Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Cup O'Dirt - a year in review

I firmly believe that a lot of learning happens with all great adventures. Sometimes the lessons are thought out in advance and sometimes they just happen along the way. In 2008, my quest for a Cup O’Dirt started with a long and slow ride with friends, meandered through the summer on the gravel back roads of several Iowa counties, and ended on New Years Eve with three hours to spare.

In case you haven’t heard of the Cup O’Dirt, it is a devious little challenge that innocently calls upon a person to attempt it. The rules are simple. 100 miles, 80% must be dirt or gravel, all in one attempt (not over the course of a month as several of my co-workers innocently asked). It has three different levels; the 1200 Mile Cup O' Dirt, the 600 Mile Cup O' Mississippi Mud, and the 1/2 Liter O' Dirt (earned by completing twelve metric centuries) in the year. Dave Mable, the creator of this madness, even offered a special award to anyone completing either a dirty century or metric century in each month of the year.

My year long journey began in January with an innocent offer to join Squirrel's Hilly Hundy. At the time, I wasn’t necessarily planning on riding a century per month, or even twelve in the year, but Squirrel made his ride sound like a slow and steady day in the saddle and that oddly sounded like fun. Scott Sumpter, Steve Fuller and Dennis Grelk rounded out the group. I remember the day started in the low teens and slowly warmed into the low 30's.

"B" level road and hill near St. Charles

I also remember always being at the back of the pack, walking some of the hills and wanting to quit at mile 55. I was cursing myself for foolishly thinking that I could attempt twelve dirty centuries and thought that the 100k rides might be a more realistic challenge. Fortunately my companions would not let me quit. My first lesson of the year was learned via my companions at a Casey's in St. Charles (never give up, keep moving and it will eventually get better). I kept on moving and slowly made it to mile 97. I pulled the plug at the Cummings Tap and called my wife. Shivering and hungry I had her stop for dinner. After warming up and getting some food in my body, I finished the remaining three miles at home.

Church outside of Perry

Another lesson would be learned in front of a computer in mid-February. If I was going to be successful in riding a century each calendar month, then it would require advanced planning. The group had been planning an end of the month ride, but I was monitoring a potential storm on that weekend. On a whim I left the house a week early on a solo ride towards Ogden. My ride was lonely, cold and windy, but I had frozen and firm gravel for the majority of the ride. I found some scenic back roads around Perry and I made it home just before dark. The storm didn’t materialize and the guys would do their ride on the planned weekend. However, they had a warm and muddy day and ultimately one of them had to bail at 100k. Watching the weather would be very important if I was going to hit my goal.

Feb. self portrait

Rick Blackford joined me in March for a mostly uneventful ride. We headed south through Winterset and then turned northeast towards Stuart. My fitness was starting to improve, but I was still “off the back” for many segments. Headed into Stuart, Rick and I joked that we found an extra two or three miles of dirt by riding the shoulder of a paved road.

Rick and I did find some snow in March

By April, the weather had warmed and we started getting the Iowa rains. Steve Fuller and I set out to find a gravel loop around Des Moines. I had been having good success in finding gravel roads, but apparently the majority of roads in Polk County are paved. While the first third of the ride went well, by the time we hit Carlisle we were forced to the shoulders of the paved roads (Iowa doesn’t believe in paved shoulders). We kept on thinking that we would find a gravel road, this was a bad mistake and another lesson was learned (stay out of Polk County if want to ride gravel).

Polk County singletrack

Fortunately Steve and I kept each other honest and we completed the century. I estimated that we road 50 miles of gravel shoulder and the ride was a mental challenge. We joked several times that salvation was only ten inches to the left.

Between Redfield and Adel

In May and June, I rode solo centuries. I had found a good loop to the south and west. I kept on exploring scenic back roads and found ways to add my favorites. I was definitely becoming stronger and in June I rode what would be my fastest gravel century of the year. 7:15 ride time and 7:45 total time. I was learning that by limiting my time at the convenience stores and by keeping my pace steady that I could run an overall quicker time.

Small towns in the middle of the fields (Linden, IA)

In July, my grand plans were to add a century to my vacation trip in Missoula, MT. I had emailed an old friend and a few others that I found on the net. By the time the allotted date arrived, I had already spent all of my energy riding the trails that I enjoyed when I lived in Missoula. I decided to give it a try, but my heart wasn’t into it. I also failed to re-fill my Camelbak, near mile 30 I had run out of water. In talking to the group, I thought we only had an hour of riding before we hit a store.

A scenic ride up the Rattlesnake Valley

Almost 3 hours later we arrived at a Taco Bell and I called it a day. 63 miles and the worst bonk of my life. My body felt so bad that I couldn’t even eat. Several hours and lots of water later, I was back to normal. My new found buddies finished their century and called me at 8pm that night. It was a good 14hour ride for them and it was their 1st gravel century. I like to think that they learned about a new type of endurance riding that day. I thought that my one a month streak would end on this month. I had limited time and the heat index went over 100 during the last week. Steve Fuller and I left work early on the 31st and started our ride in the heat of the day.

My hopes were that the last half (in the dark) would make up for the heat. We decided on the flattest route that I knew and ultimately finished near midnight. I drank 232 ounces of water and yet lost 4.5lbs from my previous day’s weight.

