Find Yourself With an ‘Impossible’ Goal
THE IOWA WIND AND ROCK
340 miles of gravel. Now that’s just bonkers hard. After the challenge of Gravel Worlds last August, I had a desire to push myself with gravel again in the 2019 season. The Race was intriguing because of the sheer distance, but I really had no idea how hard the actual gravel conditions were going to be. SPOILER ALERT: It was going to be a big old DNF legplosion!
Every season I sit down and write my season goals out, internalizing what I am going to try to ask of myself. They are a combination of power goals, season pacing, A races, ect. This season, I felt like I wanted a new kind of goal -- one based on sheer difficulty alone. So when my teammate Andy Chasteen told Brendan and I to “SIGN UP NOW FOR THIS AWESOME GRAVEL RACE ASAP!” I was pumped! I now had my crazy impossible target! To be honest, I was pretty beat up after gravel worlds. A long 2018 season that involved one of my most intense training efforts yet had really left me feeling a bit burnt out. I needed a fresh challenge - a new goal to light the fire. When we found out about this race, I was reinvigorated, inspired, and ready to ride long.
First Stop, Kansas City!
I had a bit of a freak out 24 hours before I was supposed to leave for the race. I was panicked about my current tire choice. I had 40mm tires on and not knowing anything about what the course was supposed to be like on the day, I was worried that the clearance on my bike frame/tires would screw me over if there was any mud or rain. I walked the bike over to my LBS Shelby ave Bikes and begged the mechanic Dave to do a last second tire swap for me. He agreed, but we had no idea how difficult it was going to be to get these new tires mounted. Long story short, it was a Pain in the Arse and I really owe him one.....
I felt like I had packed and planned pretty well. For me, this is a big challenge. Musicians are notorious for creativity, but we’re not necessarily the most organized individuals in the world. So yea - logistics are not always my strength. I love living in the moment and always have, but I had my list: Science in Sport Beta Fuel and isotonic gels, 4 loaves of homemade banana bread, a functioning bike… so ok, we are good to go!
I rolled out at 5am to head to Memphis and pick up Brendan. We were off! I was pumped to get on the road for the first race weekend of the year. I hadn’t traveled or raced yet this season, so I was pretty pumped and full of energy. I woke up before my alarm which is definitely not my style for a 5am launch. Things were looking good! The training was done and it was time to go on an adventure with my friends!
It was around 10 hours to get to Kansas City, and Brendan found a hotel deal at Harrah’s, of all places. Lots of laughs and plenty of bike talk made the drive go by really quickly. Candy, Banana bread, and Thai Food were are carbs of choice on Thursday. We passed out early and were ready to make the quick 3 hour jaunt up to Winterset the next morning. I slept surprisingly well. Usually 1-2 days before a big target I have a bit of a hard time getting to sleep and staying asleep. I find myself waking often in anticipation of race day but I think since I had no idea what to expect from Iowa, I had nothing to worry about!
We checked into the hotel and figured we should stretch the legs before the big day. We rode over to the registration to get our numbers and meet the race director, Sarah Cooper. Between the two of us, we must have at least 500 race starts under our belts at this point, but for both Brendan and I this was going to be a first. Sarah was really appreciative that we had given this race and Ultra a shot and gave us a lot of helpful info about the conditions of the course along with some general tips on what to expect out there. She also seemed very amused to watch us, pretty darn fit athletes but not utra racers, take on her masterpiece, this 30k foot course OF DOOM she had created. It was all still very surreal, but at this point what can you do other than roll with it?! Tomorrow we attempt the Iowa Wind and Rock!
The race started at 4am and we took off at a fast pace. I was immediately surprised how hard people were hitting the hills. I had not yet raced this year, and had not been training this way....so a tiny “uh-oh” alarm started sounding up in my brain. After only about 90 minutes riding, we found ourselves in a small group - maybe 8 people, but there were still a few guys really riding the hills hard. It became obvious who was really going to be racing and had the legs to go the distance, or not. In the first 4 hours before sunrise, I was Normalizing tempo (more on this in Part 2), 282 watts. These efforts were sharper than I had anticipated. And I started to feel the fatigue coming on way more than it should have in the first 1/6th of the race.
As expected, power spikes took their toll, and you really can’t find too many places to save energy out there. For whatever reason, the eventual winner Mark Skarpohl wanted to ride alone. He wanted to ride hard, break people around 4-5 hours and solo the remainder of this course. To me, it definitely felt like that was his primary race tactic was go alone as soon as anyone wanted to slow or stop, and it worked. I know Brendan was the only person in the group with an aerobic engine strong enough to keep up with Mark, but he let him go when I started to struggle around 5 hours.
