Alone in the Wilderness: Trans Iowa 2013

This is my third attempt at finishing the hardest gravel race in the world, the 330 mile Trans Iowa. Two years ago, I turned around at mile 35 simply and completely overwhelmed at how big the race was. Last year, I finished in a time of 33 hours. I was overwhelmed with a feeling of accomplishment and amazed at what a human body, my body, could withstand and do.

This year I stopped riding at mile mark 180. I had ridden alone for nearly all of the 15 hours I was in the saddle. I chose to go singlespeed this year. The muscles surrounding both my knees, ten miles before the last checkpoint at mile 170, simply started to fatigue to the point that I couldn’t stand and pedal without a sense of impending buckling. I just couldn’t see making another 150 miles. So I called in and ended my bid for a second T.I. finish.

The T.I. is many different things. Speaking for myself, but I think many would agree, the race is a once-a-season phenomenon. It is a marker by which the rest of the year is gauged. You are either preparing for the T.I. or recovering from it…physically and emotionally. The high that I received from finishing last year endured many months afterward. This year, I will try to roll away optimistic, philosophical, but also more than a little disappointed. To me, that shows the gravity of this wild gravel race across Iowa farmland.

The wonder of the Trans Iowa lies in the many different parts that build the whole of the event. There are the obvious…months and miles of base hopefully laid down beforehand. In the Northland, that means hours spent riding cold, wet and often snowy conditions in order to gain a little Sprint time endurance fitness. Or worse…more than I can say turns on the indoor trainer watching cartoons so that I could pretend I was kind of parenting and training at the same time. Then there is the bike prep. This year, that meant endless emails to fellow singlespeed racers trying to guess as to what would be the best gear ratio for such a long race and exceptionally hilly one at that. Going singlespeed represented to me an analogy similar to mountain climbing high peaks without oxygen. Why not up it a notch, the already crazy challenge, into the just plain insane? I chose a 40 x 19 gear this year. It was probably as near to perfect as I could hope for.

But the real beauty and mystique of the T.I. rests in the sublime features of the 30 plus hours most will need to finish.

There is the palpable sense of togetherness at the dinner the night before the race. So many genuinely good people about to share in an adventure that will test everyone of them to their limits.

Laying in the hotel bed the night before, watching the Weather Channel or The Simpsons, knowing full well that you have to be awake and ready to go by 2 AM. That mix of fear and excitement makes for an extremely fitful few hours of rest.

90 riders, all with their white headlights and red flashing taillights on, huddled together at the start line in downtown Grinnell. Guitar Ted informs us of last minute changes. Confident handshakes and words of encouragement as brakes are tested, computers zeroed-out and tired eyes look blankly ahead into the darkness.

For about a mile, even the slowest rider can be up front, leading the pack through the first few turns out of town. You feel like a real bike racer. Hell…I can win this thing if I really had a good day!

The first crunch of limestone rock under the tires. A few unsecured water bottles already fly into the ditch. Many riders are very experienced with the jolt that riding “gravel” induces on the bike and the body. A few are already suffering the cruel facts of life on these rough farm roads. Too much air pressure in the tires equals exceptionally squirrely handling. Too little, and you risk suffering a pinch flat. Just right means a compromise between some form of air comfort and a rim dinged from tennis ball sized rock.

A quick look back and you realize that the race is on. A long string of lights rattling through the predawn darkness. In only minutes, though, I find myself in my own little pocket of speed. How is it possible that no one else is going the same pace as me? I know this will change as the day goes on. Alliances will be forged. New friendships made. But for now, quiet time, alone and many many miles to go.

Frogs. Lots and lots of frogs doing their Spring chorus from the roadside ditches and marshes. If their is one thing I love about riding in the wee hours of the morning and night it is the sounds of birds and frogs. I never feel lonely when I hear them. I remember two years ago walking along a ditch of a “B” road (“unmaintained”), shoes filled with mud, grass and water. Bike caked with ten pounds of Iowa’s finest black dirt. Headlamps turned on trying to see through the foggy darkness of predawn. And the chorus of frogs was the only soundtrack supporting this scene of chaos. Millions of them. I wonder if anyone else noticed. How lucky we all were to be out there covered in shit, serenaded by amphibian music.

This year, we were graced by a nearly full moon preparing to set, sheets of early morning fog hanging over the low-lands, and a sun just dying to rise on a rare, clear Iowa countryside. I had my small camera along, tucked in my jersey pocket. I think I nearly died from the missed opportunities of images that I could have captured only if I had stopped and taken the time to shoot. It was a dream landscape. A scene where a thousand pictures could have been made…ready for local bank calenders, chamber of commerce flyers, and stock photo galleries to showcase the pastoral beauty of rural Iowa. It was one of those mornings that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Huh…I’m still by myself. That’s OK. I don’t want to have to worry about going too fast right now anyway.

The first checkpoint. On these long races, you have to force yourself to ride checkpoint to checkpoint. It’s just too long otherwise. The T.I. racers are lucky to have some of the best volunteers in cycling. After my first 50 miles of alone time, it’s nice to see people again. Shed layers. Remove gravel from socks. Stretch. Swap out a fresh bag of cue cards. Clip in and go again.

 

 

Cue cards. An icon for these gravel races. Count them. Make sure they are all there. Without them, you are one turned around fool in farmland. I race to checkpoints, but I really race to the bottom of a cue card. A small victory every time you get to the last turn of the card and flip a new on top. A huge victory when you see you are on your last one.

Convenient stores. In this edition of the T.I., that meant Casey’s General Stores. Now, I love the science of sports nutrition and endurance physiology. And there have been tremendous strides taken in educating the average cyclist about what to eat and when. But I am seriously waiting for someone to write a manual on how real gravel endurance cyclists eat. It ain’t by the book. Pizza slices? No problem. Coca Cola’s? Sure. Cinnamon rolls, Cheeze-it’s, Hot Tomales, chocolate milk, Peanut Nut Rolls…if you can keep it down then you win the game of ultra nutrition. A convenient store on course is like a little Christmas every 60 miles. A time to eat, socialize, stare blankly out into space while stuffing a bag of chips in your face. And lots of very friendly old farmers wondering where you are going and why you are going by gravel road instead of by Pontiac.

Back on the road, after a stop, there is a small period of re-acclimation. There is never the ability to replace what you are burning in calories. But for about 15 minutes, you have a vague feeling that you should not have eaten that last fruit pie.

Time to think. About important life decisions. Hours to re-plan your life and make mental check lists of things you are going to change when you get home. Actually, that’s kind of bullshit. Really, it’s some damn cartoon song that is stuck on repeat in your head. Dora the Explorer must DIE!

At mile 120 my butt begins to feel a bit chafed. Nothing serious. I wonder about about other rider’s butts. Does anyone really escape this thing without under carriage damage? Does anyone really have the perfect saddle? Except for those fools riding their precious $400 Brooks antiques. (I actually covet one and I think they may be the ONLY ones with intact butts at the end of the T.I.)

