In a time long ago Mount Everest stood alone as one of man's great challenges. No one was sure if she could ever be conquered. It was said that the great Chomolungma or Goddess Mother of the World decides if and when she'd be climbed. Men greater than this writer have reduced themselves to superstitious rituals, even offerings in an effort to gain her favor and allow them the chance to stand atop the roof of the world. Mt. Everest
To some the Trans Iowa may be cut from the same cloth as Chomolungma as she too decides who will pass through her gravel abyss. As I towed the line across from Bikes 2 You in quaint Grinnell, Ia at 3:50 a.m. on the eve of the day that marked my entrance into this world I wondered who, if any of us would be allowed safe passage. An eerie calm filled the thick, heavy air and something just didn't feel right. I wasn't sure what it was, but I knew Mother Nature had something in store for the foolhardy that gathered on the street I stood upon. My only concern, had the "Trans" joined forces with her to condemn us all?
I hesitate to describe the time span of 4:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. as it remains a blur in my mind. I will attempt to do it justice nonetheless. Nervous energy reigns supreme at the start of all T.I.'s, this one was no different. The slow easy roll out seemed to last only seconds before Guitar Ted's Element peeled out of the way and allowed us to flex our muscles. The pace ratcheted up quickly and things quickly began to take a turn for the surreal. Once the gravel grinding commenced so did the pressure blast of grit in the face as Iowa dirt shot from the wheel in front and found it's home squarely between the eye lids. Glasses were of no use as they were completely covered in mud within a moment's time. Lighting was an issue as the lens was covered in mud. Some of the northern Midwest's best endurance riders quickly began to fight for the front, as it was here where respite from the hazardous conditions could be found. A friend and worthy competitor, Charly Tri quickly fired up his huge diesel engine and moved to the front and was determined to stay there. In doing so he lifted the pace to nearly 20 mph while I toiled in 5th or 6th position committed to staying out of trouble. I noticed the heavy hitters in the game around me, Joe Meiser, John Gorilla, Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey, Matt Gersib, Jeremy Fry and my fellow DBD'ers, Charlie Farrow and Jason Buffington. My nerves sky rocketed as we unleashed our bikes down blind descents at near 30 mph in a foggy darkness. Poor planning on my part had my map case/cue card holder changing position due to the air speed, thus blocking out my handle bar light. Imagine if you will, cascading down a soft, wet gravel road full of frost heaves that grab your front wheel and track it which ever direction it wants, surrounded by 50 other cyclists doing the same thing, all wearing blind folds. This was scary!
Safely through the first hour the tempo remained high and I became concerned with the frenetic pace, but knew things would settle and this was merely an attempt to separate the lead group from the field. This was standard operating procedure and I need not worry as I was committed to staying in the front. I'd been here before and survived, I'd do it again at all costs. The fog began to lift and things felt better. I was getting some slight twitches in my calves at times, most likely due to no warm up and riding at a pace conducive to a two hour race, but I knew ample hydration would keep the cramping at bay. This would be dealt with when things calmed down. Inspired by the ability to now see things around me I settled in. Wait! I forgot, T.I. and Mother Nature had gotten together on this thing, she (T.I.) had not yet decided how she felt about this and ordered some rain, Mother Nature delivered.
The rain fell steady and hard. I thought of putting on my rain jacket, but knew I'd lose the lead group if I stopped. I'd get wet, I was already there any way. The rain seemed to gain intensity, by now I was soaked through, but thought that my rain coat may allow my body heat to start the drying process underneath it. I set my goal on finding an opportunity to get my jacket on. Without warning I notice a small flash in the distance. Soon, what I thought was heat lighting turned into actual distant lightning strikes. "Cool", I thought. This is something we can definitely talk about later. Not cool! Eventually, these strikes were hitting all around us with occasional bomb blasts of thunder. Seeing lightning strikes in the farms of Iowa isn't the same as seeing them in the forested regions of northern Minnesota. As I pedaled I witnessed the strike develop in the cloud, then suddenly dart to the ground to some unsuspecting point. Hey, just as long as that point wasn't me. An almost apocalyptic scene began to unfold as strikes were hitting on my right, then left, then right again, some sustained for up to 5 seconds at a time. I recall noting the brightness of the bolt as one held it's position to the ground for a length of time that didn't seem natural. Suddenly, an enormous BOOM and my surrounding lit up brighter than noon on a clear summer day. In an instant I could see my fellow riders, the road, the fields and even my front wheel. It was gone as soon as I processed what it was and once again the lights went out.
