I see a lot of posts about how great certain bikes work for races- usually solicited by some sort of friendship or sponsorship. I'll be riding this for all future gravel grinders- use your own judgement.
It's been six months since I first visited Royal's grave. It's become a regular stop for me when in the vicinity, as I often am while on to the heartland of cycling that is Iowa. I've watched the site through parts of 3 seasons now and everything has changed but the stone itself. Not the cold rains of early December, the deep drifts of January nor the youthful flowers of spring have had any power. Royal's stone mien has been the so constant that I was beginning to worry. What if my efforts were to be in vain?
Saturday morning came quickly. I'd like to say that it dawned bright and early, but it was more of a lessening of the dark than a dawn. The weather reports has slowly shifted to the worse and then worse again... finally calling for solid rain much of the day (and evening should it be necessary). I shoveled in potato pancakes knowing that this was what I'd prayed for, that our day had come and it was going to be as tough as anyone could have wanted. There would be no repeat of the cake-walk of 2010.
Metallica powered our drive south to the start and then the business of actually doing THIS began. I chose my Almanzo bibs and jersey plus my thin tights (the lucky ones that are duct taped together), a long-sleeve toko top, Almanzo windbreaker, regular long-finger MTB gloves and MTB shoes. I chose not to bring anything else due to weight/space concerns. Along those same lines I would send the majority of my water and food down to Preston and pick it up in the "feeding zone", rather than carrying it the first 40 miles. Further along those lines, and possibly of note to the reader, I was on my Look 585 with the only changes being aero bars on wide WCS Ritchey bars, an 11-28 cassette and 700x30 Schwalbe Marathon racers on Zipp 303 front/404 rear.
No time to think. The race started about 2 minutes after I got all dressed and ready to go. Pace was fairly easy early on as people settled in and tested the conditions. I tried to sit in the middle of the pack, but found myself getting covered in mud and losing visibility. We hit a couple early downhills and I watched the group string out in front of me as I picked my line. I would gain confidence in the narrow tires later in the race, but initially there was just too much uncertainty. I was surprised how easily I kept up as we labored up and over the first really large hill, but soon after I let a group of about 13 ride away. I would be basically alone for the remaining 145 miles, just me and Royal.
It was nice to see my Dad at mile 38 (and good practice for Dirty Kanza) but after stopping I felt sort of compelled to work my way back up near the front to where I felt I belonged. It was a struggle to keep the effort under control for the next 20 miles or so. Regardless, I found myself passing groups with ease and caught up to the first chase group prior to hitting the farm/singletrack/cyclocross/whatever section that Skogen was hanging out in. I felt I could ride faster than they were riding and decided to make a point to hit the singletrack first and make a gap. "On the farm" I passed 3 riders from the tail of the original 13 person lead group and made the gap I had hoped for. I would not see anyone behind me again for the duration. Although those behind me would certainly never be far from my thoughts, particularly as a started to pick off more and more riders. I'd ridden away from Doom, Farrow, Pramann etc. etc. and I didn't quite trust that I belonged or could hold onto being in front of them.
Soon after that section my mind basically turned off. The next 7 hours would be full of manic mood swings, talking to myself, insanity and suffering. I saw a lot of things, some of which were likely very real and some of which were not. I flipped mentally from wanting to quit to wanting to cry tears of joy to feelings of calm and strength. Through it all I pedaled like I was giving chase.
I saw a witch. She was on top of a barren hill next to an old farm house walking slowly towards me. My first though was that this must be some sort of trail magic, some sort of Almanzo chicanery. It was not, how could there be any of that this far away from where most of the riders would ever go? I was IN IOWA at the time for Royal's sakes. She continued toward me and waved as I passed. She was just a teenaged Amish girl/woman out for a walk in the rain. I looked back and she was gone, but my tracks were not. They were deep and filling up with water as I watched. The gravel had turned to soft sand (worse than the cheese country train for those who know about THAT, but not worse than TW) and it was so soaked with moisture that it was seeping almost immediately into the tracks I cut. I could count the riders in front of me by counting the shiny, slithers of their paths. One of them always went perfectly straight. I wondered what sort of evil that was and contemplated it for miles. I was stuck on one road for 8 miles riding up and over huge rollers directly into the wind at 5 or 6 mph and that silvery, streak of a track was teasing me. Finally it turned off into a farm and I realized it was nothing but a buggy wheel. I remembered reading about subistence hunting, how one trick to not die while doing it is to check your own track every once in a while. You need to see how wobbly you are getting and back off a bit if you are looking worse than the animal you chase. I ate a burrito and a tamale. I passed some people and some people dropped out, I felt I took their strength.
My mind would shift on every hour on the hour and make me eat a gel, drink some water. The rest of the time I just pedaled. It was hard to open the gel packs, hard to squeeze the bottles, but while riding I felt nothing.
I felt redeemed when I returned to the actual Almanzo 100 course. There was a track in the gravel from all the previous 100 mile riders. All I would need to do would be to follow it home. If I could keep my bike in that groove I would be golden. Riding straight became my focus- even as I was only moving 6 or 7 mph on flat ground, in my easiest gear, on my aero bars. I stopped only for gels and burritos. A bunch of my friends were at the checkpoint when I got there, but I couldn't care. I was chasing (at that point I knew I was in somewhere between 4th-6th).
I crossed the water and felt nothing. I cleaned my bike, at a gel, took a piss.
I had to walk a hill.
I turned to the final page and realized I only had a couple miles left. It was downwind, only one real hill. I felt no pain or tiredness as I flew down those familiar last roads. I crossed in 11:47 in 5th. I broke down at Royal's grave.
If you've got a picture of me I'd love to have it!
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