The most appropriate way to start talking about this year’s (and my first) Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra is perhaps by talking about the aftermath. In the retelling and out-loud processing of all the cold, the mud, the rain, the hills, the several sets of plastic grocery bags attached to appendages, the most common question in response is: Why? Why did you do this? (undertone: what’s wrong with you?)
Depending on my mood, there are a few different ways I answer the “why”:
- Because some of the best Type 2 Fun I’ve had in the past year has been on a bike in Iowa.
- Because Sarah Cooper is responsible for Spotted Horse’s existence and direction, and she’s a badass.
- I have a monkey that lives in my garage that I’ve trained to throw darts at the GravelCyclist.com race calendar, and that’s how I decide what events to go to.
Now that that’s out of the way, I have distilled what amounted to 16+ hours of Types 1 through 3 but mostly #2 Fun into nine handy-dandy take-home points for those contemplating any sort of gravel ultra, but especially the Iowa type.
Gravel Lesson #007: If you’re going to camp before a race, make sure it’s in a thunderstorm on the RD’s front lawn with a bunch of strangers.
On Friday evening, I found myself driving north from Oklahoma up through Kansas, Missouri, and finally Iowa. I’m sure it wasn’t actually this abrupt, but at the time it seemed that the second I hit the Iowa border, the rain-pocalypse broke loose. Also, the temperature dropped 20-some degrees. These are good signs, right?
It was fortunately still light and non-thunderstormy enough to see a sign informing me that I was in the “Covered Bridge Capital” of Iowa. For a New Englander in (happy, voluntary) exile, this was very exciting, although in retrospect I was embarrassingly slow to make the connection between The Bridges of Madison County and the fact that I was in Madison County, Iowa.
Back to bicycles. After the appropriate amount of swearing at iPhone Maps, I found Sarah Cooper’s house (appropriately off a gravel road), where she was graciously allowing racers to camp on the extensive front lawn. I bonded with the handful of other crazy people there over bicycles and whether or not we were going to die in a thunderstorm overnight and whether or not I should really move my tent away from the tree it was directly under given the thunderstorms. It was quite pleasant, and I would happily almost be flooded out of my tent with these people again.
Gravel Lesson #17: Never be prepared, as this will guarantee that you make new friends.
I set my alarm for a little before 4am, and was awoken around then anyway by the creep of water onto my sleeping pad. I was frankly impressed that that was all there was. Tiny REI one person tent, we’ve had a nice run. The important point here was that it was still raining. Did I mention the rain? This is important because the rain is my excuse for what happened subsequently.
I changed into all the gear I had with me, which did not include a lot of things I wished I had (boots, warm cap), but did include a magical GoreTex rain jacket, threw myself in the car, and drove to the start of the race at the Madison County Winery. There I executed a series of acrobatics within my car trying to get stuff attached to my bike, which was not already attached to my bike because doing so last night would’ve meant standing in the rain/cold for a while getting bike in/out of car and getting everything wet, which sounded like not-fun at the time. Additionally, I was still trying to find and figure out my light situation, since my Dynamo was in the shop and I had a large black shoe box containing miscellaneous lights from a friend. Some of which would actually attach to my bars, and some of which I discovered would not. I then promptly lost the Garmin that I had just been holding. Another ten minutes and a lot of swearing later and I’d dug the Garmin out from under a car seat. I jogged my rolling disaster down the hill towards the start, and stood there for another 20 minutes after everyone else had rolled off, putting my Garmin mount which it turned out was on sideways on straight, trying to figure out which light of the two in my hands attached with which light mount, and shoving cables in feed bags.
I did, however, make a few great volunteer and winery friends who attempted to assist in the course of this muddled disaster. Cheers.
Another volunteer kindly led me out of the winery down the pavement in his truck, and I made the turn onto gravel.
*musical interlude: alllll byyyy myyseeeeelf…”*
It was actually kind of nice and peaceful in the dark on gravel alone. I really did not give one whit by this point that I had dug myself a bit of a time hole. I really just wanted to ride my bike. I saw an owl in the road and made owl noises at it. It flew away. As the first hour went by and the sun started to come up, I began to roll by people here and there. The rain lightened. We were certainly damp and dirty and chilled, but rolling. I had surgical gloves on my hands inside Pogie Lites, and my hands were functional. Hands and feet are my kryptonite. Late-morning, cresting a hill, there were a couple of volunteers roadside with Fireball and Reese’s cups. Perfectly normal to have a friendly stranger stick a Reese’s inside your mouth for you because your hands are too filthy, by the way.
