Sunday, January 31st – 9:45 a.m.
En route to the I AM FAT Fat Tire Endurance Race (IMF), at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Center in Iowa City, thick winter rain drops began splashing on the ground. The forecast was an accurate representation of the Iowa winter so far: cold enough to bundle up, but just not quite cold enough to provide some playable snow. But the rain wasn’t going to deter my spirit that morning, and I knew it wouldn’t dampen the mood for the IMF race I was heading to. A race that consisted of a single 3-mile course, 3 hours to complete as many laps as possible, and for myself, two partners that went by the names of Paul Sueppel and Karl Struck. No, the wet winter rain wasn’t going to stop us, and as the trails turned to mud before the first turns were even made, I knew the wet weather would only be laughed at under the churning wheels of Fat Bike stallions.
The Park Lodge at the Terry Trueblood Recreation Area, where registration for the IMF took place, and where riders would warm up while their partners tackled the 3-mile course, is a beautiful, spacious building that is a true asset for the Iowa City community. That day however, it wasn’t the wood floors or the gas fireplace that first caught my attention, it was the pungent smell of water-logged socks that immediately affronted my senses. I don’t know what it was, and perhaps it was the adventure-adrenaline of the upcoming race pulsing through my veins, but I took a deep breath of the damp smell and got excited to ride.
After our team of 3 registered to race (team: Paul’s 39th Birthday Again), a race briefing took place at the far end of the Park Lodge’s main room. Through a shaky connection, the race officials announced the rules of the race. Even though the instructions were hard to hear from the back of the room, everyone knew the rules were simple enough. 3 hours, 3 -mile looped course, whoever does the most laps (as a team of 2-3 or individually) wins. Somewhere between the crackling microphone announcements, one of the MCs might have mentioned the slickness of the trail when it hit the woods, but if I wasn’t sure then, I would soon find out myself.
The rain graced us with its absence by the time the race was scheduled to begin. Suddenly from out of the woodworks and off of the hitch racks lining the parking lot, a mass of fat bike tires lined up at the starting line. From afar, one might have mistaken the spectacle as a wild herd of horses pawing at the ground, snarling and ready to go. Up close, when the starting horn sounded and the lead chariot blazed the way, you could see that it was a group of men and women, all who wouldn’t let the inconvenience of Iowa weather get in their way.
Paul (of “Paul’s 39th Birthday Again”) was the first member of our team to tackle the 3-mile loop, and when he turned the first corner of the race course that went out of sight, suddenly things became much more quiet. We (Karl and I) tried to locate his jacket from afar when the riders re-entered our views from across the lake, but much to our chagrin, everyone that day seemed to be wearing a combination of green, silver or neon yellow, and all would soon be smathered with a fresh coat of mud after their first lap. As we watched other riders come in, Karl and I waited patiently in the cold for Paul to finish his own lap. As much as we were both excited to hop on the bike, we had little time to express that as Paul zipped by and went onto lap #2.
This time we had taken better note as to what Paul was wearing before he went out of sight on lap #2, and when he made his way back to the transition zone, it was evident by his tired legs and smile on his face that said “I’ve had enough fun for now” that it was my time to hop on the fat bike and check out the trail myself.
Paul’s parting words as I mounted the bike were “Chain Troubles!” and “Brakes Don’t Work” – although he didn’t need to mention the latter, because I found that out right away. Hitting the first corner of the race course, heading down the bike path and turning onto an icy forest road, I considered what type of bad start it would be to let my tires fly out beneath my legs, but thanks to the added incentive of spectating fishermen standing nearby, I managed to keep the tires in line as I made my way onto the single track.
The fat tires did the trick on the long stretch of icy forest road I was first presented with, crunching over the landscape without indiscretion and stopping for nothing, even ankle deep puddles that whirred against the back wheel fender. At the point where the trail became more technical, introducing inclines and tight turns, I distinctly remember wanting some working brakes.
With a few kicks of my legs acting as instant kickstands, and more than a few “Whoaaaa There” moments, I made it through the flowing singletrack in the woods, and up one last gear-crunching hill back onto flatter land. Fat bike riders were instructed to ride on the side of the paved trail, and the beginning of what would soon become deep tracks started forming in the mud. Who needs brakes at moments like those?
