Saturday, February 21, 2015

2014 - 24 Hours of Cumming 6 Months Late

I don't remember which friend on facebook it was that first shared the link.  One of the ways people find these underground tests of desire is when they are shared on facebook. Often clicked or forgotten by the cleverness of the name and attached picture.  24 Hours of Cumming was the name of the race I had stumbled on. The slogan read,"This could get messy!"  I chuckled like Beavis and opened the page.

It was a 400K (248 mile) bike race on the gravel roads of south central Iowa.  You would have 24 hours to cover the distance which had nearly 17,000 feet of climbing, There were four 62 mile loops beginning and ending in Cumming, Iowa, at the Cumming Tap.

Jamie and the bikes
The defeat from my first trip to the gravel of Iowa in April at Trans Iowa still fresh on my mind, I decided almost immediately that I would toe the line. For much of the summer I was planning on riding the race alone, but as the day grew closer, after listening to me talk about it on training rides every weekend, Jamie decided that he wanted in on a full day of Cumming too. We have ridden more miles together this year than ever so I was glad to hear the traveling party would continue a little longer.

As the race grew closer I played my normal game of sending Jamie long range weather forecasts which were changing from day to day, as they always do. Some times there were thunderstorms and others it was sunny skies with light winds. The weather is the wild card at events like these. A bright sunny day on fast dry gravel is an entirely different world than a storming cold day in the mud. Both are real possibilities in Iowa at most times of year. In the end it didn't really matter, we would show up and ride regardless of what the weather was doing. After rains had soaked the course for the entire week leading up to the race, the day before the forecast had settled into mild weather with a small chance of rain.  

It rained for most of the 6 hour drive to Iowa.  We arrived in Cumming the night before. Population 373. There were hotels less than 10 miles from the start but I have been craving some tent time and wanted to camp, not to mention camping was free. The town of Cumming had graciously opened up the city park on the lawn of City Hall for camping.  How often do you get to camp in the front yard of the City Hall of Cumming?

Camping out at City Hall.  That trailer in the background is City Hall.

That's not my tent in the picture above but I thought it captured the essence of the experience better. It was the only other tent there, for a total of 4. Sara and me in one, Jamie had one, and Jake was spending his first night alone in his new tent someplace other than our backyard.  Granting steps towards the independence of your children is both satisfying and terrifying at the same time.

After setting up camp we walked the quarter mile down to the Cumming Tap. From the google map street view research I had done before the race, I had this preconceived notion of a hole in the wall locals only bar with a couple regulars sitting on their regular stools. Totally wrong.

It was a hole in the wall in an old brick building, but it was full of life. There was a party bus with Christmas lights in the windows parked outside and the action could be heard before we reached the building. Inside the place was packed with young people. We learned they bring groups from Des Moines on party buses to drink and hangout at the Cumming Tap. Our whole weekend was to be centered around the bar as it sits next to the start/finish line and check-in point between each loop.

We weaved our way through the party inside the bar. We worked our way to the back door where earlier in the day we had noticed outside tables. On the back patio we found the race director, Steve Canon.  We spent over an hour talking about running and riding. He shared his vision for the growth of this race and I liked the ideas he had. We didn't want to stay up too late the night before a race, though, so we hiked back to the tents early.

We had set up on the edge of the city park which was right next to the Great Western Rail Trail that led to Des Moines just a few miles away. The trail had steady traffic on it even into the late night hours. The people passing by could be heard inside the tent and provided entertainment well into the next day. While we couldn't actually see who they were through our nylon walls, the characters that went by ranged from a man singing along passionately to an Elton John song playing loudly from speakers on his bike, to a group of teenagers discussing sexual positions in an embarrassingly uneducated manner.  I wondered how Jake was feeling about the experience in his tent a few feet away.

Last minute tweaks
The race wasn't supposed to start until 11:00 am which was a different feeling from the normal dawn or earlier starts of other long rides. Knowing this would be the last rest I would get for a long time, I tried to sleep in as long as possible, but I never can sleep late, so once the sun was up I was wide awake. Unzipping the tent revealed bright blue skies, zero wind, and low cool temperatures. Pretty much perfect. Jamie was out of his tent not much longer and we spent the morning drinking coffee and speculating about how the next 24 hours would go. Much of how we thought it would go was wrong.

After lounging around for a couple hours we went back down to the Cumming Tap for some breakfast and the pre-race meeting.  There had only been a few riders there the night before but this morning it was full of people ready for an adventure. After a short meeting we were turned loose to wait an hour and a half for the start. We went back to the campsite to prepare the bikes and ourselves. The time passed quickly and it was soon time to roll down to the start and begin a long day in the saddle.

