Alexander 380: Sarah Cooper's Report

Sarah Cooper and Kelsey Regan at the start of Almanzo 380
Sarah Cooper finishes the Alexander 380by Sarah Cooper, Ultracyclist Alexander 380 380 mile gravel bike race Spring Valley, Minnesota May 15–16, 2015 I stood in my kitchen the morning after the Alexander with my wrist in a brace, one arm in a sling, and more sore than I have been in a long time, struggling to remember the basics of making coffee. Scrapes and bruises, swollen legs, a huge knot in my hair that stuck out from the side of my head that I couldn’t get out… I’m sure I looked as dismal as I felt. I hadn’t intended to end up in such a miserable state, but apparently it’s just not a good gravel race unless I arrive home exhausted, starving, and a little battered. Viva la gravel! The Alexander is a free, self-supported, 380-mile gravel race through Minnesota, Iowa, and Wisconsin with almost 30,000 feet of climbing and some of the most beautiful scenery you will find anywhere. Every turn brought a new view to appreciate, and there was never a dull moment. The terrain was mostly rolling gravel hills through midwestern farm country, with some long and very steep climbs near the Mississippi River. The event costs nothing, and starts on a Friday morning in Spring Valley, Minnesota, the day before the legendary Almanzo 100. There are no time cut offs to make and no checkpoints anywhere, so you can ride until you are done, or broken. The Alexander was definitely one of the most beautiful and thrilling rides I’ve ever been on, and I hope to ride it again next year. The Alexander was to be my fourth ultra cycling race already this year, having started with 24 Hours of Sebring in February, and Heart of the South 500 and Trans Iowa v11 in April. Heart of the South, Trans Iowa, and the Alexander are all each three weeks apart and definitely the most difficult combination of events I’ve ever attempted in such a short period of time. I felt pretty well recovered from HOTS and ready to race Trans Iowa. But despite that event being super short due to the poor weather and road conditions, by the time the Alexander rolled around I felt like I had lost a little something along the way. I had still wanted the experience of completing three long events that close together, so I did a pretty long solo ride the week after Trans Iowa. The weather sucked so bad that it took more out of me than it should have. Mother Nature had the last laugh even on my Trans Iowa do-over. I could have done without that and felt better for the Alexander for sure.

Starting Alexander 380

Sarah Cooper and Kelsey Regan at the start of Almanzo 380I rode up to Spring Valley with my friend and fellow endurance cyclist, Kelsey Regan. It had done nothing but rain buckets all day, so the course was sure to be wet and mushy to start. After Trans Iowa, I was not excited about racing in those conditions again, but the weather for most of Friday was expected to be dry so road conditions would improve as the day went on. The race got off to a late start, since they had real numbers for the Alexander participants I think for the first time in the history of this race and it took time to get everyone checked in and waivers signed. We finally got rolling at 5:16 a.m., and promptly got off course. The GPX file I was using to navigate had a different start location, and my Garmin refused to give me turn by turn directions, so I was relying on everyone else to point me in the right direction until we matched up with the cue sheets. Not even a mile from the start, and we were off course. The mistake was easily corrected though, and we were soon headed out of town in the proper direction. Mark Skarpohl and I ended up out in front of the other cyclists, but I didn’t feel very good and didn’t make any effort to keep up with him. The gravel was mushy and wet for the first 200 km, and my bike and I were soon covered in grey gravel sludge that hardened like cement on my bike and my legs. I could feel it cracking as I pedaled. Mark asked me once in passing if I had a time goal for the event, and I gave a pretty lame answer about just finishing. I always have a goal in my head of some sort, but given the state of the roads and my general malaise, I wasn’t too keen on sharing it. Trying to predict a finish time for a gravel event is difficult at best when you are uncertain of the road conditions, but I had 28 hours on my mind and sub 30 hours for sure if I had a smooth trip and didn’t stop for long. It’s good to have some kind of goal to keep me moving, but I’m never so attached to it that despair sets in when I inevitably get sidetracked. Gravel racing is all about the adventure, and adventure always takes a little longer than planned. Mark and I never did ride together, but we crossed paths a few more times after he got off course and I bumped into him as he was coming back on route. He laughed and said he would probably get off course many times during the event, and I flippantly said “I won’t.” I knew as soon as I said that, it would come back to bite me. I don’t even know why I said it. I had gotten off course at each gravel event I had done last year except 24 Hours of Cumming. I knew that course pretty well, otherwise I’m sure I would’ve gotten lost there too.

