Sunday, August 01, 2021

Trans Iowa Stories: A Near Miss

From Andrea Cohen's timeline. Riders take over a convenience store during T.I.v12.
  "Trans Iowa Stories" is an every Sunday post which helps tell the stories behind the event. You can check out other posts about this subject  by clicking on the "Trans Iowa Stories" link under the blog header. Thanks and enjoy! 

The overnight hours of Trans Iowa v12 were probably some of the most interesting from an overall rider standpoint. We had a record number of riders pass through the second checkpoint which meant that we had more riders on the last half of the course than a few early Trans Iowas had in their starting line ups! That may seem, on the surface of it, to be a problem with keeping track of everything and everybody, but in reality, it was one of the least stressful times I've had running a Trans Iowa. 

The weather, certainly, was a major contributing factor to this being easier on everyone. While it did cool off, it never got really cold, like it has at several other Trans Iowas. It didn't rain, and even the wind died down to a mere breeze, presenting no further obstacle to progress toward the finish line in Grinnell. In other words, it was the 'perfect non-storm' of events which would eventually lead to this becoming a record setting event. 

That was another reason of mine for not making this event bigger than it was. Trans Iowa was always somewhat of a tightrope walk, in may ways, but I will stick to just this one example here. That being that it was possible that we would have had 120 riders, and perhaps due to T.I.v12's excellent conditions, this may have meant that we would have had nearly 100 riders left in the event overnight. Riders that would have been slamming a convenience store over a period of four to five hours in the middle of the night. A time when convenience store staff would have been thin, and thus the appearance of a group of riders would have been causing trouble. Much like T.I.v5's trouble at the Le Grand convenience store, this may have gone very poorly. As it was, we had groups of five and six riders at a time coming in, (as seen in the image above), and causing a bit of a stir. Imagine that times two, or three. And that's just one example of why this event could not have been grown bigger without wholesale changes to its format. 

Another item worth noting is tracking of the rider's progress. This was necessary for updates for Trans Iowa Radio, obviously, but in more critical terms, it was necessary for us as the facilitators of the event to know where people were on course and to know, in any way we could, if there were problems or what to expect for finishers. Finally, that command that Richard, "Deke" Gosen gave us way back in the beginning of Trans Iowa. That we must keep track of everyone in the event. This was a command I never forgot to follow. 

Gleason and Zitz appear at the under-the-highway tunnel during T.I.v12

This idea was exemplified during T.I.v12 by the utilization of the Mathias' who were stationed at a couple of spots on course during the morning hours of T.I.v12's first day. I also received a request from my then co-worker, and volunteer at CP#1, Todd Southworth, to allow him to be an observer at the point on course where the trail went under HWY 330. This was where MG and I had been sitting, for hours, awaiting the arrival of Gleason and Zitz, the two inseparable leaders of T.I.v12. Once we had sight of those two, Todd made his way to our position. We left when Todd arrived, but not before we had seen a few more riders come through. Todd ended up staying there all night and into Sunday watching for riders for us and making sure they understood the tunnel passage under the highway. Just another layer of watchful eyes that was useful to me in keeping track of everyone.

Once Todd reached our position at the tunnel, MG and I were a bit animated and anxious to get out of there. This was because we knew that the lead pair had a distinct chance at breaking the mythical 24 hour barrier. We were, at that point, pretty sure it would happen, given the short distance from where we last saw Gleason and Zitz and noting the time we observed them going by us.

I've written about this before in this series, but the unspoken challenge of Trans Iowa was "Can you break the 24 hour barrier to finish?" It was something murmured amongst those who felt that they were fast enough, strong enough, and wily enough to pull that off. Ira Ryan almost did it in T.I.v3. Joe Meiser came closest in T.I.v5, and then vowed to come back and try again if anyone beat his time. Not many gave thought to this, but I knew it was 'a thing' and I designed my courses with that in the back of my mind every year. 

Going into T.I.v12, I had no worries about this record being broken. This would be the longest Trans Iowa at around 340 miles, and with the typical weather we got, I figured that distance combined with a weather factor would stop any chances of that sub-24 hour thing from happening. But I did not realize how much that tailwind in the beginning of T.I.v12 was benefiting the riders, and I did not bank on that wind to die off at Sunset, as it had, allowing for little resistance to the leaders. I did not bank on all the Level B Roads being dry and rideable, but there it was. And Gleason and Zitz were tantalizingly close to doing the unthinkable. MG and I raced back to the park in Grinnell to see what would happen. 

The co-winners of Trans Iowa v12- Greg Gleason (L) and Walter Zitz

The way I had the finish set up has to be detailed here now because it ultimately played a huge role in how the sub-24 hour barrier was not broken. Since The Barn finish was off the table, I sought for a new finish line area within the confines of Grinnell which could serve as a discrete place to hold this sort of activity, be accessible to support people, and provide a decent experience for the riders. During a trip to see some NASCAR racing in nearby Newton, Iowa one year previous to T.I.v12, I was able to explore Grinnell a bit and found Arbor Lake Park, which is situated on Grinnel's West side around a small lake. It had plenty of parking, and not many residential homes were nearby, so we would not be a nuisance to the locals. With Grinnell's City blessing, I was able to hold the finish here for v12. 

The lead in to the park would be on as much gravel as possible. I wanted to come in from the South, but work on an overpass of the railroad shut down the road, and ultimately shut down that possibility. I ended up having the riders come in further North via a set of several turns onto a street that had an access to a cemetery on the park's West end which had roads through it leading to a bike path which crossed a small stream and then into Arbor Lake Park. 

All of this was detailed on the cue sheets, but physical markers were going to be the only way to know when to obey cues. Of course, none of the final turns had any street signage, so I had to make sure we marked all those final turns into the finish. I directed Tony and Mike to do this and they expertly completed the task to perfection. They were there at the park, as were a few support folks, Wally and George, and possibly others, to see if this big moment would be occurring. 

We waited in the dank night air, freezing as it had gotten fairly cold by now, for any signs of Gleason and Zitz. I was chatting with a few folks, nervously checking my watch, and right at almost 4:00am, I thought I heard voices out on the road. This road was the one that went past the cemetery and passed the park by the North. We couldn't see anything on the road due to a thick screen of trees which were between us and the road Gleason and Zitz were coming in on. If it was Gleason and Zitz that I heard, they missed the turn. As it turned out, that's exactly what happened. 

Gleason and Zitz missed the flags which indicated the right turn into the cemetery property, but upon backtracking they found it. That time that expired between was all it took for them to just miss completing T.I.v12 in a sub-24 hour time! Officially, by my watch, they crossed the line at 4:01am! Greg Gleason was miffed about the corner marking and said so between smiles and congratulations. He was also understanding that the cues were spot-on and about the situation. So it was all good, and I realized his disappointment was valid, but that it was just a mistake on his part. Walter seemed chuffed at just being able to be a finisher, to be a co-winner, and all that at his first crack at Trans Iowa. 

There was a fair amount of commotion over this finish, which was a bit unusual for Trans Iowa. But this was unprecedented. We had 'co-winners'! The sub-24 hour thing was threatened! Excitement was in the air. Generally speaking,winners would cool down, hang for a minimal amount of time, and be off. Gleason and Zitz stuck around a bit longer than most any other winners that I remember. That was something notable to me, and I was pleased with the interaction the two were having with those around at the time. But that was all just a precursor to what would be the norm for the rest of the morning and early afternoon. 

Next: The record setting finish of T.I.12 stirs up much celebration, emotions, and joy.

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