Friday, May 8, 2009

My second effort down in Iowa....

2009 Trans-Iowa Race Recap
By Charlie Farrow

The absurd is the essential concept and the first truth.” Albert Camus

From the heart: an honest forth right assessment of the author’s personal experience of cycling across the rolling gravel roads of rural Iowa. This is a departure from my usual approach to these things as I usually like to focus my efforts of the absurdity of it all. Yet this was truly a positive transformational event for me, I have grown because of this experience. I am a different sort of animal now, I am more composed, more humanistic, more…on second thought, scrap that idea…

Part I: Approximately twenty-two hours into it.
Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin." Andy Dufresne

Next to the road surrounded by what was once an ornately crafted waist high fence of twisted rot-iron stands a lonely, yet carefully manicured cemetery in which a hundred or so of those who labored and perhaps even loved the soil, lay cradled within the mothering embrace of rich Iowa terra-firma. It is certainly past midnight but an illuminating crescent moon bathes the rural landscape in a bluish hue as smallish clans, representing the vanguard of strong men, stealthily pass mounted upon two-wheeled steeds leaving only a faint snake-like trail upon the gravel. The obvious attributes of manifest security and fateful resolve are not lost on the wretched intruder that lays curled up on a cement slab in the back row of a cemetery. However, it is the symbolic representation of forlorn futility that drew him into this sanctuary.

Profound moments of revelation often arise from the combination of high anxiety and happenstance; such was this case. In his dire effort to gain a brief respite from the merciless hardships of THE ROAD, he had momentarily stopped his forlorn pursuit of those ahead of him and sat down onto the dirt. Unbeknownst to him, he had collapsed right at the base of the arched entrance to a graveyard. Lit headlight on helmet, head drawn into knees in a moment of exceedingly self-pity, and then for perhaps dramatic effect he casts his head skyward which has the unexpected effect of revealing artistically inscribed scriptures and little angels that adorn the antiquated archway. Upon closer inspection of the writings, although in Latin, the message was clear—Requiescat in Pace.
In general, the Dead and Buried Community are a forgiving and easy-going lot. Perhaps the advent of death has a way of putting things in perspective for most folks. Therefore, remembering the reputation given, as to the group’s propensity for tranquility, the likelihood of causing any undue consternation amongst this particular cluster of departed seemed minuscule. Thus having rationalized out-of-hand the possibility of causing any problems, both spiritually and/or legally, by seeking brief refuge in the cemetery, the defeated one began to feel a semblance of relief, although the nauseous hiccups continued to send ripples through his diaphragm.

Part II: Approximately eighteen hours into it.
All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one... characteristic we must posses if we are to face the future as finishers.” David Thoreau

The author is infamous within his modest sphere of influence for acts of misadventure. In fact, this most recent unplanned benign foray actually represents his third such accommodation within various residencies of the deceased across this great country of ours, including one very interesting night spent many years ago in a prison graveyard near Carbondale, Colorado. I guess the fact that he can still spell out a few coherent sentences is a testament to his ability to find a way to live to ride again. The key to longevity in the pursuit of adventure is to always follow a simple adage—namely, plan well and when things go wrongs (and they often do go wrong), take a nap. No big decisions involving things like abandonment (or the like) can be made or even considered until at least three hours of total inactivity.

Not long after leaving the second checkpoint sometime around midnight, at which I was able to rest in a prone position for a lengthy period of time and even eat and drink a little, I once again began to experience a serious upset stomach which shortly thereafter lead to another episode of throwing up, followed by the classic “dry heaves”, and thus further dehydrating me. To me, throwing up represents a serious personal affront and is thus indicative of serious discontentment amongst the belly troops. As a benevolent leader over my bodily functionaries, I am good to my digestive tract minions rewarding them with quality beers and pizzas on a regular basis and so they love me and therefore I never throw-up. It has been years and years since I threw-up and furthermore I consider throwing up a violent act of insubordinate intestinal rebellion that must be suppressed with great effort. So by the wee morning hours of Sunday, I was a hurtin’ cowboy looking at a full-on mutiny by led by a raging extremist digestive force bent on my destruction. I had pushed the troops too hard and now I had a violent insurgency on my hands. It was at that stage, as I sat on the gravel, that I knew that I had to get a full on rest period in so as to calm my system down and then get in some fluids and then later, some calories. I had plenty of water (over120 fluid ounces) and food, so I knew that if I could just shut things down for a while (think “cease fire”), I could ride the hundred miles I had to go to the finish.