Fueling the first 5 hours felt great, I was slowly sipping down beta fuel, water and my solid of choice for the adventure, Banana bread (my FAVORITE food!) I had tons of energy and was feeling comfortable. However, in retrospect, I realized that I had definitely gotten behind on my calories for the back half of the event. Brendan and I took different directions for our liquid fuel, he smartly put his Beta Fuel in his camelbak , while I thought the stops would be more casual and I would be able to reload with my bottles. I had PLANNED on using 8-10 beta fuel packets for the day but at the first checkpoint, I had only gone through 2, as I had lost a bottle on the course in some choppy gravel, and I only had 1 bottle left to add beta fuel too. This was the beginning of the end......It’s no surprise to me at all that I wasn't able to get my energy back! In the midst of fatigue, trying to sort out the navigation, scorching sun, and suffering I totally botched my nutrition! NEVER AGAIN! Beta fuel makes it so simple to stay on top of your carbohydrate intake. Next time I do a 10+ hour ride I will DEFINITELY start with the beta fuel in the Camelbak!
Brendan and I promised each other, and our partners Chris and Asako, that we wouldn’t enter the dark alone and we were going to ride the whole race together, IF we were to complete it. I really underestimated the overall demand of the gravel, hills and wind. SO MUCH WIND. Sarah Cooper told us when we checked in that she had never seen gravel conditions like this. Because of all the storm damage, Road crews had put down more of the big limestone gravel chunks than ever before. It was really loose. Even in places it wasnt thick, you just had absolutely no traction. No traction means no standing, and if you have ever ridden with me, you know that I’m out of the saddle 70% of the time when going uphill. I have a pretty powerful upper body for a cyclist and being able to pull on the bars is a critical part of the way I ride. Normally, this just suits my physiology better. But that style KILLED me on the loose gravel. I was falling apart, and in hour 5 I realized just how large of a percentage of my critical energy reserves I had used up in the first 4 hours.
Brendan tried to ease up for me so I could find a rhythm, but it was too late. I was getting gapped on the flats, on the climbs, and on the descents. I was even was getting dropped when I TRIED TO PULL! I was fully cracked like never before. I forced Brendan to carry on somewhere around mile 130, hoping he’d be able to put in a solid attempt to try to catch Mark alone. I felt pretty awful here. I had held him up for almost 4 hours, but he would have been able to ride up to Mark easily early on. Now Brendan had a multi hour chase ahead of him. I thought that if there was anyone on the planet that could do it, it was him, but I felt TERRIBLE. I had really F’ed my teammate’s race. We had both put a significant amount of time in to train for this race, but because of my schedule and a couple bad storms, I missed a couple of my critical rides. I had only worked up to 2x 9 hour rides, but Brendan had worked up to a 10 and 12.5 hour rides already. I think that was a big big mistake on my part. I needed to ride longer and get used to at least ONE 10MJ rides before this race, and that’s just the bottom line.
I was at a pretty low point but I didn’t have much time for a pity party. I still had to survive another 40+ miles to checkpoint 2. It was just so wide open! Not a cloud in the sky, and even rolling downhill into the wind I was hardly able to get over 20 mph. Just as the heat of the day rolled in, so did the wind. Later, I found out there was a 15mph block headwind that never slowed or shifted, and I’m pretty sure Sarah had designed the course so we were going to spend the bulk of the day with said headwind. Just sadistic stuff, but that’s exactly what we came for. Pain. I just suffered and suffered and suffered some more.
I had been preparing for a 20-22 race mentally, but that was another big mistake. Iowa was much hillier and the gravel is much slower than we anticipated. I had an internal ETA timer ticking along in my head as we were out on the course, and it didn’t take long to realize that this was going to be a substantially longer race, much closer to 30 hours.
The Ultra Distance was such a different experience than anything I had done until this point, and that was exactly what I wanted. Hindsight being 20/20, i think i should have ridden the course the way I had trained. Nice and steady. If I had climbed all the climbs the first 10 hours at 250 watts, my endurance pace, I think I would have had lasted much longer. Even though I felt like I rode a lot to train for this race, I definitely didn’t find my limit like I did on the race day. I wanted to know where the wall was and push past it, and I’m glad I can say that this happened out there, even though I wasn’t able to finish. By the time I was finally rolling into the halfway point, I was mentally and physically done. As far as personal PR’s, I broke all of them. Distance, KJ, Time Riding, and Elevation gain.