The first checkpoint was just a few miles further, in the town of Orient. I picked up my sparkly silver pipe cleaner (proof that you hit the checkpoint) and joined a healthy group of riders in the C-store, drinking coffee and hot chocolate to warm up. My Garmin had switched into low battery mode, and I set about hooking it up to my external battery. Except upon inspection of bags, I had no cable.
Gravel Lesson #333: For maximal difficulty, leave your Garmin charge cable on top of your car. Also, don’t bring any sort of real cue sheet holder.
This will give you oodles of time to occupy your mind with a game called “where can I put these cue sheets such that I can access them relatively easily, preferably while still moving, and also not have them blow away in the wind and rain?”
In rank order (best to worst), here is the answer to that question:
- Leg of bib shorts
- Stuffed down top of jacket
- Sports bra
- Wet jersey pocket under rain coat
- Top tube bag (obscures food, entirely unacceptable, food is great)
And that was how the miles between Orient and the B-roads went.
Gravel Lesson #39: There is a fine line between “bike that will give me the best shot at riding through the mud-pocalypse” and “bike that will be very difficult to carry if can’t ride through the mud-pocalypse.”
This is it, kids. All those elementary school years of playing “stuck in the mud” were preparing you for this moment.
For the record, the Race Director had changed the course to route us around the vast majority of the B-roads in the original course (as well as one water crossing that had changed to rapids), but there were a few miles that she could not get around, and we were forewarned.
I knew I was there when I rolled up to an intersection. Before I even saw the stretch of mud ahead of me, I saw a muddy gentleman poking at his very, very muddy bike with a stick.
“Is that a fat bike?” I said.
“It was a fat bike,” he said.
And that is how I decided to not try and ride my Salsa Cutthroat down that road.
Gravel Lesson #48: Take the hot chocolate. There’s probably more B-road ahead.
Congratulations, you’ve made it through the last 2 or 3 or 17 miles of hiking ankle-deep mud, you’re shaking with cold, there’s a smiley volunteer with hot chocolate and a gallon of water to wash your bike off with at the bottom of the hill, and you’re informed that there are no more B-roads until checkpoint 2!
Most likely you will ride away happy-shivering, crest the next hill, and promptly hit hike-a-bike mud again. You will swear a little bit at that smiley lady under your breath but also not really, because it was damn good hot chocolate. Also, your bike is a mess again.
Gravel Lesson #54: Plastic bags, butter toffee, and a shot of Fireball will solve approximately 30 miles worth of problems. After that, you better pray for a Casey’s.
Note from JOM – Casey’s is the BEST convenience store chain in the Midwest with killer pizza!
So, I survived the 3-4 miles of B-road hike-a-bike. We won’t even talk about how long that took. Cold and wet is my nemesis, and I was cold and wet. Mostly cold from extensive time spent standing and de-mudding bike. Moving again was helping some. A light rain continued on-and-off. I had some yellow Gore shoe covers on over my Giros, and although they had admittedly seen better days even before the prior few hours of mud and rock-wading, I was getting ready to declare them DOA at checkpoint 2.
And thank god for checkpoint 2, which was up a hill at mile 84, and manned by a slew of cheering volunteers in a couple of trucks and minivans. At this point, I had no idea where I was in the field, or who and how many people were still riding, but it was apparently not many. I collected my gold sparkly checkpoint 2 pipe cleaner, which went on my bars next to the (now muddy, like everything else) silver one. I was still shaking, and sat in someone’s truck for a few minutes drinking coffee (neutral support warmth, for the record), contemplating my life decisions, as one does.