At mile 160 I feel the first and maybe the most ominous sign of bodily frailty. Rather out of nowhere, my left knee feels weak while standing on a climb. Then, a few miles down the road, both my knees feel weak while riding the flats. I think it will go away. But deep down I know this is not good…especially with no other lower gears to fall into.

If I were a mathematician, I would probably win the Nobel Prize. Why? For naming the phenomenon that exists when you realize that your diminishing speed, coupled with a distance less than 10 miles, will always mean that it will take a half hour to reach the final checkpoint. I think there are probably still a few riders trapped out there in this black hole of time-space-cornfield.

The call of shame. It is both a curse and a blessing to have a Casey’s store only a couple of miles from the last checkpoint. For sure it represents an oasis in which to re-fuel and warm up. (This one looked like a cross between a bike swap and a homeless shelter. I think I watched a man fully change kits at the end of the candy aisle…) It is also a spider web of defeat to those that get trapped within the sticky grasp of more pizza, bright lights and a place where your support crew might be able to find you.

I called Guitar Ted and informed him that I was done. I paced the sidewalk for a good 20 minutes before dialing the number. There followed an acute feeling of disappointment. Failure. A general sense of “what does it all mean”. And a fleeting wave of relief.

The importance of races of this grandeur can not be minimized. The Trans Iowa is a study in perseverance. Endurance. Cycling community. Hope. Breakdown. And a dusty stage to act out one’s own dreams of being a gravel god(ess).

Thank you, Guitar Ted, for creating and producing the Trans Iowa.

2012 The Trans Iowa is NOT RAGBRAI

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I have never ridden my bicycle so hard or for so long.

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Jay and I ride down the paved block to the park and finish line. It is just how I imagine it. Farrow is there. So are Ari and Giggles. We stop riding after 33 hours and 330 miles. Someone takes our bikes. I hug Jay. Guitar Ted and others congratulate us. I sit down and feel absolute and total relief. Someone gives me a Budweiser and it is the best beer I have ever tasted. It is finally over. I can finally stop pedaling.

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Jay Barre and I looked back 100 yards at the figure of Bill Graves hunched over his bike. He waves us on. His front rack had broken. Jay and I spoke almost incoherently about what we should do. We had to go. We had another 50 miles to go. Time was all of a sudden a very valuable commodity.  Our hearts sank leaving a very strong rider on the side of the road. We both hoped that he would just kick the damn thing off his bike and keep going. Just keep riding damnit!

Twenty miles to go. Eighty. 130 miles to go still. It just never seemed to end. The last 60 miles were without a doubt the most difficult miles of my life. Jay kept crunching the numbers and we had no time to waste. But the roads just went from bad to worse. Yes…we all “love to ride gravel” and all that. But fresh limestone (golf to tennis ball size rock) with no packed track made us almost sick to our stomachs. And the hills just kept coming. One after another.

There were so many times that we just asked, “how do my legs keep going?!” Ironically, our legs felt OK. But hands, lower backs and butts were all just wasted. Jay didn’t want to look down south any more in fear of what he might see. I was chafed for sure, but what concerned me the most was just the pure soreness, the pain of trauma on my inner butt cheeks. It felt better to stand and pedal. I worried I had ulcers forming. I worried I would turn into one of my patients that you have to turn every two hours. I shut out the thought and took two more ibu’s.

I had a second of doubt trying to follow Jay’s wheel toward the end. He was a pure motor. I mean he just didn’t seem to falter. Youth? Maybe. Natural toughness. Yes. But somewhere I found another store of energy. How? How does the body keep going? This is what I came for at the Trans Iowa. This is the marrow of these endurance events. I needed another pure dose of this insanity. Another swim in the deep end. I put my head down and passed Jay so that I could take another pull at the front. He had done a lion’s share of the work this morning. But I scraped together a few more watts and broke the relentless headwind for him. At least for a couple of minutes.

Up ahead, we saw riders that had let us go earlier in the day. All were strong, great gravel cyclists. Good guys. But I stood and attacked and wanted them behind us. We slowly bridged to the five and just kept riding. I seriously felt like Jay and I were riding to the storied velodrome in Roubaix France. Overcast, windy, rain threatening. Bodies absolutely hammered. For only maybe the second time in my cycling life, I found a reserve of energy that allowed me to go faster than I thought I could. It was a highlight of the race. Not passing those guys. But just feeling that strong when it mattered most.

I usually pride myself in my navigational skills. I love to lead and I swore that I would follow my cue cards religiously. I always do. I have done many solo nights successfully.  But the sleep monsters were particularly mean this race. I don’t know how many times I looked down at my cue sheet only to go blurry eyed and fain some knowledge of our current where-abouts. I was lucky to be with a savvy and generous bunch of guys through the dark times of the TI. I don’t think they missed a beat all night. So impressive. And never will I go with such a miserable lighting system again. It was anemic at best. But again, lucky to be with guys who had enough combined lumins to do major surgery by. Thank you gentleman for your firepower, both brain and headlamp.

There must have been a legislative mandate to make all farm dogs in Iowa under 20 pounds. I have never been chased by so many Yorkies, Korgies and other yippers. Where were the big, mean old guys of yore? In their place were the new Mig fighter planes. By the time you saw them it was too late. So much yipping. So many ankle biters.

And no, this is not RAGBRAI. We were not just riding out in the ditch. We are not lost. What must we look like to any rational Iowa rural resident. Three AM. Raining hard and windy. Farmer hears their dog barking and happens to look out his window. A string of guys riding their damn bikes on a dirt road in the middle of the night. All wearing headlamps. Damn fools. Same pack of guys shows up at convenient store in absolutely the darkest part of the night. Guy at register stands there with dumb founded look. Headlamps still on. Click clack and muddied cycling shoes slipping on polished floor. Dumbly and I mean dumbly looking for something salty to eat. How hard is it to pick out something to eat after 230 miles? Really hard. Guy at register must think we are insane. But a curious question? Not one. Not one comment from register guy. I slump down on floor by the cash machine and numbly eat a very white looking ham and cheese sandwich. I spill Chex Mix on the floor and sweep it up with my muddy, gloved fingers. I feel like a homeless guy at a Grey Hound station. Someone says we gotta roll. I say something like “thanks” to the guy at the register. Not a peep. We saddle up and head back into the darkness.

I feel pretty good. It’s dark but I know it will be getting light soon. I’ve lucked out and hooked onto a group of guys riding the pace I want to go. We are making miles into the headwind. I think I have a good chance of actually making the first checkpoint this year. I know I’m not going to give up this year. I hear the first robins chirping their morning song. The kildeer are barking their usual orders as they glide by right in front of our bikes. I love riding these rural roads.

