by Sarah Cooper, Ultracyclist
I had all but given up on blogging since Race Across the West last year, but I’ve ended the blog hiatus to do at least one post on Trans Iowa v13. It’s hard not to want to talk about your experiences at a race like Trans Iowa. It’s unique, it’s brutal, and in any given year you never can say if or when you’ll finish. Now I’m two and two: two finishes and two DNFs. Both finishes were on an even numbered year, so I’m holding out hope for a TIv14.
The weather is usually the main story for Trans Iowa, and this year it did not disappoint. Highs in the 40s, lows in the 30s, rain for most of the event, and winds gusting over 30 mph. Even though I frequently train in poor conditions, I don’t usually choose to go out in weather like that. I get caught in it, or have to endure it for hours at a time during a race, but a continuous 330 mile gravel race in these conditions was a bit of a stretch for me. I have always struggled with hypothermia during endurance races. My husband calls it my kryptonite. It can be 70 degrees and I’ll end up hypothermic, and that’s no exaggeration. As lean as I am right now for RAAM, I was in the worst possible position for dealing with this type of weather. I invested in some better gear last fall, but still had never managed to last longer than 50 miles without needing to get out of the rain and warm up for at least a few minutes. A race like Trans Iowa with uncertain opportunities for shelter was going to be quite a challenge for me.
I talked with Joe Mann and Joe Stiller about gear prior to the race. Joe Mann talked me out of shoes and into boots, and that proved to be a wise decision. Joe Stiller overnight mailed me a set of his possum fur socks, which is just classic Joe. The opportunity to smell like dead possum with a side of Joe Stiller sock funk sounds like something I also need to bring to RAAM. (Both Joe Mann and Joe Stiller are on my RAAM crew.) I also talked with my coach Greg Grandgeorge about using Bar Mitts. I couldn’t see my hands surviving that long in the rain without Bar Mitts, so I asked Greg what kind of aero penalty they would cause. Trans Iowa is a race where you can weight or aero weenie your way into a DNF, but I still like to know what I’m dealing with. He sent me some numbers and a formula, which basically translated to 20 minutes. I’d be roughly 20 minutes slower for warm hands. Sold.
To start, I ended up wearing a 200 weight wool shirt with Louis Garneau detachable bibs under a Goretex rain coat and Specialized Therminal tights. The Louis Garneau bibs I discovered through my sponsorship with Velorosa. The bibs are plain jane black, and I didn’t get to wear my sweet new Velorosa RAAM kit, but the detachable front meant that I could keep my jacket on and my top covered anytime I needed to go to the bathroom. That ended up being crucial in delaying the onset of hypothermia. The tights I’ve worn all winter in all sorts of cold and wet situations. They are water resistant, not water proof, but take a while to get really wet. It’s like wool, you end up warm and wet instead of cold and wet. I wore them with the Specialized Defroster boots, which are currently the best boot I’ve ever owned. The tops are more flexible than the 45NRTH boots I previously used, and I can wear them for hundreds of miles at a time without pain. The tights fit over the top of the boots and keep the rain from running down into them. The bottoms of the boots are waterproof, so I didn’t end up with a boot full of water until I thoroughly dunked them on a B road. With wool socks and foot warmers, my feet were warm and wet and not a problem until very late in the race.
On my hands, I started with a set of gas station throw away gloves that used to belong to Mark Skarpohl. One of the benefits of being a race director is that you get to keep anyone’s cast off gloves, and he handed me those last fall just prior to the Spotted Horse 200. I’ve been wearing them all winter, so I thought I’d take them along for luck. After it started raining, I switched to neoprene divers gloves. Between those and the Bar Mitts, my hands were never cold for long. The problem with the bar mitts though is that your hands are pretty much locked into one position on the hoods if you want them to be warm. That ended up causing some pain by the end of the ride. For my head, I had on a thermal skull cap, buff for both my head and neck, and a helmet cover after it started raining. I wear the helmet cover on my head like a shower cap under my helmet. It keeps my hair dry, and the water from running off the helmet and into my face and neck.