I looked to the east and saw a glow that could only mean the day light would come. To be able to see what was in front of me would drastically change this dismal scene. I wondered where Farrow and "Big Buff" were. I hoped they were with me as I kept my eyes on Meiser, Gorilla and Tri. I was confident the DBD'ers were doing the same, I'd join with them later. The sun did rise and actually riding the bike became less dangerous, but the conspiracy to keep the foolhardy at bay had transformed itself into peanut butter roads that sapped energy from the legs in a way that felt as if I was riding my 35 millimeter tires on the beach. I wondered if the others were feeling like I was. I glanced at my gps for a mileage update and found that we were just over 20 miles into this 314 mile monster and I was tired! Tired? How could I be tired this early. Maybe "tired" isn't the right word. In fact, Charly Tri said it best later in the race, "worked over". I really thought that caught the feeling perfectly. I felt like I had been in a street fight and the sun had just come up, the race had just started.
A group of about 9 of us had broken clear of the field. My boys were among them and I was glad. The usual suspects were there as well and we were riding smooth. The clouds seemed to be breaking and an unspoken confidence that the road conditions would improve was palpable. Had the "Trans" relented or was it just a ruse? It was easy to see that Meiser and Gorilla looked strong, but I told myself that I was strong too. Hell, I had just come off an impressive showing at the Ragnorak 105 that I was proud of not two weeks ago. I had a season of training under my belt and was feeling fit. I tried to think positive, I told myself that "they're probably worried that I'm in this break away. Yeah, they don't want me here, but I am and I'm not going away." Yet the body can only do what it can do and the pace felt high to me considering the fact that we were riding on soft dirt with upwards of 24 hours of riding in front of us. I was concerned.
The miles clicked off and we were approaching the first check point when I noticed I was beginning to experience technical difficulties with my lighting system. Early in the morning my handle bar and main light had suddenly shut off due to moisture entering the body of the light. Obviously, this played into the danger I was experiencing, but I felt I knew what was going on and was confident that it would return to normal once it dried out. However, as we were closing in on the checkpoint I noticed my light suddenly turn on. Confused, I surmised that the button must have been still in the "on" position and the light itself had finally dried out enough to begin working again. I turned it off, but shortly there after it turned back on by itself. What? I repeated the process and so did the light. We, the light and I, moved through this back and forth game for about a half hour before I lost out to a light that simply stayed on all the time. I couldn't have that as I did not have an endless supply of batteries with me. I sat up on the saddle and removed the light from it's mount, pulled the batteries and shoved it all into a pocket to be dealt with later while riding no handed through frost heaves and quick sand gravel in a fast moving pack of 9 riders... nerve racking to say the least.
The first check point at 44 miles saw half the 2010 Trans Iowa field eliminated from the race due to not making the cut off in time. This was alarming as the cut off times for the T.I. are plenty generous and seem very possible. It spoke loudly and clearly to the conditions we riders were up against. However, the 9 of us were still in the game and moving on through the next 88 mile leg to check point two. Meiser and Gorilla kept the pace high and were exacting a toll on our little contingent. Suddenly Meiser pulled over with a flat rear tire, while Gorilla stopped as well to assist in pulling Joe back to us as they knew we'd roll on. Our pace stayed low. We made no plans to break in an effort to drop these two strong men. Instead we discussed our own long term plans and all agreed that we had one heck of a long day and night ahead of us and we better auger in and get comfortable. When Meiser and Gorilla caught us, we'd let them go without a fight. A young Sean Mailen wisely reminded us that they may just ride each other into the ground. I liked his thinking as well as his cool head for cycling. Mailen is one of those riders that just looks like he belongs on a bike. I later saw his drive as the day wore on and our bodies began to break.
Soon enough we saw two riders approaching in the distance, they'd get to us, they'd pass us. It happened and we let them go. They opened up a huge gap on us. I figured this gap probably saw 30 to 40 minutes at it's best point. It didn't matter, we were keeping our demons down as best we could.
"B" roads or minimum maintenance roads had made their appearance and proved to be not only impossible to ride, but nearly impossible to walk. Our little band of what now looked like misfits were forced to climb over the barb wire fences and push our bikes along the edges of the farm field while tracking the "B" road. These efforts went on at times for a mile and a half. This began to suck up valuable time and made the check point cut offs a concern. Sure, we knew we'd make the cut off to c.p. 2, but we'd be chewing up our "banked" time and it was just getting too close for comfort, yet we just couldn't go any faster. It soon became apparent that an average speed of just over 10 mph was where we lived. Could it be that these athletes were moving at a pace that a strong runner could destroy while RUNNING? The energy reserves were dwindling as the soft roads and wind continued to punish us. The $25,000 worth of bikes sounded like they all came from Walmart as drive trains strained to meet the demands being placed on them. Bikes capable of 20 gears were now operating off of 3. Chains sounded like they were going to snap at any point. One gingerly shifted gears with a grimace as any change in the bike's operation could spell disaster. We pushed on as the clouds began to gather once again.
