Trans Iowa v12: The Big Easy

Three-hundred-plus self-supported miles of mid-state Iowa gravel, freshly dropped or grated, B-roads, hills, wind, and unpredictable April weather. One hundred twenty riders send in their post cards; 90-plus line up at the start. On average, only 15 to 20 percent ever finish

Photos courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

Trans Iowa v.12 Official Logo courtesy of Mark Stevenson 

Three-hundred-plus self-supported miles of mid-state Iowa gravel, freshly dropped or grated, B-roads, hills, wind, and unpredictable April weather. One hundred twenty riders send in their post cards; 90-plus line up at the start. On average, only 15 to 20 percent ever finish. Put this all together and you can see what makes Trans Iowa one tough race!

For this year’s edition, 120 registered, 86 toed the line, and 47 finished, an amazing 55 percent! The co-winners did the entire 340-mile course in 24 hours, finishing at 4:01 a.m., earlier than any other previous ride. This year’s Trans Iowa will go down in the record books as maybe the easiest (a relative term) in the history of the event. 

Everyone came very well prepared this year. They all logged more miles and rode outside more during the winter months. And groups of competitors trained together, pushing each other. All the hard training and experience scattered throughout the field of riders definitely helped the 55 percent. Things get hard during the nighttime hours of Trans Iowa, so you need your mental toughness to get you through. Having someone there with you to help push you forward even though you might be in a bad spot in your mind is invaluable. I also think many of us that competed in last year’s Trans Iowa, a run that saw no finishers, had a score to settle with the Iowa elements. There was a lot of energy this year at the start line! 

The most significant element of this year’s event was the weather: 70 degrees, partly sunny days, nighttime temps in the 50s, and 15-20 mph southeast winds. The gravel was 100 percent dry, and B-roads were mostly dry: Perfect conditions. Knowing the weather was going to be so nice I packed my bike lighter than I ever have for any of the three Trans Iowa’s in which I have competed. Everything came together for a very fast race.

Even with the favorable forecast, I found it very surprising that most of the competitors were nervous the night before. I think this is only because of the long history of Trans Iowa being brutal, with really high attrition rates. Not sure what it was, but you could feel the tension. Most of my nerves were caused by being the guy to beat. I’ve done very well over the years at Trans Iowa, so I was feeling the pressure. As a finisher, I also know what it takes to pull through the 340 miles to get to the finish, and that was weighing heavily on my mind as well.

Checkpoint 0 is the pre-race “meat” up at the Grinnell Steakhouse. It’s one of my favorite parts of Trans Iowa. It’s the only time during the event you get to say hello to your entire TI Family. We eat a great meal, chat, hug, and take photos with our race numbers. It’s so much fun getting caught up with everyone and meeting all the rookie riders. 

CP0: Sarah Cooper and me, all checked in and ready to go ... 

Checkpoint 0 selfie ...

Trans Iowa starts in the cold, dark morning. We all line up in front of the local bike shop, Bikes to You. Still sleepy, cold, and nervous, we all wait “patiently” for Guitar Ted to lead us out of town to the first gravel road. Once we hit the gravel, the lead car pulls over, honking its horn signaling us to start. TI v.12 officially started. Previous female open winner Sarah Cooper and I were leading the 84 others on the dark gravel roads. We had been riding at a casual social pace for several miles when Sarah leaned over to me a said, “Time to pick up the pace.” With that signal the race started. Our once social pace was now a full-on fast push forward, and it was stringing the peloton out over the dark gravel roads. At every turn in the course, I looked back to see groups of lights forming several miles behind us. 

4 a.m. start line, Mark Stevenson race director front and center ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

Sarah Cooper and I lined up, ready to get this show a movin’ ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

With warm, dry weather, the race was starting to feel more like a road race on gravel. No one wanted to pass me and take a pull, so I pulled a group of a dozen or so to Checkpoint 1. We got our next set of cue cards, and we were on our way. About a mile out of town one of the other riders rode up next to me: “Greg? Can we stop for a potty break?” Laughing to myself I said, “Sure. Why not?” I realized at that moment I was riding with a group of rookies, and they were all watching my every move. Once everyone had time to do what they needed, I announced it was time to go. We were off again, with me pulling the group along. 

Me pushing hard up a long climb ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

By the time we reached the second convenience store 131 miles into the race, there were only three in my group: Walter, Luke and me. In Trans Iowa you never know where you are going to go, because you get the cue cards at each consecutive checkpoint. So far we had gone mostly north with a little east, all the while enjoying a nice tail wind. I started doing the math in my head. That meant a very long night into 15-plus mph head winds for the ride back to Grinnell.

Convenience store stop 131 miles into race  ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

Once our water bottles were topped off and our bellies were full, we headed out to Checkpoint 2, 160 miles into the course. Still together, the three of us checked into CP2, took our cards, and blasted off. We blew past a convenience store in Hudson, Iowa, having just fueled up 30 miles back. We had a couple of guys chasing not far behind, so we decided to move forward, thinking there would be another opportunity very soon to stop. Sure enough, 25 miles later, we could see a water tower in the distance rolling into Grundy Center. We were all so happy and in need of some cold water to cool down. Rounding the corner we could see a sign for a Casey’s, but as we pulled up it was closed due to maintenance on the tanks. I was shocked and bummed, because I was looking forward to a nice cold Coke. I quickly reviewed my hydration and food levels, and determined I was fine to continue. A couple of miles out of town, Luke decided to turn back and look for a store, as he was out of hydration. Walter and I continued on.

Walter and I passing through a wind farm section ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

One of the many B-roads we encountered during the race ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

Not knowing where and how far the next convenience store was, I started planning when it would be best for Walter and me to knock on a farmhouse door and ask for water. In total, Walter and I stopped twice before sunset. The next convenience store ended up being 100-plus miles out, and by the time we found it, we were ready for a nice break. Mountain Dew, fried pies, pizza, and topping off our water bottles, we did a quick stretch, and we were off again. But it was getting cold, windy, and dark.

Walter and I heading into the night ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

With 75 miles to go to the finish, Walter and I put on a couple of extra layers and headed back onto the dark windy gravel. As we got closer to Grinnell, and our finish, the landscape changed from rolling hills to steep, freshly graveled hilltops that headed directly into the south-east wind. Walter and I did not talk much though the night, but we did push each other up every hill. We stopped every once in a while to stretch and eat. With about 15 miles to go, I let Walter know we did this together, and we should share first place. After agreeing that was how we would finish, we realized we could maybe do it in a sub 24-hour time. Re-energized, we pushed hard against the clock, with Walter calling out every turn. In the dark, the last stack leading us to the bike path was sheltered by the wind. The streamer wasn’t fluttering, and we missed our turn with 2 minutes to go! We finished together knuckle bumping in 24 hours and 1 minute. We were a little disappointed, but still very satisfied that we’d recorded the fastest completion time of any other Trans Iowa.

Walter and I finish 340 long, hard miles of Iowa gravel ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

Sharing my day, night, and race with Walter made this Trans Iowa pretty special: Walter and I are now brothers in this Trans Iowa Family of mine!

Walter and me, co-winners of TI v.12 ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

My wife Kit and my daughter Sawyer pull an all-night drive to give a hug at the finish line: What a great surprise!  ... photo courtesy of Wally Kilburg: Studio 46 West

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