In my seat pack I packed a 260 weight wool shirt, waterproof rain pants, two extra pairs of socks, and a dry set of gas station gloves that I ended up not needing. I went light on repair gear, and only had one tube, two CO2, and minimal tools. I figured with it being cold and rainy, a big mechanical was going to be a DNF due to hypothermia even if I got it fixed. And I decided to trust the tires that have served me well for thousands of miles, the Clement MSO tubeless 36s. A new set is pretty damn durable, and I rarely puncture before a set has been on my bike for 1000 or more miles. In my frame bag, I had a third water bottle (only 2 on the frame), 1200 calories of Carbo Pro, and chocolate. I had spare hand and foot warmers, and one of the large body warmer packs. In my top tube bag I had my charger and cable for the Garmin, the only device I needed to charge. Also caffeine tablets and a few Tylenol in case my back went to shit. It sometimes does on long gravel rides, but has been less of a problem since I switched to the vibration dampening Specialized CG-R seatpost. For lights, I had a Blackburn battery headlamp zip tied to my helmet, and a k-Lite dyno hub light. My bags are custom BikeBagDude lite skin bags with one large and easily managed zipper pocket on the side. I prefer these bags to any other that I’ve tried. When the zipper gets muddy and my hands get sore and dysfunctional, I can still open and close the pocket.
I rode the same 10-speed Specialized Crux that I rode last year, only all of the components were new. I wore everything out last year, and replaced everything but the shifters. I have been using and abusing the Ice Friction chains and coated drivetrains on my road bikes, and this was my first gravel event relying on it. This stuff is simply amazing, and is far better than conventional lube, especially for gravel. The big deal about it is that it reduces friction in the drivetrain, saving watts over time and improving speed. I’m sure it does that for me, but what I appreciate about it on gravel is that it simply works. Usually on wet gravel, the chain begins to skip around and the entire system quits working eventually. Not once in the nightmarish road conditions did I ever worry about my drivetrain working, have to clean my drivetrain, or utter a single prayer to the lord to spare my drivetrain. It’s amazing stuff.
I weighed the entire bike and helmet and boots, and it weighed in at 37 lbs. That’s just a few pounds heavier that what I’d been rolling around with all winter, so at least it didn’t feel like I was rolling out on a larger tank than usual. I felt pretty confident in the set up, as I’d literally put in thousands of miles on it all over the winter training for RAAM. Packing for TI was less of an ordeal than it had been in previous years. It was just a few minutes of taking out a few things, and putting in some others.
Trans Iowa v13 Meat-Up and Start
Katherine Roccasecca was my support person again this year. We always have a good time together, and she’s good at the social media stuff that I’m supposed to do now that I have sponsors, but suck at. We went to the Meat-Up at the Grinnell Steak House for the fourth year in a row (Katherine’s third year). After getting the first set of cue sheets at the rider meeting, Katherine mapped out the route to CP1 to let me know that the first town was going to be Baxter. That was one of the towns we passed through on TIv12, but it was at night.
Race morning was cold, damp, humid, and windy. I have struggled with an asthma exacerbation for the two weeks prior to Trans Iowa. I worked out a few times with a pulse ox, and I was desaturating into the upper 80s in zone 3. That’s not good. I really haven’t had anything quite that bad in two years. I went to the doctor and got a new prescription for a rescue inhaler since the only ones I had were long expired, and hoped for the best. Unfortunately I got the worst.
Shortly after the neutral roll out ended and the front of the pack started racing, I started to struggle. I thought I was going to die, actually. I got spit out of the front of the pack pretty much right away, and by mile seven I was moving backwards through the field. I really couldn’t breathe at all. I was reluctant to dig out my inhaler in the dark with so many people around because I feared that I would drop it and not be able to recover it. The first B road provided some relief, and an opportunity to walk and catch my breath. I finally did dig out the inhaler when the sun rose and I had some room to maneuver and dig in my bag without worrying about being dodgy on the road next to another cyclist. By that point, I had been passed by both Janna Vavra and Leah Gruhn and was in third place. Being on the chase is not a position I find myself in very often at an endurance race, and I wasn’t terribly happy about it.
