Friday, June 6, 2014

Trans Iowa Part III "Come in," they moooo-ed. "We'll give you shelter from the storm."

Sorry for the substantial delay in submitting Part III of my personal narrative involving the running of the Trans-Iowa. In my defense, I have been super busy getting my dear Seniors ready for graduating from Esko High School.  Here is an observation just to set the record straight, today’s youth are just as compassionate and connected to the world around them as we ever were. Of course, that’s not necessarily something to brag about, still I find joy and humor in my interactions with the vast majority of the teenagers that I deal with each and every day.  Don’t believe me? Check out this recent article, published by The Dailybeast ( ).   

During these last few dayz I have spent with these fledgling adults, one message to them was to quote from the great American poet who just recently passed away; namely Maya Angelo— “Most people don’t grow up. Most people age. They find parking spaces, honor their credit cards, get married, have children, and call that maturity.  What this is, is aging.”

Appropriately, I then cautioned them to resist the insidious, but all too common inclination of modern adulthood. Which is to continuously complicate their lives with superfluous endeavors and ravenous consumption. I offered several examples as my starting point for an emotional long-winded rant, one was about the current state of cycling.  One of which was the absurdity of the marketing of shiny widgets and techno-contrivances the bike industry offers up to the fanatical consuming bikers each year.  This year’s gadgets include offering digital derailleurs that will save you a ton of weight and only cost $800... Ultimately beseeching my captive audience to join me in my quest to start a Neo-Luddite movement where simplistic micro-communities reign, where people engage in face-to-face conversations about books their reading, and where the populace doesn’t buy into every new and shiny trinket the capitalists’ offer up for mass consumption…But I digress…

Perhaps it is a good thing that I have had several weeks to gain perspective on the running of the tenth Trans-Iowa.  On reflection, one thing that pops into my mind is how hobbled I have become in the last few years and how much faster the fast guyz have gotten.  Back in the day, if the conditions were doable, I would race the Trans-Iowa with an eye on finishing up in the top five or at least in the top ten, of course back then it attracted only the most dysfunctional and marginalized of Midwestern riders—in the early races, normal people did not sign up for the Trans-Iowa.

It is to Guitar Ted’s credit and commitment to the absurdly irrational, that this race still attracts a relative high number of nerd-do-wells, bohemians, and misfits—it’s why I keep coming down to Iowa every April.  I suspect it is also why many of you also come back each year or want to experience the event in the future. Just think about it; early on, some ten years ago, back then when GT and his buddies put this thing into motion, if you were a really talented cyclist with a bright future ahead of you, you would not risk it on such an unglamorous and potentially damaging event as the Trans-Iowa!  Even today, where the canvas is a different color; wherein gravel endurance events have become vogue, and consequently expensive, even extravagant affairs. Where “the Industry” produces special carbon and titanium bikes made specifically for gravel; cutting edge bikes that one can pay many thousands of dollars for…All in an effort to enjoy an advantage over those other old men in one’s age group and also where full-on sponsored pros grace the tops of the results page. No the Trans-Iowa is not a glitzy affair or a big production and I doubt it will ever be and that is just fine by me. And I suspect you agree with me.  The Trans Iowa is about defeating ones demons…Defeating them alone with no fanfare or support!

In any event, this year I rode solely with the goal being to just try and finish the damned thing.  When I think about how fast the top guyz were going this year, even against very significant headwinds, including the performance by Troy Krause on a single speed, (not to mention Barre riding a fixed gear bike), it really puts my forlorn effort into perspective.  It should come as no surprise, but for those of you that don’t know me personally, I have never been “exceptional” at anything in my long life, but due to several recent debacles (this race included) I have grown even more humble in the assessment of my achievements and yet also more respectful of the really exceptional achievements of those of whom I have known over the years.  In the context of the Trans-Iowa, I am thinking of two guyz associated with this event over the years.  In my mind, Troy Krause and Mike Johnson have become synonymous with the characteristics needed to do well in this event, namely mental toughness and physical perseverance. This year they once again turned in most impressive results.