Rounding Sand Lake, the trail split off towards the pavilion and the sand dune situated at the south end of the lake, and as the trail flowed beneath my legs, and with enough blood pumping through my body to cloud my thinking, I couldn’t help but point my tires and bomb it down the sand dune, which also acted as the largest hill the course ran down. Upon hitting the levers for the disc brakes, all I heard was a sad sound of squealing defeat and I careened my stallion off course and into a ragged patch of dogwood tree stems. Once again, I was amazed at the fat tires’ ability to handle any surface I accidentally drove them over.
As I turned the corner for the final stretch home, and tried to keep my bike on the slightly-worn path, the Park Lodge grew closer and closer with every pedal stroke forward. Having learned nothing from previous mistakes, I gunned it down the trail with the courage of an experienced biker, and the naivety one has before unwittingly becoming the subject of an America’s Funniest Home Video contest. I flowed down the track, not letting my slipping tires slow me down, and with what I thought was the appropriate amount of speed, went charging into the last corner of the race, of which was the most saturated mud hole on the entire course.
I came into the transition zone roughly 5 lbs. heavier than I started, having lost 2 pounds in calories burned and gained another 7 in mud and weather, and when I handed the bike over to Karl, who was still clean from the morning’s shower, I passed on the only sentiment that I could give him; “the brakes aren’t working.”
Having dismounted the bike and given the reins over to my other two partners, Paul & Karl, I could feel the beginning aches of my inevitable “cowboy in his saddle” soreness. The mud and rainwater that coated my shoes, pants, and jacket was pronounced by the cold wind and 32 ½° Iowa winter weather, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stand by the transition zone and take pictures of other riders coming in, most them peddling something along that resembled a wild-bog creature coated in mud.
After taking my break in the Park Lodge to warm up, where I had effectively acclimated to the wet sock odor, and of which was going to inevitably break a few mops to clean up, it was my time to ride again. I had only moments before caught my breath and calmed my muscles from the first ride, and with that experience behind me, I knew what to expect from the course. Things were going smooth, and the only notable moment of dismay came atop the same sand dune that is situated roughly at the midway point of the course. You have to understand, it was a particularly flowy section that if you hit your slopes just right, you can coast to the top of one of the biggest drops on the course, point your wheels, and let gravity do the rest. In my excitement to do just that, certain facts dropped to the back of my mind, and it wasn’t until the squealing absence of brake pads could be heard once again that I remembered the only piece of advice my team gave me before my second go around – the brakes are still out.
By now, as the blood was pumping through my veins and my eyesight slightly obscured by arrant mud flakes, the next break from biking was somewhat a blur. Somewhere in there the odor of wet socks made it to the back of my mind, a delicious hamburger provided by the Johnson County Youth Off Road Riders disappeared before my very eyes, and I had trouble using my legs to squat down and take more pictures of the action. Before I knew it, I had my helmet strapped on my head and my feet were on the pedals, it was time to ride once again.
Having felt the flow of the course twice now, and with muscle memory helping with the wheels, my third and final lap was a smooth one. I passed a couple people, a couple people passed me, and everyone seemed to find their legs on the final stretch of the endurance race. What I was most amazed at was the people who chose to do this race solo, riding for the entire three hours straight, some completing upwards of 10 laps (30 miles). That is the kind of mud you earn, not fall into, and as I crossed the finish line for the final time, I was glad to have partaken in an adventure well spent.
The Park Lodge post race would have been the perfect “before” picture for any number of products including Febreeze, Swiffer WetJets, and Tide Laundry Detergent. A CSI investigation team wouldn’t of known what to do with all the muddy footprints going in all directions, not to mention the photocopy-esque rumpus prints that lined the granite slabs bordering the room. Despite the muddy conditions, no one seemed to be complaining however, and no one seemed to be bragging either. Sure, by looking at the leaderboard or listening to the winners announced, their was an obvious “winner” of the I AM FAT enduro race, but with no bones missing and a few expectant washing machines ready at home, everyone at the end of the race was a winner against the apathy that 32 ½ ° Iowa winters can provide.