Confident now that my Warbird was sound we pushed on toward checkpoint two, 170 miles from the start. The miles passed as slowly as the scenery. We moved side by side and one in front of the other for hours, sometimes without a word spoken between us. Accompanied by a strong group that had picked us up on the road we rode in a pack. Blessed with veterans and rookies our group fit together nicely. Charles Parsons, a familiar face to me and strong TI rider, Steve Fuller, a super fit, talented ultra-distance rider, young Ben Oney, who reminded me so much of myself in my first TI, Jay Barre, who has broken onto the endurance scene with a vengeance but with a demeanor that would never let you know it, and Mike Johnson, future Tour Divide finisher. This was the core of our group with visits from Chris Wells who showed me that he has never heard of the word “quit”. Paul and I moved with this group for hours and hours like a solid unit, subtly changing positions, and sharing the load. I regretted not being able to stay up front more, but losing the lead group and the rash of flats had shaken me. I had dreamt of winning Trans Iowa but was coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. I felt myself sinking lower emotionally as my relationship with this race seemed to have fractured. How could it have happened? How could I not be vying for the win? Hadn’t I earned it by putting on nearly two thousand miles racing on Iowa gravel? Why wouldn’t TI give me a chance to win? I felt like I was in a bad break up, being left without a good enough reason.
Thoroughly shelled I saw the checkpoint ahead and my old friend and TI veteran, Jeremy Fry, working off the bike this year. Jeremy was volunteering and I envied his position while I reviewed my condition. His words were direct and to the point, I appreciated that as I had no room for the nuances so often shared between friends who don’t see each other often. Jeremy put the information that I needed in my head in a manner that slammed it home. I had no questions for him and I liked that. As I clipped in to depart for the next convenience store Jeremy let me know in a lighthearted way that he thought the Coke in my bottle cage was a good idea, we exchanged smiles and I led the group out of the checkpoint, toward the much-needed resupply of a gas station ten miles down the road.
Paul was the first to mention “taking a break” at the store. He was barely done with the sentence when I agreed with him. We were all weary and the pretense that we weren’t was long gone. I ran through my checklist of what needed to be purchased and what needed to be done to my bike over and over. This list included sitting down with my back against the wall of the store and resting for at least 15 minutes. 182 miles is a long way on a bike no matter who you are, and when the first 70 of those are a hard effort, it takes a toll. We were shelled!
The break at the convenience store was needed and it felt good to stop riding. I worked through my list and finally, I had my chance to get those 15 minutes of just sitting. Eating a bag of chips, I surveyed a gaggle of fellow racers strewn about the oil-stained gas station entrance, some with their shoes off, some working on their only link to the finish line, their bike. I ate each chip and savored the much-needed salt that came with it. Jason Boucher was photographing the event and he seemed to buzz about like a mosquito while my world turned to the surreal. Some of his photos centered on me, but I wasn’t concerned about my appearance or if my position would lend itself to a good shot, I just wanted the next chip.
Exhausting my food and feeling like my fluids were topped off I felt it was time to go; this thing wasn’t going to finish itself. I approached Paul, his shoes were off and he looked comfortable as he socialized with a handful of riders lounging in the late afternoon sun that shone on the front of the store. “How ya doin’?” I asked. “Is it time to go?” he asked. I replied, “We should get moving.” He snapped into action. Jay Barre noticed our stir and asked if he could have a minute. “Of course”, I said. Then, it hit me. I was riding with a crew of guys who were now bonded. It reminded me of TI v3, my first effort. In that race my goal was bent solely on finishing. I was scared to death of the distance and I was scared of doing it alone. I joined a group of riders and we all took care of each other, and that experience changed me. It felt that way again and I watched, almost outside of myself, as the group looked after each other, offering help or comfort. I was transported back in time and I realized that the TI had taken me full circle. In that moment, I was in it for the very same reasons I had been when I signed up for something so big that my local newspaper did a story about my TI dream. Trans Iowa was sending me its final message and I was listening.
We left the store with a vast 145 miles remaining to the finish line. At times I felt alone despite the fact that I was with such a tight knit group. I was lost in thought, riding at the back, contemplating all that I’d been through on this day in Iowa and so many in the past.
The sun slipped away as we pushed on, the only sound was the quiet roar of gravel grinding under our tires. Men surged ahead as their most recent nutrition intake hit their systems, while others struggled to hold their wheels as ours wore off. Unexpectedly, a new element emerged in the form of a deep, damp chill. Obsession over the forecast had me believing that the low would be 46 degrees so the clothes I had with me matched that temperature. I tapped the screen of my GPS to light it up as I questioned the cold feeling of the air. The display read 36.1 degrees F! “I can handle it”, I told myself as we dealt with a breeze that was dropping the indicated temperature even further. Soon I couldn’t lie to myself any longer, I was really cold. I was experiencing deep, full body shudders as I involuntarily attempted to shake off the chill. Deep into the night we went, pushing the state of our bodies out of our minds as the miles disappeared under our wheels. Reminders began to come from riders in the group that at 90 miles into this leg we’d hit a town and another store: salvation. At this store I planned to buy whatever clothes they had in stock in an effort to warm up.
Finally in the distance, we saw the lights of a town. We were about five miles out. However, on arriving in the small hamlet we noticed it was like a ghost town. Sure, there were houses obviously occupied, but all the businesses were closed. We continued to follow the cue sheets, but soon we were on the edge of town and still no sign of an open store. Distant dogs barked as we huddled in the middle of a street contemplating our situation. Men were low on water, I was severely cold, and the fatigue was beyond real. Confusion reigned supreme, as we seemed to be trying to wish a store into existence. We considered calling Guitar Ted, but cooler heads prevailed. I began to examine the cue cards more closely when I realized a note on the line marked mile 109 (for that leg), it said “C-Store”. Young Ben Oney came alive with an alarm that got my attention. He hadn’t spoken for hours and suddenly he was expressing the concern that we all felt. It was as if we’d run a marathon and we were on the 25th mile when the race director announced that the finish line had been moved to mile 32. Our hearts sank. Then, in most impressive fashion, Mike Johnson, our navigator, took charge. He simply stated, “We need to push on to mile 109. Everyone open your bags and eat what food you have.” I protested as I was sick and tired of my food, and then someone suggested we eat each other’s food, so we did. Trans Iowa looked on as grown men began to help each other. Despite my condition I knew I was right where I belonged.
————————-to be concluded tomorrow…
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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