I got a rock stuck in my front derailleur on the first B road, which bumped the cage off kilter causing the chain to rub on it the rest of the day. After I got the rock out, I started passing people and moving forward through the field. It was pretty cool to talk with folks and visit a bit as I started moving forward again. I rolled into the first checkpoint with Dave Roll, and we caught up to Corey Godfry there. The crew at the checkpoint were all friends of mine, but I had no smiles, and when they asked me how I was doing all I said was "not good. I can’t breathe." Most of the race I felt like I was breathing through a plastic bag.
I rolled out with Dave and Corey, but Corey soon dropped us. I think Dave had a pretty good idea how badly I was struggling, as at one point he told me to come over and get on his wheel. We rode together for a while, and then suddenly Dave dropped off and I was alone. Not long after that, I had another episode of acute scary wheezing. I’m really glad I had gone to the doctor and gotten a new inhaler. There really isn’t much to do when things suck that bad except give up, or try to find a pace that didn’t make things worse and hope for the best. I’m not big on giving up, so I settled in to my day of suck. My power output to the first two checkpoints was 20 watts less than I expected, and my heart rate was all over the place. I haven’t struggled that much at the beginning of a race since I can’t remember when.
We had been told at the race meeting that the ride would feature several local bike trails, and I recognized several of the roads on the cue sheets leading up to the High Trestle Trail. I knew there was a C store in both Madrid and Woodward, and as it was starting to rain as I approached Madrid I opted to stop there. The bathroom was pretty muddy, so I told the store clerk that Trans Iowa was coming through, and apologized for the mud. He laughed and said he’d seen a few of us crazies already and it was fine. I love Iowa.
I swapped out my light gloves for the neoprene gloves and put on my helmet cover. I chugged a Coke and mixed new bottles, and was out of there in a flash. The nice thing about settling into a sucky lower zone pace so early in the race was that my caloric requirements dropped quite a bit. The 1200 calories of Carbo Pro that I had was going to get me a lot farther than I had anticipated. Since it was cold and I wasn’t going to be drinking much, I mixed everything super concentrated.
Loop Around Des Moines
The next set of cues I recognized as heading towards the Raccoon River Valley Trail on a route that I frequently train on. It passes not far from where I live. I knew there were C stores just off route in Adel, and I made a quick stop there. I didn’t really need to, but knowing at some point there could be another 100-mile stretch without another opportunity to stop, I grabbed a Coke and some more chocolate. It was raining pretty hard by then, and it was nice to get out of it for a minute. The clerk said another rider had just gone through 10 minutes before me, and I wondered it it was Luke. I knew he wouldn’t have passed up that C store, and with it being off route, people in the front of the pack might not have gone for it being so soon after the last one.
The next two sheets of cues were all roads I recognized, and included some roads from my own race course, the Spotted Horse 200. The route south on Hogback Bridge road and into Winterset on 8th Street was a direction change that I have been riding frequently and was planning on adding to this years race. My race last year headed north past the Hogback Bridge, which is the easy way. Heading south, you get the harder climbing.
Pulling into Winterset, I got stopped by a traffic light and the wind was gusting so hard I had a hard time standing up. I pulled into the C store just off route, and Luke’s bike was there. For those that don’t know Luke, he is my training buddy, and he and Steve Fuller are the closest thing I’ve ever had to brothers. I was super excited to know that he was there, although I knew if I was catching him in the sad shape I was in, he was likely in sad shape as well. Luke had a severe stomach virus during the week before the race, had lost 8 lbs, and still wasn’t 100% by race day. I didn’t see him in the store, but I could hear the hand dryer running endlessly in the men’s bathroom so I figured he was in there drying his stuff. I camped out by the door in the ladies room and pulled my boots off to change into my dry socks. An older guy came out, and I asked him to please go back in and tell Luke I was there. The funny thing about Iowa is that most people really are pretty nice, and even though this guy clearly thought I was bonkers for being out riding my bike in the rain and needing a message sent into the men’s room, he just looked at me with a bemused expression and gave Luke the message.