To be honest when I think about this year’s Trans-Iowa, essentially three peculiarities come to mind.  The first two were essentially acts of God while the third involves a reaction or a manifestation of these acts of God.  I remember strong headwinds.  You know, the kind of incessant wind that make that distressingly disturbing relentless roaring sound in ones helmet, all the time wearing steadily away at the resolve of even the most stoic of willful riders.  The second was the rain that came with nightfall. The third was the generosity of cows...

At one point, well into the evening hours, the rains became torrential and spiteful in its delivery.  At its peak, the downpour was so intense that Jay Barre and I sought “shelter from the storm” within a large metal sided barn-like structure.  The large barn doors were locked, but the doors were old and badly rotted away at their base, allowing for a jagged gap just large enough to allow us the opportunity to squeeze through, crawling through the barnyard muck on our stomachs. Once inside we were treated to a small mountain of fresh hay bales and a gathering of scared calves.  I nodded a sincere salutation in the general direction of our newly befriended bovines, grabbed a few broken hay bales and fashioned a soft bed. Resting my old bones in the supine position, I smiled the smile of sweet salvation. Nothing mattered to me at that brief moment of respite other than the contentment of non-movement and good cheer directed towards my partner.  I looked over at the youthful Barre, who was involuntarily nodding, fighting the good fight to stay awake.  I remember thinking that it doesn’t get any better than this…

At this late date, that’s what I most vividly remember about the tenth running of the Trans-Iowa.   Hanging out with Jay Barre, late night or maybe early morning, in that barn with the cowering cows, while the Demons of Despair outside tried to conquer us…

Friday, May 2, 2014

Part 2: Perhaps a little context would be helpful?

Part II: Some context or “How I came to lie down upon the fresh grass on that lonely road, just six miles from my goal of finishing the tenth running of the Trans-Iowa.” 


… Learning is defined as “a modification of a behavioral tendency by experience (as exposure to conditioning).”  Basically what I get from that is that learnin’ involves not making the same mistake over and over again.  So based on that definition, I not be a “learneded” man, cuzin’ if I was… I’d NOT keep headin’ down to Grinnell, Iowa nearly every spring in search of clarity through sufferin’. Whilst my memory is not a personal characteristic that I am proud of, to the best of my recollections, I’ve have now made the late April trip down to Iowa on five occasions to partake in Guitar Ted’s Classic Gravel suffer-fest and to the best of my knowledge I ain’t any better elucidated than had I stayed home…


The first time I tried the Trans-Iowa, I did Okay, plus I got away with a respectable effort by tucking behind two better cyclists than I’ll ever be (or was): One of them was this amazingly strong young buck named John Gorilla and the other was an enduro-machine from Michigan that was on a SS Gary Fisher Superfly 29er.  The conditions were tough (very windy, wet, and cold), but not too tough, so we were going well, putting a lot of time on the rest of the couple remaining riders, one of whom was the indomitable Charles Parsons…Then suddenly and anticlimactically, in the later evening hours of that Saturday night (the bars were still open, but it was late out, maybe 10 or 11 pm or 18 or so hours into it), GT had to call the race because of an impasse up the road. A bridge had washed out and there was no way to change the racecourse, so late into the event.  So I walked away from that one not too damaged.  One lesson not learned the first time was: There is a BIG difference between riding for eighteen hours and riding for more than twenty-eight hours or even more. I guess I didn’t realize that as I made the drive back home to Duluth after that first effort.


