a tavern whereupon we may find solace in pizza and beverages. Rolling up we're surprised to see Greg's steed in the bike rack and him inside. In my head at this point i considered it a feat to make it this far and felt unsure about my future. Greg was in good spirits, in his element gritting it out and pursuing Dan whom was somewhere in Iowa solo. Seeing Greg renewed my spirits to push on, and Walter and i elected to dry off the best we could and carry on. Jackson rolled in with some stomach issues but in good spirits. He calmly asked if we were planning to press on and we solemnly acknowledged this to be the case. Heading out the door of that warm and inviting place was no easy feat. The rain continued to fall as did the nighttime. Only 140 miles to go, over halfway, we can do this. I still had my doubts. Another town, another convenience store, another pair of latex gloves, more caffeine and another rendezvous with Jackson. I continued to be impressed and humbled by Jackson's fortitude as he pushed on behind us solo. Now we battled the headwind and would continue to do so to the not-so-bitter end. Taking turns pulling or drafting was fruitless with the sloppy roads. Everything became wet and filthy at the same time. With the increasing darkness came decreasing temperatures.

Somewhere in Iowa on a minimum maintenance road at 2 am with tiny snow flakes flitting about i came to know more about Walter. We talked to pass the time as we carried out rigs in ankle deep mud, musing about the situation but generally trying to advance ourselves along the course. As the night continued to smother my will i found myself wondering if what we were doing was safe. Perhaps i wanted a reason to quit, and perhaps it was because i could use a zipper. Whatever the reason i told Walter i needed to stop, eat and adjust clothing. On the lee side of a pole building i fumbled with everything, shoving food into my face and wanting to stop. As we rode on i even began plotting a way out of the misery, looking for signs of a town, somewhere, anywhere to find solace. None was to be had, and it was surely my darkest moment of the ride. I made my intentions clear to Walter who simply replied "well.... let's just keep going". And we did keep going, turn after turn, cue-sheet after cue-sheet. 100 miles to go, then 90 miles to go, now we were in double digits which are more comprehensible than triple digits at that point. Finally, it seemed we were destined for civilization of some sort, but every time it neared us we were steered wide and clear by the route laid forth. Is that someone coming up behind us? Looks like a bike light, hard to tell though? "Hey guys!" It was Jackson, incredible! "did you guys see that snow?". "yeah, we sure did". "Man it was cold last night, how are you guys doing?". "eh, we're doing alright, it's good to see you man". As the sun came up the way it always does we found ourselves at a 24 hour Walmart. The rain was letting up a bit and a consult with someone's weather app revealed that we might actually catch a break. The wind however had no interest in abating. Jackson called into the hotline on our behalf, reporting our intentions to finish and carry on. I think it took all the way to this moment to realize that we might actually finish this thing.

The last 60 miles were hell, pure and simple. I don't really know how Dan did it all night and the next day by himself and the same goes for Greg. I would guess it has something to do with the simple desire to not get caught and to catch the other. Doesn't really matter though, those guys did it, and it was damn impressive. As for us three, we stayed solidified as one, no man would be left behind and we would finish the damn thing together. Much time was spent travelling at speed of 5 miles per hour or less in relentless hills, wind and soft gravel. It didn't matter though, we weren't to be thwarted. Despite each 8 mile section taking roughly an hour we found ourselves at the finish line roughly around noon as far as i can recall. Walter had no brakes so we sent him up the middle and matched our speed to his. I was happy to finish, happy to have those two with me and happy to get my ass off the saddle. Coherence was minimal at this point, 32 hours of Iowa had happened to us and the mission was to get warm and sleep. Someone told us there was a guy out there on a single speed that had a chance of finishing. I would have liked to greet him at the finish but the van beckoned me to rest.

The Terrific Trio; Myself, Walter and Jackson

Team Salsa; Greg Gleason and myself

There are differing opinions on Trans Iowa. Some folks like to offer ideas for what to change, what Guitar Ted should or shouldn't do, and various other inputs. Mark, if you're reading this, don't change a thing you don't want to and know that i'm truly appreciative of the event and experience you've put so much hard work into. The volunteers and first rate, some really good folks that take their time they could spend elsewhere and chose to be involved in such a unique undertaking. I count myself fortunate to have been able to just finish the event and it has expanded my capacity for enduring adversity. My wife is a critical part of the success of this journey, from driving my broken body home to just simply loving and believing in me. Without good equipment and support from the likes of Salsa Cycles, Velocity USA, Train out Pain, Sound Probiotics, Betalain, Wolftooth Components, Grand Rapids Bicycle Company, and 45NRTH (wore my Japanthers!) such an undertaking would be much more difficult if not impossible for myself. To all the folks who toed the line but didn't finish, much respect to you for simply just being there and giving it what you had. It's an experience i won't soon forget.

Here's my Strava for the ride

 The only reason my feet didn't fall off

No water in that pack either

The clothing that got me through

 The clothing that got me through part 2

Destroyed Warbeard

Big thanks to Joe at the East Paris GRBC for resurrecting the Warbeard

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