With this being the inaugural year, it was a small and relaxed environment at the start.  Except for me and Jamie being from Missouri, and one other guy from Minnesota, everyone else there was from Iowa. We found a patch of grass to sit on and waited for a five minute call to get up and take our place on the very edge of the group. My pride from a complete blow up at Dirty Kanza still tender, the strategy was not to be in a hurry. We had a long way to go and a long time to to get there. I wanted to warm up and ease into it. Finishing, preferably in a sexy manner, was the only goal.

After nervously waiting all morning to get the show on the road, 11:00 am finally came around and it was time to begin.  The group rolled out at a fairly reasonable pace.  I should have savored the moment a little longer than I did because it was one of the last that I would feel so happy and relaxed.

The dry gravel was in great shape.  The two races I have done in Iowa so far have had some of the best gravel conditions around.  Sure, they have the occasional freshly cared for sections, but most of it was well worn and rode more like asphalt than off road, even after all the rain. That was until we hit the first B road.  The mud so thick and sticky that wheels were fully coated and stopped within a couple rotations.  After the mud at Trans Iowa ending my dreams I was quick to get off my bike and start hiking.  I would walk to the finish if necessary.

We watched a guy attempting to ride the ditch in the grass on the side of the road which worked for a little bit until he broke a spoke.  Jamie and I slogged through the length of it on foot, keeping as close to the edge as we could, not wanting to take any such risks less than halfway through the first loop. After the race we would notice we had both picked up a nasty poison ivy like rash on our legs.  Thin stripes of water filled blisters that stayed on our legs for a couple weeks.  It was only on our right side that we had rubbed along the vegetation on the side of the road.

While walking the B road, I started wondering if slicks were the tires to ride in these races.  Granted it may have been because she only weighed about 100 pounds, but we watched a woman slowly ride by everyone on what looked like slick road bike tires.  Not a bit of mud was clinging to them.  She gingerly rode past and out of sight as we all stood mouths gaping.  Her luck on the course would run out hours later in the middle of the night.  She came upon a gang of raccoon crossing a road and they bike jacked her, or something like that.  I was pretty groggy when I heard the story the next morning so I'm not sure if she hit one or crashed trying to avoid them but I do know she found herself in the hospital.  An unfortunate early end to a race.

Luckily, there were only two roads that had to be walked and they were both in the first loop of the race.  Four different 62 mile loops.  In my head going into the race I pictured a clover leaf but it was nothing like that.  There was overlapping and using the same roads several times.  It played havoc with my head as I constantly had the feeling I had been places before. Was it the previous loop or was I lost?  I trusted the cue sheets and they kept us on track all day.  Each loop came back around to the Cumming Tap so that we could meet with our crews and replenish supplies.

The first loop flew by.  The second loop was where I felt the screws begin to tighten.  Despite feeling good at the beginning of the day, my old nemesis, nauseousness, decided to rear his ugly head less than 100 miles into the ride.  I'm not sure why.  I was eating and drinking early and often and wasn't expecting it at all.  I want to blame the big breakfast I had before the ride.  We normally start so early I don't even think about eating.  We had the entire morning to sit around and they were serving biscuits and gravy.  Was I supposed to just walk by and not have any?  Whatever the cause, after 80 miles or so, I felt like I was going to lose it for pretty much the rest of the race.
Sunset Show on the Bike
Nighttime seemed to come quickly.  For most of the ride it was just Jamie and me.  We would occasionally pass or be passed but we never found ourselves in a group.  The second of three super moons happening this summer was on the night of the race. It was a brilliant sight. Unfortunately, half way through the night, clouds started moving in and obscuring the view. I feared rain at one point but don't remember anything but fog ever falling from the sky. The air was thick with moisture, though, and water was collecting on the surface of everything. Every time we descended into a valley I was freezing, and then when we would climb our way out to the next hill top I would overheat and feel hot.  I would guess the temperature was in the 50's but in the middle of the night and exhausted it felt more like the 30's to me.

I did not take this picture, I just found it online.  It is however exactly the way I remember the moon looking that night before it fully disappeared behind the clouds.  
We trudged on through the night.  There was a road out at one point.  It might have been easier to see in the day but this late in the game it was pitch black.  We stumbled our way past a road closure sign and with bikes on our shoulders, up and over a huge pile of dirt eventually emerging on the other side of the closure several hundred feet later and back onto good gravel.  We were surprised to hear voices from the dark on the side of the road asking us where we were headed.  It was a man and woman standing at the end of their driveway.  We told them about the race and they told us we had just missed the rescue of a truck that had tried to drive over the big dirt berm we had just climbed over. Jamie did all the talking and I took a nap on my handlebars thankful to be stopped.

