Monday, October 20, 2014

The Omaha Jackrabbit 125: Briefly the dumbest idea ever.

(All photos courtesy the Omaha Jackrabbit FB page. A camera did not make the cut of things I wanted to carry for 125 miles.)

Before I launch into a tale of the transcendent experience of a long, hard day on the bike, watching the sun rise and set in a blaze of glory from my bike saddle, I should forewarn you that midway through the ride I had serious doubts about being able to even finish. There is also a bit about getting lost in a bean field, and a screw up with my drop bags (both my fault).

I had been looking for a late season ride, in part as a motivator to keep riding, and in part as a oddball birthday present to myself. With the majority of gravel rides happening either near Des Moines or around the Twin Cities, the Jackrabbit was also a significantly shorter drive from NW Iowa.
Bunnies for trophies

Registration for the race was held at Dundee Cycles, which is a custom bike builder located in Omaha. Not only are the paint jobs on their bikes very cool, the collection of vintage bikes hanging around the shop was astounding. Maybe I should have spent more time looking, and less time talking, but I was wound pretty tight. Among other things, the owner of the shop (Chris) showed me a magnetic engagement rear hub made by the Polish company Soul-Kozak. According to the company, using magnets results in fewer moving parts, so the hub should be more reliable. All I know is the thing was loud, more so than Hope and Chris King hubs, which are legendary for the racket they make. The Soul-Kozak reminded me of a semi's jake brake.

Being the cheapskate that I am, I managed to secure camping in the backyard of a local bike shop owner. After a fitful night of sleep courtesy some pre-event jitters, I drove north out of Omaha to the start at Lake Bennington. We had been warned that parking at the start was limited, so we were advised to park at the high school, which was a mile away. I drive into the parking lot, and there is not a single biker there. Stupid 5:30 am thoughts clouded my head, making me wonder if I'd drove to the wrong town. Turns out everyone else had just parked at the start.

I was also running late. I needed to be at the start by 6:45, and it was at least 6:35 before I left the school lot. I still had to bike the mile to the start. By hustling I managed to get to the start on time, but not before dropping one of my drop bags and riding over the apple stashed inside. Thankfully the organizers had extra bags to replace mine (which now featured fresh applesauce).

By this point, most of the racers had gathered at the start. I had a distinct feeling of not belonging. Everyone was very friendly and the mood was good, but most of the riders seemed very well equipped, and looked like the sort who would be putting in a hard, fast day. I resolved to stick with a group, any group, until it got light and I could properly read my cue sheet (headlamp had been forgotten in the car) and then spend the day riding solo off the back. I planned on being the lanterne rouge, and that was alright.

Rollout was neutral with dirt bike escort. Dawn was just beginning to peak in the east. As the escort ended, the group began to stretch out into a rather lovely chain of blinking taillights and headlights. About 4 miles in, my choice of wearing a fleece was proven a mistake. I rammed it into my saddlebag, where it would stay for the next 120 miles. While stopped I achieved my goal of being dead last (Yay!).

Back on the bike I started working my way through the stragglers, eventually joining a group of two fatbikers, a 29'er, and a cross bike. We pulled for each other and swapped stories of rides we had done, comparing notes on both awesome and spectacularly bad rides.

It was all good until mile 46. The cue sheet told us to take a right at Ave E, which was an unmarked road. Maybe we all though the road was a field driveway, maybe the vibrations from a particularly bad descent had blurred our vision, whatever the reason, our group of five missed the turn, instead taking a right at a T intersection a few tenths of a mile later. The "road" we turned on quickly devolved into a path, which dropped us off in recently harvested bean field.

Knowing that the organizers were planning on sending us down some paths, we rode through the field, wincing as the stalks jabbed at our tires. We assumed that somewhere on the other side of this very hilly field would be the continuation of this road. Instead the field ended in a fence line and a creek. Minutes of head-scratching and haranguing passed, and a few more riders who had also missed the turn joined us in the field.

Some GPS consultation eventually revealed that the sneaky Ave E was a bit south of us. Rejoining that road involved crossed a harvested corn field, a patch of woods and a bit of pasture, plus a barbed wire fence. Being lost cost our group about a half hour, plus a lot of energy expending riding a mile and a half over hill and dale.

