Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Trans Iowa...When Tough Isn't Enough

Cloaked in total darkness I shouldered my bike for what seemed like the 100th time. The rails of the saddle cut deep into the groove they had already established in my collar bone. As I trudged through energy sucking mud that gathered around my ankles I heard my good friend and training partner Charlie Farrow call out to me, “Eki, what are those eyes up there?”. “They're cats, out huntin'”, I said as I approached three miniature lions lying in wait among the corn stubble and weeds. Their glowing eyes reflected my head lamp back to me as they watched me march through their territory. They were not startled or even nervous as I passed within feet of their hunting grounds, but appeared almost annoyed and perplexed at the same time. “They're livin' the dream.”, Charlie remarked as we left them to their business, we had ours to tend to. We were in Iowa, the land of endless black soil and a sky so big it seems that only the hawks soaring above could ever come close to understanding it. My partner and I were in the 7th running of the Trans Iowa bike race, a 320 mile, unsupported, nonstop gravel road experience. We went there with a plan to race, to win, and to leave our mark. Some things would go as planned, others wouldn't, but one thing is for sure a mark was made, Iowa is in our blood forever.

Charlie Farrow, Tim Ek, Jeremy Kershaw DBD'ers

I pounded out the miles early in the day, feeling fit, light, and fast. Focusing intensely on Charlie's wheel I eeked out every bit of his draft as he did the same to the two leaders in front of him. We were in an established break away and testing each other's strength with hours of racing ahead of us. Our plan was polished, practiced, and solid. We were committed to each other, vowing to do what ever it took to stay with the leaders in the hope that I would be able to launch late in the night for the win. Charlie was willing to “bury himself” for me during the race in order to keep me at the front. So goes the beauty of cycling, a sport so pure that one rider will give all of himself in order to see the other succeed. The art of sportsmanship is represented here in it's purest form when one is willing to acknowledge the chances are better for the other, therefore that one will “give it all up” to have a taste of success. I was humbled by his commitment and honored to train and race with him. Our bonds would only grow stronger as our plan would begin to take on new shapes.

Wet days leading up the the T.I. (Trans Iowa) had the gravel buttery and wet. It took only minutes to be completely covered in mud spray from the wheels of fellow competitors. I spit dirt and at times small rocks out of my mouth every few minutes. The fine Iowa grit reeked havoc on the drive trains of all machines. I winced through every climb as my chain groaned and popped up the hills. I waited for the sickening feeling of a pedal giving way to a broken link as the body suddenly drops to the top tube when all resistance disappears in an instant. A mechanical of this nature would doom all chances of success and destroy hopes of staying in the front. The bike became my number one concern. I would steal a glance to Charlie from time to time only to notice him straining immensely on the climbs as he was unable to change out of his big ring, forcing him to stay in a gear built for high speeds and flat terrain. I rode to him and shouted, “we need to take care of our bikes or all will be lost”. He agreed, but the peloton was not stopping for anyone. It was early in the first morning of the race and this pack of 30 hungry men weren't going to let up. Nervous tensions had things moving rapidly. We were caught in a dilemma, do we pull off to tend to our dangerously dry chains and risk losing the leaders? Surly if the big horses of this race knew that Farrow and Ek had pulled over they'd hit the throttle in order to either completely drop us or deeply hurt us in our efforts to get back. Against better judgment we took our chances and sat in with the group in order to make the first check point, there we would tend to our needs.

