No published route. No idea where or what resupply options would be. No way to plan for what lies ahead. Sounds like a perfect recipe for a type-A planner like me. This is TransIowa and its suffering will be my redemption.
345 Miles - 20K Climbing - 33 Hours - 194W NP - 1205 TSS - 17846 Calories - 23F Low Temp
For those not aware of this cycling ultra, it is the brainchild of Mark Stevenson (AKA Guitar Ted) hatched fourteen years ago in the rural farmland of Iowa. The quirks of this race start at registration which has an extremely limited field to maintain its grassroots feel. As a rookie, you have to send Mark a postcard with very prescriptive text within a narrow date range to enter the lottery. Then you sit and hope that your name is drawn. Luckily my number was pulled this year.
This isn't where the particularities end. The race starts at 4am which means most people do not sleep much the night before. There is no GPX file to load on your Garmin and the course must be navigated entirely by cue sheets. Oh....and you only get the first set of cues at the start and subsequent sets at each of two additional checkpoints. Those checkpoints (and the finish) also have pretty aggressive cut-off times. Of course this is a self-supported race and you can only resupply at commercially available stops on route.
There are a few hints that Mark dropped to give us a bit of a clue what we were getting into. The route would be 345 miles. There would be four convenience stores on route the last of which would be 100 miles from the finish. The checkpoints would not have an opportunity for resupply. I did some back of the napkin math and that came out to about 60ish miles on average between stops.
The weather has also been a bit of a factor in past races. This time of year in Iowa can be pretty unpredictable with the possibility of wet and cold weather. TransIowa v11 had zero finishers and only Greg Gleason made it to the first checkpoint. Regardless of the weather conditions, this is a race that has a pretty extreme attrition rate which made it very attractive to me. Luckily a few weeks out the weather forecast was looking pretty damn good. Lows in the upper-30s and highs near 70. Mark dropped some knowledge a few days prior to the start that this may not work in our favor as road crews were taking the opportunity to drop fresh gravel and grade as well as farmers making a rush to get heavy equipment into fields to start turning over the earth. This would mean thick gravel, loose roads, never-ending dust, and lots of traffic.
My plan this year was to make it a 100% gravel racing schedule due to the shorter event length and relatively easier logistics as I am transitioning into a leadership role at Cisco and we are going through a pretty major remodel at home. Even still, I was planning on taking about five days for TransIowa inclusive of travel. I headed up to Kansas City the Thursday before to break the drive up and spend a little time with my brother, SIL & nephew which was an awesome decision. My brother and I fooled around with bikes for a while and went for an easy spin around the neighborhood.
After a great night's sleep, I jammed the relatively short drive to Grinnell out on Friday morning getting in town right at 11am. I stopped in at Saints Rest Cafe to grab an espresso and a snack before heading out for a quick ride to shake the legs out. Holy shit.....it was freaking windy. The breezes had to be around 30mph with gusts to 40. This made the ride up north into Jasper county a little longer than planned but I got to see the worst of what Iowa headwinds could feel like. It also made some quick L5 intervals really easy.
When I rolled back into town I saw a few others milling around the sidewalk that looked like they must have been cyclists. One of them asked if I was Jason and it turned out to be Ken Theis, whom I had met on the Facebooks looking for someone to support me in the race in the event I needed to be bailed out. Ken had come up to Grinnell with his friend Derek and he was happy to support in exchange for the keys to my car for the weekend. I changed back into street clothes and went back to the coffee shop to grab a bite to eat with Ken & Derek as well as Derek's wife and two kids. We talked normal bike adventure stuff, swapping war stories and experiences. It is amazing how relatable we all become once you have done just one big gravel or bikepacking race. Instant camaraderie.
I drove over to the Best Western just south of town to check in and unload my gear. I sorted through a few things, laid out my clothes for the morning, and took a little nap. At 4pm I walked over to the Grinnell Steakhouse across the parking lot to check-in and hang out for a bit. I talked to Mark Stevenson and Greg Gleason for a bit before heading back to the hotel to finish organizing for the morning. I brought dinner of sweet potato enchiladas with me from Jackson for a couple of reasons. Number one....I haven't eaten meat since last June and I sort of figured my options would be pretty limited at a steakhouse and secondly, I really like to eat something that I made and know will settle well with my stomach the night before a big race. Eric Brunt's experience this year was good validation. Know what you are putting in your body.
