Thursday, April 28, 2011

Trans Iowa Race Report

When the date for Trans Iowa was announced, I had known this would be a tough one for me to pull off. But that didn't mean I wasn't going to try. In the end, it turned out to be even more so than I had expected, but it was still a good trip with some nice riding.

Dammit, Illinois, stop trying to tell me what to do

Leading up to Trans Iowa, I told myself I shouldn't be taking it too seriously. Late April is always a busy time at work. And for a few weeks before it, things had been extra chaotic both at work and in life. I knew if I was going to feel good at the race I needed to do arrive fully rested and ready to go, but that did not look like it would happen. The week of Trans Iowa I had some really long hours at work, with Monday and Wednesday both being days when I left at 5am and came home wondering if I would be eating dinner before 11 pm. Factoring in the difficulty of getting to the race start before the close of registration, a little insomnia, some last minute work on Friday evening, and the 4am Saturday start time, this would mean that over the seven nights before the start of the race I had slept about 33 hours instead of the 56 I should have.

On top of this standard chaos, a heartbreaking loss of a good friend had pulled my focus. Jim had been a catalyst for change when I was just figuring out how to be a grown-up. He drowned in the Mississippi under confusing circumstances, and it took days and weeks for his friends to piece together the story. His body was lost in the swift currents and underwater hazards of New Orleans' decrepit waterfront. This has been difficult for everyone who knew him.

As we go through life, we are constantly confronted with the choice between safety and adventure. Jim chose adventure over and over, crafting one of the most interesting and storied lives of anyone I've ever known. He never stopped being curious, never stopped being enthusiastic, and never stopped being bold. He was an example of just how exciting life can be if we take some risks.

His memorial service was at Coney Island in New York on the Saturday of Trans Iowa weekend. I decided I couldn't cancel out of the race, and he wouldn't have wanted me to anyway. So here I was, driving westward towards adventure through a pouring rain.

The river that killed my friend, fuck you Mississippi, running gray and fast and drowning its banks with all the rains

I had expected to have a driving companion for the race, but he had suddenly canceled out on me the day before. I was kind of bummed and a little stressed out by the last minute change, but nothing to be done. It would be nice to have some support at a race like this, but since I was already committed to going, I would figure out the rest as I went along.

Somehow, the night before the race I still had about six last minute pre-race tasks I had been too busy to do all week. At 11pm I had just un-bolted and re-installed my saddle, measuring tape and carpenter's level in hand. I still hadn't tried on the brand-new 2011 Team kit I was planning on wearing the next day. And I admitted to myself that there was almost no chance I was going to do well at this thing.

These are not intended to be excuses, even if it might sound like they are. Life is all about trade-offs. My challenging day job is also really interesting and fulfilling. I wouldn't change it. I like living a complicated, passionate, multifaceted, hyperactive life, even if sometimes all that beautiful complexity erodes down into a lonely, greasy-fingered sleep-deprived freakout in an Iowa Super 8.

So I rolled up to the back of the start line pretty casually, but still packed for the long haul. I thought there was a chance I would suddenly feel better and be able to ride through to the end, if every single thing happened right for me all day. But I also knew there was a pretty good chance I would be dropping out at the second checkpoint, at 170 miles into the race. Within the first hour of the race, I knew I wasn't going to finish. If it had been a 100 mile race, even a 200 mile race, I would have been fine. But I know my body well enough to know I would not be okay for 300-something miles.

While it was still pitch dark, the racers turned off the decent-if-wet gravel and onto an unmaintained road that was thick mud. The mud stuck to the wheels and quickly packed into the fork and rear triangle. It was not as bad as the mud at Dirt Sweat and Gears 2009, but it was still bad enough to necessitate moving to the ditch to the side of the road. If it had been light, it might have been possible to ride in the ditch, but as it was still pitch black night, it was too dangerous to navigate the bumps and holes. It was almost too difficult on foot. Looking ahead, I could see the line of red blinky lights staggering up and down the steep little hills as people made their way.

After less than a mile, our muddy B-Road route crossed a paved road before continuing into the darkness. A dude with a video camera and an SUV was there, catching riders as they regrouped. I think he was trying to bait people into giving him good soundbites, wanting us to freak out on how hard it was. He filmed me digging mud out of my brakes, while asking me if I have ever seeeeeeeen anything like this? I am positive I will not be in his video as my comments were pretty much, yeah, I have, actually. I've raced in worse mud for much longer at DSG09, I've raced with much less course info and far worse weather, and I did a Pisgah Productions race that ran 36 hours and started at midnight. So far today, I'm not lost, it's well above freezing, the sun's coming up in half an hour, and nothing's broken on my body or bike, so actually, this is going pretty well for me and no big deal! Yay! I was definitely not stressed out enough to make good "epic shit" video. Sorry video dude. I started back onto the next part of muddy B-Road.

Then a mess of white headlights appeared over the next rise of the road, encountering the advancing red blinkies with some shouting. It was everyone. I watched the red blinkies turn into white headlights as the people in front of me turned around. The leaders had apparently made a wrong decision and the muddy B-Road we were on was wrong. Almost the entire field was back together, as the race leaders made a decision to turn onto the pavement and detour to rejoin the route.

Eventually the sun came out. It was clear that we had lost some time to the B-Road, who knows how much, and that getting to the first checkpoint before the time cutoff might be a bit of a challenge depending on how much time these bonus miles took. The question was whether to hammer hammer to get to the first checkpoint, or to just chill out and enjoy the ride. I already knew I wasn't going to finish the entire race but still kind of wanted to get to the second checkpoint at 170 miles. I was torn. Since I didn't have a support person to pick me up when I dropped out, I would have to ride back from wherever on the course I dropped out.