A steady drizzle turned the roads back into peanut butter and silence prevailed, we were "wasted". Men's energy came and went as individually we battled our own nutritional needs. While one soared with new found strength others held on for dear life at the back of the train. We all took our turns in these rolls. My training partner, Charlie Farrow turned to me at one point and stated, "Eki, I'm not sure how much longer I can hang on". I reminded him to think positive an assured him that he'd bounce back. He would later do the same for me when I needed it most. Throughout this dizzying time the young Sean Mailen, who we affectionately referred to as the "boy" was just gone. He was on my wheel as we cleaned a final section of a "B" road, when I looked back he wasn't there. It was as if, some one or some thing, just reached down and snatched him from us. We felt bad about his disappearance and discussed going back for him or waiting. We had to push on ... we did. In one of my darkest times I road up next to the always strong Jason Buffington to check on his well being. Mostly I wanted to know if anyone else felt as bad as I did. "How's it going?", I asked. He replied in complete seriousness, "You know how it is". I did.
Check point 2 was just a few miles out and the rain was coming hard and steady. The Iowa skies were dark every where we looked. Things were not going to improve and we knew it. It appeared that we'd come into the c.p. with about an hour in the "bank", but the idea of commencing through the third 75 mile leg to c.p. 3 was in question. Guitar Ted had warned us that the third leg was the most remote of the entire course and c.p.3 was not positioned in a town, not to mention the final leg to the finish line was 107 miles long. I'm no math mathmatician, but I knew no one would be finishing the 2010 Trans Iowa.
As we approached c.p. 2 we saw Gorilla and Meiser sitting on a bench in the rain. I could see the miles on their faces as I'm sure they could on mine. Gorilla's teeth were chattering beyond his control and Meiser appeared to be occupying his time with mundane gear checks and small tasks. Charly Tri and I tried to organize a discussion with all riders at this check point about the realities of what lay before us. These lead riders consisted of Joe Meiser, John Gorilla, Charly Tri, Charlie Farrow, Jason Buffington, and myself. We were not getting any straight answers from the two front runners who had only a ten minute lead on us at the time they approached the check point. Amazing how competition still reared it's head at this stage of the game. Tri and I were attemting to ring the bell of reason and reality, while Farrow resisted as expected, claiming that he wanted to push on despite being soaked through, completely physically and emotionally spent as well. I admired his drive, but as a friend I tried to talk sense to him. I reminded him that it wasn't us that were "quitting", it was the T.I. wagging her finger in our face and saying, "Not this time boys, I'm not in the mood." I told him that we don't decide, the T.I. decides and she had made her decision. Just then "Big Buff" pointed out that a plastic pop bottle was floating down the center of the main street while a torrential rain took hold of the area. We watched from the window of a convenience store in a town I'll never be in again. Charly Tri was the voice of reason as he reminded us all that he was proud of what we'd done. He was right. Our race would end at c.p. 2 as we knew no one would finish the T.I.
Amazingly, a handful of riders pushed on into the rain gaining just over 20 miles in 2.5 hours before Guitar Ted and his partner David Pals called the race due to safety concerns.
The beauty of the Trans Iowa lies in the fact that it just might be so difficult that no one will be able to complete it. This event is capable of taking the strongest, most gifted endurance riders and breaking them down to a point that they are forced to look within themselves and ask, "should I continue?".
Jason Buffington, Charlie Farrow, Tim Ek (Death Before Dishonor)
Thank you Mark and David for giving me the chance to ask questions of myself that not many people get to ask and most importantly finding the answers to those questions. Thank you Charlie Farrow, Charly Tri, Jason Buffington and Sean Mailen for giving me this experience. Thank you Jason Novak for getting us the hell out of What Cheer, Ia. And, thank you to Salsa Cycles for all that you've done. While others struggled with their machines my Chili did every thing I asked her to do and more.
A post race pizza party with cake included was hosted by my wife, Amy. She called it a "little boy birthday pizza party". Clockwise: Charly Tri, Jason Novak, Jason Buffington, Charlie Farrow, Tim Ek