Spotted Gravel Post Race Report

Note: This is a guest post by Jen’s husband, who is most likely cooler and definitely tougher than she is. Also, potentially insane. For proof of all three claims, keep reading.

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I managed a smile despite the cold

Doing an after race report seems to be what the cool kids are doing. They are also part of what helped me mentally prepare for the ultra. So, here is my entry.

Short Version: It was wet and cold. I brought more clothing than I thought I would need and used all three changes of socks. My knee stopped working at mile 120, ibuprofen revived it and I finished.

I started my gravel riding career with the Spotted Horse. Yes, started with it. Why? I wish I knew. Going into this ride I knew it was going to be hard, I had read the other reports and was well aware of the course creation preferences of one Sarah Cooper – a name I had to look up because I kept seeing it. Her course designs are BRUTAL.

The morning started okay. By okay I mean wet, rainy and dark, all of which was to be expected. The starting temperature was around 54 degrees, the high was around 54 degrees and the low was around 48 degrees. So I figured if you planned well you wouldn’t need a change of clothes the whole day. But just in case I brought two changes of socks and a change of gloves. I knew going into this that I was over-preparing compared to some people who can apparently bike 150 miles on two water bottles and a Snickers bar in 10 hours. Thankfully, I did not think that would be me and therefore planned accordingly.

6:00 am: Mile 0 – Cold but not yet wet. It was dark but everything is fully charged so I should be good for a few hours. I knew from biking to work in the morning that the sun comes up around 7. Great, one hour of gross and we should be good. Oh yeah, and it was raining and 54 degrees. Not quite enough to be dangerous, just annoying.

7:00 am: Mile 11 – The sun came out! Well, the clouds started to brighten up enough that I could turn my lights down and then eventually off. The rain has slowed to a heavy drizzle by then, but still isn’t fun. In fact, I still don’t know where the fun was supposed to start . I talked to a lady named Michelle and she said a “couple good hundred mile days” is usually adequate training. Yeah, I should have done that, I guess. She also asked what kind of navigation I’m using – Garmin, Yahoo? Of course, only the best – a sheet of paper I had written on. But it is waterproof paper, so there’s that.

7:15 am (approx) – first bike rider broke her derailleur. On the gravel road. Katherine, how?

8:00 am: Mile 22 – Making decent pace. The goal was 10 mph and I’m making about 11-12. The riders have started to get more spread out and the tail lights and the headlights that I can see get thinner.

9:00 am: Mile 33 – cold, wet and miserable. I was unsure if the shoe covers are just cold or if water has been getting into the cover. Turns out, water had been getting in, likely from my leggings dripping down to my shoes. I HATE wet feet and only a few hours in, that’s what I had to deal with.

9-12 pm: Miles 30-60 – Uneventful for the most part. I settled into a rhythm. People were pulling further ahead and falling further behind the whole time. Eventually I ended up leap-frogging with the same 4 people as either they or I stop. It was comforting. I didn’t know them even in the slightest but I knew they like biking and are out of their minds, so that was comfort enough for me.

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This was supposed to be funny. It scares me.

I made one bigger stop around mile 50 or so to wring out my socks and my gloves. My right foot had gone so cold that I couldn’t feel my toes moving. At that point I still considered that something worth stopping for. The main reason was my right hand had gotten so cold that shifting was no longer possible. Since I couldn’t feel the level or the clicks or really my fingers at all it because a not fun game of “pick a random gear”. After failing to climb a hill due to this, I called it and finally stopped.

12 pm: Mile 57 (approx) – first group of volunteers. I can not thank them enough for being out there with candy and kindness.

12 pm: Mile 60 – First check point, in the form of a convenience store. I bought four candy bars, a gallon of water and a box of ten trash bags. Yes, trash bags, because if it rained again and if I got even more wet and cold it would have been the end of the day for me. So, trash bags to cover the cold parts. I took three and stuffed them into my bag, gave some other guy one and then handed the box the volunteers who appeared rather perplexed at the gift.

