by Katherine A. Roccasecca
The Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra is Sarah Cooper's creation. Successful as a road and gravel ultracyclist, she wanted to step into the role of race director as well. The headline race was 200 miles, and she offered a 150-mile version for those who couldn't fathom riding 200 miles of gravel and dirt roads but still wanted to push themselves to their own version of epic. For both courses she promised, "the best big hills, small towns, old barns, rickety bridges, and B roads that I can find."
I am primarily a mountain biker and had only ever done two 100-mile rides (one paved, one flat gravel, both last year) but bunches of 100K gravel rides. The 150-mile Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra felt epic yet possible, if I trained. I was the first to sign up when registration opened in May.
My 2016 season was very uneven, with some successes, but I DNF'd a lot of events this year. And I DNF'd or DNS'd a lot of my training, too. My latest race DNF was due to a whiplash injury from a tumble off a boulder into a ravine. (No good story here, I just slipped from a standing stop when the traffic in front of me stopped.) That was in early October, and after I foolishly re-aggravated it a week later, I went scrambling to the physical therapist.
The Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra Course
Iowa is not flat. It is full of creek and river valleys. The farther south you go, the farther you get from where the glaciers came down in the last ice age, the hillier it gets. This race is in south central Iowa. These are the hills Sarah Cooper trains on.
Sarah must have found a way to link together every hill down there. I would say the course was brutal and beautiful.
Iowa has over 67,000 miles of gravel roads which are regularly maintained. We also have dirt or "minimally maintained" roads. These are affectionately know as B-roads. They are more scenic than gravel roads, but they come with even steeper hills. These steep hills are often crisscrossed with ruts and gullies, and the low spots turn into mud wallows when it rains. They can be completely impassable by car or bicycle in the spring.
Sarah loves B-roads, and included as many as she could find. Brutal and beautiful, indeed.
I really, really did not want another DNF, so in the days before the race, I came up with three mantras:
- Embrace the suck.
- You are capable of more than you think you are.
- Darn it, I want the Squirrel belt buckle.
The first is from my friend Greg Grandgeorge. I've used "Embrace the suck" before in races, and in my mind it has transformed into, "It sucks for everyone—deal with it."
I have heard something along the lines of the second one from many of my friends over the years. Likely from giving up before I should and selling myself short. This day, any time that I felt like quitting, I'd ask myself, "Are you capable of going a little farther?" Each time the answer was yes.
Squirrel is a local artist who makes sculpture from used bike parts. He often makes trophies for races, and I have wanted to win one for a long time. For the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra, he made finisher buckles for both the 200 and 150. I was going to get across that finish line, crawling if I had to, to get my "darn" buckle. (Darn was not actually the word I used in my head.)
I came up with one other mantra as we encountered hill after hill during the race. I knew that if I thought of all the hills to come, I would become demoralized. Instead, I'd say to myself, "Every hill has an end. All I have to worry about right now is getting to the top of this one."
I got up very early for the one-hour drive and 6:00 a.m. start. This was the first time I had ever started a ride in the dark. We had a one-mile neutral rollout on the county highway, and then we turned onto the gravel and the "race" was on. This wan't a race for me, just a test of will to finish. I didn't even check the roster to see which or even how many women were registered.
I rode with my buddy Andre for awhile. It was great having his familiar company in the unfamiliar dark, especially when my front tire began to spray Stans sealant all over the place. We stopped to check it out, and it stopped. I guess it did its job. But a few miles later, it did it again. And it stopped again. I had everything I needed to put a tube in, but I sure the heck didn't want to have to do it in the dark! Luckily, it behaved itself through sunrise and for the rest of the day.
Eventually Andre pulled on ahead and I started leapfrogging with my friends Michelle and Molly from Minnesota and two guys on fat bikes. Sometime after sunrise, I missed a left turn onto the Clarke-Union Avenue B-road and so did the fat bike guys. Michelle and Molly yelled after us, but we didn't hear them. The three of us, off course together, pooled our resources and made our way back.
Introductions were made. Tom and Mike were riding mid-fat and fat bikes, and their friend Jacob was somewhere on his singlespeed. We fell in together and had some good chats. At one point we were three folks in a gravel race… on mountain/fat bikes… discussing triathlon. I had to laugh.
The 150-mile route had a convenience store about every 35 miles. We kept the first two stops (Murray and Afton) reasonably short. I started falling way off their pace in the miles of beautiful but bumpy B-road before the 100-mile mark c-store in Orient. When I rolled in I knew I needed a long break and said my goodbyes. However, Tom and Mike ended taking an even longer break than I did, so I we ended up rolling out together.
This was now farther than I had ever ridden. I can't say how well I would have done without Tom and Mike. I believe my stubbornness would have carried me through to the finish, but it would have taken much longer. Yes, it was helpful to get in their draft on the windy flat sections (not that there was much flat out there!). However, the biggest impact they had on my speed was that they provided motivation to keep my pace up and stay with them, rather than daydream and slack off, which would have happened had I ridden alone. And I rode every hill because I wasn't going to let them see me get off and walk!
The Final Push
We stopped to put on our lights about halfway between Orient and Winterset, and made it to Winterset around 8:20. About 40 minutes later, we got back on our bikes. This was hard. Very hard. None of us were doing awesome. But not going on was completely off the table by now.
All day we had strung out and come back together over and over, not always the same person off the back. About halfway though these last 16 miles, I was the only one off the back. Way off the back. But it was clear that at this point, after all this time together, no one was going to be left behind, and they waited at each of the last few turns.
Coming up the very last hill of the race before the very last turn to the finish line, Tom and Mike were ahead of me. As we passed a driveway, I heard in the dark a rustling and growling, and then paws moving quickly on gravel. That is when I sprinted and caught up to my friends.
We made the final turn and coasted down three-abreast to the finish line.
At the Finish
Standing there hugging Sarah, knowing that I had done it—really done it—without selling myself short... I can't find words for it. I just know that nothing else mattered.
My wonderful husband, Eric, photographed all of us and got his hug later. I have to thank him so much for understanding. And for taking pictures of the race, and for driving me home. But mostly, thank you for putting up with me in everything leading up to this. I love you.
Thank you to all the volunteers cheering at random, surprising places out on the course and at the checkpoints. I appreciate everyone who worked behind the scenes to make this event happen, and happen smoothly.
Thank you to Lee Buell for your example. To all my friends, thank you for reminding me not to sell myself short. Go Velorosa Cycling Team—Pink Rocks!
Thank you, Sarah.
Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra was a great race in a beautiful part of the state. And while I don't know if I will do it next year—I think I can still get a T-shirt for being a volunteer—I highly recommend that you do.
I recommend this race as the perfect opportunity to ask yourself, "Are you capable of going a little farther?" and to find your limits. They are likely much farther than you thought they were.
For more information visit the Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra website.
Photo Credits: Mud on a B-road by Eric Roccasecca, Gravel Bridge by Daren Monroe, B-road Sign by Daren Monroe, Finisher Buckles by Eric Roccasecca, Start in the Dark by Eric Roccasecca, Camaraderie by Eric Roccasecca, Katherine at Mile 110 by Lee Buell, Three at the Finish by Dori Jansma, Happy Sarah by Eric Roccasecca