The weather was really affecting me by then, my lungs weren’t good, and I don’t think I was terribly right in the head anymore. I think Jess Rundlett had the best description of the weather, “wintery monsoon.” If it had been just a bit colder, that rain would’ve been snow.
I forgot half my stuff when I went into the store, and I had to go back out to my bike in the cold three times before I finally had my act together. I didn’t feel like going back into the ladies room again to change into my dry shirt, so I ended up stripping right in middle of the store. Normally I’m excessively modest, but something happens to me when I’m racing and I just don’t have the energy to care about modesty anymore. Like that time on RAW when we were stopped at a construction zone waiting on a pilot car, and I wouldn’t get in the van to deal with my saddle irritation issues… I asked the construction worker if he minded if I stuck my hand in my pants in front of him. It makes me blush now, but of course he didn’t mind, and I’m sure no one in Winterset cared about the half naked woman in their store. Maybe someone took a picture and it lives somewhere on the internet.
I enlisted the help of another store patron who was hanging out having coffee and watching the shit show rolling in as other riders began arriving. I handed him things to open as I was struggling with my wet hands, and he happily obliged. Luke and I rolled out after what felt like forever, and we were joined soon after by a few other cyclists.
We hit the descent on Holliwell Bridge Road right after Winterset, and I warned another rider about it. Mark had warned us about some of the fast descents on the course, and this is one of them. It’s currently on my race course, and it was one I’d also warned riders about. It has a sharp, steep ramp that launches you over 40 mph in a hurry, and it keeps curving beyond what you’d expect for Iowa. It’s usually littered with loose gravel, so you are cornering fast and sharp with your bike bouncing underneath you. Gravel racing is not for the faint of heart.
After this, things get fuzzy in my memory. I had already begun the slow decline into hypothermia, and my brain wasn’t good for much beyond reading cues and riding a bike. I remember a B road that was literally a swamp. I pushed my bike through a swamp in the middle of a wintery monsoon. The experience just boggles my mind. People who don’t understand Trans Iowa think that a race this tough must have been good training for RAAM. If I didn’t already have my mental and physical shit together for RAAM, I wouldn’t have been prepared for this Trans Iowa. It was that hard.
Checkpoint 2 was at the Great Western trailhead in Cumming, next to the Cumming Tap. I knew Steve Fuller was the checkpoint 2 volunteer, and I had worried about him being stuck out in the middle of nowhere all day in the rotten weather at a checkpoint, and here he was hanging out in Cumming just a short drive from home! Given the nightmarish weather we had been riding in all day, it was simply amazing to walk into a familiar establishment and find friends hanging out there. It was a hero’s welcome to anyone that made it that far on such a horrible day, and it was a huge boost to my spirits. Mark has always been so vehemently against outside support of any kind during Trans Iowa, including emotional support, and had even frowned upon the social media stuff that sometimes happens during the race. So it was kind of surreal to find myself in a bar with Sam Auen getting a hug during Trans Iowa, but it sure was cool.
My Garmin froze up in Cumming. Luke said he would navigate for us, so rather than waste time trying to reset my Garmin while getting rained on, we rolled on. He said he wasn’t leaving me and I trust him with my life, so it wasn’t a decision I struggled with. I don’t think he realized he was dooming himself with his decision to take over my navigation, and I didn’t realize how much that Garmin and clock keep me tethered to reality and the passage of time. My lungs were still in a pretty bad state, and maybe I should have thought a little farther ahead about what might happen to me, but at the time I thought I was going to be able to tough it out to the finish.