2011 Arrowhead Ultra: Race Day 1

We packed into Kerry Arena’s warming house with only minutes left before the start. One last go of indoor security, artificial warmth.  One last round of “good lucks” to the people we knew.  Someone yelled “FIVE MINUTES!!” so we zipped up coats and pulled down balaclavas.  The first real shot of adrenaline began to flow.
The bikes lined up first in the dark.  The multitude of blinking red safety lights is always a spectacle. Headlamps shown brightly as racers made last minute nervous adjustments to their rigs. Someone next to me was having a panic attack about a tire or wheel or missing child. A nearby rider offered a helping solution to the issue (another example of the quality of person that does this race…the panicked rider soon was ready to go thanks to the assistance).  Then Dave the race directer gave the countdown and a resounding “Release the Hounds!!” The bikes were off. We people of foot travel stepped up to the snow banked starting line. Another five second count by Dave and we were off!
The one thing that sticks in my mind is how fast some of the runners took off.  I had made a pact with myself that I would only walk until Gateway Store, the first check point.  I figured that thirty miles would give me a good idea of the condition of my injured knees.  So I walked and watched as we started to spread ourselves out down the Blue Ox Trail.
It was a giant relief to be finally moving, heading step by step closer to Fortune Bay and the finish line.  I began a verbal checklist that I would continue throughout the race.  Feet? feeling OK and warm.  Hands? are cool but will warm up.  Knees? feel great, no tinges, pangs or aches. Core? a bit warm…don’t sweat too much, take off a layer soon.  Mind? let everyone go…you will catch them again…have faith…they will falter. I settled into my fast walk and paid strict attention to staying on track with drinking, eating and watching my core temp.  I knew that if I got behind on any of those three things the race would be jeopardized.
The inevitable leap frogging began quickly. I stopped to shed a layer and pee and two people passed me.  Soon, I am back and passing them. Everyone I go by I say hello to and maybe ask where they’re from.  It’s hard to carry on anything like a discussion but I figure it is the polite thing to do and may make for a safer race. It’s also a gauge to assess the overall chances of survival for that particular runner I meet.  There are a couple that I know will not make it to the halfway. But most seem pretty solid at this early stage in the race.
The undeniable beauty of Northern Minnesota is really what dominates in the beginning of the Arrowhead.  As the sun starts to slowly come up through the black spruce trees I am reminded for the hundredth time what draws me to this country. It is quite simply the wild feeling I get traveling through spruce bogs in winter.  There is no scenery like it. It defines wilderness for me. Although we are not really in a wilderness, the snow, quietness and vastness of the bogs makes a convincing act.
My eyes and ears start tuning into the surroundings.  I hear a lone evening grossbeak high up in an aspen.  A pile of grouse feathers in the snowbank is all that is left of a recent fox ambush.  But most of all now it is just quiet. The best thing about the Arrowhead Trail is that there is almost constant diversity.  As I think back now, days after the race, and wonder why I didn’t get bored it is because of the variety of terrain and scenery.  There is always a new bend, a new hill, vista or bog. Except for the last twenty miles. But that’s another story.
Miles and miles. The knee is holding up great. The weather is humid, cold and calm. The sun makes a low arc over the treeline never seeming to get very high or warm.  I know I am approaching the first checkpoint, but walking is still skewing my sense of speed.  The day is passing quickly and methodically, but foot travel is so slow compared to cycling. I have gotten better at adapting to my new snail pace but there are moments that I long to be back on my bike making rapid time.
I hit Gateway Store on schedule. For the last several hours I have planned my short visit there.  I air out my feet, refill water, call my wife and slam some crackers and peanut butter. It takes longer than I anticipated but I am out and up the trail with the last light of the day. It is good to see other racers that I thought were long gone. In reality, they are only minutes ahead of me. Soon, I will be making contact again.
I go as long as I can without turning on my headlamp. I finally turn it on for the first time and confirm that I am on the firmest part of the trail.  My ability to feel the trail and stay on the good line becomes almost second nature. Later in the race, when my mind needs encouragement, I tell myself to travel like a wolf; always saving energy, always staying alert.
The evening turns quickly to night and I am determined to make it to MelGeorge’s in one push.  I see a headlamp and flashing red light up the trail and I am soon making contact with a skier. He is walking, having succumb to ultra slow and cold glide conditions. We chat and he is in surprisingly good spirits.  I continue on and wish him luck. I remember the beating my feet took two years ago when I was forced to start walking on my ski attempt.
My first late night is brightened by two occurrences. The first is a wall tent and free hot chocolate in the middle of nowhere, miles before the halfway. The warm glow of the lantern and the generous liquid gift was a welcome surprise. The second was the large bonfire burning at the last shelter before MelGeorge’s.  The snowmobile volunteers had sparked it and were doing a great job of keeping it going. I stopped and refilled my camelback, ate a bar and adjusted socks all by the warmth of the fire. This was a huge boost to my night. I thanked them and made for the last hilly miles of the night.
I was surprised at how slowly I was rewarming after stopping. It felt damp and really cold. I was beginning to look forward to the first wall of a hill just to get my temp up where it should be. I was over the first huge hill when I ran met my favorite volunteer heading the other direction. I told him it was great to see him and I asked how cold he thought it was. He said it was only ten below. I was shocked and then a bit alarmed. We said goodbye and I picked up the pace. My fear was that it was me who was having the trouble regulating enough warmth. Ten below is not cold enough to make me feel like I was. I forced the thought to the back of my mind and ate more chocolate chips.
With seven miles to go, I came up to another racer on foot. He was caring a backpack and making pretty good time. He wanted to stay with another person for the last miles and so we stayed closely paced. I knew the miles coming up and began encouraging us both. I knew he was having a hard time staying warm. I reminded him to keep drinking and eating as I tried to stay on my strict 15 minute regime. We finally hit the lake trail to the cabins. I flashed my headlamp on his face and saw for the first time that the tip of his nose was waxy-white with frost nip. I told him to cover up. I picked up the pace just enough to lead him across the lake at a pace we both could sustain. We were within a hundred yards of the MelGeorge’s landing when we met another snowmobile volunteer heading out. She checked on us and told us that it was 27 below. I knew it! My legs only get chilled when it is colder than 25 below! I was right along along.
I pointed my companion down the access trail to the checkpoint cabin. He was starting to get groggy. I checked the main lodge for a phone, but they were locked up. I caught up with him and we unhooked our sleds below the porch. It felt great to be here! I entered the cabin to see several racers in various states of recovery. I quickly found a bed upstairs and began stripping down to my base layers. The grilled cheese sandwiches made by the wonderful volunteers unfortunately were not agreeing yet with my tired stomach. I ate what I could, set my alarm for an hour and buried myself under a comforter and someone else’s pillow. I drifted off into a fitful state of exhaustion.

2011 Arrowhead Ultra: The Race to the Finish

If there is one thing that really hit me about this year’s running of the Arrowhead, it was the sense of being welcomed back by an old friend.  A friend that likes to play a bit rough.  I began to remember certain turns in the trail. I remember that old beaver dam bog. Oh ya, that clearing that opens up to fantastic views to the north.  And how could I forget this hill?  And Orion! You are back to guide me through this whole crazy thing…just bright as could be, right over my trail.  Maybe I was a bit tired and undernourished, but I was moved by the familiarity and the knowledge that I was traveling intimately through this spectacular country.  I was part of the landscape again.  That sustained me even when my old friend didn’t know when to say when.

