The snap of cleats locking into pedals was all that could be heard on the desolate street as we prepared to head for mile 109 of this section. I was faced with 19 more freezing miles and doubt began to creep in. I had to do it. Humbly I asked, “Does anyone have a spare jacket, shirt, anything they’re not using?” I didn’t want to impose, but with my extra light kit I was not prepared for the 36-degree temperature. Soon, Jay Barre spoke up, “I have a sleeveless Merino wool base layer, if that will help.” Then Steve Fuller, “I have a short sleeve base layer Tim.” I accepted them both and pulled them right over my wind vest, thanking them though I realized those thanks would never be enough. Again, a gesture of compassion among a group of men that barely knew each other, I felt TI smile down on us as its spirit dug deeper into our souls.
I vowed not to look at my mileage as we silently went in quest for what we felt was our deliverance from this desperate situation, a convenience store that, as Guitar Ted had put it, was “lit up like a Christmas tree”. We slid through the night, my mind darting around my body assessing each area of pain. My fingers were frozen and sore. My head was freezing as well, but also maintained a splitting headache at the point between my skull and helmet light strap. My lower back protested against the hours and hours of riding, but my left knee had been bothering me a bit since sun down. I played mental gymnastics with the problems as I attempted to keep them at bay. It became apparent that my knee was at the top of the list as it seemed to scowl at me like an angry child sitting in a corner, promising revenge.
The cold persisted and I resolved to accept my situation of misery. True to form the course seemed to evolve into an endless series of huge rollers that had us digging deep for the summits and coasting wildly down the chunky gravel. The pattern continued and the cold penetrated deeper into my knee. I tried to keep the complaining to a minimum, but I’m sure my comrades could hear the groans from me as I resumed pedaling through the flats between the rollers. Coasting seemed to lock up the tendons, which were clearly swollen, and then as I pedaled out of the downhill the pain would take my breath away. I soon began to adjust my stroke so that my right leg would carry about 80% of the load, while the left went along for the ride. Charles Parsons, showing no signs of trouble, drifted back in the pack to see how I was doing as if he sensed I was hurting. I unloaded my pain on him in the hopes that maybe he could somehow take it from me. I explained that pedaling was excruciating and that I needed to find a way to suppress it. He suggested that I take some of his Aleve, so I took him up on the offer, letting him know that I currently had about ten Ibuprofen in my system. I appreciated his generosity, but more importantly I appreciated him listening to me, and his display of empathy. At one point he suggested I raise my seat a ¼ inch as I had told him that a last minute change of shoe choice might have affected my seat height. I barked back at him that it was probably the 270 miles I’d ridden, not my seat height. It was the pain talking and he knew it. He shrugged off my tone and encouraged me to hang in there.
The lights of the convenience store lit up the sky above it and we poured into it like college kids entering their first bar. It felt good to be off the bike. And for me it felt good to not be rotating the leg any more. Fueling up on hot food and good laughs we all confirmed that we were a mere 41 miles from the finish, which seemed like a few blocks compared to the distance we’d ridden. I can’t be sure how long we were in the store and it didn’t really matter to me. I was with the guys I wanted to be with and I think they wanted to be with me. We were getting it done and doing it for the right reasons. I watched them in that store as they joked about the amount of food they were buying, how they teased Mike Johnson for buying a Mountain Dew sweatshirt to keep warm. It was as if we’d been riding together for years.
We pushed out of the parking lot and I noted how my partner Paul coughed and sputtered the dust from his lungs. “Look at that”, he said gesturing to the asphalt at what had just come from inside him. I shook my head at the pile of mud on the cement, “Gonna take a while to get all of that out of us, huh?” I said. We chuckled as we began to roll out toward the first of the 41 miles to go. Ten minutes later I tapped the screen of my GPS, 5:00 a.m., 25 hours in and I could feel the pain seeping back into my knee joint. I was having a hard time breathing due to the stabs of what felt like bone churning on bone. “Sunrise will warm things up. Maybe my knee just needs to be warmer,” I told myself, but I knew that it couldn’t be that simple.
The sun rose and I didn’t even notice, nor did I care. My mind was now 100% consumed with the pain. I was falling behind my group and there was nothing I could do about it. Once again, Charles Parsons drifted back to check on me. I vented to him in gasps while he offered more of his medicine. I took him up on his offer and ate all that he had, apologizing as I returned the empty container. Twenty miles out I was most certainly dropped by the group and could barely get my leg through a revolution as my heart rate would sky rocket up and down keeping rhythm with pain. I was living in the stratosphere of agony when I finally broke down. Tears began to stream down my cheeks as my world came crashing down around me. I pulled over to a cattle gate in a last ditch effort to do something to alleviate my struggle. “1/4 inch. I’ll raise it ¼ inch, maybe the change in position will…” I told myself.
