Monday, April 26, 2010

Decorah Time Trials aka Suck Fest 2010

In my continued quest to keep at least some of the "action" in Former Action Guy I try to participate in at least one competitive sporting event per month. Mostly this involves running, and I have competed in races from 5k to Marathon. I have also participated in one sprint distance triathlon but find it hard to train for those with no convenient place to swim. The last couple of years however I have been mixing my running with mountain biking as a way to cross train and to give the knee that I had surgery on a rest from the continual pounding. I enjoy mountain biking and their are some really nice trails literally yards from my house. So this led me to get a wild hair and I decided to enter a mountain bike race. I looked around the state for a good beginning race and decided on the Decorah Time Trials because it had individual starts as opposed to a mass start. Riders would leave the start line at one minute intervals and negotiate the course at all possible speed. So I sent in my entry fee and marked my calendar for April 25th.

Decorah, Iowa is located in extreme northeastern Iowa about 20 miles south of the Minnesota border. It is beautiful country and the Decorah Parks and Trails systems are located over and around a set of massive bluffs on the northern edge of the town. The Time Trials Website said this about the course:10 miles, 3,189' of climbing, 402' elevation change. It also said " This course is highly technical, use common sense and always stay with in your ability level." If I was a thinking man, I would have started thinking right after reading this, however being a former action guy I pretty much discounted this description as so much editorial fluff. I ride my bike at least once a week, what could be so technical?

My first indication it was going to be a long day was that I had inadvertently scheduled myself to be on call at the ambulance service I volunteer at the night prior to the race. Being an out of town member I am required to stay at the ambulance garage while on call. I usually don't sleep very well at the garage, not sure why that is but I usually go home tired the next morning. That night while on call we had a page for, you guessed it a bicycle accident. I can't say much because of HIPPA considerations but it was pretty serious in my opinion and I hope the individual is ok. On the way back from the hospital I started day dreaming and hoping this wasn't some kind of bad omen. I had been experiencing some apprehension about the race and this kind of put an exclamation point on it. I think it was mostly nervousness about the unknown, something action guys feel all the time. I had felt it many times myself but not for awhile. But even former action guys shrug this nervousness off, old habits die hard.

The morning of the race dawned gray, rainy and about 50 degrees, I woke up about 0400 after a restless night and packed my stuff to head back to the house. I arrived home about 0500 and woke my oldest girl and youngest boy to accompany me and be my road crew. Jade was to be the official photographer and backup driver in case for some reason I was unable to drive. Jessie was just along because he is cool and still likes to do things with me. We piled into the Escape and headed to Decorah. It was about a 3 hour drive and they slept most of the way, while I switched the radio tuner between NPR and Country music. When we arrived in Decorah we were a little early for check in so we stopped at Mickey D's to grab some chow. Of course I ordered two sausage and egg biscuits and after we drove away I discovered that the mental giant behind the counter had given me two sausage biscuits. I always get screwed at the drive thru.

So we found the check in and I parked along the road and went to grab my packet with tshirt and race number. One of the highlights of my life is the new race tshirt. I savor the designs and the new shirt smell. It is my tradition that I don't get to wear the shirt until I finish the race. One of those bad luck thingies. I have hundreds of them and every few years I have to cull the herd and get rid of them. A few years ago I had the bright idea of making some of them into a quilt as a way to recycle them. A family member who shall remain nameless (M*m) assures me it will be done by this July. As I made my way to the check in tent I couldn't help but notice that most of the people that were there all looked pretty fit and most of them had some kind of biking outfit on, consisting of spandex biking bibs and multi logoed shirts. Pears don't look good in spandex so I was sporting a pair of black baggy shorts and a cotton tshirt advertising the "MWR Balkans Turkey Trot 2002." There was also a multitude of bikes, single speeds, multi speeds, 29 inch tires, clip on pedals, and everything in between. My bike was a 300 dollar model I had bought in Colorado about 7 years ago. I was wearing my running shoes which were clip-less.

Since I had pre-registered I was able to select my start time and wanting to get a head start on what I suspected would be a learning experience I picked the first open start time available. I would start 14 minutes after the first rider which I figured should put me in good shape to finish with light for the drive home. I grabbed my stuff, perused the information sheet in the packet and affixed my race number to my handle bars. A lot of the other riders were warming up by riding up and down the road, never having been big on all that kind of stuff I sat in the car with my kids and Jade showed me pictures and videos off the laptop she had brought. I did however have to get out and use the porto potty about a million times. This is normal for me, it means my adrenaline is kicking in. I used to hate this when I was a parachutist because it is very difficult to piss once your rigged up and I used to have to get pretty inventive to answer natures call.