The August ride was a meandering affair with Blackford, Fuller and Sumpter. It was highlighted by a great hamburger and shake lunch in Panora and I cemented my growing image of riding my own pace. I was feeling the effects of a big lunch and told the guys to push ahead without me. I gave them the general directions to Adel and they pushed ahead. I continued at my much slower (but steady) pace. I started feeling better outside of Adel and stopped to refuel one last time.

A gourmet Casey's meal

Imagine my surprise when I found the guys sitting in the shade at a park behind Casey’s. It once again proved to me that by riding my own pace and continuing to move forward, that progress would be made and that the tortoise could catch the hare(s).

September was another solo ride. I left the house in the morning darkness and rode towards Adel. My lesson learned on this ride was that farm dogs that are usually nice in the daylight appear to be more viscous in the darkness.

It was probably just my perception, but a few of the pups seemed to have an uncanny ability to silently start their chase out of the darkness. My heart rate was elevated during a few of these forced sprints.

October could be the highlight of the year. Many of the previous nine rides were tough in their own way. This ride was the toughest mentally, one of the longest in the saddle and I think a first for the Center Trails. Earlier in the year, someone had mentioned (in a challenging sort of way) that I should ride a hundy at the Science Center Trails in Des Moines. Of course, I had to give it a shot. I created a fourteen mile lap that I repeated seven times. I finished the last six miles with two laps of the time trial course (hillside and rollercoaster). The first lap was in the darkness and solo. I then met up with some of the Sunday morning crew and rode a lap with them. Lap 3 was with Blackford, laps 4 and 5 were solo, but a friend came and joined me for lap 6. I ran into several different riding friends during various points of each lap. All wished me well and typically shook their head in a way that showed respect while still questioning my sanity.
Once Fall rolled around, I began to lose my will to ride. My fitness was suffering and my November century took longer. Blackford joined me once again and we rode some of my favorite roads just south of the city. I had ridden 10 miles before meeting Rick that morning, so during the middle of the ride I took a nap at the Cumming Tap while he rode for an hour to make up some miles. It is a funny sight to look back upon. It’s a good thing that the Tap is used to cyclists, because I’m sure it looked out of place for a guy to be catching some shuteye in the bar (without drinking prior).

December was the perseverance month. I tried on the 7th, but turned back as I was too cold. Then family and the holidays hit, thus I tried for what was supposed to be the last time on the 28th. However, the roads had iced over and made them impossible to ride over 10mph. I quit and thought that my quest for the cup would come up one ride short. At least I had a good time attempting it, I thought. On Tuesday the 30th, my boss asked me when I had ridden my December hundy. When I told her that I couldn’t get it done, she gave me a great motivational speech. “You can’t ride 11 and not get #12! What is the weather like for tomorrow?” I had been watching. “You have extra vacation time, right. Are your projects current?” Yes and yes. I told her it would depend on the temps, but I knew that I had to give it one last shot. I woke up at 6am and tried to eat, but my stomach was nervous in anticipation of actually finishing the quest. I left the house just after 7am and headed towards Booneville and DeSoto. I was hoping to ride into the slight headwind for 50 miles and then take advantage of what was supposed to be a building tailwind. Part way to Booneville, I realized that I had forgotten my money and wouldn’t be able to survive with the little food that I had in my pack. I returned to the house near noon and with only 44 miles under my belt. I wanted to quit, but my wife and the friends that had sent emails and texts kept me going. I even thought of just adding another 20+ miles and creating my own “metric century a month challenge”. Lunch in my belly and a tailwind pushed me to Woodward which would give me 90 miles by the time I reached home. I had made the conscious decision to ride further away and not allow myself to cut the goal short. I knew that I would find the additional 10 miles on the gravel near my house. I had to stop several times during the day to warm-up and I had to fight a headwind for the last 20 miles, but I had finally completed the final century. It ended, unceremoniously (excepting the few text messaged cheers), with just three hours left in the year.
It finished like it had started. No crowds, no finish line. Just me and a bike computer counting the miles. Good friendships were made, lots of good roads were found, weight was lost (30lbs), and cycling fitness was achieved. It was a great challenge and a lot of fun. Challenge yourself in 2009 and I’m sure that you will be surprised at what you can achieve.

Total miles: 1220
Total hours: 125+ hours


D Mable said...


I am honored to have played a small part in your year/life. I hope you enjoy your hard earned Cup!

Peace - Dave

bikeiowa said...

Tom ,
It was certainly a pleasure riding with you this year!

You "lay down" the words almost as well as you "throw down" for a long bike ride.

Hell, I quit talking to people at work about it.. They think we are nuts...

Shall we plan a double gravel hundy this year? ;)

Buckshot77 said...

Tom, great write up. Glad I was there to experience some parts of it. I think that mid ride bonk is probably your biggest enemy and was glad you found ways to get over the hump each time.

Justin said...

way to go Tom... good story & good ridin'... I would be happy to finish just one, but you did TWELVE! awesome job

Anonymous said...

What a great adventure and an amazing job of writing about it. Congrats you big stud!!!

Steve Fuller said...

Way to stick it out Tom. After January, I didn't think we'd see you again, but you stuck to it better than just about any of us. Grelk doesn't count, he's a freak of nature ;) Congrats on a great year. I'm happy to have gotten to know you better, and I'm proud to have you as a friend.

Brian said...

I'll add to the congrats! I regret not getting out to keep you company on at least one of those rides. Maybe that's something I can rectify this year.

Great job on the rides and the write up.