A Lesson in Perseverance

In anticipation of the upcoming Dirty Kanza 200, today we begin a series of 'gravel' posts - Kid

It's roughly 5:00 AM and I'm nearing Rochester, MN.  The heated seats are on and I'm listening to Cloud Cult. The rain begins. I expected it, yet it takes every bit of will power I have to keep the car pointed towards Spring Valley and the start of the Royal 162. At 6 AM I arrive at the Kingsland High School where I'm greeted by Race Director, Chris Skogen. The only words I can utter are, "This is interesting". It's now 43 degrees, raining, and a steady wind is driving out of the north. Chris speaks, "Registration will happen under a tent setup in front of that van," pointing across the parking lot towards a group of the Almanzo army. They are the volunteers that along with Chris' vision make the Almanzo 100 and Royal 162 events happen. 

Begrudgingly, I peel myself away from the luxury of heated seats and begin to prepare for a bicycle ride. For the next hour I go through the motions of getting dressed, packing food and water, signing waivers, pinning numbers, and greeting riders that I call friends, acquaintances, and competitors. Camraderie runs high in these events. I've toiled for hours, sometimes days with riders with names like Farrow, Buffington, Godfrey, Krause, and Pramann. They are legends to me.

Non-chalantly we line up just before 6 AM. Skogen says a few words, the jist of which are, "Ride safe, be smart, pay attention to traffic laws, and be good stewards to the sport of cycling in Fillmore County". We are led out by Spring Valley Police and quickly turn onto the gravel. Immediately the coating of silt begins. It's better to ride in front to avoid the deluge. Fortunately there is a steady drizzle to wash it from the lense of my glasses. In a word, it is miserable. But at least there is a tail wind.

Quickly the group is wittled down to the core. We wend our way towards Preston, where riders are allowed outside support, and a few riders are left behind. We continue south and then onto the "out and back" portion of the course. It's a mile or so of trail, and I use the word loosely, through a seemingly random bit of private property. It feels like an epic cyclocross course and provides a good diversion from the road. In short, I loved it. After the race I learn that it is the home of the owner of the Spring Valley A&W restaurant. 

Around mile 60 we pass through Harmony, Minnesota, home to the Niagara Cave. It's an underground wonderland complete with a waterfall and a wedding chapel...and then we cross into Iowa. 

Iowa, the point we'd all been looking forward to. A turn back into the wind. Immediately the group fragments and we are down to five riders. Corey Godfrey, Troy Krause, Jason Buffington, Jim Cochran, and myself. We attempt to form a rotation and the pace picks up a bit. Troy and Jim fall off the back. We are down to three by mile 85. Corey mentions that Skogen has given permission for a neutral support at mile 90. There is reportedly Coke and pizza at this checkpoint. I'm looking forward to a quick rest stop. Staying well hydrated throughout the day has taken conscious thought. It's really easy to forget to drink when it is 43 and raining. 

At mile 90, there is nothing.

My spirit slightly bruised I get back into the right frame of mind by eating, drinking, and focusing on forward propulsion. I realize my front shifter isn't working, or so I think. Then I drop four Black Cherry Clif Bloks with caffeine on the gravel. I'm bruised again. I hate littering and I hate losing precious calories. Especially tasty calories. With caffeine!

Passing mile 100 is always uplifting. There is something so satisfying about ticking off that century mark. And then it appears, a non-descript, small-body pickup truck in a turnaround next to the Upper Iowa River complete with Coca-Cola and cheese pizza. Corey is on it like an angry bee. I take to it slowly, seeing that Buffington isn't interested, likely having concerns over any 'self-supported' ethos. I take a nature break, fill my water bottle with a can of coke and grab two slices of hot, cheesy pizza. I don't think we were there for more than three minutes, but time is warped at this point. Buffington heads up the road, he mutters something about getting cold. I don't blame him one bit and I'm quick on his heels. 

My rear shifter stops working...or so I think. I see Corey is back on the bike and chasing. Buffington seems to be maintaining his usual steady pace, not attempting to solo into the wind if he doesn't have to. I realize that neither my rear or front shifter are broken. My hands are so cold that I can't muster the strength using one, two, or all fingers to make a shift.  My hands have gotten way too cold. I can feel them, but they just won't work. I resort to pushing with my right hand and reaching across with my left to make the shifts. Darkness creeps in during these moments and I consider turning around, back to the mystical truck of Coke and pizza. 

I rationalize quiting by telling myself, "People will understand. My shifter is broken". I think about the cold. Song lyrics come into my mind... "The darkness is a harsh term don’t you think? And yet it dominates the things I seek".  The lyrics echo through my head, so I change them..."Darkness will bring you down". I still hear Marcus Mumford, "Mumford and Sons" lead singer, belting them out over the rythm of the strings. I keep moving forward. I think about the cold. If I go back to the truck and quit, I'll be standing in the rain, wind, and cold. Just like that, the internal struggle is over. A wet day on a bike is better than a cold, rainy day of quitting. I think I'll finish.

