Much has already been said about the race so I'll try not to repeat too much that you've already heard, but rather give the race from my point of view. Everybody out there was very kind to me and I met so many great people I can't even begin to list them (you) here (besides, I'm terrible with names). Here it is:
Sleep was hard to come by Friday night. After the meet & greet at Pizza Ranch I went home with Ron & Millie Sorlye, my host family to get some rest. I had decided that I'd be in bed by 10pm. That left 5 hours to sleep before my 3am planned wake-up. Ron & Millie were great. To open up your home like that to a total stranger is more incredible than I can say. We sat up and talked for a while which was nice. I thought it would help me wind down. I also found out that Matt Chester was supposed to have stayed with the Sorlyes' as well. It's really too bad he couldn't make it down, but I can understand with work and all. It would have been fun to meet and talk with him. I took a shower around 10 and was in bed by 10:15. Not bad. Then the fun came. I couldn't stop thinking about the race. I'm normally nervous the night before a big ride and don't sleep too well, but this was ridiculous. I lay there with my thoughts until 1am or so without a wink of sleep. Finally I started getting full half-hours of sleep. At 2:55am I decided that I might as well get up rather than try to squeeze out that last five minutes before the alarm went off. I had been offered yoghurt, orange juice, and bananas for breakfast and I had planned to take advantage of all of them, but my stomach wasn't cooperating. I had a banana and a glass of orange juice and headed out to the high school for the start.
It was drizzling as I arrived at the high school and dropped off my drop bag. I circled around, talked to a few people and checked out bike setups. At this point I was feeling pretty good. The rain and wind were light and Decorah seemed possible. As we lined up at the start I found myself at the front. I turned to Cory Heintz and Dave Simmons and mentioned that I felt a little silly being at the front. I wouldn't be there for long I thought. Guitar Ted led us out of the parking lot at 4am and we rolled along on the pavement for the first 3.5 miles of the race. I was still at the front, but wasn't thinking much of it since it was still the neutral roll-out. I concentrated on taking it easy, but found myself out rolling others on the downhills (that's what tires at 75 psi will do for ya'). G-Ted pulled off onto the side of the road as we turned onto the first gravel section. I yelled out boldly "See you in Decorah." Yeah, I guess I was feeling good.
The gravel for the next 20 miles was the best of the race; smooth, with hard packed "lanes" where we could line up and cruise. The terrain was rolling hills, pretty nice. After a few miles I was still in the front group and expecting the real racers to start passing me any time. Eventually I looked back to see where everyone else was and to my surprise didn't see a single headlight. Shocked, I realized that I was stuck with the lead group where I figured I did not belong. I thought about dropping back and cruising at a slower pace, but I was feeling pretty good and didn't want to lose the advantage of having someone to draft. Occasionally I took my turn at the front, but things were pretty low key and I took plenty of time riding someone else's wheel.
At 20 or so miles in we hit the first B road. I had been looking forward to this. I have ridden a fair number of Iowa B roads and every single one is different. Some are reasonably maintained gravel, some dirt double track, some badly rutted and others perfectly smooth. This was the worst B road I have ever seen (no exaggeration). About 20 feet in I realized that it was unrideable muck. Now, I've seen this before and so I started to head for the grassy ditch to get around the "bad spot," but there was no grassy ditch. The fields were ploughed right up to the road. There was hardly any difference. And what I thought was just a bad spot was the whole mile of road. Well, there was nothing to do but shoulder the bike and walk. I knew it would hurt our average speed, but I couldn't worry about that. Everyone was in the same boat (how I wish we had had a boat) and would have to suffer through the same B road. Average speed be damned (it was here that I started whistling the Bridge on the River Kwai theme song). After much squelching through the mud for some time we spotted the flashing lights of a vehicle. I figured it was the end of the B road section, that or some fool was stuck. As I had figured, Jeff Kerkove was waiting for us at the end of the mile. A couple of guys stopped to clean out their bikes, but from previous experience I knew my tires and brakes would clear themselves pretty quickly by themselves (this isn't always the case if there is grass or other stuff in the mud, but pure mud cleans out well). I just kept riding. A few miles more and we made it to Alton.