At 0950ish a guy with called us all to the start line and gave us a pre-race briefing. Everyone seemed to be pretty chummy and there was a lot of cat calling and joking while he was trying to speak. The race started about 1005 and as I waited my turn to start I tried to get some pointers on techniques from the riders ahead of me. Basically it looked like they were just riding all out until they were out of our sight. I decided I would start steady but not too hard I wanted to pace myself. The start itself was my first challenge, when it was my turn I moseyed up to the start line and waited for the countdown. One of the race staff grabbed my seat and told me to go ahead and sit. I guess this was so riders could clip into their pedals prior to the start, as I mentioned before I was clip-less and I was used to starting with one foot on the ground so the start was mildly disconcerting as I felt pretty dorkish.

When the official starter said GO!! I took off at what I hoped was a mannish looking speed, the first 200 meters of the course were on a paved surface and up and over a small hill. Once I crested the hill I could see some race staff pointing to my left into the woods. I took a sharp left and headed up the trail which almost immediate started going up hill. The grade was pretty steep and the trail was muddy and slick. Did I mention it was raining? I slipped out of my pedals, Did I mention I was clip-less? I figured discretion was the better part of valor and I started running up the hill pushing my bike ahead of me. This pattern repeated itself multiple times over the next 2 miles. My tires had so much mud on them I was getting no traction going up hill and eventually I stopped trying and just got off and pushed on all the inclines. I think 2000 feet of that 3000+ feet of climb the website had mentioned was all in the first frickin two miles. The trail kept switch backing up and down the first ridge line, taking us almost to the top and then almost back to the bottom again. My heart rate was redlining as I struggled and gasped for breath. It was during this time the first rider passed me, eventually I would lose count of how many did. Finally the trail dumped us out on the top of the ridge line and it started heading down the other side. It was about this time the GPS I had fastened to my handle bars lost signal and turned off. From that point forward I lost all concept of time and distance in the seemingly endless collection of muddy switchbacks and roots.

I remember thinking somewhere along the way that this would have made an excellent Special Forces Selection and Assessment event. The course continued to take us up and over a set of steep ridges and my legs were starting to get tired. It was about the middle of the course where the"technical" part really started. I took my first spill as I tried to jump a log. My rear wheel hit the log and skidded to the left kicking me into the downside of the hill. I toppled over like a weeble and the only thing that kept me from rolling down the hill was a fortuitously placed bush. Since my head was downhill and my feet where uphill it took some maneuvering and a lot of energy to get myself back on the trail. The impact of the crash had knocked my rear brake cable out of its clip and I discovered I had no rear brakes as I tried to maneuver around a steep hairpin turn a little further down the trail. I managed to stop by using my front brake and leaning way back off the rear of my bike. I scoped out the issue and discovered all I had to do was get the cable back into its housing and back on the clip. This I did with a little cussing. My second crash happened as I tried to negotiate a large rock and root obstacle.My front tire stuck in the root sending me not quite over the handle bars and into a small tree. Once again I fell over rather violently and wasted a lot of energy righting myself. The roots along the trail were constantly causing my rear tire to skid like a drift racer in Tokyo, and I was hoping for a small section of flatness where I could catch my breath.

My third and final crash was the most spectacular. I was negotiating a particularly steep downhill section and over compensated and got too far over my handle bars as I tried to make another steep turn. I went ass over teakettle, bike and all, and ended up under my bike with my left calf stuck in the frame. My calf had this enormous cramp in it and I couldn't get it unstuck from the frame. I also happened to do this right in front of the aid tent that was setup up in the valley between the ridge lines. A large group of boisterous and drunk mountain bikers were cheering on the contestants as we passed by. One of them asked me if I was all right and tried to help me up. I managed to struggle to my feet and mumbled to him that I had a cramp. I tried to hop on my bike and get out of there with what was left of my dignity but low and behold my chain had come off my chain ring. One of the revelers called out" Hey it works better with the chain on!" I grimaced as I got the chain back on the ring and hopped on my bike. As I pedaled by him I grinned and said "Thanks for the advice." He grinned back, raised his beer can and said " No problem. I'm a mechanic."

There was only about .5 miles left in the race when we crossed back over the paved road and headed into a flat final stretch. I actually managed to speed up and change to a higher gear as I crossed the finish line, giving Jade the "Hang Loose" sign as she took my picture. I gingerly got off my bike and handed it and my helmet to Jessie as I tried to walk off the last 2.5 hrs of torture. I was muddy and exhausted but I had finished

I am writing this two days after the race is over and I have several bruises and some road rash but I am mostly good to go. I am starting to remember fondly some of the good things that happened during the race, like the two deer I saw mere yards away as I picked myself up from my second crash, or the huge morrel mushrooms I saw as I was trudging up one of the many uphills. I am already scheming about buying a better bike and maybe training for another race in August. In the interest of full disclosure I would like to say that of all the riders that finished the course I came in dead last with a time of 2 hours 29 minutes. However out of the 102 riders that participated only 87 finished. I was one of those 87, and I did it on a 300 dollar bike and with no skill to speak of. I am a proud of that and I will be wearing this tshirt for a long time.


  1. That effin' rocks. Good job. Not an easy first start. You should've came to the nice flat island of the Sylvan Island Stampede. Absolutely fun and not too hard on the body.