While struggling internally, Corey has caught back on. We can still see Buffington up the road. He's made some ground, but not much. We round a corner and are immediately struck by the tangled web of bicycle tracks across the gritty surface of the road. The Coca-Cola and pizza has finally settled in my stomach and reconnecting with the Almanzo 100 course gives me strength. We are making ground. Corey begins to have issues with his shifters and I wonder if the shifters aren't fit for the conditions, or if the conditions are just that corrosive? I'll soon find out. Corey says, "I'm stuck in my 13 tooth." Shortly after I hear, "Now I'm stuck in my 11". Then, "I might have to stop," and finally, "Go ahead". That's how I heard it anyway.

Recovered from my miles of self-pity, stomach settled, and with newfound energy I begin to chase down Buffington. I've lost sight of him as we've begun to pass Almanzo 100 riders. I put my head down into the wind and vow to reconnect, rest, and at least finish with him. It takes a few miles, but by mile 110 I've caught on. Buffington is a steady rider, his pace varies little, and he only stops for nature breaks. We stop and I find out just how corrosive the limestone silt can be. I've been wearing rain gear all day, a jacket and knickers. Regardless the silt has worked its way into the top front of my pants. For nearly a hundred miles, unbeknownst to me, I've been chafing very important parts. It's painful, bloody painful, and I can't get it situated back to where it doesn't rub on my sand covered shorts. It feels like a papercut. Standing moves it away from my shorts and so I spend a lot of time standing. 

Eventually, the pain subsides and I stop focusing on it. I'm more focused on getting in calories, ticking off the miles, and sticking to Buffington's wheel. Buffington and I chat to pass the time. We relish the reality that no longer are the cue sheets necessary to make the finish. We just have to follow the tracks. I haven't used cue sheets all day, relying on others to navigate and simply riding. This is a technique I've adopted for 2011 only because I've lost my homemade cue sheet holder and haven't bothered to make a new one. I realize we're coming up on the Forrestville State Park checkpoint for the Almanzo 100, only because of a "Road Closed, Bridge Out" sign that I recognize from last year. As we're nearing the checkpoint I recognize Kelly Mac's bright pink-ish helmet. I vowed to leave a bright red hand print on her arse if I caught her and now I've caught her. I consider honoring that vow, but worry about knocking my own arse off my bike if I do. I'm weak.

Buffington and I don't falter as we cruise throught the checkpoint. Checkpoints only slow us down. Again, we are making ground towards the finish, ticking off miles, ticking off riders. I'm feeling good, on top of nutrition and water, strength in my hands and legs has come back. I can shift, and it has stopped raining. Oriole Road throws us a challenge. Steep and winding we edge our way up it. I proclaim, "Well, we climbed that!" at the top. If we can climb Oriole we can climb any other roads. I'm recognizing roads from years prior and remembering turns, enjoying the final 20 or so miles. Somewhere around 137 miles my GPS batteries die.  Not a big deal, we have tracks to follow. 

Buffington and I descend into a valley that historically we've approached in the opposite direction at the beginning of the 100. This year it is on the way back into Spring Valley. There were some hard crashes last year on the hair pin downhill descent last year. The results were broken bones and concussions. We make the climb out and I can feel the finish nearing. Just like that I see a water tower and the lights of the Kingsland High School football field. We turn onto the final gravel road and realize that we're not at 162 miles, but nonetheless here we are, back where we started. I'm confident the 162 didn't separate from the 100, but surprised to be missing the last seven miles. Buffington and I don't know how to finish. Adhoc, we declare a sprint and take off. There really isn't a drawn finish line. I round the corner into the parking lot and ease up. Buffington takes me at the line. He is the declared winner. Second place it is.

Photo courtesy of Cycleture

Buffington deserves the win. He's ridden strong and seemingly carried me for miles. I'm happy to be in the lead group and finish what can only be described as a lesson in perseverance. My mantra for the day has been Keep Moving Forward. My only goal to finish. Now it is time for the real challenge...a solo drive home. 

This post filed under topics: Dirty Kanza 200 Gravel Ultra Racing

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Joe Meiser

Joe Meiser

I've had a lot of good luck and made a series of choices to be working for the brand and in the bike industry. In 2007 I signed up for the TransIowa just to see if I could complete it. I completed it and discovered a few things about myself in the process. Adventure cycling has been in my blood ever since.


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Charlie | May 23rd, 2011

So inspiring!!!  Bravo…You guyz were way way way out front!!! Great effort…

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buff | May 23rd, 2011

Grueling day, strong work Joe!  I was so happy when you caught me, the suffering was taking it’s toll solo.  That Finish Line was ‘different’, I didn’t know who won for 3 days and saw the results.  Guess Tie goes to the Old Guy!

Adventure Monkey | May 23rd, 2011

Great writeup! Thanks for taking us there without having to endure such bloody pain - ouch!

MG | May 24th, 2011

Nice ride Joe. You and Jason were the class of the field, clearly. Way to persevere.

I look forward to seeing you in Emporia in a couple weeks.


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