IAWAR 2021 Race Report

Ultra-Distance Riding
June 11, 2020

I was staying in Sophie (the faithful RV) at a parking lot one block from the start of the race. Got up at 2:30 am without an alarm feeling reasonably refreshed after 7 hours of amazingly good sleep. Ate a good breakfast and started considering my final clothing choice, not taking much, only considering two options. But the weather forecast was unsettling with temps between mid-30s to high-50s and a clear directive from the locals to expect that it could easily be 10 degrees warmer and colder. It had also been raining all night and depending on which way we were going to ride we could easily run into more rain during the first part of the race. I step outside with my rain pants in one hand and my tights in the other and John Jarvis is there saying boy I felt like a third grader going to the first day of class trying to decide what to wear today (or something like that).  I could only laugh.
The night before I laid out my cloth in the order that I would need to put them on so as not to miss things (like my HR monitor) and be able to remove layers in the desired order. In the morning I got to my neck gaiter and decided to wait to put it on because I was warm. Don’t know what I was waiting for given that I was already late to pick up the critical cue cards.
At about 3:40 I get to where the start gathering point but almost everyone had already gone across the street to the actual start. I was a bit concerned that I missed the window for picking up the cues and would not be allowed to start. I road to where everyone was assembling across the street and as they were moving forward to the official start line I see Sarah and a very helpful person that miraculously found and handed me my cues with only three minutes to the start. Relieved I realize that I had left my neck gaiter with Sophie and barged my way to the front of the group to work my way back to the van to get it. The thought of eating mud all day, or not drafting, was not appealing. As I reached the front of the start line I hear Sarah say two minutes to start. I look across the street to Sophie then realize I did not have my gloves or the cue sheet light on. I decide I better get ready to start and in a hurry.  Gloves on. “Go.”

Less than 2 minutes to start. Credit: Greg Grandgeorge
I am off on my 1st Gravel race and fifth race overall.  
My strategy was clear: do not burn too much energy at the start. I have used it successfully in the past, Coach Greg Grandgeorge strongly advocated it and helped nail down the max levels with me, and I even got a text from my highly respected friend/mentor/hero Janie Hayes saying it in other ways “ride the short steep hills ABSOLUTELY AS LIGHTLY as possible” and “conserve, be happy, eat, repeat.” Keeping the batteries strong as long as possible is a winning strategy for ultra-distance races. My strategy was to keep power under 76% FTP and heart rate in tempo (under 133 from HRV, with possible adrenalin spike up to 143 at the very start) for the first four hours. I was only planning on three stops, at the checkpoints and the convenience store in the middle of the last section. I wanted to start near the front and give myself a cushion to fall back at the start and still have riders to work with, but still have a sense of how hard the leaders were riding.
One of my favorite sayings is: there is strategy and execution.
Waking up after the race to find a 2nd All-Time 60 Minute FTP star in Training Peaks
for the start of the race was an unfortunate reminder of not riding to my strategy.
The race took off as if shot from a cannon. After less than 10 miles the front group of 10 including myself was completely out of sight of any other riders even when on the top of the tallest hills. I knew I was pushing way too hard and my HR was also above the adrenalin allowed limit. I was hoping that the front group would fragment and a few would start to fall back. I also knew I should be riding my own race, but there was a nasty headwind, and riding my race at this point would have been a lot of wasted work in the wind. I tried every trick I knew about soft-pedaling up the monster hills and powering down them to yo-yo on and off the back. The two at the back had tires that were throwing off a lot of mud and water, more than the bikes in front of them. However, I did not want to barge through them every downhill only to make them work around me on the next uphill so I stayed in the back.
I could keep up, but it was simply NOT executing my strategy. Finally, I decided to let go and get into my rhythm headwind be damned. Shortly after Kae Takeshita and John Whipple fell off the back, so I pushed to catch the two of them.  Seven in front of us.
At 44 miles the first B-Road shook up the pack. I saw the vehicles and people on the side of the road and did not think much of it because I was focused on the mud in front of me. I made it quite a ways to the top of the hill. I think I hear Greg shouting encouragement.

Credit: Greg Grandgeorge
Then I almost flipped off the front of my bike when mud stopped my front wheel from turning. I looked around and there is carnage everywhere I must have passed four people stuck on the side of the road behind me and there were another four stuck or hiking their bikes down the hill in front of me. I pick up my bike and start walking. I think I hear Mike Conti say “Boy that looks heavy” as he took my picture. I tried to ignore it and thought, ah it’s not so bad. Since I could essentially see the front of the race there were no real clues as to what to do but after about a quarter block of muck-lucking, I noticed the grass next to the cornfield and decided I would try and ride that. It worked, a little.

