Race Priority: B
Race Execution: B-
Race Result: A
Fire in the Hole!
Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra (SHGU) holds a special place in my heart for so many reasons. It marks the progression of my cycling journey to date. It’s tested me in ways I never imagined and I’ve made friends with the most incredible people. I had been made aware of the first edition SHGU in 2016 and was encouraged to sign up, but I did not. At that point, I had never ridden that far before and I had only had my gravel bike for all of three weeks before the event. Looking back, I was so not ready for that event it’s laughable. SHGU even in good weather poses a significant challenge to all those willing to toe the line. After missing the first edition (which had good weather by the way), I earmarked this race for 2017.
SHGU 2017 was my second ultra event. Temperatures were cool. I underdressed and spent the majority of the day cold. It rained. I mistakenly rolled my bike through an almost B road until the drivetrain was so glommed with mud it became nearly unrideable. A farmer gave me the pen in his car to scrape mud which I carried the entire race. I was so hypothermic in Afton that I couldn’t do simple math with the Casey’s clerk. I washed my bike in the Afton carwash per the smart suggestion of some 200-mile riders after these bike angels put a liberal application of lube on my chain. I put on my rain pants in the car wash bay as I shivered and shook and rolled my happy self to the finish line of the 150-mile “sprint” around 11:50pm. I met awesome people and now longtime friends along the way. I learned on the fly and dang was that race hard!
SHGU 2018 was supposed to be the year I tackled the full octane ride of 200 miles. I had a coach. The race was an A priority event for me. I trained, learned from earlier mistakes; was ready. Mother Nature had other plans. The rain that was supposed to dissipate by midmorning held on almost all day. Temperatures were significantly colder than predicted. I was chilled, but prepared. What I wasn’t ready for was the watt-sucking mushy gravel and the insane amount of time that would be spent hiking my bike through the muddy B roads. At least this time, I had daisy chain to carry my bike and a spatula to clean off all the mud. This all occurred after what I would still consider my all time race low. Leaving Orient on this race, I was the coldest I have ever been in a race and still facing nearly another cold 120 miles to finish the 200 mile version. After spending over an hour hiking my bike and knowing there was more hiking to do on the 200-mile course, I made the decision to switch to the 150-mile race. It was going to be incredibly tight for me to finish the 200 miles in the allotted time and I didn’t want a DNF. I had a fantastic finish as the first female finisher of the 150-mile version and third overall for 150 miles. Despite my success, I ultimately was still disappointed with my inability to finish the 200. I felt sheepish presenting myself to the race director with what I felt to be a bit of failure. I felt I could have and should have performed better. My choices were a calculated risk. I mentally chalked this race up to another event to add to the experience bank and hoped to return to take care of some unfinished business. All this wasted breath is meant to highlight how consistently tough this event is every single year. I look forward to this beautifully created challenge.
I always want to come to this event and give A level effort. This year the race came 6 weeks after the Hoodoo 500. For that reason alone, I could only hope to give this race B priority. Recovery was complicated by a probable right rib fracture from a crash during Hoodoo. Thankfully, the healing process was adequate enough to not impact being on the aero bars. It did heavily affect the weight training that I knew would be needed to carry my bike on muddy B roads. Talk about a race to the finish. I could finally breathe fully and carry my bike without significant discomfort in the last few days before the race.
Gear planning was manageable and would only be finalized after the weather forecast became more certain. Since SHGU has the reputation of rain and mud, it was only reasonable that rain was on the menu….again! Temperatures were due to be in the 50’s, so I couldn’t complain about that. Things were looking up! My coach, Greg Grandgeorge, gave me the opportunity to make a race plan on my own with a little oversight. That went ok, but even before critique, I noted that my power numbers were likely a little low. At least I would go into this race with more preparation than what I have done previously and a guide to keep me on track. My primary goal for this race was to finish the 200-mile course no matter what. I packed enough food to fuel me for 20 hours of racing. I had gear to cover all unforeseen challenges. With a Dynohub, Sinewave Beacon, and external charge brick, lighting was secured for hours of racing. Unfinished business was going to be finished!
The Madison County Winery graciously hosted this race for the second year. Check-in was a relatively quiet affair. I chatted with people, got my packet and violated my own personal rule of no alcohol pre-race with a little wine-tasting. I chatted with winery owner, Doug, and left with a few bottles of delightful wine and a tasty port. Time for bed!
Race Morning and Start
The bike and gear were all loaded the night before. On the commute to the start, I found myself listening to “Fire in the Hole” by Five Finger Death Punch….probably an appropriate song for what was ahead. It was going to be raining in the next half an hour with more storms to the west. I mentally prepped for the day with excitement and a moderate amount of anxiety.