At around 10 hours, my knee wasn’t feeling so hot. Turning the pedals over caused a little twinge of pain in my right leg every time, and aside from the fact I was only able to muster about 150 watts of effort, I was constantly distracted by those little pains. I didn’t ride the bike or use the shoes NEARLY enough. As I write this I’m thinking HOW DUMB THAT IS! My back was aching, so the aero bars I brought were utterly useless. I should have bought the 1/2 frame bag, but I thought the camelbak backpack was going to work great. WRONG. Another mistake. Every one of these little mistakes added up to a slightly slower speed, slightly less miles ridden, and a bit more discomfort. This sort of stuff is manageable to get away with if you are racing 5 hours, but it’s going to kill you over the ultra distance.
Part 2- The Race Analysis
My diet for IAWAR had been front loaded with intensity, and I planned to relax into longer and longer rides leading up to the event, since the time riding itself was the most challenging aspect to train for. I took a significant step back from riding after Gravel Worlds. I was really tired, burnt out, and just felt like my motivation was depleted. I didn't really want to train at all, so I didn't rush it. I slowly started getting my weight room legs under me, and eventually did some basic 3 hour rides to go get back in the swing of things. Slowly but surely, I got my road legs back in shape by just riding for a month. Soon, in tandem with keeping up the weights, I progressed to 2 sweet spot builds, culminating with a few 7 hour rides with Nashville’s local World Tour Pro, Nate Brown. I felt pretty strong heading into April. I had tested my threshold at around 325 in January, but by mid march, I was up to 355 and had banged out a number of 8-9 hour rides. Still, I really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.
DEATH BY POWER SPIKES - Power Analysis for the Deeper Story
If you look at average and normalized power, it doesn't really tell the whole story. The climbs were all short, 30”-90” in general. Nothing really long at all, but even with my best effort to be conservative, just staying with this group was forcing me to ride z5+ in little spurts over and over and OVER. I had anticipated a group rolling along pretty smooth for at least 150 miles of the race, but it couldn't have been more different. This was my only race before May this year and our season lasts all the way through September, so I had made the decision in training to keep my intensity really low. I hadn’t done any vo2-threshold work yet to speak of in the past 4 months. Big. Mistake.
My legs really started to crumble around the 5 hour mark. I needed either more Aerobic Power or to drop the intensity I was riding at the first 4 hours if I was going to complete this race. Every time I went over a hill, I was dipping a toenail into my reserves and after 9 hours, my reserves were fully and utterly depleted. In the wind and on empty legs, I was just surviving. Because I went out too hard relative to my fitness level, I could no longer get my HR up, and turning over the pedals was a massive struggle. If Ultra is just a personal TT, then I broke every rule. If you didn’t realize it was a 12.5 hour file, you would just think it was a 40K tt where the rider fell apart. Looking at this page was very telling for me.
The Slow death: checkpoint 1 to checkpoint 2
CALLOUS THE MIND- Time to Move Forward
I clearly made more than a few mistakes in my quest to complete IAWAR, but at the end of the day if I’m being honest with myself, the bottom line is I didn’t train my body or MIND enough for something this big. I didn’t have what it took to complete all 337 miles on a course that was that difficult, but I’m still glad I tried. I got what I came for. I remember when 100 miles was far. Even after a few months without any long training, our minds will begin rebuilding our internal walls and 5 hour rides start feeling far again. I realize now that just because the wall forms, that’s not necessarily our true “Limit”. Ultra distance racing is all about finding that wall and saying “F- YOU!” If you find your wall, and live with it, right on the edge, for a long enough time, you will realize that that wall has somehow disappeared.
I spent enough time at my limit to go home with my head held high, even though I wasn’t hard enough to ride into the dark on empty legs, and a bum knee. No excuses but I can say without a doubt I am a better version of myself than when I started. After that sufferfest, I know I’m walking away having achieved significant personal growth, and my mind is certainly harder than when I started training for this race. Surely, on a psychological and physical level when I line up for my next 60 minute criterium, I will have a couple more tools in my toolbox to find the win because of the IAWAR experience. I’ve at least attempted one of the hardest Ultra events our country has to offer, and win, lose, or DNF, I’m glad I tried. We had a good weekend and came home safe.
I can live with that.
Who knows. I might just try my hand at this race again someday, but for now I’m excited to get into the swing of my usual race season. Between now now and September we have more than 20 high level race days ahead, including a great mix of gravel, crits and even a few stage races! Preparation for the second part of the season can now begin. I’m very curious to see how these increasingly longer rides might affect the aerobic engine in the next few months as the hard intervals start. Only time will tell!
I loved how hard this race was, and that was the bottom line for me. I really don’t even care that I failed the course and had a DNF. Just trying to complete this event was a worthy challenge, and getting your butt kicked is good for the soul. I don’t know if 20+ hour races are ever going to be something I’m really interested in but I have a much greater appreciation for the athletes that are able and willing to compete in this style of events. On to the next!