Maybe it was the epic weather and hypothermia, but time and events became surreal. We headed south to Indianola on a route that used several roads from the 24 hours of Cumming course. There were very long and steep hills, some of which had rivers of water and thick mud on them. It was torturous. My glasses were so muddy they were useless, and I took them off. I ended up descending most of each hill with only one eye open, which probably was the most useful RAAM training exercise of that entire day. The B roads were so slow and difficult at night, and I lost body heat each time I had to get off and push my bike.
At some point we became a group of six riders. I can’t remember when any of these people showed up, which is unusual for me. Luke had to remind me who they were after the race, because I couldn’t remember any of their names. Usually I have vivid and sharp memories from my races. This one was a blur of struggle and pain with a little bit of fun. Our group was Scott from Oregon, Dan from Canada, Mark on the single speed, and Josh who used to live in Iowa and race for Sakari, but now lives in Colorado. Of the six of us, Mark was the only one who went on to become an official finisher.
We all ended up in Indianola at the Casey’s. I asked for a garbage bag, and one of the clerks got us each a few of the really big bags to put on our bodies under our coats. Luke even had one stuffed in his pants, which I found quite amusing. We made such a mess of mud in that store, but the staff were so kind and encouraging. It was simply amazing how nice they were to us, despite the mess and the oddity of our journey. Those garbage bags and their generosity were what enabled me to keep going. I was out of spare dry clothes, and the bags helped keep what heat I had left inside my coat. I put on the extra rain pants that I had brought along. Normally I hate wearing them because they are like a sauna suit at any other time, but they kept the heat in and the wind out.
It was tough getting going again, but I warmed up pretty decently. Once we left Indianola, I was no longer in familiar territory. Knowing where you are and when your next stop is going to happen is so crucial to successful training and self-supported racing, especially in bad weather. The cue sheets for Trans Iowa are just a set of street names and turns. You are given no other information. Not what city you are in, not when your next opportunity to refuel will be, not where the B roads are… Just turn here, then here, for 330 miles. Mark used to give out more info, but people used it to cheat. So now we get basic directions, which oddly enough makes the race more difficult, and therefore better.
I don’t know what mile it was, but at some point after Indianola we reached a very long B road. It was a T intersection, so we trudged through the mud for a mile, and got to the end only to find a left turn and another mile of mud. I lost all of my remaining body heat walking that road. I fell into a thigh deep hole full of water, and filled my boots with ice water. I’m 5’ 10”, so thigh deep is quite a hole. That hole would have nearly eaten some of the other women racing. Cold water seeped under the bottom edge of my coat and reached my base layer. And that’s really where the end happened for me, although I didn’t stop until a few hours later. One of the guys pulled the bike off me while I crawled out of the hole. I’m really glad I wasn’t alone on that road.
I don’t know if it was that road, or a B road after it, but Luke actually came back down the road and carried my bike the rest of the way. Once you slow down and people start waiting on you, everyone gets cold and then you are all doomed. This is where not knowing how far we were from the next stop really made decision making difficult. I could see city lights, but it seemed like we were now riding away from the city, not towards it. It could’ve been another 50 miles before we got to a city for all we knew. We knew there was a 24 hour Walmart on the route, but not exactly where it was. The plan when we left Indianola was to get to that Walmart and buy a dry shirt and socks. Not knowing when that was going to be possible was a huge concern. It wasn’t safe to continue unless I could get dry.
The End of Trans Iowa v13
My friend and RAAM crew member Laurel called me after the race, and she said something about how hard the decision to end the race must have been for me, and there must have been some serious thought that went into that, and how was I feeling… Um, no, there wasn’t a lot of thought, emotion, or inner turmoil. I was going to collapse and die from hypothermia if I continued, as well as endanger the safety of the people I was with, so I took shelter in a garage outside of Knoxville. Once we stopped in the driveway, it was over. I started shaking uncontrollably, and then soon after I stopped shaking or feeling anything at all, which is when you know things are quite bad. Josh stopped with Luke and me too, as he had been struggling longer than I had and was also quite hypothermic. I remember Luke telling me to lie on a dog bed in the garage, and he said after that I complained about it being dirty. I have no memory of that at all, and how odd that I would even think to complain about dirt on a dog bed when I was covered in mud. Luke had gone up to the house to wake the people that lived there so they wouldn’t hear what was going on in their garage and come out and shoot us. At first they weren’t too happy about being woken up and were suspicious of our intentions, but the wife convinced the husband to let us in the house. I think a dysfunctional, mud-covered woman huddled on their dog’s bed in the garage may have helped convince them we weren’t criminals. She made us coffee, and he got us warm towels and blankets.