A few miles later (including a bit of singletrack) we rolled into the mile 50 checkpoint. I had been running on trail mix and a Cliff Bar, and I was looking forward to some of the goodies stashed in my first drop. I get to the truck with supplies drop bag.

Near as I can tell, this picture was taken about 30 seconds before I found out that
my dropbag was missing.
No drop bag. No food. Nothing. I had a one more Cliff bar and a handful of trail mix. How far could I ride on this? There was another checkpoint in 33 miles that might have some supplies, and my next drop bag was at mile 100. But if one of my bags was missing, there was nothing to say that the mile 100 bag wouldn't also be missing.

I snagged/stole a cheese stick and one of the Little Debbies at the back of the truck, but not knowing if they were for public consumption, and being to embarrassed/dumb in the head to ask, I quickly fled with my departing group. I could make the mile 83 checkpoint on what I had, but if there wasn't anything to eat there, I'd be hurting.

By far the worst part of the ride was those 33 miles. This was a hilly section of the course, with lots of rutted, jarring B roads. Bunny hopping ruts at 30 mph was a new, terrifying experience for me. Shortly after the checkpoint I let my group go. The snap was out of my legs, and I spooled back my pace to better my chances of finishing the remaining 75 miles.

I had some long, unpleasant conversations with myself about the stupidity of participating in a ride I was so clearly not prepped for, and why on earth I had set on endurance gravel riding as my hobby of choice. I walked a few of the steeper hills in an effort to keep my energy up. I gave serious thought to how I could manage to quit. But without SAG, and my family a 2 hr drive away, I knew I needed to get to the finish even if I meant I had to crawl.

Around mile 65 the course dropped into the Missouri river valley. The flat expanse promised a chance to keep a easy, mile-eating pace. No hills meant no climbing, but also no breaks. Any attempt to go faster than 14 and my legs started to burn. I stopped briefly for a nature break, and noted that my legs were shaking uncontrollably.

After a weaving, river-hugging "road" that was equal parts rocky, rutted, and sandy, the beautiful mile 83 checkpoint came into view.
I might be looking at the checkpoint volunteers, but my mind is
most definitely on that table over my shoulder.
Perhaps the sweetest sight of the ride was that checkpoint and its table burdened with treats and snacks. A Coke was nectar of the gods, a banana was edible glory, and a lawn chair was a throne unparalleled in opulence. I wrestled myself away from this checkpoint after about ten minutes, and my mood lifted as the food refueled my depleted legs. Everything might just turn out alright.

The flatlands were spent totally alone, without a single rider in sight from mile 83 to 100. At one point I had to completely leave the road to let a combine pass. The farmers were working, I was playing. I was happy to walk in the ditch for a minute, and the farmer looked pretty happy too.

As good as I was now feeling, I didn't allow myself to feel certain of finishing until I hit the mile 100 checkpoint. As I checked in, the very nice lady running the station asked if I was hungry. I was of course, so she pointed me to my two drop bags. That's right, two. As it turns out, in the dark and in my rush, I had stashed both my bags in the 100 mile pile. My bad. Now I had too much food. Burdened with a wealth of stroopwafles, jerky, chocolate covered espresso beans, and a liter bottle of coke, I feasted my way towards the finish.

Off in the distance I could see a lone biker riding. As we moved into the rolling hills of the finish, I slowly reeled the rider in. Turns out he was the lone single speed rider that day. I'll simply say I was very impressed. We rolled in together to the welcome sounds of the volunteers still cheering with gusto after what must have been a very long day. Total time was 11hrs 6m for a course average speed of 11.1. Negating the time I spent lost in a field, my rolling average was around 12.

A cold can of Coke, a few handshakes and congratulations, and I was headed home. Though I felt pretty good when I left, the two hour car ride guaranteed that I was very stiff by the time I was home. Later the next day I was feeling good enough to pedal my kids around on our longtail, and two days later my legs are mostly normal, with only a sore throat from a long day spent breathing hard in the dry dusty air.

Thanks so much to the organizers for putting on an outstanding event. It vastly exceeded my expectations, especially for one that cost me exactly nothing. If I'm looking for a fall ride next year, this one will definitely be on the top of my list.

Ridewithgps file can be found here.

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