“Looks heavy” Credit: Mike Conti
Once to gravel, I tried to clear wheels, derailleurs, chain, and cleats using a modified spatula. The tune-up received days before seemed a distant memory.
John Whipple was right there when I started riding and he informed me that Kae had a bit more trouble so we took off together.  We rode for the bulk of the way to Checkpoint 1 together. At some point, Joshua Kappelman came up from behind. He had a nice pace and flow that made him easy to work with up and down the hills. We ended up riding into CP1 together.

Me, John Whipple, and Joshua Kappelman. Credit: Greg Grandgeorge

Me, John Whipple, and Joshua Kappelman. Credit Greg Grandgeorge
Biggest prerace concern: Cue cards! Cue cards are the route directions, no GPS. I know it is silly for a proud “Randonneur” to be worried about cue cards, but I had good reason. Reading them and road signs in the dark with low night vision is tricky at best. Getting off course requires mental math at each intersection typically only a few miles apart. Legend also has it that in this race there is the particularly annoying practice of using intentionally nuanced road names (Holy Holly Alan Ln vs. Holy Holly Alan Ave) to add to the challenge for sleep-deprived brains. Sometimes when cues get wet, they fall apart or bleed, and rain is likely in April. Finally, I knew that I would be wearing mitts when trying to change cue sheets and this is not easy while riding over loose gravel in the dark.
I did a lot pre-race to try and compensate. I practiced on at least 12 endurance rides using only cues. The problem was the cues I was riding from were in some cases old, auto-generated, or otherwise inaccurate. This practice did not increase my level of confidence. Although I am grateful for everyone that gave or made me a set. I added a red reading light to my Cue holder to have light available at all times to see the next cue without distorting my night vision. After a couple of tries, I made a waterproof cue holder. I bought a new helmet light that was brighter and could stay on for the 13 hours of darkness I would need to read signs. I decided to reset my Garmin rather than use the lap function at each Checkpoint given that cues started from zero at each checkpoint. This would allow me a backup if/when I got off track. I would simply use the lap button for each turn to make the mental math to the next turn simpler. I am most proud of an invention I call “The Keith Korner” that allows for easily removing a single cue sheet from the holder while riding rough road with mittens on. The Keith Korner is simply folding the bottom corner of each cue card individually and stacking them on top of each other with each tab under the card on top of it. When it is time to remove the card a thumb and mitted hand can easily grab the one corner that flips up to remove the card.  

The race starts and within a couple of blocks, the entire peloton misses perhaps the second turn. We circle back. Almost everyone including me is now off by at least .2 miles for the rest of the first leg. Great start! As it turned out huge kudos to Steve Fuller and Sarah Cooper who had made extremely accurate cues on sturdy paper. I could see the signs and cues, I could remove the cues while riding, and I only made one other wrong turn near the end of the race which again put me .2 miles off.  
Check Point One (Segment average speed 12.1 mph)
This place was hopping. Dianne Herr, Rose Willey, Sarah Cooper, and others were in hand and provided direction that in any other race might almost, just sort-of be considered “support.” Thank you for filling my bottles, pointing me to the restroom, finding my drop bag, and providing the blessed water pump. The first order of business was the bathroom 2:30 am was a bit out of my schedule and it was time to lighten the load. GI is a real problem with ultra-racing and for me remaining consistent is one major way to avoid it. Then it was time to find the derailleurs through the caked-on mud. The pump had lots of pressure I used it on most of my bike. Although I wash my bike every week, I had never used this much water, nor with this much pressure. Thank goodness it had as much pressure as it had. It was the only thing that allowed me to continue riding from that point. The drop bag was full of goodies and I had planned on eating some at this CP, but time was wasting, so I stuffed a few things in my mouth and others in my bags. I noticed Joshua had already left and took off in a bit of a mental frenzy. I remember reading Greg’s suggestion about the CP’s not having to be like an Indy pit stop but do move along. While I moved along at this stop, it would not have looked good at Indy. I was a little scattered and not proud of this stop, but achieved the three high-priority items.
Very shortly after leaving CP1, my bike was making a terrible sound when in the lowest gears. I was alone and there was a rider coming up from behind so I thought I would address the issue and hook up with this rider. Little did I know at the time that it was Robb Finegan, and he was on top of me almost as soon as I got off my bike. He stopped! I found the problem: one solid mass of mud in the pulley cage plates. I chipped it out with my custom-made mud pick on the back of my spatula. Then re-lube the chain. This seemed to take forever, I wanted to be done but felt like I was in slow motion and holding up the rider waiting for me. As it turned out it took a total of three minutes that seemed like thirty.  
One end for tires the other for cleats.
Robb and I took off. It was great to have someone to ride with.
It was amazing how two riders can have the same net speed and ride with such different styles. Robb and I wanted to support each other. The nasty NW wind continued as we rode north and west. However, we were yo-yoing wildly mostly only catching a windbreak as we passed each other twice per hill. Robb is a strong climber that often got out of the saddle to rocket by me up the hills.  I tried to conserve energy on the hill shifting down and staying in the saddle. As soon we hit the top I would be shifting up, getting into the aeros, and keeping the same pressure on, roaring past Robb on each downhill. Given the almost total lack of flat, this continued the majority of the way from CR1 to CP2. In retrospect, the real advantage of riding together is that one of us was always chasing, likely lifting out average speed.