I knew from past experience that there is a giant sucking monster on the trail and that monster is called MelGeorge’s Resort.  I have seen grown men reduced to rocking and swaddled toddlers there within the resort’s coziness. Like some sort of Greek myth, men are lured away from the grip of the race by their lovely sweethearts who have a warm cabin waiting for them.  Do not be called hither, brave racers…resist the comforts and press onward toward your Arrowhead destinies!

After a terrible “sleep” I left the TB ward that was the sleeping loft, fumbled with a new set of warm, dry layers and topped off my water supplies.  I had stayed longer than I wanted, but I left before I lost my edge. I was still tired and foot sore and that is what you want to be. Just get back to moving toward the finish.

I knew the giant hills that lay ahead and I began psyching myself up for them.  The sun was coming up, a fresh new day was starting and I began my very auditory checklist of bodily functions.  In reality, I was feeling much better than I had anticipated. My left knee was doing great. A couple of new heel blisters were unwelcome, but the pain started to fade within a few miles. I started talking out loud about how well I was doing. I mean, I started to lay it on pretty thick in a cheesy, motivational speaker sort of way.  Anyone who would have come up behind me would have thought I had started down that slippery slope to cuckoo-town. But I knew what I was doing, and it helped cement my being on that lonely trail.

I was entering arguably the hardest quarter section of the race. There are many factors that contribute to this. The first is that you are really starting to feel the physical toll of being on the go for over 24 hours straight. Then there are the hills. There are hills that are so steep you have to lean into them to avoid falling backwards. And then there is the distance. I don’t think a damn person really knows the true mileage between MelGeorge’s Resort (the “halfway” point) and the last checkpoint at The Crescent Inn. Some say 35 miles. Others 45. I once thought is would never come on my first go at the race two years ago. You just never seem to stop climbing hills. But man, this is a wonderfully pretty section of trail if you stop and admire it now and then. I felt fortunate to be running it during the day this year as opposed to the two previous nighttime passages.

I was taken aback by the sound of a sled careening down the trail behind me. A slender man in what appeared to be long underwear and a baseball cap was gaining on me like I was standing still. Before long I met a fellow from California who proudly told me that he was the only competitor who had finished all of the Badwater Series events. I was impressed. But I was more impressed by the fact that he was still running with seemingly little exertion. Where did this guy come from?!

We were on a long, relatively flat section of the course when I discovered two things. One, it does not have to be dark to start feeling very, very sleepy. Two, you can fend off this sleep by talking more to yourself and by using your ski poles as snow-marshmallow whackers. These were what I was calling the clumps of old snow still clinging to the branches of the trail-side firs and spruce. I began a game of trying to dislodge all of the marshmallows that I could while still moving briskly down the trail. After several near misses, I realized that it was a really stupid thing to be doing because if I broke one of my poles I would be at a huge loss of forward propulsion. That, and the lone woman on the bike that passed me asked me how I was doing in a way that showed real concern for my mental health. I caught myself saying to her that I was fine, just bored. After she was gone, I realized what an odd thing to say. Bored? I was out in the middle of the woods, on a beautiful sunny day, racing to some distant casino…and I said I was bored? I did actually correct myself after saying that to the woman and added that I was just keeping my mind distracted.  She chose not to stay long in my company.

As happens magically for me in this race, I found the day slowly start to fade to afternoon, then twilight. I was making decent time despite my lack of sleep. I had pushed through the pain of wanting to nap. I was knocking off hill after hill after hill. And then I came upon the man from California. He was warming his hands on the engine block of a volunteer’s snowmobile. I kept moving by the whole scene. In fact, I had started to run again, or really, for the first time this whole race. Very slowly at first, just on the flats and gentle downhills. It felt really good to be using different muscles. But why was he warming his hands? There is a habit I have from working in a hospital. As I walk down the hallway I often glance into rooms as I go by. It’s rubbernecking at ambulance scenes on the side of the highway, just times thirty. But I keep walking because it is not my drama, not my life. I save that energy for my own patients. I wanted to stay out of this guy’s drama, too. Just like at work. I needed to save my energy for me. Very selfish, I knew, but he was with volunteers if he truly needed to quit and get safe.

Not long after the snowmobile, I heard the clatter of the man’s out of control crazy sled coming from behind. I realized that we were essentially traveling at the same pace and so I waited up for him.  He and I were both feeling pretty stoic about the hills and it felt OK to have some company for a change. After watching him charge down hills, I noticed that he had one of the worst assembled sleds I had ever seen. He was using clear plastic boxes for storage, not the standard duffel bag arrangement. Barely keeping everything together were five bungee cords hooked to anything that would hold.  What seemed to be at the foot of every other hill, California would reattach the cargo in a new fashion. The whole get up reminded me of some dust bowl era jalopy loaded and lashed together heading to the West Coast. But whatever, I thought. The man seemed to have recovered from his cold hands spell and we were still moving forward.

Things changed as darkness came on. I knew we were starting to come out of the hill country and the last checkpoint was now a reasonable distance away. But my traveling companion started to have issues. First his sled was now falling apart and every few minutes he needed to re-lash the boxes. That took time. Then, he started to cool off from sweating too much. I helped him zip up his coat after he put on mittens and another layer. Then his water bottles were frozen. He blamed it on his support crew (support crew? who was allowed to have a support crew?) I gave him a half liter of my water. Then chocolate chips. Before long, I was ahead of him by 20 yards, then 50 and soon he was out of my sight. I could still hear his sled rattling down the trail and I thought he was surely warm enough by now.

By this time in the race, I was starting to grow weary of trail mates. I sensed chaos with this guy. I did not want to be part of such a sloppy outfit. And I could really smell the barn by now. I knew all that was left now was Wakemup Hill. The dreaded bald monster where the fabled tee pee of doom once sat. Just as the other two races before, though, I was growing anxious to finally reach it. In the dark, I was starting to second guess the trail. There were new logging staging areas and some of the route looked unfamiliar. I told myself to keep eating, drinking and trusting my navigational instincts.

The Wakemup Hill is outrageous, particularly when sleep deprived and in the dark. It is if some movie set director said, “Hey…people…I need a giant, tree-less hill right here! And put a two track path straight up it! No…I don’t care if it looks like a three year old designed the trail…I want it going straight up! No switchbacks! Now put it right where you least expect it!” All of a sudden, it looms in front of you. But it is such an iconic landmark of this event. There are certainly longer hills and it is by no means a mountain. It’s out-of-place-ness is what sets it apart. I began the trudge upward and decided not to look up. At roughly halfway, I assessed my progress and kept it in low gear. The top came soon enough and with it, the best view of the entire race route. Orion shown straight overhead now. No Northern Lights for me this year. You are not on top of the hill for more than two minutes before you go straight down again on its backside. Such a goofy place.