I like puzzles. Cold and wet riding is a puzzle I’ve been trying to solve. So I had a mini-funeral for my shoe covers (which were no longer even covering my toes, and had an inch of mud under them) and tied plastic grocery bags over my shoes instead (yes, I know they work better inside your shoes, and I’d have liked to see you try to get my shoes off with a pound of clay encasing each BOA). I got an extra Garmin charger cable from someone. Another dude pulling the plug handed me his extra Hammer drink mix. With the hours of hiking taking me down to about a 9-10mph average thus far, I dropped myself down to the 150-mile race from the 200, as I was informed nearly everyone ahead of me had done. And I had a big glug of Fireball because why not.
30ish miles to the next Casey’s… even through rain and dirt-smudged glasses, Iowa was pretty. With the hills and valleys, there were some amazing views and early fall foliage, none of which I took pictures of because (a) my hands were clinging to marginal circulation and (b) rainy picture-taking while bicycling is not my forte. So you’ll just have to imagine it. Come to Iowa!
The highlight of this 30-mile stretch was entering the tiny town of Hopeville, which appeared to be one street dominated by a church, just as evening services were either starting or finishing. Either way, a ton of very bewildered Hopevillians kindly cleared the way for the small wet woman on a death-rattling mud-covered bicycle with grocery bags flapping on her feet barreling towards them. I got the feeling that this did not happen to them every day.
And then, just as it got dark, Casey’s appeared like a beacon of light and everything that is good and holy about gravel cycling.
Gravel Lesson #67: Find a friend for the dark.
Murray, Iowa, Casey’s General Store, 7pm. Shout out to the two volunteers who were hanging out there, and actually managed to recognize me (under all of the mud) from 24 Hours of Cumming. We’re all BFFs now, which definitely doesn’t have anything to do with the fact that they had no-bake cookies, of which I ate six.
I sat and fiddled with my Garmin, now attached to the battery, until it promised to actually navigate for me. Thank god. I acquired Casey’s hot chocolate/coffee rocket fuel, put on a fresh stylish pair of shoe-grocery-bags, and purchased a pair of mechanic’s gloves to put over my surgical gloves, which I promptly forgot on the table next to the cookies. Whoops.
My current location at Casey’s was 30 miles from the end, and I was getting there come hell or high water. Both of which we’d arguably been going through for 13+ hours already, but whatever. I blasted my chain and cassette with C-store car engine oil and spray stuff, spun the cranks, the death rattle stops, and I think “VICTORY IS MINE!!!,” because I’ve lost all of my marbles by now.
I had one marble left, apparently, because I remembered that riding into the night is better with a friend, and I have a new friend in Cory, who has been defrosting and bicycle-repairing at Casey’s alongside me. So we left Casey’s together and rode for the next few hours in the dark, talking about bike things. I’ll repeat: find a friend for the dark. It probably got weird because things usually do at night and after being on a bike for that long. I do remember asking him how mad he’d be if he got impaled by a deer five miles from the finish after 15 hours of riding.
Gravel Lesson #132: It’s perfectly acceptable to be a 30-something professional sleeping in the back of your car, provided you ride your bike for 16+ hours first.
The finish line – some lights and a truck at the end of the last gravel road – materialized in front of us at long last, and un-smushed by deer, we were greeted by Sarah Cooper and Steve Fuller. Sarah said, “You look tired.” I believe I then asked if I could lie down in the road right there and roll the rest of the way back to the winery. I believe that idea was vetoed.
Underneath the tired, there was an extraordinary amount of happy. Because I felt empty, and sometimes you really just need to empty yourself out, and it feels like reincarnation. Because I troubleshot my way through the cold and wet puzzle. Because I got to ride my bike all day and some of the night, and I needed that, too. Because we rode from the finish back up to the Madison County Winery, and were greeted by a bunch of screaming cheering crazy people whom we only met 16 hours ago but who’ve been rooting for us all day. Because there was a food truck and a hot shower and dry clothes and lots of sitting at the winery and swapping stories afterwards. Because because because.
Gravel Lesson #99000: When you send your mechanic BFF a series of text messages the next morning detailing your adventures, ending with the part where you may have used car engine cleaning/lubricant things on your drivetrain*, he will say:
NO YOU DIDN’T
DRIVE STRAIGHT TO THE SHOP PLEASE.
* For future reference, end verdict was that Casey’s automotive cleaning products are better than having what was later called “Iowa concrete WTF is this even” fossilize in your drivetrain.