The next time (I think it was the following April), nearly killed me. The only time I have been nearer to death during a bike race was during the Tuscobia some years back (but thatz another story).  Like the year before, I went out with the leaders, trying to ride with Joe Meiser, Dave Praman, and my training partner, Tim Ek.  Meiser and Pramann attacked early in the race, Eki and I were in the right place, so we went them and thus the foursome put some major time on the rest of the field.  During the daylight hour of that perfect Saturday, Eki and I were just along for the ride, barely hanging on. Eki got a flat and got dropped, but bravely fought his way back to the three of us.  Ultimately Eki was strong enough to hold on, and the three of them lead by the Über strong Meiser went on to collectively ride an impressive winning time of just over 25 hours or something incredible like that…I got dropped about ten or so hours into it and then really struggled. It was not a pretty sight; a grown man sprawled out on a lonely gravel road, barely strong enough to endure the dry-heaves.   I had gone out way too fast and was completely shattered, especially during the dreaded nighttime hours.  Four things saved me: 1.) The conditions were really good; 2.) Even though with the setting of the sun, I was alone, I didn’t get lost during the night; 3.) I’d built up a lot of cushion in terms of time to spare, when I was riding with the winners, so I was able to take a reinvigorating two or three hour nap in a cemetery and still stay within the time constraint; and 4.) I was lucky enough that with the rising sun, I was able to latch on to a group of three or four guyz.  These three factors allowed me to make the finish line, but I was incredibly fatigued and swore I’d never do another Trans-Iowa. It is important to note that Ben Shockey was amongst the riders that finished that year—He rode the course on a fixed gear bike! 


Of course, I did not learn my lesson and so I headed down to Iowa again the next year.  The third Trans-Iowa, I tried was probably the one that I was most ready for in terms of fitness.  Four of us from Duluth had trained hard all winter and we collectively felt like we could influence the race given our fitness and experience.  Jason Buffington was along as was Eki, both endurance machines with the horse-power to win the race.  I was probably the most in shape I’d been in 20 years.  My altruistic plan was to try and help either Buffington or Eki (or best case scenario: both) win the thing and in doing so, to personally finish in the top five.  The problem was that the conditions were horrendous including biblical rains a subsequent very soft track.  But even so, we were doing well and making good time.  Only Gorrilla and Meiser were a little wayz ahead of our chase group that included Lance Andre, Charley Tri, Eki, Buffington, and me as we headed into the 2nd check point.  I was feeling good, the best I have ever felt in a Trans Iowa, so good that I began to believe that we could pull of a top finish.  But alas the rains began again in earnest, to the point that even Buffington (Buffington never ever quits) became convinced that there was no way that the race could continue.  His assessment was that given the time constraint of 34 hours combined with the incredibly slow conditions, the only conclusion was that no one would make the full course.  The consensus was that to continue on with the certainty of not making the cut-off was foolhardy.  Mieser, Gorilla, and few other guyz rode up the route for another hour or so, but they too pulled out at the next town.  It was the third Trans-Iowa in which nobody finished. 


Once again I did not learn my lesson in 2011, so I headed down, down, down yet another time to battle the gravel in April 2012.  As stated recently in a post I made the same mistakes of going out too hard and then getting hopelessly lost. They picked me up in a car and rode me home in dishonor... 


In 2013, I was too wiped out from the Iditarod Trail Invitational to even attempt the Trans-Iowa. 


Which brings me to the 2014 version of the Trans-Iowa from the perspective of one use to seating in the cheap seats.  Armed with my propensity to not learn from my previous mistakes coupled with my forgetful nature, I began to plan this year’s version without a care in the world. 


The whole drive-train on my old trusty titanium Merlin was sorely in need of replacement, to the degree that I doubted it could make the 300+ rugged miles associated with the typical Trans Iowa, so I did the rational thing for a man without any extra monies and limited cognitive skills. I decided to run my old Kelly single speed, the bike I use all winter to commute.  I figured, “how hard can it be?” Trying to be smart about committing to riding a singlespeed in the T.I., I figured a smart guy would ask his even smarter buddies about what they thought about the idea. Isn’t that what smart people do? Smart people ask even smarter people for advice. So, I asked my buddy Tim Ek what he thought about the idea, when his advice was not what I wanted to hear, I forgot about it and never asked him again.  I asked my buddy Jeremy Kershaw about what he thought about my choice of gearing, when he indicated that he felt I was going with a gearing that was too stout, I forgot about it and never asked him again.