Race start was delayed for 40 minutes due to the thunderstorm that was just overhead, lightning included. All of my gear was already damp rolling my bike down the hill and into the outbuilding. I’ve spent this season hiding from lightning and being frighteningly too close. I didn’t want to leave the building as I knew that the storm cell to the west actually looked worse than what we had just encountered. Cellphone reception was limited. I couldn’t update my weather apps. That was probably a good thing. I decided I’d roll out anyway and be ready to find a barn. Hopefully, I could get to Lorimor before the second wave of storms.
We left in the rain at 6:40am. The neutral roll-out had the group somewhat splintered. As soon as we made the official turn onto the course the first several riders were off. I fell into the second group and we all seemed to be deciding how hard to ride. Our pace was decently aggressive and manageable. I was ahead of my race plan and feeling well. Shortly after the start, I could hear the happy rumble of fat tires as Brad Stoermer and Jenn Borst joined me for a bit. I enjoyed the company. However, I was eager to get to Lorimor as quickly as possible with the impending weather and eventually pulled away.
The ride to Murray was rather uneventful with the exception of cheering by our directors up a particularly steep hill with one squeaky rubber chicken. That was a favorite race moment for me. The anticipated break from the rain was appreciated, but the dark blue skies to the west kept me nervous. No one was stopping in Murray since it was only 35 miles into the race, so I pressed on as well. I had not researched Lorimor well (shame on me) and hoped the gas station would be relatively obvious. The rains returned en route. I found myself riding with the single speed racers and followed one into town. We took turns for the restroom and purchases, but he was faster at the turnaround and gone before I got back outside. I retraced my steps back to the main route in the rain, nervously watching the skies. I didn’t want to waste time with the radar. The now gray skies and lack of lightning actually cheered me to the prospect that this was likely a bunch of rain. I could deal with that. That was confirmed by Sarah Cooper at an intersection in town. I left feeling a bit better knowing that the worst of the weather would be behind us soon. A few cracks of cloud lightning and thunder made me skittish and continue my barn shopping, but I kept going.
The first B road was encountered not long after Lorimor. I watched a fellow racer ride and decided to follow. Eventually the road got too muddy for me and I carried the bike a bit. It was still raining and water was accumulating quickly. I was happy to get through that road at the time I did. It certainly wasn’t going to get any better. The next B road was near a shooting range. They were firing off large artillery from the sounds of it. I rode as much of the road as I could then walked the shoulder. The gunfire had me jumping even knowing it was there. I was eager to leave that road! Unfortunately I took on a lot of mud on this road with poor choices and had to spend time cleaning it off. I lost time and chastised myself for my lack of skill, but hurried on.
Finally the rains had passed. The clouds were breaking up and blue skies began to show. I was ecstatic for better weather. I finally caught my single speed colleague. He wasn’t feeling well and was planning to switch to the 150 mile route. There was fresh gravel as I headed south along with rollers, but I could handle it. In fact, I was feeling great and getting hot. I wanted to shed layers, but was hoping to wait until Afton to maximize my stopped time. I actually felt that I had gotten off pretty easy with the earlier B roads. This was all about to change!
On Jaguar Ave. just after crossing south of Highway 34, it becomes a B road. On this particular day, a big, fat nearly shoulder-less strip of muddy road as far as I could see. I laughed out loud to myself, appreciating the genius of the route. Of course it would be, but no worries. It was going to be fine and maybe a great story for later. I shouldered my bike and headed down the road. It was slow-going as I slipped along. My left back was beginning to ache. I had to stop a fair amount. I could feel the clock ticking and mentally rehashed how long to the finish line. If there were many more roads like this my awesome day was going to be a lot less awesome. I began to have a rather colorful inward monologue about the matter, questioning the directors’ choice of roads. Early optimism was declining. Eventually the end of the B road was in sight and Eric Rocasecca was present to snap some photos and give additional reassurance that the end was truly near. Sarah Cooper’s truck was at the top of the hill. I made it through rather ungracefully which was thankfully not caught on film. I was offered a break, the suggestion that maybe I should shed some layers and that I had traversed the last B road. Praise be! I took what felt like a ridiculous amount of time shedding layers while chatting and left feeling much better. And just to be clear, I love B roads. They are my favorite roads unless they are a big mud pit.
I made the checkpoint just outside of Afton feeling well. I stopped long enough for my pipe cleaner and quick hug, but was eager to be off. In hindsight, I should have been more social. I refueled in Afton, sprayed off the drivetrain with a waterbottle and re-lubed the chain. The whole thing had been making noises I have never heard before. I had nostalgia over my stop there 2 years before. I cued up the next part of the Garmin route and headed out. I burned up 20 minutes which was way too long.