Credit: Greg Grandgeorge
Dave Hesse rolled out from a convenience store as we went on one of the few flat stretches. Robb and Dave talked a bit while I caught my breath and took advantage of the draft I had been looking for all race. The three of us traded places for a bit before hitting a hilly stretch of large fresh gravel. Large, sharp, and loose, this stuff was almost un-rideable. Dave started riding the edge of the road. After a while, I headed over even further off the road and was able to get in a groove and gave an inspired pull for three or four hills. It was about this point that Robb dropped back. I found out later that his stomach started acting up. Given the rough condition, it’s amazing we all didn’t have problems. After this rough section, it did not seem that Dave was interested in having me stick around and gave it some serious gas to move up to the next guy. Or just as likely, after ripping through the rough gravel I did not have the firepower to go with.

Dave Hesse, me, and Robb Finegan. Credit: Paul Hamburg
Check Point 2 (Segment average Speed 12.7)
I rolled into Check Point 2 by myself before dark. Deanne and Rose were such a welcome sight. Rose is holding out my bag as I pull up to a clean picnic table. One of my large motivators for the race was getting to CP2, ripping the corner off a zip lock bag, and sucking down some delicious homemade lasagna and apple crisp. I had prepared these a day in advance and froze the lasagna before check-in. The plan was to have the lasagna at CP2 as I was preparing for the night ride, then take a coffee nap, and stick the apple crisp in my jersey pocket to let it warm up for a mid-night treat. This good-food-in-a-bag ultra-secret makes life on a bike so much more enjoyable. Also, real food in my stomach helps me reset my stomach to be ready for the caffeine and sweet carbs that will undoubtedly follow.  
Shortly after arriving Robb pulls in. He says he is not doing so well and is moving pretty slowly. I figure that is par for the course at 180 miles. I know that I am planning on eating, adjusting kit, and taking a nap here so I figure he might be ready to go by then. I check in with him at the next table a couple of times, then go for my seven-minute nap. When I get back he is gone to the nearby convenience store. I have no idea how he is faring. I was done with my break, it was getting dark, and I was getting cold. I decided it was time to move. As I walk up to my table I realize that I have totally trashed it, gravel, dirt, mud, various powders, food scraps, and wrappers are everywhere. I was told to just leave it, but took off before I got in trouble anyway. I start riding up the hill only to realize that I had not turned my Garmin on so I road back to start it at the right place and I see Deanna running over to me with my hydration pack! It was left under all the junk on the table. I was feeling pretty sharp.
Three guys had left CP2 before me, but they left before I had gotten there. A few riders had made CP2 as I took my relatively long break. I was in 4th with a good size gap in front of me. And people behind that would be coming. At that point, I was thinking that I would not stop again, except for warmth at the c-store, if needed.
I had heard from several top veterans that the “race” started at CP2. Perhaps I should have taken that more to heart. For me, the “ride” started here. I rode a reasonable pace but was not perhaps “on the gas” as much as I could have been. But that is easy to write after the fact. Can you smell fumes anyone?
Since it was dark I could not see much, and there were no other riders visible, it was easy to only focus on the gravel in front of me and the distance to the next turn. I love to Zen out and just go. One turn then the next. They seemed to come about every mile. With every turn came one or two hills to climb and descend.  The inclines had me grinding in my lowest gear. The straight roads allowed me to descend on the aero bars at top speed.
I remember the sign for a detour, a stake with purple ribbons on it, and realize I have not seen one yet so start scanning every turn. After an hour or so I spotted one. I follow the turn which was also on the cue and start looking for the next stake. I see none. One corner, then a second. It is in the middle of the night and it is dark. I decide to call the race number to let them know there is no follow-up stake and avoid racing off to never ever land. Sarah is awake! And calmly says there is no detour.