What you can't tell from this photo is that there was an insane headwind/crosswind as soon as the sun came up. It was so windy I could barely take a hand off the bar to get something to eat or drink. It was so windy I could barely think.

Suddenly it occurred to me that if I dropped out at the first checkpoint, I could be sitting at my parents' kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal before the sun went down. I could drop out, get back to my car, pack up, drive to Madison, get in some good riding tomorrow in the Wisconsin countryside, and hang out for a day before I had to be back to work. On this realization, my pace slowed. I decided I would make the rest of the ride as fun as possible and then drop at the first checkpoint.

And I did make it fun. I broke out the delicious special treat food I had been saving for the nighttime, and snarfed it right down. I chatted with people when the wind wasn't too strong for us to talk. I sang when I ended up riding alone. I took a couple photos.

The gravel in Iowa is so well-maintained. There are no big rocks or exposed bedrock or surprise ruts or giant holes or anything- none of the stuff we are so used to on gravel roads in the mountains. Plus the hills are so small in Iowa that there are no moments when you are behind the saddle, in the drops, death-gripping the brake levers, wondering why the hell you are on a cyclocross bike instead of a nice mountain bike with hydraulic brakes and front suspension. Hands off the brakes and just let it go here, carry the momentum halfway up the next little hill.

Also, Iowa's loose dogs sat politely on the porches and watched us ride by, instead of running after us with teeth flashing. I love the Midwest.

As I rolled into the little town of Baxter with a couple other folks, we had just missed the time cut off. I contemplated pulling a practical joke on the volunteers, acting super pissed-off about the rule, and demanding to be allowed to continue, and getting in their face telling them I had come too far to drop out so early. But really I couldn't have kept a straight face long enough to actually fool anyone. It was sweet to know that I would be able to salvage a decent fun weekend instead of destroying myself getting to checkpoint 2 and then dropping out in the middle of the night, alone, tired, hungry, and somewhere lost in the middle of Iowa.

There was a fairly good crowd of people hanging out at the checkpoint who had dropped out of the race for various reasons. The sooner I got started on driving to Madison the better so I wasn't really looking forward to riding back along the highway, even though I had no reason not to go back by my own power. Anyway, I was super lucky to get to hitch a ride back with some Minnesotans while my bike got to hitch a ride back with the Lincoln Nebraska crew.

I got back and retrieved my bike. I had cleared the mud from it a few times but only enough to keep it rolling and to remove some of the largest chunks because they were extra weight. The rest of the mud was still intact, and the wind and sun had dried it into cement. It took 20 minutes of chipping mud away with a stick, then using the landscapers' hose at the Country Inn, then more chipping, then more hosing, before I could get the front canti to release enough to get the front wheel off.

During the cleaning. I found a dead worm and a couple rather large rocks embedded in the mud around the fork.


The fancy logo looks best when almost indiscernable under a layer of mud.

Planet Bike Superflash and Team Twin Six patch on the back of the seat bag. I had to spend a couple minutes scraping the mud off the on-off button on the light before I could get it to shut off.

Cobra Verde. This is the final setup I went with: water in a partial frame bag, food in Mountain Feedbags, repair and other gear in the CDW seatbag.

The bike was fantastic. The Cielo Cross is built with a great old-school-road-geometry style that is perfect for an event like this. I was super happy to have road tubeless wheels too, Stan's NoTubes Alpha Road rim laced to Chris King Classic Cross hubs. Because this let me set up tubeless, I could use faster rolling narrower tires (34 mm Small Block 8s), but be able to run a lower tire pressure for better traction and vibration damping without worrying about flatting. I brought tubes and air, of course, but it was cool to start the race thinking I had a good chance of not having to stop for a flat before the end. Thanks to Bike29 for building these wheels.

I packed up my stuff and drove out of Grinnell, calling my parents on the way. As my dad is going in for major surgery next week I was pretty happy to have a chance to visit them right now anyway, even if it was totally unplanned. The next morning I got up and headed out for a nice 60-mile pavement-and-gravel loop. I realized that people were still racing in Trans Iowa while I had left the race, driven to another state, cleaned my bike twice, showered, ate a big dinner, watched a fairly long movie with my parents, slept decently, woken up, drank a pot of coffee, and gone out on another ride.

Up on the secret hillside gravel. My family used to own this land, which is now a State Natural Area, but I've been riding up here since before the no-bikes rule so I decide to ignore it. I covered over the fancy logo paint so the frame bag wouldn't scratch it up during the race. I still hadn't removed the electrical tape the next day. Note also the creative double Awesome Strap deployment on the seatpost.

Somewhere out there in Southern Wisconsin. I actually got lost out here, despite the fact that I have ridden most of this part of the county. I'd finally gotten a night of sleep but I was still deep in sleep deficit, with no map and no cellphone. Eventually I found my way home, before it even got dark or started raining.

Note: somehow blogspot ate the last paragraphs of this post while I tried to publish. I will either add them in here tomorrow as an edit, or write more tomorrow for a Team Dicky-style miniseries.


  1. Emily,

    I give you credit for even starting. That was a TOUGH week physically and mentally. I can't imagine even doing an XC race after all that let alone, 300+ miles. Get some sleep, regroup, and focus on the next big race.


  2. Props for making the best of it Emily. The loss of your friend aside, thanks for the laughs.

  3. I second what Jason said. I know first hand how much being sleep deprived sucks, and I think it's awesome that you went and made the most of it. Glad that you are getting some good rides in the land of cheese :-)

  4. You made some good choices in the face of uncertainty and last minute changes. Seeing family afterwards was a good decision which should soothe the soul. Sorry about losing your friend.

  5. I need to take pointers from you. You always manage to make the most out of less than optimal situations. See you at PMBAR, where the trail fairies will be with you for great times in The Forest.