I really put it into high gear now knowing that the Crescent was within a couple of miles. I hoped California was doing OK. What seemed like forever (this is a very common occurrence at this point of the race) I finally came to the highway leading to the checkpoint, hot food and hopefully a few minutes of sleep.

I unhooked my sled and brought in the necessary items to be reloaded. A very helpful volunteer guided me to a table. Wanting and hoping desperately for a couple of hours sleep, I was informed that racers were only being allowed one hour sleeps. I was thankful for any at this point. I ordered a pork sandwich and beef barley soup and started the ugly process of drying off my feet. My heels were badly blistered. My toes, though swamp-footed, were hanging in there. My food came and I inhaled it while simultaneously re-taping my feet. Just like at the Queen’s table as my mom would say.

Much to my surprise, California came in looking tired but OK. He sat down at my table, ordered, and soon had his support team refilling bottles and getting fresh clothing. I finished my food and headed to the most comfortable place in the bar. I pulled out four cushioned chairs from a dining table and got prone. The bar music was straight out of a 1977 Pinto. It was loud. I drifted off to sleep with, “Carry on my wayward son/ there’ll be peace when you are done/ lay your weary head to rest/ don’t you cry no more…” If only Kansas knew how fitting that song would be.

I woke up with a shake to the shoulder. Dave Pramann gave me the nudge and said my hour was up and my competition was leaving. I sat up shivering. I had had these all body shakes once before a couple of years ago. I have no idea what they mean. I was not anywhere near hypothermic but to the folks sitting at the bar and a couple of race volunteers, I might as well have had one foot in the grave. I once again got my last set of dry socks on and the same gracious volunteer helped fill my water.  I was out the door with my heels absolutely killing. I knew the ibuprofen and last few drops of my adrenaline would slowly dull the pain. But I was twenty one miles from the finish and it was midnight. Amazingly, the thought of just a few more hours travel made it sound like a sprint to the finish. It’s all so relative.

I was not five minutes down the trail when I saw the next sign of California’s demise. A full water bottle lay lonely in the middle of the track. I stowed it on my sled with the off chance I might catch him. This last section of trail was difficult in an entirely different way than the last. And again, I was thankful to be hitting it at dark thirty. This was the never ending spruce bog to the finish. Flat as a pancake with many miles of straight ahead views and little in the way of variation. In other words, it is designed to absolutely bend your brain with boredom. Last year, I hit it at four a.m. on my bike. Many times I had to get off so that I did not crash while falling asleep at the wheel. Two years ago, I actually did “sleep” while walking in.  I figured the darkness might help mask the repetition of Dr. Seuss trees that line the way home.

After an hour’s progress, I saw a headlamp ahead but no blinking red taillight. As I approached, I thought it was a runner that had passed me while I slept at the Crescent.  But then I heard the sound of crashing plastic and I knew it was California. I had been following day old wolf tracks on the trail and I thought I might give him a scare just for kicks. But as I got closer I decided to skip the stunt. He immediately said it was good to see me, then asked if I had a spare pair of pants. He said he had fallen into the snow and soaked his legs. This story made  no sense to me due to the fact that there were three foot high snow walls lining the snowmobile trail. I hesitated and told him no, I needed my spare pair of heavy long underwear in case I needed to bivy. He asked where his baseball hat was. I told him it was on his head. He said he was really cold. I dug into my bag and pulled out my heavy sleeping balaclava. I helped him put it on. At this point, I knew California was at risk for real injury to himself and potentially me. I asked if he had anything to eat and he said he had a couple of Gu shots left. Again, I gave him more of my chocolate and a couple of fig bars. I debated what to do. I was starting to lose my running heat and needed to get moving again. The only other option was to totally hunker down, lite up the stove, build a fire, get out the bags and hope to restore some heat. But all of that sounded unrealistic. I said let’s start running again so that we can warm up. My firm belief is that with proper nutrition (including hydration), moving forward on the trail is almost always warmer than taking an emergency bivy. California followed behind me a few meters and I thought about what to do next.

It dawned on me to ask him if he had a phone and sure enough he produced the biggest iphone I had ever seen. I asked him how to work it, but by the time it got to the phone numbers, the battery lost power. I put it inside my coat and we ran for another ten minutes.  Another attempt and I reached one of his support crew at the hotel. In a very loud and direct tone, I told him we needed a snow mobile volunteer to pick up California due to hypothermia. He said he would get right on it. A wave of relief swept over me. Now…we needed to keep moving until they found us.

After thirty minutes of anxious but relatively uneventful travel, we spotted the headlight of a snowmobile coming toward us.  California was hanging in there but I knew we was cold. I unhooked my sled and helped them get loaded. From all of the starting and stopping, I was progressively losing my running warmth. I needed to rev up my engine some how.  They finally took off for the Crescent.  In the exhaust filled silence it dawned on me that I was not out of the woods either. I had probably thirteen miles to go with almost no prospect of seeing another racer or volunteer. I pushed the thought back and let my brain stem take over again. Breathe, eat, move. I took off at the fastest pace I could sustain.

I somehow stayed awake through the next ten miles.  I was on the edge, though. By the time I hit the major intersection of snowmobile trails (a highlight, where signs designate the upcoming lodges of Lake Vermilion…including Fortune Bay Casino, the finish) I was starting to come unglued. It was thirty below and I was so close! But sleepiness put a headlock on me. I started the usual talking out loud banter with myself. The thought of napping in a warm room was something that I could almost physically taste. I missed the coziness of my wife and daughters. My feet desperately needed an hour of dry heat. And my metabolism craved something other than chocolate and gels. That’s when I also started seeing things that weren’t there.

I ran intermittently every couple of minutes. I was starting to see people in the trees by the side of the trail. It wasn’t really scary, just odd I thought. But I was getting close. At every corner I looked for that left hand bend to the finish. After so many hours of non-stop movement, I was really starting to get tired. But there was no stopping now.

Finally, I saw the turn off trail for the casino marked with the race flags. The relief was enormous. I carefully crossed the highway and started the very long, slow climb to the hotel. My mind was getting dangerously fuzzy. I looked up suddenly and saw a skeleton holding an armful of firewood. Yikes! I looked again and rationalized that it was probably more snow marshmallows on the tree branches. It had to be! I ran past it as fast as I could, though, keeping one eye on the skeleton, one on the trail.

The last drop of adrenaline in my body cleared my head as I ran 100 meters more for the lonely finish line banner next to the hotel. It was six in the morning and only the most die hard gamblers might be awake enough to witness my crossing. I put my mittened hand in the air and gave myself my last congratulations of the trip. You did it, I said out loud. I felt a wave of satisfaction and relief flow through me now. I was done and I was still in working order.