The more I considered my plan, the more it made sense to me, and the smarter I began to feel.  When I heard that the youthful and talented Jay Barre of the secretive Slender Fungus was going to run a fixed gear bike at the T.I. my heart soared.  I quickly emailed him and asked for his advice.  I figured, by that point, that if I was being smart about riding a single speed, then that must make Jay a bonafide genius for riding a fixie.  What developed was a kind of intellectual synergy betwixt the two of us smart people, since I had a smart guy to advise me, I no longer needed to consult with the guyz that I normally ride with up here in Duluth.  I knew that a guy that was going to ride a bike for 343 miles on a bike of which one could neither shift gears or coast had to be a genius.  Jay Barre was very helpful in sealing my fate for the T.I. #10….Thank you Mr. Barre…(looking back I guess I never considered that he was way way stronger than me?)


 So I arrived to the quaint little college town of Grinnell, Iowa fired up to battle the hilly gravel road of Iowa…no worse from the wear of four previous efforts.  Did I mention that I love this race?


Look for Part III in a couple dayz…


Part III: The race begins on a beautiful spring morning……

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Trans-Iowa Transgressions: Part I: Time is Finite...

Part I: Making Summits matter in mountaineering, just as making the finish line matters in the Trans‑Iowa.  Either way, if you don’t make the goal, you fail.

Every dead hope is a phantom that grimaces over its tomb.

EDWIN LEIBFREED, "The White Feet of the Morrow"

I stared again, concentrating with rapt attention on my watch, my eyes hurt, my sight was blurry, slow to focus, my hands were shaky, but the conclusion was undeniable.  It was seventeen or sixteen minutes before 2:00 pm last Sunday, I was not going to make it. I had burned my last match a few miles back down the road, I was finished.  The music in my head went dead. I was done. I was neither happy nor sad, I felt nothing…I stopped pedaling, and put my feet down on the ground. I hesitated and sorta looked around, it was a weird, surreal moment, for I had not really looked around all that much whilst I was on the move.  Even the relentless wind seemed to pause…It felt strange to not be on the move...

Like an old automaton from a less complicated era, I stiffly climbed off my old trusty single-speed Kelly ‘cross bike and let it fall over into the grass. I pulled off my mud caked camelback and tossed it on the grass as well. I did the same with my helmet. My body was heavy and unwieldy, so I sat down hard, almost uncontrollably, on the grass next to my artifacts of a T.I. battle fought and lost.  I was sitting up on the side of a rural, nondescript hilly gravel road near to Grinnell, Iowa.

Finally after hours upon hours of fighting it, I let gravity take me and before I knew it I was laying flat out on my back with my legs straight out. The cessation of movement was so wonderful, so satisfying, that I just laid there and relished, at the most basic primordial level, the calm sense of being; a sense of uncomplicated existence washed over me, nothing really to think about other than the sheer experience of being alive in the moment and being able to draw in a breathe of air.

I laid there in an exquisite comatose for what turned out to be only a few minutes, but this quiet time allowed me to clear my head. Again, I automatically checked my watch, it was just a few minutes before 2:00 pm; the race was still on. A fleeting thought of serendipitous optimism: Did I still have a chance? Reality quickly re-emerged; I was less than six miles from the finish of the tenth running of the classic Trans-Iowa, but I knew now beyond any doubt that I was not going to make it in to the finish line by the cut-off. 