The Iowa mud covere my La Cruz
A flurry of activity made the 1st c.p. a stressful time. Each man focused on resolving his own concerns, mine was getting the chain lubed and the mud out of my rear derailleur, front rings, and brakes. Once the task was completed there was a quick stop in the convenience store to top of fluids and Charlie and I were good to go. We rolled out of town, ultimately taking a turn onto a long stretch of rolling gravel that put a strong wind at our backs. A Lincoln, Nebraska rider named Troy Krause jumped in and made up the third man of our little band. We would comfortably hold a pace that had us rolling at speeds that touched 30 mph from time to time, life was good. Charlie and I joked about how we were leading, uh, winning the Trans Iowa, but we knew the two previous strong boys would be catching us soon. One of these strong men was a Sean Mailen, a Salsa Cycles engineer who is largely responsible for designing the very bike I was on, the Salsa La Cruz Ti. We had the pleasure of riding him in last year's T.I., but he was different then. In fact, we nicknamed him the "boy" due to his boyish good looks and striking charm. This year was different, Sean was all grown up, he wasn't a boy anymore and he was capable of putting the hurt on us in ways that I can't describe. We didn't mention the word "boy" once on this day.

Ultimately, Troy struggled to hold our wheels and sure enough we were caught by the original leaders and the four of us were back together, but we were now dealing with 25+ mph hour cross winds that were taking us off of our lines like rag dolls in a dryer. Also, it should be known that the four of us were certainly not working together. There were two clearly established allegiances here, theirs and ours. Charlie and I fought to catch a draft off them in the quartering/cross winds, but they weren't having it. We were being beat down and clearly not as strong. We'd make it to c.p. #2 (177 miles into the race) as four, but it was tenuous at best. In other words, we knew it wouldn't last, this little gathering was going to split up soon. I felt their attacks and I hung on for dear life, but the constant closing of little gaps was taking it's toll and I couldn't help but think of the long haul. Charlie was thinking the same when he finally said, "we have to let them go". I agreed, we'd start working on contingency plans. Auger in and stay the course became the name of the game. Settling into a rhythm became paramount as experience told us that the real race begins when the sun goes down, boy were we right.

Watching them ride out of sight came as a bit of a relief in that I knew the stress of keeping up was over. I could talk with my friend again and just do what we do... ride. And, ride we did. We laughed, told stories, talked of how happy we were that we were still hooked up in the race just like we planned. We built each other's confidence as we played out countless scenarios of how this, that, and this were all going to happen and one of us was going to win the race. I mean hell, they were ahead of us, but Charlie and I still had a huge lead over the rest of the field. We were comfortable, for now.

The sun sank low and we faced different challenges such as coming upon a bridge that was out. The directors must have missed this one as we never saw a re-route signal. No worries, all part of the T.I. we figured, we welcomed these little surprises. However, I don't do that well with heights and this bridge was in a state of disrepair as large portions of the decking were missing. I kind of froze when we rolled up on it and I took note of Charlie immediately confronting the situation by hopping over the barrier and commanding me to "hand me the bikes!". I did, then I watched him shoulder his and wide step across an open section of decking with one foot on a 4 inch wide steel I-beam and the other foot doing the same about 3 feet away. My mind started calculating bad things that could happen, "our shoes are made of hard plastic bottoms and they're packed with mud, I could slip off and fall 20 feet down into that river, with my bike on my shoulder!" Charlie being an experienced mountaineer breezed through this situation as if he were changing t-shirts, while I gingerly tip toed across the beams with my heart in my throat. I got shivers through my whole body when I was done crossing. Soon enough I was back at home on the saddle and on the hoods.

The cockpit I lived in for nearly 30 hours.
As the darkness took control the chatter about "the real racing" blah, blah, blah stopped and switched to comments like, "I'm getting cold, how are you doing?", "Eki, don't you have a better hat?", "My feet are wet and freezing", "We should stop so I can put on every thing I have, I'm worried". My thoughts raced back to the hotel room when I made a snap decision to pull my long sleeve jersey and warm gloves out of my pack and throw them on the floor. I pictured them laying there, clean, warm, and doing me absolutely no good. We thought about buying sweat pants and a hoodie in a convenience store, but they were all closed now. "My God, what if it rains?".