I had almost made it to the only convenient stop in the last 150 miles, a C-Store between CP2 and the finish. I see a bike unceremoniously on the side of the road and a person splayed out on the ground. This is the first human life I have seen since leaving PC 2. At least I hope it was alive, so I yell out to see if they are OK. I hear back “I’m trying to sleep.” Oops sorry (John Morton). I ride on knowing that I am now in third and sorry that I let him know I passed. At this point, the saying that the race starts at CP2 should have gone through my head and into my legs, but it did not.
I see Sarah driving the other way wave. When I get to the C-Store I realize I did not need anything. I decided to stop just to ask how long ago a rider was there. The teller was confused and said he had not seen any, then said it must have been three hours ago. I thanked him and took off, neither response seeming actuate to me. The lack of stop gave me some comfort about not getting caught, but my average speed had dropped 1.6 mph from CP2 to 11.1), and climbs were becoming particularly slow.
At 50 miles to go point there is a big climb and then straightaway on fresh pavement. I was enjoying the smooth flat and see a flash go by in three still image frames. First just two feet behind my front tire, then five feet ahead of me, and finally about a quarter-mile ahead. I started to chase and stop looking at the Garmin. He was quite a ways ahead and as a result, I missed a turn. Only by a couple of blocks, but enough not to see him again until the finish. At the end of the race, I find out this is Andrew Onermaa who used a tried and true approach, passing me by winding it up to the point that there was no way I could have caught a wheel. Huge kudos to Andrew for putting two and a half hours into me from CP2 to the finish.
As typical, right before the sun comes up is the coldest point in the day. I started to get bothered by the cold. Both hands had gone numb. I knew I had only 20 minutes before it would start to warm and tried to ride it out, but finally stopped when I realized I could not open my food. That helped, but by the time I warmed up, the sun was out and I was getting hot. I stopped again to remove what I just put on. However, I left on my leggings and did not remove the long sleeve jersey which keep me hotter than desired for the rest of the way. Sarah and Steve drive by again. Glad that there are other humans on the planet. Later she commented on how slowly I was riding. I was not at my finest. Never am right before dawn.
Then I hit the last major section of serious B-Road and see a car turning around at the top. I figure it is a photographer and perhaps even Greg. I crank up the hill, energized by seeing someone and a camera. Sure enough, it is Greg who took so many great shots of this race. He yelled something, either “watch out for the downhill”, or “attack the downhill.” I could not tell, so I assumed the latter. It was the highlight of the ride for me. The road was rutted, but firm, mud. In my state, it felt like skiing moguls on a good day.

As fun as a mogul run. Credit: Greg Grandgeorge
From there it was a covered bridge, the three Rippey Dumps, and some beautiful landscape to the finish.
Finish (segment average speed 11.1 mph)
It was heartwarming to see Sarah, Kate Ankofski and so many others as I peddled up the hill to finish the 341-mile race in fourth place (30:36). Two and a half hours after James Ebert finish 1st, and three and a half hours before the cut-off.  I was glad, surprised, and relieved as Robb rolled in four minutes later.
Thanks to Sarah Cooper, Steve Fuller, Deanna Herr, Rose Willy, and all the IAWR volunteers for making it an increasable event. Greg Grandgeorge for great coaching. Kathy Jarvis for being willing to extract me if needed and John Jarvis for the ride to Sophie at the end and being an active member of the “IAWAR support group.” Heather Poskevich and Greg for helping me appreciate gravel.  Rob Welsh for riding gravel with me in the coldest of winter and sloppiest of spring. Kate for ongoing enthusiasm, riding with me through Covid, and taking the video at the finish.

Further reading

IAWAR 2021 Race Report
Read More
2021 North Star Bike Race
Read More
How to Avoid and Deal with Saddle Sores
Read More
“Time On Bike” - And the Importance of Internalizing Your Goals
Read More