Putting my tools back into my frame bag I looked up to see no one. I could hear a slight breeze blowing through open plains. I looked up to the blue sky and took a deep breath, scared to get back on my machine. Eventually, I pushed off the cattle gate and back onto the gravel. I dared myself to rotate the leg. Finally, I apprehensively allowed my foot to follow the path of the crank arm. There was no pain! Out loud I said, “What?” I turned over my legs again and no pain. Slowly I began to apply pressure to the pedal and things seemed to be okay. I rationalized that the change of seat height offered my tendons something different. “Thank you Charles!” I yelled. Up into the big ring I went for the first time since late afternoon the previous day. As I tested the leg I found more and more success. A glance at the GPS had me moving at 20 mph. I cruised through the rollers until I spotted my boys cresting a hilltop about two miles ahead. “Catch them”, I told myself. My inspiration to join them turned into a quest for the finish line. I moved through a few of them that had lost contact with the main group as I kept my eyes forward. The miles were counting down now and soon my Trans Iowa would be over.
Soon, I was in touch with Charles Parsons, Jay Barre, Paul Errington, and Steve Fuller. I rode with them briefly until the draw of finishing became too much. I lit the afterburners once again, which sparked a wild back and forth between Charles, Steve, and I. To feel the race turn into a race felt good. Soon enough our positions were determined as we were only a couple miles out, but most importantly I knew that we had done it! Although some of us were strung out along the road we’d made it together.
As I rode through those last few miles what had been stirring in my mind since the start line was now staring me right in the face. 1,800 miles of Iowa gravel was now behind me. I’d competed in five Trans Iowa’s, finishing four of them. I’d made friends that will last a lifetime. I’d found things within myself that I never would have discovered. I could feel Trans Iowa letting me go, telling me that it was okay to turn and walk away. I could hear it telling me that I’ve helped others find a passion for the event. I’d be leaving my beloved Trans Iowa now, no longer competing, but always knowing and telling others what can be found in all those miles of tough Iowa gravel. I wasn’t sure what I’d do at the finish line…what I’d say to my good friend who most know as Guitar Ted. I guess I just planned to look into his eyes and without actually saying a word, I’d say thank you.
The finish line came into my view as I backed off the power. Overwhelmed, I tried to control my swirling emotions. As if in a dream state I took in the scene. I saw and heard Amy call my name; she was clapping and beaming with pride. She moved in slow motion as I passed. Then, ahead I saw Mark holding a clipboard, noticing that it was me who was approaching. We smiled at each other and I got my chance to say “Thank you”.
Pushing my bike back to our waiting car I held my wife’s hand. I took one more look over my shoulder and watched Guitar Ted check another finisher in, shaking his hand while congratulating him. Tears were in my eyes as I took in the moment and thought, ‘Here I am at Trans Iowa, right where I belong.’
Special thanks to my wife Amy who supported me through all the training, as well as the race, without question. Thank you to Tim and Mike at Salsa Cycles…your last minute assistance with my “wheel crisis” was amazing. Thank you to Jeff Clarkson of Schwalbe Tires, your investment in my success is truly appreciated. Thanks to Chris Lupo of Rudy Project. Thank you to Lynda Wallenfells for her support and answers to my myriad of training questions. Thank you to Guitar Ted and his wonderful volunteers. Mark, I know you don’t want to take credit, but you introduced me to something bigger than all of us, something this world needs more of. You, my friend, are “One of the Good Guys” and you’ll always have a piece of my heart.
To Trans Iowa, you’ve shown me all that I could find on your wet, muddy, and dusty roads. You’ve broken me down and built me back up again. You’ve always brought me back stronger than when I started. You’ve helped me and so many others find compassion in an often times busy, surly world. No matter what your weather I have always seen your light shining down on me…so long my friend…so long.
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Tim (Eki) Ek
Tim Ek was born and raised in Duluth, Minn., and still calls it home. He’s always had a passion for competition and seeking his own extremes. Tim's true love is the woods: Out in the wild is where he clears his head and finds his peace, and he prefers getting there by bike. Tim Ek: The Eki Chronicles, ekichronicles2.kinetic-fitness.com