Riding Alone

I rode alone for the entire ride, and only spoke a handful of sentences to Mark and people I met in passing along the way. Despite that, I never felt bored or lonely, as the trip was exciting enough to keep my mind engaged. There were the usual numerous encounters with farm dogs, and I even felt one touch his cold nose to my thigh as I sprinted away. The hills were constant and quite steep, and the descents were fast with loose gravel turns. I thought surely I was going to kiss the ditch on a few of them. I did not, and the descents kept me awake and focused at night, that’s for sure. Gravel mud coated Sarah's bike like cementI was nearly out of fluids when I stopped in Mabel at mile 77. I pulled into a business that had an OPEN sign in the window, not even caring what kind of business it was. I just hoped it had a sink I could use to fill my bottles. It turned out to be some type of knick knack shop, and the elderly lady that worked there was reluctant to give me water. She said her water was bad and her sink didn’t get run very often, but I told her I was in a bicycle race and had been drinking dirt water for hours and anything she had that didn’t come from a sewer would be fantastic. I must have been quite a sight with mud up to my knees, and all over my face and glasses. She laughed and filled up my filthy, gravel cement covered bottles, then she let me use the restroom and I was on my way. I stopped again near mile 100 and stole water from a farm house in Eitzen that had a pump next to the house, then fled their property before stopping to mix powder into my bottles. I chiseled about a pound of mud off my bike and re-lubed the chain, then continued on. I didn’t find a C store that was on route until mile 126. There were probably more options off route, and several bar/grill types of places I could have wandered into if I had wanted real food, but I preferred to subsist on what I had brought with me, and buy candy and soda along the way. In hindsight, I wish I had take the time to look at the pass-through towns on google maps to find the C stores that were off route, as I wasted time and added bonus miles looking for them. I assumed they would be visible from the route as they had been for other events, but that was not the case. I know better than to make assumptions, as they are usually wrong. The scenery for most of the ride was simply fantastic. At times I thought I should be taking pictures, but I decided I would rather just enjoy the experience and let the pictures go. Irish Hollow Road was one of the most beautiful roads I have ever been fortunate enough to ride on. I feel regret that I did not take at least one picture there, and of the Mississippi River crossings, but I know that my phone camera would not have done it justice. The road were Sarah hurt her shoulderThere were two B minimum maintenance roads, and the first was at mile 140, just past The People’s Republic of Turkey Run. The handlebars on my Crux are a little too wide for me, and my shoulders just don’t line up right. I entered the shaded area of the B road unprepared for just how bumpy and steep the descent was. I hit a bump and my right shoulder jammed back into the socket. It was extremely painful. I’ve know for quite some time that these handlebars are a problem for me, and I have a new bike shipping next week with different bars, but these were having one last go at me before I got rid of them. The pain from that incident faded initially, but as the day went on, I started to have increasing pain in my rotator cuff with the steep climbs and any kind of bumpy descent. Being that this was a gravel ride, there were a lot of bumps. I jarred my shoulder another time on the B road at mile 210, and from there until the finish it was pretty much constantly painful. Shortly after crossing the Mississippi River into Wisconsin, the spokes on my rear wheel began pinging on the long and steep climbs. I stopped at the top of a long climb and cleaned a bunch of gravel sludge off the spokes, hoping that dirty spokes were contributing to the noise, but it didn’t help at all. I had two FiberFix Spokes in my bag thanks to a suggestion from Steve Fuller, so at least I had a means to repair them if they broke. It was annoying and stressful to think that my spokes might break miles from anywhere, or in the dark hours of the night. But although they were noisy the rest of the ride, nothing ever broke and the wheel stayed true.

Bonus Miles

I made my first big unintentional detour at mile 171 on Shanghai road, and ended up in Eastman, Wisconsin. I misunderstood the cue sheet, and took a right hand turn where none should have been taken. My Garmin would show me the GPX route I had loaded on to it, but only if I had that screen displayed. It refused to give me turn by turn instructions, so if I wandered off course, it would not beep at me. I was not looking at the route screen, and did not figure out my mistake until I had reached Eastman without finding my next turn. My phone refused to fully load a map of my location, so it was a frustrating and time consuming process of trying to backtrack my way back on to the route. It added an hour and many miles to my ride. That’s what I get for teasing Mark about getting lost. I made it to Prairie du Chien, mile 197, just before 7:30 p.m., and stopped at the Qwik Trip. It was 74 miles to Decorah, Iowa with nowhere to stop in between. I reached Decorah by 1:30 a.m., and stopped at the 24-hour Casey’s. The lady that worked there had surely seen every kind of oddball there was to see in the world, because she didn’t bat an eye at seeing a smelly dirt covered cyclist in the wee hours of the night. I bought what I hoped was enough food and fluids to get me through the 110 miles until the finish. I should’ve planned for 120.