I parked my sled at the back door and entered a place of lights, warmth and the old air of casino cigarettes.  I wound down the hallways to the race headquarters room. Heads raised from laptops as I stood their dazed and slowly thawing. The ice from my eye lashes and neck gaiter was dripping down my face as I returned the warm smiles of the volunteers. It was finally time to stop moving.

The Trans Iowa Education

The Trans Iowa V.7 was an education.  Or, how I got schooled by the demons that live within that cement like cake of wet Iowa gravel.

Despite my best intentions of riding with the leaders, or at least finishing the race, I succumbed to heavy legs, dark thoughts and a broken spirit. I wish it all could have turned out differently. I really thought I could be there toward the front. Not this year.

The Trans Iowa is a beast of gigantic proportions. One really has no idea of the magnitude of the event until you have saddled up at four AM and felt the punishment of the graveled darkness. By sunrise, I already felt like I had ridden for hours. I had lost the lead pack. I was losing contact with hope of riding strong. By only a few hours in, I knew I was done. Or should I say, I was scared to go on without a safety net support vehicle. Or maybe I was just plain scared. I was lots of things when I decided to pack it in. Proud was not one of them as I passed riders, head down, retracing my steps to the start line.  I felt terrible. Where was my strength of leg and mind? Gone?

The silver lining to my scratch was being able to witness the finish of two incredible riders, my friends Tim Ek (finishing second) and Charlie Farrow (finishing fourth). Rarely have I felt such pride and admiration as I did seeing them come across the line. I was in awe. It was a truly amazing performance of endurance by both. And to Dennis Grelk, the overall winner, my hat is off to you. Another almost unbelievable comeback.

Here are some of my favorite photos from the trip. I will decide later if I will attempt another TI. It certainly left a mark on my psyche, and I only rode a short distance. To Guitar Ted and David Pals, impressive event you guys. Thank you for creating such a monument to cycling. Here are a few more photos Gravel.

 Tim and Charlie at the finish
 Tim Ek moments after finishing
Iowa Cement Gravel
First across the line, Dennis Grelk
Another hill toward the TI finish.

Trans Iowa, Spring and Looking Forward

I have a lingering nauseous feeling in my guts from this year’s Trans Iowa.  I remember the windy intersection and the farm house with the big cottonwood tree.  I remember stopping, getting off my bike and swinging my numb feet back and forth, trying to get them right again.  Most of all, I remember the feeling of knowing that I was about to quit something that I swore I was going to complete.  I ate a Clif bar, nodded to the riders passing me like nothing serious was going on. But I was sick with guilt. I was mini depressed. I felt alone out there next to that old yard.  It was a cool and very windy morning and for some reason I felt like I had already ridden 100 miles. I wish, in hindsight, that I would have pressed on. But at that moment, absolutely nothing felt right. The next few miles of riding past others as they forged ahead was a low point in my sporting life. I still am not sure why my systems crashed as they did that morning.  I thought I had the mental tools in my head to deal with such a scenario. Now I am thinking that the act of carrying through with the plan to pack it in will be the best defense against similar situations in the future. Maybe I had to feel this at least once to better guard against it happening the next time I get low and weak.

So after a rather lack luster Spring of gravel riding, a few thoughts come to the front:

I will finish DFL, in a caboose, with a red lantern around my neck  before I quit another race (barring the obvious risk of life and limb blah,blah,blah).

I will never run Ritchey Speedmax’s on the rear wheel ever again.

And I will never feel bad about missing a race so that I can be with my family.  Kind of a no-brainer, but the addiction of cycle-suffering is a strangely powerful force. I am so glad I have my girls in my life.

I am anxiously awaiting the next endurance challenge. It is deep within these epic events that we find parts of ourselves that we may have never known were there…both good and not so good.  It is still a mystery to me why the suffering is so addictive. Why we throw ourselves into the pain cave.  I like to think that it somehow ties us to our ancestors. It is in some of our genes to wander and seek adventure. It is a necessity like food and water.  The mystery alone is enough.

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The Last Push to the Shore

We hit the first sand just west of Drummond. After the hammering we had taken from the last down pour, every foot closer to the Lake I considered a success. The storm had left its mark on the trail in the form of countless mini-dams, bottomless looking puddles and displaced boulders. It was going on 5 pm and we had at least another 80 miles to go. Once again, we entered the weird, weird world of night-time mile-making.

We had been in the same predicament before. The mornings on the Trans Wisconsin would have their own momentum as our tired muscles slowly loosened up after the first few miles. There was the anticipation of the day…what we would see, where we would eat, how far we would go. By 2 pm, though, I would hit the daily doldrums…a low period of energy, of motivation or sense of drive. I recognized it fairly early in the trip and it helped tremendously to have a travel partner such as Farrow to help get through these spells. This period would always pass, somehow, by a stop at a tavern, a tough trail section or some beautiful stretch of Wisconsin farmland or wood. Before you knew it, the witching hour was upon you. Since the sun set so late, this new part of the day actually happened a bit by clockwork. Near 7 pm, we would always seem to have another 70 miles to go. It always seemed impossible, yet I think both of our daily clocks would reset themselves to somehow magically tic off another set of 50 or so miles. Even as I write this, I’m not sure where the energy came from. Certainly not from my hundredth Cinnamon PopTart or Peanut Nutroll. I think darkness brought about a way in which we focused less on our surroundings and more on some perceived destination or sense of speed. It was probably a good thing that we couldn’t see that our speedometers rarely read above 12 mph.

On this last push…our go for broke run to the Lake…our one and only summit attempt…I was running on almost pure adrenaline. I knew it wouldn’t last, but my hope was that it would carry me close enough to the Lake so that it would be impossible to stop no matter what time it was. But when I stopped to take a picture of “Poncho” on the trail, and then he got one of me…I began to notice just how rough we were looking and feeling. Who was this plastic coated one I was riding with? I have said it before and I will say it again. Farrow was starting to be an eerie likeness to one of my greatest wilderness mentors, Paul Schurke of arctic travel fame. I learned from Paul that just about anything can be made to work in a pinch…and you can always go further than you think. Farrow was headed to the Lake with or without me…and just like the rest of the trip, he was a companion I did not want to lose now. I was going to the Lake no matter what.


A fitting final resting place for Trans Wisconsin riders? (just south of Norwalk)
So we rode. And we called Rich to let him know our ETA. We knew we were going to be pushing the time we told him…but we used it as a big carrot. We HAD to go hard now. But this adventure would not cut us any breaks in trail conditions. Just when we started to make decent time, we would hit an uphill road made of nothing but sand and bear tracks. The bear tracks were awesome, but only for a brief time before the hike-a-bike carried us back to the task at hand. This Trans route would push us to the very end.