At Alton there were several vehicles waiting for us at the Hwy 10 overpass. I nearly missed the turn as we sped on past Tom (with whom I'd ridden up) and Jeff Kerkove. A couple of miles down the road I noticed that my computer had been reading 30.91 miles for quite some time. Sure enough my computer had died. On Friday I had dropped my bike and broken the computer wire. Late that night at the Sorlyes' I had made a partial fix with my pocket knife, but I knew my electricians work was suspect. I'm happy that it lasted as long as it did, but was secretly glad that it was dead. As those who rode with me the know I don't care for bike computers (I think I said this about 10 times) and it was only for navigation purposes that I had put one on the bike. I had also taped over the speed display so that I could be free to ride according to my body and not according to some numbers. Actually it probably helped my navigation to lose the odometer. I started paying better attention to roadsigns, distances, and the cuesheets. About this time I also noticed that the roadsigns in the northwest part of the state are different from those in the central and eastern parts. In the areas of Iowa that I know well roads are named, west to east, A Ave, B Ave, C Ave, etc. or, more creatively Albert Ave, Broom Ave, Card Ave, etc. In the NW there are three A names before a B name. It made it a little harder to estimate distances, but I got the hang of it.
After Paulina there were a couple of more B roads, but nothing so bad as the first one. The roads were still unrideable, but at least we could walk in the ditch. We all knew that we could have been riding in the ditch rather than walking, but nobody wanted to be the first to do it. Once we started we realized that we really weren't much better off riding than walking. It was more tiring and rougher on the body than walking (at least for the cyclocrossers, an MTB might have been better here) so mostly we walked.
When we reached Paulina it was my intention to keep riding and not stop, but some confusing directions stopped me. I was looking for Logan Ave, which I knew couldn't be far (.3 miles), but I didn't see it after some distance. I turned around and headed back thinking that I must have missed it. The cue sheet said to turn on "L48 (Logan Ave)" and I found L48, but it was called Maple. I headed back to the convenience store to check with Jeff and Mark and make sure I was going the right way. I was, but by stopping I lost some of my mental momentum and got a little colder than I would have liked.
The next stretch seemed like it would be a breeze. Twelve miles to Sutherland. What we didn't count on was 4.5 miles of the most demoralizing B roads yet. This section was soggier than the previous ones and though we rode the ditches for much of it there were many parts where the ditches were flooded and there was no way around. Some places the road was flooded and not draining into the "ditches" and in others the "ditches" were draining onto the road. I've seen B roads like this in dry weather and they're totally cool to ride down, but I hadn't imagined they'd look this bad in wet conditions. Around here I also started to notice some intestinal distress. I wasn't sure I'd be able to make it to the next town before I had to drop my drawers. This was when the first inkling that I wasn't going to make Algona came to me. I said something like, "lets call it quits in Primghar." Not realizing that Primghar wasn't on the course and we had already passed it. Reaching the paved road into Sutherland was a treat. I felt like I could fly after all that slogging. Not only that, but I was in a real hurry to get to a toilet. I booked it into town.
I arrived at the Sutherland Car-Go and hit the bathroom first thing. Feeling much better I bought a Pepsi and sat down to think over my situation. I was shivering and my back and feet ached from grinding and walking through ditches, but I promised myself that I'd wait 15 minutes to see if I started feeling better before bailing. When G-Ted first asked who was dropping out I didn't raise my hand, still deciding, but just a few minutes later as my bowels began to shift again I told him I was out. Mike Beck's wife and brother were waiting in the store and graciously offered (with very little pleading on my part) to give me a lift to Algona and from there on to Ames if necessary. It was great to just sit and chat with these folks along with Paddy and the LaLondes.