We were in "no mans land" that abyss of being too far from the start and so far from the finish. The scary place where you don't really have a choice, but to keep moving no matter what the conditions. Also, neither Charlie nor I believe in carrying cell phones in this event as Guitar Ted makes it clear that this is a "no support" race, but he encourages the cell phone for an emergency. We see the cell phone as a way out, we don't want that option. As silly as it sounds, the Death Before Dishonor patch we wear on our gear has got us through these hard times. This patch means you don't quit, you just don't! Of course there are exceptions, but those are decisions each man will make for himself and none of us like putting ourselves in those situations, so we just go on and on. Finally, a stop for a cue sheet change and a chance for me to put on everything I had with me. A light weight wicking Helly Hanson hat under my cycling cap, an extra pair of fingerless gloves over my light weight full fingered gloves, some toe warmers, and a plastic $19.99 rain coat. I was a new man and ready to roll with a clear mind. Miles began to roll out behind us.

Our Code
I had taken on the role of navigator, a position I never have felt qualified for and always admired in others who handled it well. It feels like a big responsibility, because extra miles due to mistakes really hurt and they don't just hurt me, they'll hurt the other guy too. Well, lets just say things got confusing. I had a great conversation with a Police officer in a little town called Belle Plaine, Iowa. He had me all squared away and I knew exactly where we were going. So, a quick stop at a little store where I ate a snickers off the pavement (that I dropped) without even batting an eye and we were ready to get back at it. I lead us out of town and onto the gravel again. Suddenly, mileage on the cues were not matching up with my GPS and I became increasingly concerned while Charlie rambled on about his dog, Loki. I made the all too familiar Trans Iowa stop and flatly stated, "This isn't right". My partner tried to find a way to make it right as if talking about it in a nice way would change the situation. His voice lifted and he made comments about how he "feels" like it's "o.k.", but as navigator I needed more than this. "Fine, I'll ride up and check that next road, if it's right I'll blink my head lamp at you which means you should come up too", Charlie said. "O.k., Go! Cover your light with your hand off and on to let me know", I said. I watched as he disappeared into the distance to the point where I couldn't see him any more. A nervousness settled in on me as I stood alone in the Iowa night, so quiet. Then, way up in the distance I saw a light blinking back at me. "COOL, I thought, what a great system we have." I took off and sure enough it was the road we were looking for. All was good again. We rode on, talking and laughing about how far ahead we were when two strange lights were coming toward us at the same time that it donned on us that we were heading back into town. "What the hell are you guys doing here?", I said. "What the hell are you doing and where are you going and who are you?". "It's Farrow and Ek, who are you?" "Krause and Grelk, where are you going? You're going the wrong way!". "You're going the wrong way!", I replied. Dennis Grelk always the cool, calm spirit suddenly chimed in, "No, you are going the wrong way, we're going the right way." He said it in such a way that I simply believed him. A short discussion followed and we turned around to follow them.

Our hour lead on Grelk and Krause was now gone, but still we weren't worried. We discuss how we'd stay with them until sun up, then just ride away with the hopes that the men up the road might be having some spot of trouble, allowing us to sneak in for the win. To say we were optimistic is an understatement. This would rapidly change as Grelk found his legs again.

The chasing began in earnest. Grelk hit the climbs with a vengeance, while the three of us fought to grab his wheel. After all, he was now navigating, we needed him and he had proven good at it. But, he was really hurting us on the climbs. Soon it became apparent that the 180 miles of hard riding earlier in the day were beginning to weigh heavy on Charlie and I. We exchanged concerned glances as the pace ratcheted up at different points throughout the night. I was holding my own, but feeling seriously tired, not only the kind of tied you get from a long bike ride, but I'm talking about hospital kind of tired. I would look for sympathy as I told Krause and Charlie, "I'm really hurting guys, my legs are cooked!". They wouldn't answer, instead they just stared straight ahead. I began to accept that this was how it was going to be and it was 11:00 p.m. My calculations had the race ending for us some time around 8:00 a.m. How would I make it through the night like this?