I headed back to the steakhouse around 6:45 where everyone was sitting around talking after dinner and I felt a little out of place not really knowing anyone. I just sort of walked around aimlessly until folks started filing into a back room where the pre-race meeting was taking place. Mark Stevenson talked a bit about the history of TransIowa and gave us some course and saftey briefings spending a lot of time talking about the volume of agriculture equipment that will be on the roads. Some of the large tractors and planters can be as wide as the road so it was going to be very important to stay aware. The coolest part of the meeting was when Mark handed out number plates. He called each and every person up to the front to grab their bib and shake their hands. The audience clapped for everyone and there was some hooting and hollering for legends of the race. This was a pretty damned cool experience that you could old have in a race with such a limited field. My name was pretty close to the end and I quietly rolled out and headed back to the hotel.
Set out breakfast. Set three alarms for 2am. Asleep by 9pm. Although I get pretty anxious for races like this I typically never have a problem sleeping.
Ring ring ring. Buzz buzz buzz. Up and at em. Make a cup of coffee. Eat a big bag of oatmeal (recipe here). One more cup of coffee. Shower. Get dressed and pack up the car. One of my favorite parts of long format and multi-day races is where you sort of "cut the cord" from all of your comfortable, worldly possessions. TransIowa was only going to be about a day and a half at the max so not that big of a deal but I vividly remember putting my bike box with all of the creature comforts of home out for post in Tuscon last year before rolling out with just my bike and the clothes on my back for the next (what would be) eight days on the AZT. It is a very liberating feeling.
I drove down the street to the Comfort Inn where Ken was staying to pick him up. I walked inside and the lobby of the hotel was buzzing with other riders. It is always really cool to check out everyone else's rigs and what they are or are not packing with them. Some looked like they were going for a day ride and others had packed for all of their fears. Experience and goals show up on your bike at these types of events.
After driving the short couple of minutes to downtown Grinnell riders started to congregate in the street milling around, lots of nervous energy. Very soon Mark and some of his volunteers showed up and started the process of checking people in and handing out cue sheets to get us to the first checkpoint. Evidently in years past Mark would hand out cues the night before at the pre-race meeting but evidently it was reported that more than a few riders took those directions and created a GPS route to load on their Garmin which sort of defeated the intention to rely on manual navigation.
Promptly at 4am Mark piloted his pickup truck down the street leading the riders out onto course. The pace was pretty chill until Mark pulled off the road about a mile in and the speed started to ramp up. My goal was to stay with the lead group as long as possible without pushing too hard into the red. I hung onto the back of the lead group for about the first 15 miles before deciding that it was just too much effort too early. There was no reason to burn those matches that early what would end up being a long ride. My goal for this race was, first and foremost, just to finish. Regardless of how nice the conditions were on this chilly April morning, TransIowa is a game of attrition. In past editions, there is typically well under a 20% finish rate. There have been a few years where there were zero finishers due to insane conditions.
Around 6am the first sunrise started to light up the eastern horizon while I was still pushing pretty hard with frozen fingers and toes. This first morning had forecasts just below freezing which I anticipated and planned to get a little frigid. Right around 3 hours into the race we were rolling into the first of two checkpoints in the small town of Hartwick. As I was coming up on a little picnic shelter I saw someone I had recognized heading back towards me. Dan Hughes, the previous year's winner who swore he'd never do this race again, was coming back the other way? What was up with that? I'd later find out that he was up at the front of the pack with Greg Gleason and others pushing a hard pace and decided that he would wait for another friend a the checkpoint to ride the rest of the route at a more casual pace this year.
I checked in with the volunteers and grabbed my next set of cue sheets. Immediately flipping to the last page to see what the mileage to the next checkpoint would be. 146 miles....let's do this! I secured the cues onto my little BarYak clipboard, changed gloves to a bit of a warmer configuration, ate a bite to eat, and hit the road. It shouldn't be too far to the first gas station.
The next 20 or so miles were pretty easy rolling a few hills into the town of Brooklyn where many a Beastie Boy jokes were cracked as lycra-clad cyclists took over the first of many rural gas stations stocking up on water, Gatorade, and snacks. I really cannot even remember what I picked up at this first stop but I focused on making it pretty quick. We likely only had a maximum of about 60 or so miles before we hit the next services on route and I was doing pretty good on food. Topped up the bottles with liquid sugar and hit the road rolling out with a few other riders.
I bounced between a few groups on this next section not really finding the ability to get into a groove. Too fast, too slow, a little sketchy, not able to feed well in a paceline on the bouncy mid-west gravel. It was a little frustrating but I just rolled my own pace. The intensity of the constantly rolling Iowa hills started to set into reality on this section. Up, down, up, down. Very few flat sections. A week or so before the race I was starting to think that maybe I should have picked up a slightly smaller chainring than the 48T that I had become accustomed to riding. I have taken this setup with a 42-10 cassette so many places coast to coast and had never really had a problem. I had also never ridden 345 miles on the gearing and my knees were starting to remind me of that on every big hill that I ground out.
