Trans Iowa – the 325 mi unsupported, non-stop gravel race
Before I get into the race report for Trans Iowa, I want to thank all the people who helped me prepare for this race. I am very grateful for all the support I received the past weeks and months. Trans Iowa not only requires training but mental preparation. The encouragement I received means a lot to me! Thank you so much!
I am sure I will forget some people, but I would like to give some special thanks…
- First, thanks to Guitar Ted and the volunteers for such a great event!
- Huge Thanks to the Grand Performance crew: Dan, Mike, Tiger, Matt and Bengel! You did fantastic work getting my bike ready for brutal 325mi of gravel! There was not even a hint of mechanical trouble during the entire race!
- Thanks to Charles for being such a great training partner and for all the invaluable advice for Trans Iowa!
- Thanks to Ted, Dominic, Adam, Dan and Nick for letting me use lights, cyclecomputers, bike bags and pedals!
- Thanks to Zak and Karen for the support before and after Trans Iowa!
- Thanks to all the fellow racers for the high spirit and camaraderie during the race!
So now to the race report….
Some background info…
I was never so nervous before a race than Trans Iowa. I was so nervous because I prepared so much for this race that I was afraid something would go wrong- physically, mentally or mechanically. There were so many things that could go against finishing this race.
The first time I heard about Trans Iowa was after the Heck of the North gravel race in October, when Tim Ek and another racer mentioned it. I was immediately sold. I really wanted to do it!
Registration was not until November or December. I had to send in a postcard to register and I heard it can get full and I might not be able to get in. To make sure that I really get into the race, I had to get a little creative so I sent flowers with my postcard to the race promoter, GT, which would come in before the mail. That was a first, sending flowers to a dude.
But mission accomplished I got in. Next step. Training for 325 mi on hilly gravel roads in Iowa.
What is Trans Iowa?
Non-stop, unsupported. That meant, no support vehicle, no water on checkpoints, nothing. There were two checkpoints along the way that had cutoff times at 52mi and 172mi. You get cue sheets in the beginning and at the check points. The race had to be completed in 34 hours. All gravel.
I had the chance to ride in Tucson for a total of six weeks where I got a good amount of miles in. Minnesota taught me not to complain about weather. Until mid-April we had snow, rain and anything that would keep any normal human being inside. And while I am writing this on May 1, it is still snowing. But I found a tough bunch of cyclists here in Minneapolis that would even go out at 30 degrees and rain to train. So I trained in any weather condition. I actually liked those training rides because they made me less sensible to things I cannot control such as the weather.
My bike setup
Everything had to be carried. So I had a frame bag, a feedbag, another small bag and a MTB saddle bag that would hold all my stuff – 3.5l water, clothes, food, repair kit, chain oil, lights, cinnamon rolls.
I had two rear lights and three front lights to help me get through 3 hours in the first night and 12 hours the second night. I was equipped with two cyclecomputers – one manual for the day time and my Garmin 500 for the night which only lasted for 16 hours. I brought an extra wind jacket besides the clothes which I was wearing at the start – bibs, jersey, base layer, arm warmers, leg warmers, winter gloves.
Now to the race…
Warning: There could be some things which do not reflect 100% reality, especially when I talk about the race past 16 hours. I had no sense for time or location anymore.
Friday 6pm Pre-race
Four of us from Minneapolis, Charles, Nick, Tom and I drove down together with our (pre-race and post-race) support Karen and Zak on Friday. We arrived there early enough to setup our bikes and get everything ready for an early start. There was a pre-race meeting at 6:30pm we had to attend. It gave me the opportunity to check out the other racers and see which wheels I might want to follow. 91 racers took on the challenge. The range of ability was huge – from the weekend warrior to the racer who preps for the Tour Divide. After the meeting, I made final adjustments to my bike. I had a 10 minute phase when I wanted to switch my entire setup around, realizing a little later that would not be the smartest move. So I stuck to what I had trained with. I was about to put my head lamp on my helmet when I realized that I had a different helmet than usual so the strap did not work. No head lamp for me. Mistake number 1.
Saturday, 2:20am Race Day
I woke up before the alarm at 2:20am and got ready. All four of us rode the 2 miles in the dark to the start line. What are 2 extra miles when you have another 325 to go, right? I was stoked. I felt good. The bike felt good. Okay, I didn’t have a head lamp. That’s ok. I can deal with it.
Before the start at 4am, Guitar Ted gave us final instructions, for example, that the first 12 miles were all super loose gravel.