Race Director, Guitar Ted and Tim Ek
My concerns shifted from myself to my good friend. No longer was he the man who would launch me to a glamorous win of the 2011 Trans Iowa, but he was Charlie Farrow, the man who I talk to about my life, my hopes, my dreams. He was in desperate trouble and he was telling me that he couldn't hang on any more. He started asking about the cue sheets, stating that he would be dropped soon, that he couldn't do it any more. I always told him where we were on the sheets, because I wasn't sure how much longer he could keep coming back to us. The "yo yo effect" in cycling breaks a man down. One can't just keep digging deep to close down gaps over and over. It's nice and romantic to talk about "digging deep", but at some point there's nothing more to dig, at some point one just hits bedrock. My friend had been operating at "bedrock" mode for hours and I was worried. This is not some 24 hour lap mountain bike race. This is the middle of the cold night, in the middle of a state we are not from, with no idea of towns or where they even are. We couldn't even see farms at times. The four of us had been staring at a cone of light from our handlebars for hours and it causes a kind of immunity to the outside world. We were operating in a tunnel of light, so to speak. During a break for food and gear adjustments I made a promise to Charlie that I wouldn't leave him out there in the Iowa night. I vowed I'd get him home and it was getting to the point that we needed to cut Grelk loose.

Suddenly, blinking lights appeared at the top of a climb. The leaders were stopped with a mechanical, we had caught them. A short conversation and a decision to offer them a pump had us moving on without them. We were in the lead or more accurately Dennis Grelk was in the lead. Approximately 50 miles out we encouraged Dennis to leave us as it was clear we were holding him back and he was the strongest rider at the time. He was hesitant, but itching to go. He'd hit the climbs even harder than before only to hold up a bit for us on the other side. I ultimately told him, "just go, I'll get us home". And, he was gone...

Grelk's disappearance was phenomenal as he was there one minute and the next he was out of sight. We all tipped our hats to him and began to root for him. I don't really even know Dennis, but I recall thinking, "Go Dennis, Go, You Can Do It, Don't Let Up!".

Krause, Farrow, and Ek were now the chase group, but we weren't really chasing, we were running, running from the earlier leaders, now behind us dealing with mechanicals. I took over nav. and I took it seriously as I viewed Krause and Farrow as my responsibility. I would get these boys home no matter what and I'd do it without any mistakes. This focus gave me purpose and drive. I rode at the front a lot and I felt them trusting me. I informed them of our distances in order to gauge nutrition and hydration, the sun would be up soon, then every thing would get better.

Being caught and passed by the earlier leaders just before sun up as they chased hard for Grelk had us demoralized, but intent on the bigger prize of finishing. I told the boys that it's about getting home now, just getting home, don't worry about them. This view point would soon change and the race would become a race again as the "what if" scenarios Charlie and I discussed earlier began to unfold.

Another flat had them side lined, we were back in the fight. I was renewed and driven. Farrow seemed to be coming around. Krause stayed positive despite extreme knee pain, he emerged as my rock and my co-pilot. Troy stayed tight on my wheel at all times giving me confidence knowing he was there. He proved to be the Salt of the Earth as I got to know more about his character. I remember thinking that I could ride to the corners of the globe with this guy.

30 miles turned into 15 and we were still in good shape. A large climb "popped" Charlie off our wheels as I grew increasingly concerned about getting caught. I began to lift the pace while Troy stayed hooked on. At 14 miles I rode next to him and asked about the finish. Troy politely stated, "I was just thinking about that and I think you should come in 2nd place and I'll take 3rd, but of course we have to ask Charlie". "Are you sure? And, yes of course we'll talk to Charlie", I said. We both turned around to see my friend about a 1/4 mile back. He was "popped", there was nothing more we could do for him. A sadness came over me as I said, "He's off the back, let's go". Without hesitation Krause and I slipped into a fast moving rotation and began to knock out the remaining miles. As the count down continued I began to get more excited and nervous. I took longer pulls, obsessively looked over my shoulder for chasers. We were doing it! 5 miles to go and I was riding harder than ever. Troy would report that we were clear, no chasers, while I would give him distance to finish information. With 1 1/2 miles to go I sat up. I turned to my new friend to hold out my hand. We shook, smiled and thanked each other, but more importantly we knew what we'd been through together and no one would ever be able to understand it or take it away from us, we were now connected.