As night came on, we seemed to enter one of the most surreal environments I have ever traveled in. We were on one of the loneliest roads of the trip. A fog began to settle in. The temperature dropped 20 degrees. My headlamp on my helmet was almost useless against the strange ground fog we were riding through. We navigated by Farrow’s lone handlebar light. I was getting vertigo by trying to focus on the road by looking up to the trees as markers for the road edge. Charlie was unusually silent and I knew he was getting cold and pushing it to the limit. The rattle of his cheap, red, poncho was all that I heard after a while. We would comment on how strange the night was just to hear ourselves talk…just to somehow frame who we were and what we were doing. The fog started to mess with both of our psyches. It started to drizzle. I threw on my cheap, bank robber balaclava that I had bought at the Drummond general store. I loaned Farrow my wind breaker. We kept riding.

As we pushed on to the Lake we both felt like we were being pulled magically to the water. There would be long stretches where we would say, “I feel like we aren’t pedaling! Are we going downhill? We’re going 18 mph on the flats! Look! I’m not even pedaling!” We were both losing it! This is when Farrow started to laugh. I asked him what was so funny. He said that he had just scared himself by thinking that someone was chasing us…until he realized it was the rustle of his own poncho. I laughed but at the same time I realized we had better hit the finish before we both totally lost it.

As we pushed on, I tried to keep us awake by telling my guiding stories from my summer in Greenland. For the first time in a long while, I stirred up memories of that amazing time I spent kayaking the awesome, iceberg filled fiords of the west coast of Greenland. The stories helped me. I have no idea if they did anything for Farrow. But before we knew it, I was looking for one of our last turns! But again…more sand. More epically slow forward progress. I could hardly sit on my saddle due to my butt being so raw. I knew Farrow was in his own personal pain cave, too.

Finally, we saw yet another eerie light in the distance. I finally realized that it had to be our man, Rich, shooting flash photos from about 100 yards away in the fog. That camera became a lighthouse! Ride to the light! We finally reached him and he said, “you’ve got another 200 yards to go…finish it off!” He then got behind us and lit the way with his van’s headlights (this probably counts as “support”…). Farrow and I joked about sprinting to the line but before we knew it we were at some random turnaround with no where else to go. We stopped and looked at each other. Rich handed us a beer and took photos. It was black as tar out and we had no idea where the lake even was. Supposedly, it was within a few feet of us. Rich shepherded us into the van. I think I gave Farrow a quick hug before we got in. We were done. We were headed home.

The Fine Art of Crash Camping

One of the best parts of the Trans Wisconsin, and non-wilderness bike touring in general, is the art of finding a decent place to sleep for the night. My wife and I discovered last year that there are many great places to flop that have nothing to do with KOA’s or state parks (nothing against state parks). In particular, I grew to appreciate the versatility and all around comfort of the traditional, village park pavilion. It seems that just about every small, Wisconsin berg has something close to a Lion’s Club sponsored covered shelter that doubles as baseball diamond-fairground-picnic paradise. And the real beauty…no one seems to care if you pitch a tent or throw your bag on, under or near a picnic table. Coming from both wilderness camping and a long history of car camping, too, I was blown away by this new form of rural camping. I sincerely felt a renewed sense of pride for this fine country I lived in.

The Trans Wisconsin proved to be a good testing ground for this new type of camping I will call “crash” camping. Farrow and I were not going to limit our day’s travel necessarily by the accommodations we may or may not find at the end of 150 miles of gravel. So we hoped for the best and prepared for the other. It was liberating.

Here is a classic from last Summer:
The great thing about pavilions is that they offer some serious protection in case of the surprise, violent thunderstorm that are so common in the Summer.

Here is the beauty in Hazel Green that the town authorities let us use the night before the race:
We had a major front and storm roll through the night before the start. Charlie, Jim and I all pulled up stakes and headed to the relative security of the girded structure. It kept our gear dry so that we didn’t have to pack wet tarps for the first day.

Now, down the road, Farrow and I did find it necessary to find something that qualified as a safe haven but was sans pavilion. Sometimes, all that means is a piece of public land. Thanks to our country’s wonderful National Forest Service, this could mean anything from a lovely FS park to simply a FS road leading to a clearcut. Our last night had us utilizing the latter. But it worked fine. No traffic, no hassles, no charge, and plenty of leg room. Farrow even found a way to hang his bug hovel (“or haven”). Not to shabby:
All in all, I think the simplicity and creativity that hobo camping affords the tour racer is a refreshing change of pace. Light is right (although Charlie may have pushed the envelope a bit on that front) and I will modify my tarp/bug netting set up for next year to shed a pound or so. My down bag was an added night time bonus that I think I would take again. The Trans Wisconsin has far more limiting factors during the day then where one is going to sleep. In fact, that is the least of your worries. Water and calories trump easily. We got lucky that the mosquitoes were not too bad and the rain held off most nights. I think it important to pack with those two things in mind, though. The little sleep that I got on this trip was actually pretty good sleep thanks to the bare minimum I decided to carry.

I will take this new found love of hobo-esque camping where ever I travel and know that, with a few essentials, I can roost happily almost anywhere.

Trans Wisconsin or Travels with Charlie

First of all, this trip is especially hard to write up. Don’t know if it’s the intensity, or distance or compression of events. Even a few days out now, I have only bits and pieces to retell to my family. I try to form some sequential story, but it quickly dissolves into a random hodgepodge of suffering vignettes. So it goes. Anyone who has ever done a major expedition knows just how tough it is to relay the experience to others.

First off…a few photos. Try as I might, I wanted to capture some feel of the trip via images. Here are a couple of that stand out:

This is Charlie at his finest. He will now be known to me as “Poncho”. At one of his weakest moments, he turned to me and asked if someone was following him. He laughed when he realized it was just the rustle of his fine, red plastic cape. I secretly hoped the end was near. He started to freak me out after that incident.

Charlie and I found the perfect place to take five. Knowing how Farrow has a fondness for cemetaries, I thought he might never leave.

Sleeping beauty and I actively sought out the finest in lodging. This 4H booth at the Viroqua fairgrounds worked perfectly. I let the senior member of our expedition have the bed.

We actually had a hard time out-running this paver. The road crew was so surly that we almost went back and left our tire signatures. But we pedaled on.

After making a mad push to the end of the route in Point Detour, we were greeted by Rich and Lynn and a couple of beers. We were both stupid with fatigue. Farrow nearly hypothermic, me wanting another hundred miles of sand. Just kidding.

Before the trip, co workers and family were asking how the race was going to go. I answered over and over that I had really no idea. I had succeeded is my other endurance endeavours but this one was different. As much as I wanted to follow Charlie’s plan of attack, I knew that I might end up a full two days behind him. I simply had no past experience to fall back on for reference. How would my body handle multiple days of long distance gravel abuse?

As I learn the endurance cycling game, the ability to stay strong willed and flexible become almost more important attributes than pure cycling strength. The Trans Wisconsin was a testament to this fact. Through some act of fate (and I don’t really believe in fate) Farrow and I ended up riding together for all but three hours of the event. I have had some strong mentors before in my outdoor career (famous arctic explorers, Boundary Waters guides and other tough men of the woods). By day four, Farrow was showing flashes of expedition brilliance. I know this will probably stunt Charlie’s emotional and social growth to some degree, but I would be remiss in stating the way we were. Charlie showed the resolution of all the hardest of guides I have known. He has the ability to take it to the nth degree. He suffers better than almost any that I have known. And he generally has a smile on his mug. Good stuff in a travel partner.