Sarah's bike and Sarah got muddyIt rained near Decorah, and the roads became wet enough that I could see Mark’s bike tracks in the wet gravel. It was reassuring to know that I was on route, especially near the road closures and construction sites. The first road closure was easy enough to get through, but the second proved to be impassable to me. I followed Mark’s tracks down to the site, and did not see any evidence that he had backtracked. There were three barriers to go around before reaching the actual construction, and I finally arrived to find a giant pit. It was pitch black, and even with my headlight on high I could not see a way to cross it without carrying my bike down the steep embankment into the hole, nor could I see if there was stable ground at the bottom to cross on. I called out for Mark, thinking he must surely be lying broken at the bottom of this pit, but I didn’t hear any answer. My right shoulder and upper back hurt badly no matter which arm I used to carry my bike with, and I feared I would fall down the embankment or tear my rotator cuff trying to carry my bike up and out the other side of this nightmare. I figured in daylight this would look pretty benign and harmless, but self preservation had kicked in (as well as the strong desire not to have to explain getting trapped in a construction site to my husband), and I opted to go around. I took the next street over, which took me up a painfully steep hill and dumped me on to the highway. Then I backtracked onto the route from the highway. It was a time consuming side trip, and added more bonus miles. I saw Mark’s tracks as soon as I got back on route, and was relieved to know that Mark was not dead. He and I traded a few messages after the event, and he did in fact find a solid dirt bridge through the construction after going down the embankment and made it across safely.


My Garmin by this point in the ride was becoming a frustration. It locked up for the first time in Decorah, and I was able to restart it by holding down the power and start/stop keys. It randomly shut down a few more times after that, and began adding excess mileage on to my total that didn’t match the mileage between turns on the cue sheets. Between miles 309 and 329, the route takes you on and off County Roads 10 and 30 and Highway 15 in a few different places. At that point my Garmin was now showing so much extra mileage that I became convinced that this was just taking me in circles on the same three roads, and I was not heading back to Spring Valley, ever. I tried to zoom out on my Garmin navigation screen to see where I was on the route, but it looked like a big squiggly circle, and it was not at all reassuring. Fortunately this was not my first time at a 24-hour event, so I knew that this was just the paranoia I sometimes feel for no reason at dawn, and I kept riding and navigating with the cue sheets. My Garmin continued to randomly add on mileage and was up to 426 miles before it shut down 20 miles from the finish and would no longer restart. My next series of turns were all on target, so my paranoia faded. I just needed to keep riding, not tear my rotator cuff, and make it to the finish line without getting lost again. Unfortunately, I took a large detour before the water crossing, and ended up backtracking to get to it. The stream wasn’t very deep, but crossing it sucked. No matter what I did with my bike, I felt awkward, unbalanced, and in pain, and I’m thankful I did not fall over in the stream. I was not happy. There were only 20 miles left at that point, but it was a sucky and slow 20 miles with two soul crushing steep hills and deep fresh gravel. I had run out of food and water about an hour before the water crossing, and had zero energy. Fortunately a wicked south wind had picked up that carried me north towards Spring Valley, and only the hills were any kind of struggle.

Finishing the Alexander 380

Sarah Cooper finishes the Alexander 380When I got to Spring Valley, the cue sheets took me to Main Street to finish. I asked a group of people who looked to be associated with the race where I was supposed to check in to get my time recorded. One person told me the community center, and I was about to park my bike and go in when another said I had to go back across the highway. I got back on my bike and rode across the highway. Another person there then directed me to the Almanzo 100 finish line, which was set back a ways from the road. I went there, but there was no one there either. Given that I had already put in at least 20 bonus miles, a few unnecessary trips around town weren’t welcome, but weren’t that big a deal either. I still needed to drive three hours home, though, after having been awake since 3:00 Friday morning, so I really needed to be done wandering around town. I told a random nice lady working at a tent near the Almanzo 100 finish that I had been riding my bike since early the day before and really needed to be done now, but I would like my time recorded in the results if possible. She didn’t know where to tell me to go either, but kindly took my picture and wrote down my finish time, and said she knew the woman in charge and would pass it on to her later. My name didn’t show up in the results, but I emailed a few people and I think we have it sorted out. I received an email that I finished second overall, behind Mark Skarpohl. It hasn’t been updated on the website yet, but I’m sure there are other results they still need to sort out before that happens. I know there were others that finished that are not listed either. I don’t have a super exact finish time due to my crappy Garmin dying before the finish line, only the memory of looking at my phone when I rolled into town and Spot Tracker GPS points, which only up date so often. I have mapped out the areas where I went off course on, and a new friend fixed some of the corrupt data points on my Garmin file. I rode at least 400 miles in 30ish hours. 20 bonus miles… I am sorry to everyone I have ever teased about going off course in an event! Thank you to Spring Valley Tourism for keeping this event alive! I had a great time, and thank you for sorting out the results. Hope to see you next year. Thank you to Steve Saeedi for repairing my Garmin file. I have not smashed my Garmin with a hammer, which surely would have happened had I tried to repair that file myself. Thank you, Steve Fuller for the use of your spot tracker/dog magnet, and for the photos. Thank you Katherine Roccasecca for tracking me, and for being willing to come rescue me if my husband couldn’t get there! Thank you for checking up on me during my drive home, and making sure I got there safely.
Results from the Alexander 380 can be accessed from the website. Listen to Sarah's interview about the Alexander 380 on Over the Top Cycling. To learn more about Sarah Cooper, visit her blog. Photo Credits: Most photos by Sarah Cooper or people she handed her phone to. Sign on the low maintenance road where she hurt her shoulder taken by Steve Fuller in 2014.
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