4am Start Mile 0
And then the race, for which I was waiting and preparing so long, finally started! We had a neutral rollout through the town of Grinnell to the gravel. Within 100 m I realized that my manual cyclecomputer did not work. It did not pick up the speed. (Mistake number 2, I should have checked my computer before the race) Okay, short assessment. Should I stop and fix it and let everyone ride past me? Should I wait until I really need it because I will ride with people in the beginning anyway and figure out the distance later? I opted for option 2.
We hit the gravel and the race began. I expected a moderate pace increase since we have to ride a substantial amount but no, riders basically took off and charged up the hills on that lose gravel. I was shocked. I knew that the pace would pick up and it would be fast, but THAT fast? But my concern was redirected within a few seconds when I realized that something was wrong with my bike.
I had absolutely NO control over my bike. It jumped all over the place. What the heck is going on? Is my headset loose? Does all the weight on my bike give a different feel on the gravel? I went through the list of all possibilities for this unacceptable behavior of my bike! While I was thinking and freaking out, racers passed me left and right and I was seeing myself riding the next 325mi all by myself. Once, we hit smooth gravel again and I accelerated to get to the lead group again. I just don’t like seeing people in front of me. Charles was up there. I wanted to ride with him! I knew if I stick with him, I didn’t need to worry anymore about finishing. This guy will finish anything in any condition!
Then, it suddenly hit me. Monika, to what tire pressure did you inflate your tires? Ah….70psi in 35mm tires. That might explain it. Mistake number 3. I had a small gap to close and so I rode up to Charles and asked him for advice. He said, stop and lower your pressure, you will catch us. I stopped, fiddled around with the valve, let some pressure out and then looked ahead and the lead group was gone! Dammit!
It was still dark. I saw lights in front of me and I wanted to catch up to a solid group. So I rode up to them. Three guys from Nebraska, Aaron, Scott, and Paul. Aaron was sitting in the front and kept up a solid pace. I told Aaron that my computer didn’t work and was wondering how long we had been riding. He said 2 hours. 2 hours??? How did that happen? I hadn’t drank or eaten anything yet. Wow, was I already behind on my nutrition? I told myself that I need to be more careful with that in the next 300 miles.
It got lighter around 6ish. The first night was completed. I felt good. I rode next to Aaron, talking. I didn’t really consider sitting in the draft because it is easier for me to ride gravel when I see what is in front of me. I felt great. I followed Aaron’s pace. We picked up quite a few people and grew to a group of about ten or so. I told Aaron already that I liked his pace and I will follow him as long as possible. We had the same riding style. We would ride together for the next 260mi.
At 7 or 8am or so, we entered checkpoint 1. We received our next cue sheets. I put them in my plastic container thinking that I would use them eventually. We heard from the volunteers that the leaders already went the wrong way for a little bit. About 15 riders were 20 minutes or so ahead.
7am (8am?) Checkpoint 1, Mile 52
I spent about 3 minutes at the checkpoint. Aaron waited for me and his teammate. And then off to the next check point which was 112 miles away. The gravel was mostly smooth. Everything was dry. The sun came up. We couldn’t ask for better conditions. It was in the 60s. Our group after check point 1 consisted of about six riders or so. It was a great group because there were a lot of experienced riders who had done Trans Iowa. We rode along at a good pace. The terrain was hilly, super short steep climbs. Steep meant steep. I even had to shift down to my small chain ring for that (I tend to stick in my big chain ring because I ride a cadence of about 60-70 RPM, must be the German in me.)
We picked up a few riders who got dropped by the lead group. We learned that the leaders apparently were attacking each other on the hills. That was very entertaining news.
I found myself in the front again next to Aaron. I was wondering why I do that. I am usually a pretty good wheel sucker and now I am pulling the entire time? Am I making a mistake? I kept riding that way though and decided if I don’t feel well, there are six people behind me I could draft off.
Aaron navigated. I talked. I was actually surprised how little people were talking. What were they all doing? Focusing on riding? My strategy was focusing on everything else but riding, so I kept talking.
Tim in our group got a flat, so we stopped for him. That gave me a chance to get rid of some layers and change the lenses of my glasses.
At 70miles, we knew that there was a gas station – our first chance to fill up on water and get food. Our stop was fairly quick. I realized that I was the slowest and I saw them riding away when I was still in the gas station. I hurried outside, jumped on my bike, cinnamon roll in my right hand, beef jerky on my left hand. Since the group went at a leisurely pace, it was easy to catch up.