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Also, as I was about to leave some guy in a white van showed up, started yelling at us and the volunteers lost their mind and ran over to van. I turned around to see them handing this guy a sign to take his picture. In the moment this was the funniest thing on earth. Looking back at it – still funny, how did they even make that sign? If you haven’t figured it out, this guy was with the volunteers, doing what he does. Which is apparent drive a white van and yell at people, then hand out candy. Very nice guy.

HEADS UP – THIS IS WHERE IT GETS UGLY

Preface – I knew of the devious course designs by Sarah in the past. Up to this point I had thought “Hey, this isn’t so bad. Maybe everyone is just pushing harder and/or likes to complain.” Oh, I was wrong. So, so wrong. I don’t remember how many hills there were exactly, but this is the best I can do.

12:30 pm: Mile 65 – the mud began. The nice gravel road took a left hand turn to a Level B road, which is a soaking wet clay mud road for those of you that aren’t familiar with the term. So I started walking. After the crest of the hill I rode down the back side past a lady (Michelle) who was in the middle of the “road” inspecting her bike. She had broken a derailleur. I lost track of the next couple hours because we – me and the other people near me – traveled a whopping 5 miles in two hours.

We got to the top of the second mud hill and find ride-able gravel! I rode it another quarter mile or so, very excited, and then crested another hill to find MORE MUD. This mud you couldn’t even walk around because the design of the road. I made it about 40 feet and got stuck. Yes, stuck. My bike was nearly too heavy to lift, my shoe covers had nearly been ripped off the front of my shoes and I was getting barely any traction. At this point I gave up on the shoe covers. My shoes were wet; the covers were doing nothing. By now the two new friends I’d made had caught up with me. I learned something new here – my tires absolutely love picking up mud. Their bikes were perfectly clean and mine looked like I just dug it out of creek bed. Whatever. We kept walking.

Then the drone came. Yeah, someone had a brought a drone to document our misery and the feeling was just one of utter defeat. But we kept trucking on. Surely there wouldn’t be the much mud. Right. I don’t remember for sure if it was one more hill or two, but there was more.

After this section of mud there was a nice lady who happily greeted us with “Hello! Welcome to the halfway point! I have some water to clean off your chain if you need and a scraper to clean off the mud. The next checkpoint is three miles ahead on gravel.” Well, I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to lighten my bike by twenty pounds of mud. Now I’m not sure if she said she was sure there were no more B roads or if she said she knew there weren’t anymore till the checkpoint, but….

SHE LIED EITHER WAY. This lady was like an actor in a haunted house: planted there to give misdirection and break your soul. Now, if this was planned out, props to the coordinators for making the most soul crushing stop in the middle of the worst mud section in the middle of the worst gravel ride. Seriously, even if this was an accident – and given her peppy demeanor I suspect not – this is why Spotted Gravel has the reputation it does. It’s made to break your soul and this nice lady with a camera was PERFECT for that.

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So much mud

So, after cleaning my bike, talking to the nice lady and climbing up a hill, what do I find?

MORE MUD. MUD AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE. HOW MUCH MUD COULD IOWA POSSIBLY HAVE?

It was at least two big hills of mud, if not three, which was worse. You get to the top only to see someone else on pushing up the next hill. The group of three other people that I was with chat along the way and that made it bearable for me. That section knocked out 3 people that I could see, which was only about 10 people total. Finally we got off the trail, and cleaned off our bikes. I have to use my backup water for cleaning as it was either that or risk ending up with a broken derailleur. The guy I was with handed me his mud spatula as he was going to be done at the next checkpoint. Given his recent knee replacement and hesitation in getting another one, I found that understandable. I got on my bike and my watch went off as it does every five miles. That five mile stretch took us 2 hours and 3 minutes. My brain could barely fathom this – I routinely ride five miles in around twenty minutes.