Momentarily I thought of calling Guitar Ted, the iconic race director, to plead for just another hour.  My head was clear enough to know that I’d need another hour even though I was only six miles out; I was going that slowly.  I thought about using some kind of lame excuse about how old I am or how the single speeders should get extra-time, or how he could put a footnote by my name designating me an “unofficial” finisher.  But as I labored to cognitively construct a reasonable argument to present to him, I became to realize unequivocally that such a request would only force him into the difficult and incredibly unfair position of having to tell me, “no.” My conclusion was sound; it is his race, his rules, his parameters, and I respect him way more than some displaced need that I may have about being able to claim my efforts during this race as being legitimate within the context of the rules of the Trans-Iowa.  The rules state that the race ends after 34 hours at 2:00 pm on Sunday, even in my devolved state I could understand that fact...So...Instead, I did the right thing;  I called my buddy, Jeremy Kershaw, and asked him to come get me.  I told him that was just up the road.  I’d be the guy in the ditch, covered in barn-yard muck, laying next to a bike and some other muddy and wet gear.  So it goes….

Stay tuned for Part II in the very near future…

Part II: Optimism runs HIGH: The beginning of the tenth running of the Trans-Iowa.  Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and good things never die (from Shawshenk Redemption)

“Somewhere between the bottom of the climb and the summit is the answer to the mystery of why we climb."    — Greg Child.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Your cheatin' heart...

Guitar Ted, founder and director of the classic “unsupported” Trans-Iowa gravel cycling races recently wrote down some thoughtful and compelling observations about the likelihood of some past Trans-Iowa racers engaging in less than honorable activities (the 10th running starts this upcoming Saturday). Suspect activities such as receiving outside assistance from ones "covert support group" and other sketchy digressions were mentioned as examples of clear violations of the rules.  As all good writing does, his thoughts became the basis of an interesting discussion. In this case, the conversation was amongst a small group of riders as we cruised along the back-roads of old Duluth on Sunday.  When I got home, I decided to put ink to paper in an attempt to better articulate my thoughts on this topic of cheating.

 As a high school teacher, I deal with this issue of cheating on a fairly routine basis.  Something like 80% of high school kids admit to cheating at some point during their four years, so I know that some kids will cheat in my classes. At the onset of every class, as a kind of prompt, I always tell my students that any test, essay, or assignment that they do in my class is not worth the price of cheating.  Some kid will inevitably raise his or her hand and ask the appropriate question.  The question  goes something like this (at least I am hoping for it): “Whatz that mean? Why is your class not worth cheating for?” My response is that, “I get that most everybody cheats at some point, but smart people have learned that when deciding to cheat, ya gotta do a cost/benefit analysis.  That means that you gotta think about whether or not the awards or benefits associated with getting away with the cheating is worth the risk or costs of getting caught.”

 The next question I am hoping for is: “So whatz the cost of getting caught cheating in your class?” Now I know that they are expecting me to say something like, “Ya won’t graduate or you will get suspended, you’ll get an F or I’ll call your parents or something like that.” Essentially, what they are expecting is for me to tell them that if they get caught cheating they will be hit with some kind of formal sanction. Yet, what I tell them is this—“I’ll be super disappointed with you, I’ll probably never trust you again, chances are we will never be friends, and I’ll tell my friends and co-workers that you are a cheater.” I go on to add that, “So in this class, the risks or costs are not worth the benefit in that the reward for not cheating is my respect and my friendship...Because our friendship is way more important or beneficial than any grade can get for you in this class.” The simple, but poignant idea, of course, is that when your reputation and/or respect is at stake, the respect and friendship you have earned from your peers is priceless and so clearly not worth the price of cheating.  I may be wrong, but I honestly suspect that only a little bit cheating goes on in my classes. As for the ones that do cheat, they clearly do not enjoy the respect of the other members.  By cheating they damage their reputations. Research bears out the fact that in most situations, informal sanctions are more powerful than consequences associated with formalized punishments. 

 In fact in my sociology course, just a few dayz ago, we did a short lesson on the socio-psychology of cheating. The Atlantic Monthly dedicated a pretty comprehensive article on cheating.  Essentially the conclusion was that most people will cheat given a certain set of circumstances, but only malcontents will cheat in situations such as the Trans-Iowa, where a guy’s reputation is essentially the only thing at stake.

