Touching My Personal Limit At Trans Iowa

Today's Guest Blogger is Nickle Potter.

Touching My Personal Limit At Trans Iowa

Between overnighting my entry postcard to Guitar Ted and the 4 AM start of the Trans Iowa bike race, there were many long winter months. In those months I plotted and schemed, and fretted. What bike? What gear? What training? In the end I settled on just riding my bike as much as possible; to and from work, morning training rides, and all-day gravel rides on the weekend. 

When it came time to head to Grinnell, Iowa, I had settled on a Salsa Warbird to be my steed. During the previous months, at every chance I had to talk to someone who had participated in Trans Iowa I had sought advice. With some very good tips, I felt solid about my setup. Trying to eliminate excuses to fail was my basic packing premise. What would take me out of the ride? What might make me quit? How could I avoid that?

The 4 AM start felt as early as it sounds. At 2:30 AM I hopped out of bed looking forward to the long anticipated bike ride. Just over 100 riders took the line. The escort through the quiet streets of Grinnell was a special start to the ride. You could feel the electricity in the air. Each rider knew they were about to push their own limits and see what the 336-mile gravel race had in store for them. After just a few miles of pavement, our lead truck pulled away and let the riders cut loose on the first stretch of gravel. The first descent reminded me that you can crash at anytime. Freshly laid, loose gravel with a high camber to the road, can make for a sketchy descent, especially in a pack of riders, in the dark, with dust in your face. My Warbird did a good job of making up for my poor line choices and together my bike and I narrowly avoided an unscheduled dismount in the first five miles of my triple century. 

The bulk of the riders were still together when we hit the first B-road of the ride. Tractor paths would seem like a more accurate name. The mud had a peanut butter consistency. Everybody was off and pushing, guided by the many headlamps and handlebar lights. After pushing to the top of the first rise, I was passed by someone riding, and was inspired by their example. Pedaling to the end of the B-road put me toward the front of the group. I lost my friends, but quickly found new riding buddies, and I felt like my Trans Iowa was properly underway.

As the sun started to creep up in the east, the pace became more vigorous. The morning was perfect; calm winds, not to cold. Getting the hang of the cue sheets, and working to stay with the small pack of riders I had joined, made the time to the first checkpoint pass quickly. The first 53 miles were done at just over 15mph average, and everything felt dialed. I was reminding myself to eat and drink every 15 minutes; drink, eat, repeat. Between counting down the miles to the next turn, trying to keep mental track of your food and water intake, in relationship to your current supply of said food and water, really keeps your mind focused. This combined with the total Zen bliss of just pedaling my bike, listening to the rocks churn under my tires, all combined to really make the time slip past. 

The wind was always from the east. This was only really bad if you were heading east, north or south. Riding east felt like you were only going uphill. Riding north or south was like constantly having someone trying to push you off your bike. You could ride for big stretches with no problem, but then you would pop out into an exposed stretch of road and the sudden and forceful shove of wind would try and push you onto the loose part of the road and knock you off your bike. The wind made many of the tame descents much more interesting.

I had purchased two burritos Friday night after the riders meeting. My plan was to eat one for breakfast and then eat the other one as my first real food of the ride. The first half of my plan worked. The second burrito stayed in my jersey pocket until 5:30 PM on Saturday. We had just passed the second gas station of the ride and were somewhere around mile 140. Even if I dropped half of every bite, I was going to eat that Sante Fe burrito. It was good too; slightly warm. Or maybe I was just really hungry? Either way it was the boost I needed. My impromptu riding buddies and I made short work of the rolling gravel hills to the second checkpoint. This was a good sign; we had made it 176 miles and it was still a few hours till dark. We happily picked up our last pack of cue cards and rode the few miles to the next (last) gas station. 

Technically there were still two gas stations left on the course. Unfortunately due to the good time I was making, the second station would not be open by the time I passed it, so the Casey’s at mile 183 was the last place on the course to get food and water. This left 160 miles overnight to be completely self-supported. I had been warned about this. In addition to the three main water bottles on my Warbird, I had packed a 100-ounce hydration bladder. My plan to eat my food down to the point I could cram my filled water sack into the frame bag had worked. I was also starting to layer my clothes back on, gearing up for the 40-degree night. The last gas station had also let a few strung out groups of riders gather back up, and when our wheels rolled again the group had grown from three to eight. 

The spirit of the group was high as the light of the day faded into the early parts of evening. We all knew that we had covered a large part of this challenge, and we were doing well. I was buzzing with anticipation knowing I was entering the most challenging portion of the ride. Mile 200 passed right around dark; only 130 left to go. The East wind that had been punishing us all day suddenly seemed to have a change of heart, and now wanted to help push us to the finish. Riding west for dozens of miles at 20mph was a much-needed break from slogging against the wind for so long. As I enjoyed mile after mile falling away into the darkness behind me, I had a sinking feeling that this free ride would not last, but I pushed that thought away and just enjoyed getting to spin. 