A plan began to take shape; for a man on a mission needs a plan. The strategy included holding to two definitive time constraints or parameters. The first was to keep moving until I could find shelter and the second, (which was contingent upon the first), allowed for the three hour maxim of total rest, if I could find a bivy soon. I reasoned that I had to be back on the bike before the clock struck 5:00 a.m. for I knew that I could knock off the hondo in nine hours which would put me at the finish before the cut-off at 2:00 p.m. Given that it was approximately the eighteen hour point, I had time to spare, so I remember thinking, “thatz a good thing, right now time is on my side.” Yet, vitally needed was some kind of insulation to allow for the rest period to aid in recovery. It was getting cold and I was really starting to feel it. Productive “rest” can only be achieved if one is somewhat or at least relatively warm; otherwise one expends too much energy just trying to warm-up. Given that this was Iowa, immediately I figured hay would be a good source of insulation. Conjuring up a scene from an old Disney film that I have viewed recently with my little girl, I envisioned finding one of those big hay bales and crawling into it for a heavenly sleep, but it must be too early for hay in Iowa as I did not see any opportunities to execute the hay plan, which was probably a blessing.

Having used newspapers in the past, most recently during the ’07 Red Ass 300, I knew that layered papers afford some degree of insulation. So as I rode by farm homes I looked for those kinds of newscript that are not news per se, but instead promote advertising and coupons, etc. Being careful to only grab old ones that were clearly not being collected by the residents, I gradually packed my legs, then torso, then arms with newspapers. Some were wet and pretty disgusting, but I figured it was better than nothing. First and foremost, I am an ardent proponent of self-sufficiency; I have always been committed to self-reliance in the mountains or on the trail and if I ever start to look for others to bail me out of a tough situation—thatz when I’ll know that it is time to change over to golf. I never really seriously considered trying to break into a barn or the like as I did not want to cause any problems for the race directors and/or compromise this great event for future participants. In that same vein, I dismissed the notion of throwing myself on the doorstep of some farm house as too demeaning and/or potentially causing a controversy for future Trans-Iowa races. Essentially, after exhausting the shelter options, I decided that I was just going to find a dry spot next to the road, curl up, and try to get some sleep. I road to the top of a hill, pulled over, sat down, looked around, and saw the cemetery, and knew that I have been delivered…Note: In this era where a spontaneous life-line communicative capacity is available to anyone anywhere, this dogmatic approach to autonomy may seem rigid to some or antiquated to others; to me itz just the way I was raised and I am sure that I like it better than the new way, so I don’t plan on changing…

Part III: About fifteen hours into it.
The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break, it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure that it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms

I broke about fifteen hours into it. The miles-per-hour pace continued to stay steady at 17, 18, 19 even twelve hours into the race. Joe Meiser seemed unshakable, infatigable, unstoppable. The three of us, including Tim Ek and Dave Pramann, at one point even conspired against him by tacitly agreeing not to take turns at the front, but he did not even seem to notice. Several hours earlier I had developed a weird, albeit ominous, little protest in my guts which by the second checkpoint had become a big twisted civil act of intestinal disobedience forcing me to forgo any food intake. Knowing that at some point in the near future we would be buoyed by a change in direction and therefore an inviting wind, I hung on to that one hope. Essentially, I was hoping that the tailwind would allow for an easing of the energy output and thus buy me enough time until my stomach would come around. Finally, the change in direction came and the friendly winds did offer an easing of the output, but then almost immediately Pramann attacked, the others responded in kind while I broke both physically and spiritually. Significantly slowing down so as to let them move away in rapid fashion, hoping that I would be spared their pity, I instinctively lowered my head to stare at the gravel. Then, in an act of great compassion that I shall never forget, Eki realizing what had happened called a halt to the procession and then rode back to me. Eki and I had embarked on a series of ten super hard-core workout sessions over the course of the last seven months and we have developed into a band of brothers. He started to cajole me to continue, but I think my glassy eyes told of the futility of verbal positive reinforcement. I told them to go go go and that I would try to catch up after a bit of rest. Soon after they left, I was attacked with “extreme prejudice” from within, forcing my first bout of throwing-up. Intestinal insurgency, complete with suicide bombers masquerading as ibuprofen, caffeine, and electrolyte pills.

Part IV: In the beginning @4:00 am on Saturday…
Things are always at their best in their beginnings.” Pascal

The beginning of the Trans-Iowa can accurately be described as surrealistic, even magical with bright spot-light patterns of various dimensions illuminating strangely reflective aspects of florescent yellows and ghostly whites on what could easily have been construed as aliens, coupled with a myriad of red lights all in chaotic competition to out do each other in flashing patterns and brightness intensities. At one point, I purposefully dropped way back to just stare at the amazing light show that danced across the rural landscape. Itz a wonderful memory for me. Guitar Ted & Dave Pals are memory makers and that’s a special thing to be to my way of thinking.

Part V: Single Speed Salvation…
Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don't complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!” Bob Marley

I’d guess that I rested for about two hours or so in the home of the dead and upon rising I felt significantly better. I knew I was back in the game because I was pumped to ride. The cease-fire had held and I immediately started loading up on fluids and even some calories as I road onward. It was not long until the world became lighter and I began to “WAKE Up and LIVE!” I remember thinking a funny thought that represents a recurrent theme for me during many of these long races. This amusing thought that caused me to smile was that, “here I am once again in the middle of nowhere trying to get back, while Pramann is sitting in a nice restaurant ordering up a delicious breakfast…” It made me laugh out loud and my spirits soared.

Navigation is not my strong suit, but I was so paranoid about getting completely lost that even though I did make several wrong turns, I luckily figured out the mistakes in short order. Of course staying on route was toughest during the night, but my biggest screw up came just after dawn when I mistook “V” road for “W” road. It was not until I had ridden a couple miles that I realized the mistake. I stopped and was standing there arguing with myself about what I should do when I looked up and saw a small cadre of cyclists headed my way. Salvation was mine.

I have offered commentary before on the alluring lifestyle choices of the Single Speeder. I’d like to join up but with my dainty knees, I am worried that it would spell the end of me. The profile of a typical single speeder from my experience is that he is a tough as nails, talented rider that can often cause the mainstream cycling community to squirm. Case-in-point, the best ever was when Jesse Lalonde and his little brother Marko, riding steel single speeds, took top honors at the Chequamegon 40 two years ago. The lyrics of Willie Nelson perhaps are appropriate when describing this compelling cycling genre, “them that don't know him won't like him and them that do sometimes won't know how to take him, he ain’t wrong he’s just different but his pride won’t let him do things to make you think he’s right.” Well I know lots of them, I like them, and I am very impressed with them. Perhaps a couple analogies will help to explain what I am trying to convey— Single Speeders are to alpine ascents as roadies are to sport climbing; or single speeders are to rugby as roadies are to lawn tennis; or single speeders are to functional and durable wool as roadies are to light-weight designer lycra. The crew that I hooked up with during the last seventy miles or so of the Trans-Iowa consisted of four top notch cyclists and even more importantly really nice and fun loving guyz. Andy Stockman is a young man living in California, Matt Wills & Matt Gersib from Lincoln, Nebraska, and Ben Shockey, an accomplished mountain biker from Decorah, Iowa. Ben was riding a fixed geared bike which not only required the herculean strength of the single speeder to climb up the abundant hills, but to add to the challenge he also never got to coast, spinning his legs crazy fast down the hills as the rest of us took leg-saving breaks, coasting on all the down hills. Everyone knew that what he was doing was really something special and it was really cool how the others cheered and encouraged him. Of course the fact that so many were fired up about his accomplishment is a testament to his charismatic and amicable character.