In the middle of the night some thoughts seem so clear.  For some reason, at 3 am, I was fascinated by this sign and had to take a picture.  I have no idea why.
You could also compete in the race as a relay team.  Each person riding a single 62 mile loop.  We were passed by a large group of people that turned out to be relay riders.  While we were 170 miles into our race they were only about 40 miles in and they were fresh and chipper.  A woman passed near me and I noticed she was in shorts and short sleeves.  I had a jacket on and leg warmers and was shivering, looking pretty shabby I'm sure.

The third loop was definitely the hardest for me.  It seemed to go on forever and I think it had the biggest hills of the whole day. When we finally got back to the Cumming Tap I collapsed on the grass while Sara and Jake worked on resupplying the bike and trying to bring me things to eat.  I'm not sure how long we were stopped but it was too long.  I was stiff and cold and didn't really want to go back out again.  Even more, however, I didn't want to write another blog about overcoming failure and so I forced myself to head back out on the course.

Maintaining his enthusiasm every time I saw him, race director Steve cheered for us as we rolled past the start finish line for one final lap.  He shouted, "Don't go too fast and miss the sunrise!" The sun would be up shortly and there was no possible way we were riding fast enough to miss it.  Half a mile later Jamie was hit with a dire abdominal situation and said we had to stop for a minute. I saved his socks and gave him a few sheets of toilet paper I had in my bag for just such an emergency as he bolted into the woods on the edge of the road. I was happy to have another minute to rest my head on my bars while I waited. It seemed like it only took about a minute to complete the transaction and he was ready to go before my nap was over.

I'm a little fuzzy on the details this late into the night but I think it was near the beginning of this loop that we noticed a headlight behind us and gaining. Within a few miles the rider had reached us. It was Michael Drake. 190 miles into his first gravel race and still looking strong. He latched on and stayed with us for the rest of the night. This seems to be a standard thing in overnight racing. In the daytime you can enjoy being all alone, but once night time comes it can be dark and lonely. Small groups form and work together to make it through the hardest times of the race. We were happy to have the company.

I like to leave a little bit of myself
on every course
I was a little surprised he would want to stay with us, though, as it was just after we linked up that I had my standard mid-race crash.  Jamie and I were riding side by side as we approached an intersection where we would be making a left hand turn.  Jamie entered the turn first and I fell in behind him about two feet off his back wheel.  As we came out of the turn we hit a patch of loose gravel and Jamie's back wheel slid out and put him on the ground on his side.  I saw it happening and tried to turn harder to miss him but ended up going down as well and sliding my front wheel into his back.  We both lay there for a minute staring up at the stars with the bikes still tangled between our legs. Slowly we unwound ourselves and stood up.  His hand was hurting and my knee was a little tender but I thought we had made it through pretty well.  After the race we would see some black and blue marks along with some spilled blood but none of it was a show stopper.  Eventually we remounted and continued down the road.  We still had 50 miles to cover.

When the first signs of morning began to light the sky I knew we were going to finish it.  We still had a stretch of road to cover but as long as we kept moving we were going to make it.  My stomach even started to feel better.  I had not eaten or drank anything for a really long time.  I would try to sip water occasionally but I seemed to feel best when I didn't.  Deep breathing and focusing on the cue sheet numbers was what I kept my mind on.  While they didn't pass quickly, the miles left to go dwindled slowly and we eventually reached the final turn and headed toward the finish line.  Our dramatic sprint to the finish was interrupted when we had to stop and wait for a car to pass before we could cross the finish line.  The three of us were the last people on the course.  We had finished in 22 hours and 4 minutes.  Only 20 people took on the full 248 miles.  10 of us finished it.  A completion that my summer desperately needed to return my confidence in my ability to persevere.

They had been waiting for us to finish to have the awards ceremony.  The first place finishers awards went to Steve Fuller and Sarah Cooper, both well known gravel crushers.  Steve was warming up before the race began and crashed. Something about a pedal shearing off and then hitting the gravel hard enough to rip a huge hole in his shorts. Fortunately he had another uniform and bike with him. He donned his new equipment and then blew everyone away with a 16 and a half hour finish.  

The finish line was what this race was all about for me. While I can ramble on about the character building of failure, completion of a goal every once in a while is also pretty good for the soul.  Even though we weren't the first to finish, Jamie and I were recognized as the fastest beards. As we were about to get in the car to head home a woman grabbed Jamie and me and drug us back into the bar to have her picture taken with the Fastest Beards.  Turns out Fastest Beards may perhaps be even more illustrious and rewarding than first place.  

Not a clover leaf at all


There were all sort of bikes there. 
Laminating the Cue Sheets