One neat thing about storms in Iowa is that the lighting can be quite impressive. Each bolt lights up the whole sky for miles around. It is awesome to watch a truly huge, powerful show of lights and sound. The storm that rolled in around 11 PM was just the light show I needed to wake me up. The display seemed to go on and on, with no sign of rain.

I had been getting tired. Not the kind of tired where you are just not feeling 100%, but the kind of tired where you find your eyes opening back up, but you can’t remember how long they have been closed, or that you were riding your bike. That kind of tired. I was riding in a pretty tight pack with my cycling buddies, and it was starting to concern me that my short periods of involuntary unconsciousness might be a safety hazard to my group. It would be bad enough to crash my bike from falling asleep, but I would feel much worse if I caused someone else to crash. Thinking about trying to stay awake seemed to be of little help in actually staying awake.

I found relief from my narcolepsy when we stopped to put on rain gear in anticipation of the storm that was nearly on top of us. I had a full rain suit, and with the temperatures in the 40’s, I opted to attempt to stay as dry as possible.  When the cold rain started to fall, I was happy with my choice. I was relatively warm, mostly dry, and I was still rolling.

After the clock crept past 1 AM, my memory of the night gets a little bit fuzzy. Due to my fear of crashing out people in my group, I fell off the back of the pack, and tried riding by myself for a bit. This was not the best choice. I kept thinking my eyes were going blurry, but I would then just turn my light up to a brighter setting, and the blur would temporarily go away. I had some pain in my left foot; a hot spot under the ball of my foot, nothing too bad, but it did not feel good. The wind became colder. At one point I pulled over and thought I might just lay down in the ditch for a minute, and catch my breath and wait for my second wind. I quickly realized that I needed more warm clothes to lie down on the cold ground in a lightweight, wet rain jacket/windbreaker. Fearing that I would get too cold if I did not keep moving, I got back on my bike. It was becoming difficult to focus on riding, and the pedals were getting heavier. 

Somehow I was still riding. It had been hours since I had seen anyone. I was not doing so hot. When riding east, into the wind, there were times I was in my easiest-to-pedal gear…on flat ground. My right knee had decided that it wanted some of attention, and made this point clear at the top of each of my pedal strokes. The pain was like someone was trying to reattach my kneecap with a nine-inch roofing nail. It was bad while I was riding, but was even worse if I stopped and then started riding again. I was 27 hours in, and was starting to fear that I might not make it to the finish line.

In my mind I thought of it more as an intelligent compromise, rather than a total breakdown. I had been reading ahead in my cue sheets and I saw that there was a six-mile stretch ahead of me, due east, into the wind. At my current pace, this one six-mile leg might take me a full hour. I also saw that we would cross the same highway twice as we weaved our way back into Grinnell. It was now a combination of fear of having to call for a ride to get picked up off the course, and the nagging feeling that all this pain coming out of the lower half of my body might be trying to tell me something. I decided to call it, and turned right on the highway and left the course.

The several miles into town were a struggle, even on the smooth pavement. I continued through town to the famous Red Barn where the finish was located. Every pedal stroke hurt. I was barely getting each pedal turned over. I was cold, I was wet, and I was a bit tired.

I turned off my Garmin with 318.5 miles showing on the odometer. I’d been on the course for 28 hours, with a moving time of 24 hours 26 minutes, for a total average of 13mph. I was not one of the 19 people who finished the 2014 Trans Iowa, but I know that I gave it my all, and I do not regret my decision or my effort. The last 16 miles of Trans Iowa eluded me on this attempt.

Truly knowing that you have left every ounce of effort you have on the course is what Trans Iowa was about for me; seeing what would happen, when I asked more of my body than I had ever asked before. Finding out what it is like to hang it all out for as long as possible, touching my personal limit. I went to Trans Iowa and I did that; and honestly, I hope to get the chance to do it again. 



This post filed under topics: Gravel Guest Blogger Trans Iowa Ultra Racing

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Todd Ames | October 21st, 2014

One HELL of a effort… and a great story.! Thank you for sharing.

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KR65 | October 21st, 2014

Dang…I was tired just reading that!

Excellent story, thanks for sharing.

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Alex R. | October 22nd, 2014

Nicely written, man!  :-)

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Darrin Hampshire | October 22nd, 2014

We talked about your adventure in Iowa. This blog definitely adds more information about your experience. Thanks Nickel.

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Scott S | October 22nd, 2014

Nice write up.  Sounds insanely epic.  Thanks for sharing your experience.

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Nathan Griffee | March 28th, 2015

Inspiring. Well written.

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