So happy
I barely remember feeling anything physical that had to do with riding the bike while we closed in on the finish. Troy pointed them out to me when I couldn't find them. Suddenly, I saw a group of people clapping and moving to the road to get a better look at us. I said to myself, "You did it, You really did it!". I put my hands in the air, then over my face as I was overwhelmed with the enormity of it all. I finished 2nd place in the Trans Iowa for the second time in a time of 29 hours and 44 minutes, over a distance of 336 miles.

Thank you Guitar Ted and D.P. for giving me the gift of finding out what I'm really made of and showing us all that we can be. Thank you Mike Riemer at Salsa Cycles for all that you've done for me. My Salsa La Cruz Ti was exceptional. Thank you Sean Mailen for the time I got to spend with you and I enjoyed getting to know you as well as watching you effortlessly handle your La Cruz. Troy Krause, you are one of the "good guys". I felt so at ease with you and deeply appreciated your approach to this beautiful sport as well as your approach to life. Finally, to my good friend and training partner Charlie Farrow, we did win buddy, we really did win.

The blanket of Trans Iowa covers all finishers and I will forever hold a corner of that blanket tightly in my fist. Thank you Trans Iowa for showing me who I really am.


Guitar Ted said...

Congratulations, Tim. You are a "good guy" too. You are definitely one of the riders David and I feel embody the spirit of Trans Iowa. Thank you very much for your kind words and for coming to ride in our event.

Charlie Farrow said...

BRAVO....Bravo....Bravo...But letz be honest, I was dead weight those last 10 hours or so :)

Jeremy Kershaw said...

I had to read this in installments. I didn't want it to end! Congrats again, Tim. Your write up is awesome. Your performance is awe inspiring.

Charly Tri said...

Good job out there! Hopefully the dates work out better next year so I can join again.

Cassie said...

Tim, congratulations on finishing and getting 2nd!! I loved your retelling, I was getting chills from the start of your story.

DC said...

Hey Tim, I saw on the Salsa site I saw you selected the La Cruz Ti "because of it's speed and weight." There's a race in Pennsylvania that covers 400, of which 100 or so is on limestone rails-to-trails. The rest of the race is on paved roads. I'm trying to find the right bike that will work on both surfaces. The rails-to-trail section really isn't that rough. I used 28cc gatorskins and was fine. Do you think the La Cruz would be a good fit for this race or does the 300 miles of road not really fit the La Cruz strengths? Thanks.

Darren Crozier

Tim Ek said...

DC, the La Cruz Ti would ROCK in the situation you described. Keep the 28's on and you'd fly! The majority of my training takes place on tar and the La Cruz is "snappy, quick and a great handler". You can't go wrong. Thanks for checkin' me out.


DC said...

Hey Tim, Last question. In comparing the La Cruz to the Vaya Ti, I assume generally speaking the La Cruz would have a slight more agressive and faster geometry. That being said I would see the Vaya Ti also working for this type of race, maybe just not in as much of race-mode as the La Cruz - Would you agree? Would you ever consider doing the Trans Iowa or Drity Kanza on Vaya Ti? Thanks again...


Tim Ek said...

DC, I actually seriously considered the Vaya with it's lower BB offering a stable ride. However, with weight and speed/aggressive stance being my focus I went with the La Cruz. The Vaya is a good choice as well, but comes with a bit more weight with the disc brakes. However, the good part of that is simply put, the disc brakes. Hope this helps.

MG said...

Wow... Great writing Tim, and great riding at TI.


Boz said...

Thanks for getting the "feel" for those of us that weren't there. Great writing!

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