I had never expected to be in the lead of TransIowa for so long. I'm disappointed that I didn't go any further, but I really think I made the right decision. If I'd had to I could have slogged it out for some more miles, but by that time I was pretty worn out and still happy with my performance. I look forward to the Dirty Kanza and my chance for redemption.
What worked well:
At the starting line several people commented on my minimal setup, but to me it didn't look minimal. I was carrying what I usually carry for a gravel century plus some extra food. I figured I'd refill the Camelbak in Algona and if necessary at some convenience store along the way. Otherwise I was pretty self sufficient. The food I carried was pretty good. Lots of fig bars mostly. I had some gels and bars, but never really got a chance to use them. The soymilk in my camelbak was pretty good and supplied me with plenty of nutrition as well as hydration, but may have had a drawback I'll speak of later. As for bike selection, this is a totally personal choice for a race like this as we saw, but I think I chose well. My Michelin tires worked well for the most part and the Surly Crosscheck was a great choice for some serious speed when I needed it. It did everything I asked of it and wasn't too bad for riding in the ditches. If the B roads had been at all passable I think it would have been the perfect choice, but as it was the mud was too deep for anything. The lights I used, a CatEye EL510 and a Planet Bike headlamp worked awesome. The EL510 threw enough light to pick lines in the gravel with and the headlamp made it possible to read the computer, cue sheets, and streetsigns. My training was also great. I do about 15 miles a day of commuting and there's a short section of gravel that I often throw in for some fun. On the weekends I did a lot of 30-40 mile rides on the 1x1 in preparation for the Arrowhead and just switched over to the Crosscheck and extended the miles to 60+ (same times though). I did a century and a sesqicentury one week a part to make sure I was in good shape and it seems to have worked. The real standout though was the Chamois Butter that I used. Wow, what a difference that made. On any other wet, rainy ride that I've done my bottom suffered afterwards, but with this stuff I felt good as new. It was the first time I've ever used the stuff and now I'm a believer.
What could have been better:
I'm not totally sure, but I think my soymilk secret weapon may have backfired. It is just possible that it caused the gut problems that I had on the ride. I'm not totally convinced though since I used the same thing last summer and didn't have any problems. It could be nerves from the night before, or something totally unrelated. I very rarely have any digestive problems. In other food concerns: I had a pretty nasty cramp that covered most of both legs and my buttocks and lower back all at once. I think I hadn't been getting enough fruits, vegetables, and especially bananas leading up to the race. The fig bars I carried were a bit dry and it was tough to breathe while eating them. Something more moist would have been better. Speaking of moist, they did get pretty soggy sitting in my jersey pockets, but I didn't want to have to unwrap anything. For clothing I see two ways of approaching an wet event like this: Dress to stay dry or dress to get wet. Either one works and I chose to dress to get wet. I think that dressing to stay dry may have been impossible, but staying dryer might have kept me from getting chilled when the wind picked up. Next time I'll have some sort of rain jacket rather than just a longsleeve jersey. I could have trained a little better by doing one more long ride on Easter weekend 3 weeks before the race, but time-wise it didn't work out. The other, more important, training item might be to do some running. In both the Arrowhead and TI I did a lot of walking and some strength in that area could have helped me out. I don't know which bike would have been the best for the conditions, but I can take a guess. I think the best bike would have been a 29er with drop bars, 45-50mm (1.8-2.0) tires, triple crank and a suspension fork with lockout. The wider tires seemed to be a slight advantage on the gravel as they seemed to coast better on the downhills than my 34s. The triple crank and front suspension would have been great in the ditches along the gravel roads. The lower gears would have allowed me to churn along more easily and the fork along with the higher handlebars of the 29er would have made things much more comfortable through the rough grass. On better gravel the bike wouldn't have been much less efficient than mine. I think one of the guys from Dubuque had this sort of setup and he did very well. The only bike that would have had a chance at actually riding on the B roads would have been the Surly Pugsley, but I'm not sure on that one. I'll give it a shot later this summer when I get one of my very own.