Check point 2 was cruelly placed right after this final section. Many people didn’t make it past this checkpoint and I’d be hard pressed to blame them. I stocked up on cookies and toffee, checked my tire pressure and headed out. Only 70 more miles to go to the finish, and 40 to the next gas station – Casey’s!

4-7 pm: Miles 80-120 – These mile weren’t too bad actually. I was beginning to get sick of Gu packet and candy bars. I would choke another Gu packet down just so I had enough mental clarity to navigate. I saw a hawk chase down a deer. A truck pass what seemed like a foot away from me at 55+ mph. Went through a SUPER tiny town in which all the vehicles appeared to be parked outside the church. The sun went down. My left knee started to feel strange. Good times. 5 miles or so before the Casey’s my water bag ran out. I had another liter in my back up bag, but since I had also blown through my emergency water bottle cleaning mud that liter was now my emergency supply. A half hour with no water isn’t yet an emergency when it’s cold and wet. By this point the Gu packets that I was having every 45 minutes were starting to sound like eating dog feces. I kept choking down whatever I could reach – snickers, Reeses bars, toffee, a cookie, but by this time I wanted anything but sugar. Luckily for me my favorite pizza place in the whole world was coming up.

I didn’t stay long at the last stop. A piece of Casey’s pizza, a gallon of water, gloves and new socks with fashionable trash bags over them and we were ready to go. Someone once told me that pizza might be bad on a bike ride this long. After biking all day, I didn’t care. I needed calories and wasn’t entirely sure I could have another *sweet thing*. After cooling down inside, the cold hit hard. The uncontrollable shaking was concerning so I threw on my arm warmers hoping I would stop shaking enough to warm up again. It took a few miles, but I got there.

7-11 pm: Miles 120-150

I made my way out of town, hoping to make good time on the remaining 30 miles. Maybe I could push it a little harder and get back a little earlier than I thought.

OH, AND THEN MY LEFT KNEE JUST KIND OF STOPPED WORKING.

The knee was good until I had made my way out of town and into the pitch black of the Iowa countryside. Some light reflected off the low clouds, but that was hardly a comfort. Then the knee become increasingly painful to move until eventually I was trying to pedal one-footed and then finally just limping myself and my bike up a hill. I made a quick call to my wife to tell her I thought I was done, and she reminded me of the ibuprofen I had in my med kit. Now, I don’t use ibuprofen except in extreme circumstances, so this was a big deal – and it’s also for this reason that I don’t use it liberally. Miraculously, it worked, and it worked well. Yeah, the knee hurt, but I could keep going. In the last ten miles it started raining again but I could not have cared less by then.

My main tail light died – darn. My main headlight died – oh well, I have a backup. And then, finally, I made it to the finish line!

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There she is! Sarah Cooper herself. I’ve heard she doesn’t acknowledge anyone who hasn’t biked 100 miles or more that day, no word on how true that is.

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By the numbers:

17 hours, 7,300 calories, 650 training miles on my bike, 147 miles day of, 104 people signed up, 88 expected to show up, 56 started, 26 finished, one medal.

Why? I’m still not entirely sure.

Gear Review – MSR Hubba Hubba

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The hubby and I bought a tent at the last REI garage sale, which meant that of course we had to try it out somewhere other than our living room. It’s hard to tell how a tent holds up in the wind when there are four nice walls surrounding it, after all – and since we got the tent for backpacking/adventuring, knowing how it performs ahead of a big trip is a must.

Even if that means purposely going out and camping in the rain.

We picked Saturday night for our test run and decided we’d stick with it even when the sunny-and-seventies weather of the initial plan turned into rainy-with-a-high-of-46. After all, we reasoned, better to find any leaks now when we’d be less than half an hour from home. It would be a fairly simple matter to throw everything in the Subaru, admit defeat, and spend the rest of the night in our bed. I’d also picked up a sleeping bag liner at the REI garage sale and was interested to see if it would make my sleeping bag any warmer. But I digress.