We kept riding a solid steady pace. I lost track of time during the entire race. While I was talking to the racers in the group, we apparently lost Tim with a few others because of another flat. So it was only five of us or so. The terrain was now flat, very smooth gravel, plus we had tail wind. The five of us kept riding along for another 40 miles to the next gas station where we filled up again.
Saturday, noon Mile 120, Gas station 2
We were 120 miles into the race and it was around 12pm. We had been riding for 8 hours by now. I ate a turkey sandwich and bought 5 hour energy drinks. Then off we went to checkpoint 2 at 172mi where the next water stop was supposed to be.
|Aaron and I, cruising along|
Aaron, Scott and I were riding our pace and realized soon that we were alone. We dropped a few people unintentionally. All three of us felt good. We saw two riders in front of us standing in the shade of a barn. They must have been from the lead group. I was wondering if they were done with the race. My question was answered after another 10 miles or so when I looked back and I saw a new face in our group. Dennis. He had a flat when he was in the lead group. Now we were four riders. All three of them finished the race before. Dennis won two years ago. I knew I was in good hands. Aaron still navigated us. I never looked at my cue sheets.
We enjoyed the tailwind until 160mi or so when the course turned around and we faced the wind now. It was not super windy, maybe 9mph but definitely a change in pace after riding 160mi with tailwind. I saw the directional change as motivation because that meant, we were riding towards the finish now. We surpassed the farthest point of the race! That was it. Half of the race was already over. I was not suffering yet. In fact, I was so drawn into the conversations, that I did not realize how fast the time flew by. Since my cyclecomputer didn’t work, I never knew which mileage we were on. I asked Aaron about 100 times what our mileage was and I probably annoyed him with it.
|Aaron and I riding side by side for hours|
Saturday, 4pm – Checkpoint 2 – Mile 172
During the 20 miles of headwind to checkpoint 2 we lost Scott and it was only Dennis, Aaron and I riding to checkpoint 2 at 172 mi. Jeremy, the volunteer at the checkpoint, gave us some good and bad news. The good news was that there were only three riders ahead of us. One guy got bitten by a dog and had to bail. A lot of mechanicals. And a few drop outs due to fatigue. The bad news was the next water stop was 10 miles away while we expected to be right on checkpoint 2. We were all low on water.
|Aaron, Dennis and I rolling into Checkpoint 2|
We left checkpoint 2 disappointed. Dennis and I kept talking while facing the head wind grinding out the ten miles to the next water stop. I was slightly dehydrated but felt good. Every time my mind would wander to negativity, I was telling myself, what else do I want but ride my bike in perfect weather (especially after six months of Minnesotan winter!). I was content.
The only concern I had was my knee. I never had knee trouble until a week ago when I changed from road to mountain bike shoes to get used to them for Trans Iowa. The cleat setup is different and I never was able to match the setup with my road shoes. Because of the known low-maintenance roads at Trans Iowa, I was strongly recommended to ride mountain bike shoes. In the past years, riders had to walk for miles through those low-maintenance roads because they were just unrideable. So I rode my MTB shoes and faced my upcoming knee pain again. I took ibuprofen and the pain went away. I felt good again but knew that I had to keep an eye on my knee.
Another concern was the dogs. We were on remote gravel roads passing houses with free running dogs. And those dogs were not small. In one yard, there was a Rottweiler eying us. Last year, I got bitten by a dog and I had no desire to repeat this. The guys I rode with did not share the same fear so I hoped they handle all the dog encounters while I charged by. Until now, only a few dogs chased us. Nothing serious though. Not yet.
Most of the gravel roads were in good shape. The gravel sometimes switched quickly from smooth to chunky. I really would like to know the logic behind the sudden change. In any case, there was one section that asked for a lot of patience which I tend to lack. Aaron described it best: “Those cheap bastards.” I knew Aaron was referring to the company that chose to use the chunky cheap gravel instead of the more expensive smaller gravel. We had to ride on the side of the gravel in the muddy grass.
I realized that when the gravel was extremely loose, the guys would ride away from me. Was it my tire pressure? Or my lack of technical skills? Or power?
Saturday, 5:30 Mile 180ish
Soon enough we saw the water tower of the town where the grocery store or gas station was. I told the guys that this would be a quick stop. No lingering. Not even questioning whether we stay or go. We go!