Soaked from riding for hours in the heaviest down pour either of us had ever ridden in, we rolled into the small crossroads of Drummond. We stood outside the general store because the air conditioning inside would have killed us. We were cold, wet and feeling like we might not make our goal of finishing that night. We quietly ate our Pop Tarts, beef jerky, and anything else we had handy from our food bags. I was quietly worried that I could not handle another cold, wet bivvy. Charlie was feeling his chance of finishing slipping away, too. Did the rain annihilate the upcoming forest service roads? Is there anyway we could pull this off?

Many riders were seeing this race as a long tour. Not so much about speed as simply finishing. I, too had a bit of that, but I really wanted to finish fast. As the days wore on, I started comparing this to climbing stories I had recently read. And to arctic runs of glory. Could we reach the summit? Could we reach the pole?

Standing on the porch of the Drummond General Store, Charlie said, “…let’s just go. Let’s go. Let’s finish it!” I said, “OK.” We saddled up and headed out of town. We were going to go for it. Nothing held back. No feelings of what if. This was really the first time I had had that feeling of putting it all out there. It was unlike anything I have ever felt. We were going for the summit. But man…we had 70 miles of the toughest trail left to go…

Part 2: The final push and living in a fog.

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2010 The Tuscobia Experience

Always this nagging question of “why?” Why am I out doing this? What purpose does it serve? About fifty miles in, I made a quick stop into the berg of Radisson.  Not far off the trail, the bright lights of a Spur station beckoned and my drive to keep moving was trumped by my body’s need to void and also refill the water bottles.  I dropped the sled and felt the instant ease of walking without forty pounds of gear carabinered to my waist. Like a feather.

I wanted to be here and gone. Fill up and get moving. One of the women came out from behind the counter and asked if I was in “that race.” I said “yes” and asked if she had a sink with hot water I could use. She pointed me to the Bunn coffee machine and I slowly began topping off my liter bottles.  I began heading for the candy aisle to buy the token, bathroom usage, surcharge PopTart when she stopped me and asked me if the race was for a charity. I was caught off guard a bit by such a reasonable question.
“Um…no,” I said.
“Well,  I thought it was. What do you get, then, for finishing? Do you have to pay to do this?”
Another logical question that my reptile brain could hardly fathom.
“Ya…you have to pay to play. And I think we get a hooded sweatshirt.”
She looked at me like I was just about the biggest idiot she had ever seen. This hurt because, not long before on the trail, I had verbalized my tiredness of all those Ford vs. Chevy, cheap beer drinking, trophy deer hunting fools that inhabit many towns of this upper Midwest region I call home.
“We race just to do it. But a charity is a good idea…”
She walked back to the counter with more fresh ammo, I’m sure, about those fools from the City who dress in weirdly colored, tight fitting exercise suits. With headlamps strapped to their foreheads.

I hightailed it back to the sled.  Despite the mini interrogation, I was feeling good.  The reality is that I spent very little time mulling over anything of importance during this haul of a race, much less why anyone would want to pay to do this.  I did not question the convenience store clerk’s rationale.  I was just in straight go mode… “rip, shit or bust,” as one of my old boss’ used to say.  I picked up the poles  and began that rhythmic swing, stepping as fast as I could down the trail.

The one thing I was forced to think about while on the trail was the total change of speed compared to being on my bike.  Holy crap!  The time needed to go 3 miles, toward the end of the race, became a huge mental challenge.  Mid race I was feeling particularly cocky that I might just finish several hours before I had expected to. I had been able to run much farther than I previously thought possible (roughly 40 miles). After the last checkpoint in Winter, though, that dream fell by the side of the trail.  I had to continually remind myself that instead of biking the distance in only a few minutes, it would now take HOURS!!!  It became just another example of how mental toughness begins to be an equal to the physical in this type of event.  I was frankly happy that it was dark for a large portion of the race.  Otherwise, I would be forced to SEE that those spruce trees at the end of the tunnel of trail are STILL two miles away and not very quickly changing their position relative to me.

I was encouraged to leave the last checkpoint with John Storkamp.  I knew he was strong, but I had never traveled with him before this race.  He led out on our final push to the finish.  We chatted for a while as we settled into our own walking rhythms.  He turned around once to ask if I had seen that coyote or wolf cross the trail in front of him.  I tiredly said “no,” I was too busy studying my shoes.  But I had heard the yips and howls of a coyote pack a few miles back.  His blinking taillight started to creep ahead and I knew I he was just too strong for me to hang with.  I somewhat gladly let him go so that I could focus solely on my now aching, blistered feet.  I was in constant pain now and every step was starting to be a new challenge.  And then came the wave of tiredness.  That type of pure sleepiness can be so tough to work through.  I started scoping potential bivy sites along the trail. I realized that I was doing my usual canoe camping habit of trying to find the perfect camp site…always paddling ahead to the next red dot on the map…thinking it might have a better view or landing or tent spot. I rationalized that if I hold off on a site long enough I might just be able to sneak past the sleep zone.  I slammed another handful of Ghirardelli’s finest chocolate chips and strode on.  (Next to my stupid Hammer Perpetuem (which has become my blood on these races), the dark chocolate chips are gold.)

It worked. Finally I was at mile 65. No sleeping. Storkamp was long gone.  I turned around and a lone headlamp was quickly coming down the trail.  Before I knew it, a fella with a Texas drawl was asking how far ahead John was.  I said, in some disbelief, that he was at least a half hour in front of me. Tim  Neckar then proceeded to run ahead, chasing that skinny rabbit down the trail.  I couldn’t believe he was still running!  Just for kicks, I tried to run and nearly fell flat on my face.  Those muscles were long since cooked! So I kept walking as fast as I could.

I rolled into the parking lot in 21 hours and 31 minutes. Storkamp 20:25 and Neckar at 21:02.  I limped into the warming tent and said hi to Tim Roe and Nick Wethington who were diligently keeping the home (propane) fires still burning. I limped back to the back of the Subaru and arranged a makeshift bed with my down bag.  The pain in my feet and hips kept me from sleeping soundly, but I was allowed a few minutes of sub sleep. It was enough that in an hour, I rolled out of the car and began packing up for the drive home.  The amazing effort it took to just walk around the car sweeping off the snow solidified my decision to skip the bivy.  I had to physically lift my legs into the driver’s seat.  The lube in the joints had totally been depleted.  If I would have stopped to sleep on the trail, I now knew that I would probably not have been able to fire the legs back up again and continue. I briefly worried about the Arrowhead (and it’s 135 miles) and then decided to just relish the fact that I had knocked off a rather large new challenge for myself.  Now…if I could just figure out how to dive stick without moving my legs…

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