Our tent is the MSR Hubba Hubba NX, which has 4.6/5 stars on the REI website (link here) but was returned because it “didn’t perform as expected” according to the tag at the garage sale. (This might be a good time to mention that this post is not sponsored by REI, or anyone else for that matter.) Having experienced several situations where an item was returned more due to user error or unrealistic expectations than any actual defect, the hubby and I were hopeful that would be the case with the tent.

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Our previous tent was a Kelty Teton 4, and the first things we noticed were differences between the tents. The Hubba Hubba is considerably lighter at only 3 lb 7 oz (compared to 7 lb 8 oz) and packs MUCH easier. When we’ve used our backpacks in the past, the Teton took up half of A’s pack, if not more.  This time, we were able to do a test run of our packing list and backpacks as well, since the tent was small and light enough that everything we needed could feasibly fit in the backpacks.  We did end up bringing several “extras” (marshmallows, anyone?) but broke those out into a separate cooler.  In the event of a real backpacking trip, anything in the cooler would stay behind and we now know our bags can take everything we need for an overnight trip.  As it was, loading up the car to head out was still a breeze.

It was misting when we got to the campsite, with actual rain threatening.  Luckily, the tent was easy to put up.  One of the other tents we looked at recently had poles that need to go on a specific end, even though they look very similar.  It confused us on a sunny morning when we had all the time in the world.  In the rain, hurrying to get the rain fly on, I was very glad for the Hubba Hubba’s symmetrical design and overall ease of setup.  It uses a single main pole with V’s on each end, and a short pole in the center to hold out the top of the tent.  The poles are attached with clips, so they do not have to be slid through sleeves.  We had the tent set up in no time, and secured the rain fly even faster, thanks to color-coded straps that make it easy to align.

20180929_171953We dumped our bags under the vestibules – one on each side, so the bags both fit, another perk – and A started what would turn into a two-and-a-half hour ordeal of starting a fire with damp wood while I set up the interior of the tent.  The Hubba Hubba is the same width for its entire length, which made it easy to fit both of our sleeping pads, although there was no extra room on the sides.  Our pads are both 21″ wide – deluxe when they were bought in the late 80’s, but nothing fancy now – and I was glad they weren’t wider.  We did have a bit of extra space lengthwise where we ended up storing our headlamps and water bottles for easy access overnight.

With setup done quickly, we had plenty of time to make supper (Ramen bombs are amazing on a cold, wet day – I’ll make another post on those later), scavenge the surrounding woods for some partially dry wood, and roast marshmallows when the fire caught at long last.  It was still misting when we climbed into our sleeping bags to give the tent its actual test.

I had wondered if I would miss the additional elbow room in our 4-person tent, but if anything I liked the smaller setup more.  With the sleeping pads pushed together, there was nowhere for them to slide.  The smaller space also stayed remarkably warmer through the night – warm enough that I tossed aside the extra blanket I usually use with my sleeping bag on chilly nights.  For someone who is perpetually cold, being too warm on a 40 degree night was an exciting novelty, not to mention a very good sign for future backpacking trips.  If I don’t need to bring an extra blanket, no matter how much it packs down, I have room for something that would have been sacrificed before.

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Drying Central Station – Spot the Kitty

Pack-up the next morning was easy as well.  The Hubba Hubba has a bag design I haven’t seen before.  It opens lengthwise instead of at the top, meaning the tent and rain cover can be folded up and laid in the bag.  The pole bag is then placed in the middle, and a drawstring tightens the bag down before two straps latch over the opening.  Playing around with this feature beforehand, I discovered that the Hubba Hubba can be compressed much more than the Kelty could without the use of a different stuff sack.  It also alleviated one of my pet peeves – the tent ballooning with stuffed air when being put away.  Of course, we had to unpack everything when we got home and the living room turned into Drying Station Central; luckily the cat got a kick out of this.

While a campground in Iowa may not push the Hubba Hubba to its limits, I’m happy with how it performed and excited to use it on more adventures.  Maybe next time we’ll even get some sunshine!

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