I called Katherine, and Luke texted Mark to let him know the three of us weren’t going to make the finish. We had a nice visit with the couple whose house we invaded, and discovered we were only about six miles outside of town. We only had about 80 miles to go to the finish, which seemed totally doable until it suddenly wasn’t. Looking back at the timeline of events, it took eight hours to go less than 60 miles from the Cumming Tap. That’s just crazy slow. What crazy weather, and what a crazy experience. I lasted a full 24 hours outside in a wintery monsoon with rain, high winds, and temps in the 30s. I pushed and carried my bike down impassable roads, and ended my race curled in the fetal position on a dog bed in a garage in Knoxville. You gotta love a race that pushes you to that kind of ending.
I’m pretty much ok now. My arms took a beating from being stuck in the Bar Mitts and carrying my bike, and I’m tired, but that’s about all of the damage. The lung stuff should resolve once the weather dries up. The rain and cold seem to make it worse. I feel bad that Luke was collateral damage in this situation, and that we had to wake up a couple of really nice people and disturb them early on a Sunday morning because of our foolishness. Luke and I will send them a thank you card and a gift, and I suppose at some point I’ll quit feeling like a big jerk and move on.
I didn’t put a lot of thought into whether or not I would do Trans Iowa this year. After last year, I thought I’d be done with it. I won, and had a decent race despite some mistakes. I had RAAM to train for this year, and Trans Iowa is dangerous. There is a high risk for injury if you mess up. But then Luke asked if I was sending in a post card again, and I said yes. My coach likes to remind me periodically that a life not lived is no way to live, and too much living is no way to die. I’m a 45-year-old amateur athlete. This is my life, I’m driven to live it, and sometimes I ride the line. People always ask me why. I don’t know why. Why are some people so tame, content to get through their workday and have a drink and watch TV, have a socially acceptable number of children, ride the bike trail always, and take their vacations relaxing on a beach? Why?
If there is a Trans Iowa v14, I’ll send in a post card.
I’d like to thank the sponsors who have supported my training and racing these past few years. Kyle’s Bikes, Velorosa, Carbo Pro, Ice Friction Technology, k-Lite, BikeBagDude, Active Edge Orthopedic and Sports Massage, Beaverdale Bicycles, Bar Yak. These are all relatively small businesses, and yet they do everything they can for me. In addition to assisting me with equipment, some of them even crew for me, which is simply amazing. I abuse the hell out of everything they give me, and I am so focused on training and racing that I don’t take the time thank them publicly often enough. So if you see me putting it in and on my body or on my bike, know that it works, and it comes from people that I trust with my body, my life, and my safety. I’m not paid to use any of it.
And to the cycling community of Des Moines, and the global ultracycling community, thank you for getting behind me and supporting this crazy adventure that I am on. The jersey sales and the donations to cover my RAAM crew expenses have moved me to tears. My body might fail me at times, but my mind is strong and I won’t give up. Thank you for believing in me!
And to my friends who were so involved in this edition of Trans Iowa: Katherine, Luke, Steve, Connie, and the Joe’s. You guys are tops. Everyone should have friends like you.
Trans Iowa v13 results can be found on Guitar Ted's blog.
Photos of Sarah's bike and Luke’s bike post event can be found on Sarah's blog. "The devastation is amazing. I can’t believe we were still rolling."
To learn more about Sarah Cooper, read our cyclist profile on her.
Photo credits: "Checkpoint 1" by Jess Rundlett, "Checkpoint 2" by Steve Fuller, all the remaining by Katherine A. Roccasecca.