Entering the town we found our well-deserved grocery store. A little bit off course but nothing dramatic. We filled up on water, I found my cinnamon rolls. I don’t know what it is about that particular sweet but it gets and keeps me going. Probably the combination of huge amounts of fat and sugar. Didn’t matter. I was riding so I can eat. I also got ham, gummy bears, and more energy gels. Well, the guys were waiting for me. I was the slowest again. My talk before the stop seemed silly all of a sudden. I felt bad.
|I roll on cinnamon rolls|
When we went back on the course, we realized that the actual stop was supposed to be a gas station where I found a lot of bikes sitting outside. We had been riding with most of those guys at some point during the race. We kept going. We didn’t want to waste more time stopping. When we were exiting the town, a car came up and Aaron said we should hold on for a second. He talked to the driver. That was his pick-up-dropped-riders vehicle. He learned that all of his teammates quit. Aaron said, now he has to finish. He didn’t look too happy about that.
|Sunset…soon enough the night would make the race a bit more difficult|
It was about 5:30pm and we were about 180mi into the race. The next stop would not be for another 100 miles. Soon enough, the night would make the ride more difficult. Although I did not feel tired, I was a little worried that the sleep deprivation would hit me rather sooner than later. I felt good though and we kept riding along when we passed another rider who put some clothes. We were surprised. Where did he come from? At first, it didn’t look like he wanted to ride with us but then he caught up with us. It was Paul, who I would end up finishing the race with. He told us how glad he was to see us because he had been riding solo for the past 100 miles and he didn’t want to ride the night solo. I was also glad that we had another rider. Four riders were better than three, so we could ride two by two. I was also glad to have another conversation partner. A new person to ask more questions.
We were a good group. We had a great pace. The longer I was into the ride, the fewer the stops became. In the beginning, there were stops for flats, waiting for people to catch up, etc. Now, only stops if it was really necessary.
The day runs out of light
The night set in, it became dark but we had a clear sky. It was awesome. There were lights from farms in the distance. Otherwise, we were solely dependent on our lights. We entered a town and I decided to put on my vest while the guys kept pedaling easy. I was so surprised when I suddenly saw another rider passing me. Who are you? I asked. Mark, he said. Where the heck do you come from? I just couldn’t believe that someone would catch us because Paul set a solid pace in the front. Mark said he saw our lights in the distance and was going for it. He was also on the single speed. I was impressed! He stuck more or less with us, depending if we went up- or downhill.
One moment it was 8pm, the next moment it was 1am. Crazy, how the time flew by. There were a couple of times, I had to recharge with ibuprofen to decrease the pain of my knee pain but otherwise I felt golden. I ate the entire cinnamon roll leftover and was looking for something tasty. I rode next to Paul and mentioned to him that I was really craving a pizza now. He said, well, he got one in his jersey. My jaw fell open. I couldn’t believe it! We made a deal that we would wait for another 10 miles and then eat it. That would put as at 250 miles or so and then we only would have another 10 miles to the next water stop. It was hilly. Everyone got quieter and was in his zone. The loose gravel did not seem to end. It was harder to ride and we used a lot of energy. The downhills were scary. I almost crashed twice. My bike went sideways already when I lost control of the bike. How I kept it upright, I have no idea. Dennis was an excellent downhiller and he charged by me every time we descended.
Sunday 2am Mile 260
Although we started the night pretty much with the same pace, the night took its toll. Aaron got slower. Dennis too because he broke a spoke and his wheel was totally out-of-true. It got also colder. I started to freeze but I didn’t want to make a stop so short before the next gas station. And finally we saw a small town ahead of us and we entered it. It must have been 2 am or so. From the pre-race meeting we knew that the gas station is slightly out of the way but we definitely would see it. We were looking and riding around but couldn’t find it. We rode out of the town and had to stop for a train. How random! I looked around, everyone seemed exhausted and tired. We needed that gas station soon. We were out of water. It was cold. After the train passed we kept looking for the gas station and rode into the next town. No gas station in sight.
Paul stopped and looked at the cue sheets and the next cue sheet said that the gas station was 10 miles ahead of us. That destroyed the spirit. While Paul, Mark and I put all our layers on, Dennis made the call to the race promoter. “There are two retractions from the race.” It sounded like someone was dying. It was sad. Aaron was leaned over the handlebars, barely awake. He was so tired; he was worried he would fall asleep on the bike. Dennis’ wheel was just destroyed and he couldn’t go on anymore. Dennis gave me the reminder of his water which was so nice of him because I was totally out. And we still had 10 miles to go.