Around 2pm we rolled into North English which gave us the second resupply stop of the day. At this point, I had been on the bike just at 10 hours, pedaled about 130 miles, and I was right on my expected pace. I took a little longer at this stop getting some real food in the form of potato wedges and downed an ice cold Coke while I talked to a few other riders. I ate a bag of chips and a coconut water, reloaded my bottles, and headed back onto the road. The really cool thing about these rural Iowa roads was that you rarely had to ride on pavement for more than a mile coming into and exiting these tiny little towns. Gravel is a way of life in these parts.
Coming out of each of these towns I felt a little bloated with food and drink but it was a technique I remember nailing a few years ago at Stagecoach in Southern California. There is no way you can replace the calories you burn on the bike so your option is really to gorge a little at stops and then soft pedal for around 30 minutes or so letting your food digest in an attempt to replenish some of the nutrients are you burning through so quickly. Just as I was starting to get into a groove about 30 miles past the last stop I saw a water tower in the distance. No, no, no......way too early for the second to last gas station on route.
Sure enough, the third stop was in a tiny little town called Kalona. I was not terribly hungry but I knew I needed to eat a bit and load up on a slightly heavier food load based on my mileage math telling me that there were going to be about 80-90 miles between here and the last resupply option. Somewhere between here and that last resupply would also be the last checkpoint we had to make before 11pm meaning I had 6 hours to get there. Looking at the cue sheets I only had about 50 miles to get to that checkpoint. This shouldn't be a problem given the pacing so far. When you are doing these long rides you tend to keep yourself pretty busy with mental math calculating average speeds, distances to certain waypoints, and given the cue sheet navigation in TransIowa.....distances to the next turn.
The next segment out of Kalona my stomach was a little sour after stuffing it with more food and quite frankly I was getting a bit bored of the monotony of the day. Same gravel roads, chicken/pig farms, and stubbled corn fields.....over and over and over again. This got me into a bit of a low spot but what really helped me through it was to look forward to nightfall which was just a few hours away.
While cruising down a road passing by a couple of small farmhouses a female yellow lab sort of snuck up on me running down the skirt of the road. She had a collar and tags so I knew she couldn't be too far from home. She wasn't just chasing me off of her property like a lot of country dogs do but she was running with me and having a really good time doing it! I would gap her on the downhills and she would catch me on the up hills....for MILES. This dog ran with me for what had to be 5 or 6 miles. It made me think about my German Shepherd, Roxie and how I thought she could never run on gravel for that long. This really lifted my spirits out of the monotony of the Iowa hills.
Just as the sun was starting to set over my left shoulder, I came upon a bit of a puzzling bit of navigation on the cue sheets. Something about being on 120th street and then needing to bear right on 120th street before making a left turn on 120th street. I sat at an intersection of 120th street where there was a left turn but I didn't remember the part where I was supposed to bear right first. I remember a couple of people telling me that if you get to an intersection where you are unsure do not just wing it and make a good guess. You need to STOP and verify your route or else you can get pretty turned around trying to backtrack and find the route. It turned out that there were a couple of other riders that made the mistake at this intersection, took the incorrect turn, didn't get back on route correctly, and were DQ'd. Given the cue navigation was what I was the most anxious about on this ride I was pretty proud I got myself through this tricky turn.
Night fell and my legs came alive. I was so looking forward to riding at night in order to have a bit of a change of scenery. The miles clicked by but the hills did not get any easier grinding out the tops of every crest with my knees starting to ache more and more. Right at 9:30 I rolled into the tiny little town of Webster which would be the second checkpoint of the race getting our last set of cue sheets to the finish. There were a number of volunteers there to check us in and help us unload trash and get back out on the road. It was starting to get a little chilly so I bundled up with leg warmers and my rain jacket. I also threw some grocery bags between my socks and shoes as a wind barrier in an attempt to keep my toes warm. Given the temps at the start and the forecast, I knew it was going to be a cold ride overnight into the next day. I filled up my water bottles and gave Wendi a call to chat for a few minutes before she tucked down for bed. It was a great lift to hear her voice. There were a number of riders that had made it to this checkpoint in time but were pulling out for one reason or another. I couldn't imagine getting this far and dropping but if you were battling a painful knee or were just not feeling it, this was most definitely the safe place to pull the plug. As I rolled out of the Webster checkpoint I thought I might want to give Ken a call letting him know I was riding strong and that I had made the cut-off.....should be no need for a bailout tonight, bro. Sleep well!