With perhaps forty-five miles to go we ran into George Vargas of California and Jeremy Fry, who I believe lives in Iowa. Jeremy was having problems with his derailleur and George was generously offering assistance. Of course my crowd was of no use to Jeremy as they spurn the use of such mechanical enhancements and I am in over my head anytime the fix requires more than changing a flat. We exchanged proper salutations, the sort of which is afforded between passing groups that have experienced something shared, something special, or something arduous and risky, something that is hard to articulate in real time, or something that can only be acknowledged and understood by those that have lived it.

Many years ago, as a dear friend and I were desperately retreating off of a heinous ridge that buttressed the western aspect of the majestic, but fearsome Mount Hunter in the Alaskan Range, we crossed paths with a duo from Briton that had just done the same thing on another ridge. Both teams were clearly bushed and both were slowly heading up the glacier to a kind of standard base-camp that was some distance away. “How’s it going?” we asked. “Pretty good” was the reply from the Brits. “You guys Okay?” asked the Brits. “Yeah were good to go.” And that was that, and as they moved along ahead of us, it occurred to me that what had just happened was a nonverbal conveyance of respect and empathy. Respect for each others abilities to make it out and empathy in that our shared experiences bound us together at that moment and that if help was needed it would be forthcoming without judgment. Respect and empathy, perhaps the two most treasured sentiments in man’s repertoire of emotions from which to conduct interactions with others. Such was our approach with Jeremy and George.

Part VI: The Hinge Factor, naïveté as strength, and other ideas and condolences.
A plan which succeeds is bold, one which fails is reckless.”
Karl Von Clausewitz

Back in the 1990s, the noted British historian, Erik Durschmied, coined the term, “The Hinge Factor” to connote those many notable and significant things in history that were inexplicably influenced by what can only be described as “luck.” Durschmied used the term “hinge” to make the point that luck can swing in both directions and that; of course, one person’s good fortune often results in another’s demise. The result of any bike race is almost always influenced by the metaphysical, intangible, and unpredictable elements of luck. The Hinge Factor was swinging at this year’s Trans-Iowa as it has in all of the other ones as well. The author was praying for terrible weather because he knew that it was only in such conditions that he would have a realistic play at the top spot. All the fast guyz wanted clear, windless conditions so as to have their athleticism be the deciding factor. One such player was Charly Tri, a young man with tremendous potential and yet the door swung the wrong way for him this time. He was right there at the front, poised to play a role amongst the leaders, when the gods unmercifully struck his steed down after only about fifty miles into it. I am sure that many others shared Mr. Tri’s fate, but worry not for the hinge swings freely and without prejudice. Look for Tri, Gorilla, Parsons, Gelk, and many others to ride the back-roads of Iowa next year with an intensity and vengeance that only the unluckily scorned can muster.

Jason Novak was a student of mine many years ago. Back then his dad was a top notch cyclist and Jason was a high school kid with impressive quads and Pramann was sixty years old and racing and beating twenty year olds—that was over twenty years ago. At the second checkpoint Jason arrived shortly behind the lead group. We were doubly impressed not only by the fact that he is a total newbie to the enduro-sickness but that he had ridden solo through the strong headwind. In between hiccups, I tried to talk him in to going off with the lead group, but he declined saying that he was too new to the sport and that he was worried that he’d get in over his head. I remember chuckling to myself when he said that, for obvious reasons… he had just summed up my whole life in one succinct sentence.