The Rest of the Race
I felt decently strong leaving Afton. Winds were W/NW. I was still maintaining decent power and a little ahead of my plan despite the winds. With the heat of the day, I had stripped all the layers that I could. My back was continuing to cause pain. Heading south, the hills were relentless and paired with the heat my power started to drop off. I kept on alone with only 4 bike tracks to keep me company. Just before entering the Sand Creek Wildlife area there was an aged somewhat rickety wooden bridge that I had the good fortune to cross. This was just as a train went blaring right underneath my feet carrying cars of coal. The absolute silence of the forest confines was a stark contrast to the noise of the train and could not have been timed any better. Lucky me! I really wanted to stop for a photo op, but we’re racing here!
The scenery through this area was really enjoyable and my favorite of the race. It was heavily wooded. The roads were curvy and scenic. The visible fields were more pastures and prairie, less crops. I was loving all of it while absolutely not loving any of my performance. The back pain was now impeding my ability to get on the aero bars. I coasted too much. My efficiency was going in the toilet. I was battling nausea and just feeling overall unwell. But this time, I put my prior lessons to practice. I was not going to entertain the negative thoughts in my head. I pressed on and was rewarded with a stunning sunset, alone on a rural Iowa road having not seen a single car for 2-3 hours. It was pure Iowa magic.
Shortly after sunset I had to stop and add gear back on. I opted to stay cool and dry with arm warmers and a light windbreaker vest, no jacket. I had kept my shoe covers on all day and was glad for that. The night would prove to be uncomfortably cool for my heat-loving self. There were a couple muddy roads that made me walk a bit. I was too worried about messing up the drivetrain in the dark. I rolled through Hopeville and was happy I finally knew where I was. Eventually, I made it to Murray despite the back pain and lack of efficiency. I broke my rule and had a Strawberry milk that was not part of my nutrition plan, but one more GU or CarboPro was not going to happen. Yuck. I was pretty darn cold and grateful for the help to get a bottle back in the bottle rack for my uncooperative hands. Another bike angel (race leader Mark Skarpohl) had left WD 40 on the window ledge of the Caseys and I threw on a liberal application after spraying off the drivetrain for one last time. I was too lazy to get out my lube and rag for the small amount of grinding noises that the bike had been making over the last several miles. I dallied a bit too long again, but headed out with renewed vigor. Thirty-five miles to go!
Several miles outside of Murray I encountered a couple yearling Black Angus cows and then their mothers. I hollered at them to move out of the way which only served to send them into a disorganized trot in front of me. They would not budge off the road and I wasn’t getting in the middle of that, so myself, the bike, and four cows cantered up the road in the darkness at a leisurely pace until they finally found a patch of grass and bailed. I certainly never expected to herd cattle in the middle of the night. Add that to my list of firsts!
The last 20 miles of the race were so fun. My taillight died and I stopped to replace it only to see that I was being followed. Time to stop dinking and finish this race. My competition was hanging on behind me on the hills. I got on the aerobars and hit the flats to pull away only to be caught again on the hills…from a distance. Finally, I hammered hills and flats to gain more ground and the headlight disappeared. With a handful of miles to the finish, the 150 mile and 200 mile courses converged. This was a thoughtful finish by the directors and I had the good fortune to meet Jen Reed on this portion of the course. She had made the turn before me and I spent some time trying to catch up to her. We chatted a little, but I knew this last section well. I couldn’t help but feel significant nostalgia here as it was another moonlit night like 2017 on a race that had been so memorable. I was finishing at a similar time. The most special sight of all on the final descent to the finish line of this race every single year is the beam of truck headlights cutting the darkness; awaiting your finish. It goes to show the level of dedication and commitment the directors give to this event. They will wait until the bitter end to welcome every racer back. And they know you’re coming! My first year, I was so proud to finish after such a long day of challenges. Last year was mixed emotion of having the satisfaction of finishing well, but not in the manner I had hoped. This year, I was finally going to cross the line of the 200-mile race. And darn I wanted all to know my celebration and joy. I hooted and hollered all the way down the hill around the corner, threw down some watts, and blasted to the finish. Third time’s a charm!
Official Finish Time: 16:33
1/2 Women’s Open 200
5/13 Overall Finisher 200
ENJOY YOUR ADVENTURE!
- Thanks to the race directors Sarah Cooper, Steve Fuller, Dori Jansma and the fleet of volunteers that gave their time for this event. As always, it was run perfectly.
- Thanks to my coach, Greg Grandgeorge, for designing a solid plan to help me recover and heal for this event. It was a great way to end the season.
- Thanks to Kyle’s Bikes for new parts and blessings. The bike performed flawlessly.
- Thanks to my supportive husband, Dave, for all the rest.