Based on Mark telling us that the last gas station (which was open 24 hours) was 100 miles from the finish, the back of the napkin calculation said I had about 35-40 miles to hit that point. No problemo....that will probably take me about 3 hours putting me there around 1am. This did not happen as planned. The temperatures dipped into the low-20s in the wee hours of the morning absolutely freezing my fingers and toes. I can handle the latter getting cold but my fingers were cold to the point of not working very well. Braking and shifting were becoming difficult. Sketchy gravel descents with bunk hands was a little nerve-wracking. I spent a lot of time stopping to try to warm up the hands and get some feeling back in them which slowed my pace considerably. Sleep monsters were starting to set in being close to 24 hours in the saddle at this point compounding the pacing problem. Finally, after about 5.5 hours of a death march, I rolled into the town of Montezuma. It was pretty metropolitan compared to the other smaller towns we had come through and the 24-hour Casey's was a sight to behold. A group of riders that left the checkpoint just before I did were rolling out when I pulled in. It was nice to see that our pacing was not that far off given my challenges.
I was really hungry at this point and was getting tired of snack food. The first thing I did was to grab two slices of cheese pizza and a large cup of coffee. This deviated a bit from my plant-based lifestyle but I needed dense calories in a bad way. I don't remember the last time I had eaten that much cheese and was a little nervous about the outcome but my gut handled it just fine. The next step was to figure out a makeshift solution for my hands. I knew that if I could keep them warm that I would be able to make up some of the lost time from the last section. There was a small aisle of sundries where there were a few glove options as well as thicker socks. I went back to the hot bar area and asked the ladies working there if they would mind giving me a few pairs of food service gloves to use as a liner. I refilled bottles, stocked up on more snacks, then bundled up in my newfound layers. Just as I was rolling out I saw a group of riders heading into the store including Derek. Woohoo! He made the checkpoint cutoff. So stoked for him. I didn't want to get caught up in conversation so I kept it brief and headed out.
Back on the road, I was a patiently waiting for about the first 30 minutes to see if my glove layering technique would pay off. That is about how long it takes to get good and warmed up and for the chill of the air to really penetrate through clothes and into your bones. My legs felt recharged after a little rest, solid food, and a hot cup of coffee but best of all my fingers were warm and I once again had full use of them for braking and shifting. Even into the low spots at the bottom of hills where you could feel the temperature drop 5-10 degrees I stayed nice and toasty.
Just a few hours into the departure from Montezuma the eastern sky started to burn into that same brilliant orange that I had seen just 24 hours before as we were all starting on our journey out of Grinnell. Riding from darkness into a sunrise has to be one of my most favorite parts of these insane biking events. There is something very uncommon and uplifting about it. It is a new day and you feel completely reborn. Right about this time, I crested a hill and could hear the hum of traffic and was soon crossing over I-80 again. This meant that although there were about 60 miles left on the route I must have been getting close to Grinnell. I was making killer time and had calculated that I would have no problem at all making the 2pm race finish cutoff back in Grinnell. Riding high! End in sight!
The morning miles were feeling really easy heading north and it took me about an hour to realize that there was a wind picking up out of the south. I was also starting to get really sleepy rolling up and down these big country grades which is a bizarre feeling as it was a clear super sunny day. Riding almost on autopilot having these momentary out of body experiences was sort of surreal as I look back on it now. I stopped at the top of a hill and dug through my pack to see if I had anything caffeinated left. Two Torq banoffee gels.....score!
As the morning wore on and I made my way east through the massive rolling grades of Jasper county, the wind started to get furious. I made a right turn heading directly into the 25+ mph wind and saw my average speed drop from about 15 to 4 mph. I got as low as I could and just felt that I couldn't make any significant progress against the stiff wind that would gust and try to push you off the road. When changing directions back to the east it was difficult to stick a line in the loose gravel and my calculations with this new much slower speed were starting to play games with my head.
30 miles......5 miles per hour......6 hours of riding to go. Finishing before the cutoff was going to be impossible. I stopped and called Wendi. She gave me some words of encouragement and reminded me that my number one goal was to just finish, regardless of whether or not it was official. Just as I was hanging up with her another rider was rolling up behind me. He said something sort of off-handed like "If I got off my bike, I'd have a tough time getting back on". That coupled with the fact that another rider was out here suffering in this wind just like I flipped a switch.