For one to cheat in any competition, other than perhaps in the high stakes financial realm of a few professional sports, but especially in an amateur long distance gravel road race, too me seems like the pinnacle of moral dysfunction or misplaced value.  Who the hell cares? It don't mean nothin' to nobody except the guyz doing it.  Itz the guyz that you are riding with that matters...Thatz why itz so cool...The whole thing is about the experience. To cheat in a highly cohesive, inclusive group such as those like-minded individuals in a race such as the Trans-Iowa and thus to risk one’s reputation amongst the in-group seems absurd (Note: an in-group is a social group to which a person psychologically identifies as being a member).

Thank you, Guitar Ted J

Friday, April 11, 2014

Yet another reason why my chances (for survival) look good for the Trans-Iowa Part X

Pre Trans-Iowa positive thought of the day…or ”puttin’ a positive spin on seemingly a hopeless situation.” 

Obese Heart Attack Patients Are More Likely To Survive After Treatment Than Normal Weight Patients

Date: June 22, 2007

Oxford University Press

Summary: Obese and very obese patients have a lower risk of dying after they have been treated for heart attacks than do normal weight patients, according to new research. Researchers found that amongst patients who had received initial treatment for a specific type of heart attack, those that were obese or very obese were less than half as likely to die during the following three years as patients who had a normal body mass index.

This is good news for me as I prepare for the upcoming trans-Iowa….

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Why I could have won the Trans Iowa....but now I won't be winning.....

How I could have won the tenth running of the Trans-Iowa….But it would have been morally and ethically wrong. 

Whether it is in pursuit of summits or even victory on a bicycle; style matters.  The fastest guyz heading down to Iowa on the last weekend of April to compete in the T.I. will be pleased to hear that I will NOT be using Kershaw’s time-trial bars on my trusty Gunnar (or Kelly).  I put them on last night (rather than go for a training ride) and they initially seemed kinda cool, but my daughter mocked me sayin’ that those were for fast guyz not old fat guyz and then I couldn’t get them to stay in one position (no matter how tight I cranked the fastener bolts, both kept slipping down). So I did the right then and quickly gave up on the idea.  The problem with me is that I’ll do just about anything right now to try and figure out a way that I can finish that monster route.  As stated in a recent post, itz not the distance that is keeping me up at nights, itz covering the distance in the allotted time-frame.  I got enough miles in over the last thirty years to not be psyched out by covering a lot ground going nearly nonstop and unsupported, but to make 340 miles in 34 hours, that’s gonna be hard for me….

The last time I tried the Trans Iowa was in 2012.  I was just too tired to do the one last year as I was just back from Alaska and my whole body was racked with fatigue well into spring.  In 2012, I showed up to the race feeling good, so I took off hard and stayed with the leaders, but after about eight hours I was really starting to soak in the proverbial hurt-tank.  Quickly, I was dropped and then not long after being dropped, I unknowingly took a wrong turn and got hopelessly lost. After what must have been a couple hours or so, I finally lucked out and got to a small town, found a phone and contacted Guitar-Ted.  With his help, I was able to backtrack and get back on route but I was hopelessly behind in terms of making the time cuts.  I made the second checkpoint by just a few minutes and then basically fell victim to the Demons of Despair and Misery as I entered the sadistic realm of long long night time on the back roads of Iowa. 

G.T. mercifully sent Matt Gersib out to retrieve me.  I’m probably too bull headed to have made such a pick-up call, but when the sag-wagon appeared, I made no dissenting remarks.  Matt told me to get in the car and I complied. Had Matt not generously come to my aid, I probably would have crashed out in a field (or preferably a cemetery), languished in the supine position for a few hours, and then limped my sorry ass back into Grinnell well after the time parameter, and well after everyone else had gone home...

I guess my point is that this year my plan for success has to be to start the race at a reasonable pace, maintain that pace, and to NOT get lost…