Also of note is the great effort by Paul Jacobson, who tried before in years past, stayed with it and pulled it off this time! I remember riding briefly with Travis and Matt Braun the winners of the prestigious single speed category and therefore I would like to take the opportunity to congratulate them as well as the third place single speeder, BJ Bass. Riding it on a single speed is so impressive…

I know personally of a few guyz that are sad about not finishing the race and hence they are searching for an explanation or reflecting upon whether or not to try again next year. Apart from my own personal acquaintances, it is clear from the low completion rate that many went home unfulfilled. Certainly, the fact that the completion rate was low and is historically low is a tribute to the difficulty, which of course makes finishing it all that more appealing. My message to all those that did not finish, for what itz worth, is to go for it again next year, but with an eye on using all that is given to you. One reason to make another attempt next year stems from the simple fact that guyz like Guitar-Ted and D.P. are a rare treasure to the cycling community and consequently, certainly, it would be unfair to simply assume that they will indefinitely be willing or even capable of providing us with this truly novel cycling experience year after year. As far as planning for success, to me, the key is to develop a fairly detailed strategy so as to utilize the full time allotment. This year’s opportunity spanned thirty four hours, which represents a lot of potential time to rest/recoup and yet still enough ride time to achieve the goal. Finally, as stated above, do not expediently decide to bail, rather wait and rest for a bit before making the decision. Even just two or three hours of R&R in a cemetery can make all the difference, believe me, I know….

Part VII: Thanks for reading…but really it don’t mean nothing.
A tragedy is the imitation of an action that is serious and also, as having magnitude, complete in itself with incidents arousing pity and fear, wherewith to accomplish its catharsis of such emotions.” Aristotle

These kinds of events and their importance pitted against the realities of the world we live in are really quite small and yet I would be the first to argue that if more of us did these things the world would be a better place. There are not a lot of other endeavors that can make the same claim….Oh yeah, one final thought— Their exists a real misnomer about these NO SUPPORT races, for if you ever want to experience genuine and sincere support from your rivals and/or competitors sign up for one of these No Support races…


  1. Excellent! Thank you.

    And "congratulations", on the surface of it, is too shallow a word to convey my thoughts and feelings about you, and about what you did in Iowa on an early May weekend. Perhaps think of it in terms of how the Brits conveyed their empathy and concern with their "You guys okay?" back in that Alaskan scene you painted for us in this entertaining write up.

    At any rate, you are a gem and shining spot in Trans Iowa history, and more importantly to me- my experience, being a reward for all that I have poured into this event over the short years I have been involved.

    So I say a simple "thank you".

  2. Charlie,

    Excellent report. You are the definition of Hardman.

    As I met you four at check point 2 I realized that I burned too many matches to get there, and that there was no way I had the fitness to keep up with you guys.

    I agree about the SS/fixed guys. Those guys are tough. I liked your advice about planning to use the full time allottment. It puts things in perspective and I'm guessing next year several finishers will follow your advice (I know I will).

  3. Yeah Cemetary Puke-Boy:
    As a matter of fact I was having a nice breakfast at a nice restaurant right about then. Cool that you would think of that.

    dave p

  4. Great read. Even better ride. You are one tough dude. Keep rockin'!

  5. That's the last straw. I will be making WWCD bracelets for Arrowhead and TI VI.

  6. Charlie,

    That is an amazing read! I just wish I could have read it before I bailed and took your advice to leave it all out there!

    To next year and thanks again for the great read and motivation.

  7. That was a most excellent ride and an amazing bunch of real riders. What great efforts, what great spririt, what great hills! I am still savoring the fine moments of this years event.
    Health to all of you!

  8. Charlie-

    I sure wish I could have visited with you at the finish. Your adventures strengthen me to be able to go onto the finish and I if I had only known at the time just how bad your gut was hurting. You are a true champion and a hero to many. Great work my friend.

    Paul Jacobson