We said our goodbyes and so it was only Mark, Paul and I left. Both of them kept up a solid pace, especially considering we were at 260mi and have been riding for 24 hours. I sat on Paul’s wheel. It was a high pace, higher than I would want to ride but I thought the faster we go the faster we are done.
But another problem started coming up. My knee. I hadn’t been taking ibuprofen for a while because I ran out. My knee started really bothering me. Every time I had to accelerate it hurt like hell. Otherwise I was pretty much riding one-legged; my left leg did 75% of the work. The gravel also worsened again. It became loose and from earlier I knew I had some sort of disadvantage on loose gravel. So not only the loose gravel but also my knee made it hard to keep up with them. They realized too. The terrain did not help either. It was hilly. Rollers after rollers. Never ending. They waited for me on the bigger hills and finally 10 miles later, we saw the gas station. I was relieved. Except for the small amount of water Dennis gave me, I had been out of water for the last 10 miles. I didn’t eat much because I couldn’t. I was too busy staying with Mark and Paul. My knee was in ridiculous pain. I hobbled through the gas station filling up water and getting more food. I wasn’t really hungry though. The people at the gas station told us that only one person passed through. Only ONE person? That meant, we were second place right now!!!!
Sunday, 3 am Mile 280
It was maybe 3 am. Dark. We had 40 miles to go. Maybe another three or four hours. I wasn’t tired at all. The pain kept me awake.
When we left the gas station, Mark looked back and said he saw bike lights in the distance. Is that really another racer? If so, who could that be? All three of us were in a different category so we didn’t really compete against each, except the overall standing. But having a person catch us would mean, one of us would have to work a little harder to stay ahead of whoever was behind us. We assumed it could be Matt, the other single-speed racer. Paul and Mark upped the pace, so it seemed at least. The gravel was still loose. The rollers still never-ending.
I got dropped big time. Paul waited for me and said, “Monika, we might have to let you go. We feel pretty good and don’t want to get caught by another racer.” I understood. But then, it sank in. Wait! That would mean I would have to ride in the dark by myself. That would mean I would have to ride for another four hours by myself. My cue sheets were somewhere stored in my frame bag, untouched. I had no clue to navigate because I never looked at them. I didn’t even know which mileage we were on. And who is talking to the dogs while I charge by them? I freaked out. I don’t want to be by myself. That was my biggest fear of the entire race. I had a somewhat mental breakdown while chasing Paul who dropped me again on one of those rollers. My knee was in awful pain.
I asked myself, knee pain or riding by yourself? Knee pain all of a sudden didn’t seem too bad anymore. I got back on Paul’s wheel, sobbing, making dying noises. Paul hearing my obvious discomfort, suggested to slow down. I said barely understandable that I do not want to be by myself.
So no matter what, I stayed with him. He made sure I stayed on his wheel. Even through the two back-to-back low maintenance roads where I usually slowed down big time. My fear of the dogs, of the darkness of being alone in the middle of the unknown was keeping me riding, no matter what pace I had to go and what pain my knee is in. My entire focus was on Paul’s wheel. I didn’t drink or eat for the rest of the race. We caught Mark again and we all stayed for a while. We had another 10 miles to go. We had been averaging 12 mph during the night.
|There is no better thing than seeing a great sunrise after a dark, dark night|
Sunday, 5:30am Mile 315
Then, it became brighter. I knew the worst is done. We made it through the night. I knew I will be able to stay with Paul until the end. He took pictures of the sunrise while I kept riding easy internally lamenting about my knee until he caught me again and increased the pace again. Paul navigated us. Mark was in the distance. To me, it didn’t matter. It was all the same. We only had to finish now. I looked back. No one. Where did that bike light, Mark saw earlier, go?
Sunday, 6:30 Mile 323
With two miles to go we passed the hotel we stayed in. We were already in Grinnell! Now we only have to find the barn. More loose gravel but I couldn’t care anymore. We made it. When we turned to the last 200m to the finish line, seeing the flags I almost starting bawling but I kept it together. I couldn’t believe that I just rode 325 miles on gravel. Seeing the people there and Guitar Ted waiting for us was the best feeling ever. We were done finishing third overall and as first women. When Paul and I entered the finish line together he wanted to give me a high five. While I attempted to put my hand up, I almost lost it and was about to fall over. Sleep deprivation and the exhaustion were more than apparent. I couldn’t believe it. I was done! It was the best race I have ever raced!
|Paul and I at the finish line. Exhausted but happy!|
Now I am looking for the next challenge! I am open for ideas!