I hopped back in the saddle and with 30 miles to go, I just put my head down and got to work. On the east/west roads, I tried to work with the crosswind by cocking my upper body sideways to harness the breeze while at the same time putting down good power. When the roads turned to the south there was nothing to do but get as low as possible and just mash the pedals. With a renewed spirit I saw my average speeds even into the direct 20+ headwind pop back up to around 10 mph. This final effort was going to make an offical finish possible! Looking at the last page of cue sheets I started to diagram the route out in my head. There would be no more pedaling north or east.....the final 13 miles would be in a southwest stairstep back into Grinnell. There would be a set of three sections with 2 miles south into the headwind followed by a 1 mile break into a western crosswind. This is just a tough interval session....fun! First one down and it flew by. Second one, same thing. The wind had shifted a bit by this time and the western legs were getting a slight push from behind making the effort a bit easier. Last 2 mile headwind section.....done with that misery and feeling great making the turn onto 370th Street where things were starting to look less rural. I could see a water tower in the distance and I knew the finish was close when the gray gravel gave way to asphalt.
A right turn onto Penrose making the same return to Grinnell that I had a few days before on my windy pre-ride. I had no idea where the finish was and I was just sort of flying blind as I had the previous 30 hours by cue sheet. Finally, after a few more turns, the route ended in a small park where I saw some cars with bikes and a few other people standing around that were starting to clap and cheer. I had made it! I rolled across an invisible finish line next to Mark Stevenson and immediately had a feeling of gratitude and accomplishment wash over me. Right at 33 hours with just one hour to spare before the cut-off.
My trusty new friend Ken was there and I had him snap a pic of Mark and I before I retreated to the car to peel off the layers of clothes I have been wearing for the last day and a half. I grabbed a few pieces of fruit I had stashed in the car and a beer then rejoined the small group of folks hanging around the finish line telling stories of this and past versions of TransIowa. This bond is one thing I love so much about the ultra cycling community. Once you have done a few of these hard events you can immediately relate to anyone else who has done the same. It really doesn't matter how fast or slow you are.....there is an instant kinship. It was cool to meet Jess Rundlett and Scott Sumpter who run BIKEIOWA.COM dedicated to growing and advocating for all things cycling in Iowa. I was also surprised and stoked to hear that Scott was planning on heading south in August to take on Trans North Georgia.
So....pretty much all of my goals for this race were accomplished.
- Finish. Just finish. After sabotaging myself by not having this goal at Trans North Georgia in 2016 it has become a sort of mantra for me. I even have a little label on the bottom of my Garmin to constantly remind me of it.
- No earbuds. Be at one with the sounds of your bike, body, and surroundings. Wendi attended a Kanza training camp in Emporia last month and told me of a little talk that Jay Petervary gave around the topic. Have earbuds there in the case of an emergency but don't rely on it. Immerse yourself in the ride. Thanks Jay!
- Surrender to the lack of control in the race. Reflecting back to the words I wrote at the top of this page, I knew the hardest thing for me as a recovering control freak was to let go. Much to my surprise, I had a great time just going with the flow and dealing with problems as they arose.
- Probably most importantly I was looking for this race to provide a big boost of self-confidence in my abilities after having that shattered last year in Arizona. This is a huge step for me in my rebuilding year of gravel before heading back out west in 2019.
Now.....two questions I always get after a race like this is "Would you do it again?" and "How does it compare to...?". I will answer those backward. TransIowa is definitely the most intense ultra I have ever done but not the most difficult. 33 hours straight with limited stops and the stress of cutoffs is what makes this a tough race for me. I have ridden longer without sleep but probably not with as much intensity. This was probably a good thing for me to get adapted to and explains a lot about the training blocks Lynda had me feeding on. I don't believe I had a long ride over 8 hours getting ready for TransIowa but there was a whole lot of intensity on tap the past few months.
Would I do it again? If you asked me while I was out there I would unequivocally told you....ya, nope. Not a chance in hell. But like many of these races soon after you finish, your brain starts deleting all of the hard parts and enhances the good parts. So yea.....I would do TransIowa again. Now for the bad part....TransIowa is OVER as we know it. Mark has been foreshadowing for a number of years that the end was looming and the day after the race this year he posted this blog post: https://g-tedproductions.blogspot.com/2018/04/reaching-end.html
This was very bittersweet news for all of us in the community and it made me even more grateful to have the opportunity to compete in TIv14. Mark's race has more or less started the gravel movement as we know it today. The Delta Epic and Mississippi Gravel Cup were both highly influenced by what Guitar Ted has started. TransIowa marks the end of an era but this gravel thing is just getting started.
I know this was (as it normally is) a long read for anyone who made it this far. Just remember that I am just like you.....a normal dude trying to do extraordinary things. I do this for me to be a better father and husband when I return home. I do this to give other people the confidence that they can do the same. Get out there and ride.
Here are some extras. More photos, Strava, video, etc.