Spotted Horse 150

Sarah Cooper first hit my radar when she won Odin's Revenge in 2014, coming in first overall. I've casually followed her career since that point, and she quickly moved into the Ezster Horanyi/Lael Wilcox/Jill Homer pantheon of heroes/role models/girl-I-most-want-to-be-like-when-I grow-up-except-I'm-already-older-than-them-all.

Sarah has a special place in my heart because she achieves all her accomplishments while also being the mother of four; meanwhile, most days I can barely get my hair combed in time to drop off my one remaining kid at home and rush into work 30 seconds before I'm supposed to be there. I finally got to meet her in person at last year's 24 11 Hours of Cumming, where she crushed the women's field and I welcomed an inglorious DNF not quite halfway in.

When one of your heroes organizes a long race on her training ground, you pay attention; as soon as Sarah announced the inaugural Spotted Horse Gravel Ultra I penciled it onto my race schedule. October is a busy month, though. Jeff had already acquiesced to planning our family Halloween party around BT Epic, and a trip to Iowa for Spotted Horse would mean back-to-back weekends away, something I try to avoid.

Sarah's race stayed in pencil until sometime in October, when her race updates started feeding my FOMO. Granted, my gravel bike had seen almost no action since August, and maybe following a tough, 50-mile mountain bike race with an endurance gravel event seven days later was a bad idea, but I think it was Ezster who said something like "recovery is for people who can't think of anything fun to do". Overall my bike fitness was in a good place; I hadn't ridden a full century since August, but Chuck and I had ridden over 90 at the No Sleep race in September. I felt confident I could soldier through 150.

The final selling point for Spotted Horse was EJ, my first riding partner when I began riding bikes for "distance" (which, at that point, consisted mostly of 30ish mile Trailnet rides).  His career has kept him crazy busy while dragging him around the East/Midwest over the past few years, so we haven't adventured together in forever, but he was available that weekend. He wasn't crazy enough to sign up for the 200 because his long ride this year has been about 20 miles, but he was willing to throw in for the 150 and see how things went. That gave me mental permission to also sign up for the short course, and with my husband's OK I registered.

Mickey and I headed to Iowa Friday morning, arriving at Kyle's Bikes just as check-in opened, then meeting up with EJ after he finished work. The rest of the evening was spent prepping bikes and giving EJ a crash course on endurance race nutrition. The race structure made my nutritional plan pretty simple. I would use six 500-calorie bottles of Perpetuem (I had two bottles and carried baggies of Perpetuem for refills) and bring along some GUs and a couple candy bars to supplement, buying anything that caught my eye at the C-stores. I also had a 100 oz water bladder in a frame bag, keeping the weight off my back.

Unlike races like Motherlode or Dirty Kanza, Spotted Horse was unsupported. Instead of crew meeting us at specified points with food, water, or necessary gear, we were routed past several convenience stores (at mile 38, 69, 100, and 138, I think) where we could refill water and purchase whatever we needed. Anything we couldn't buy at a Casey's had to be carried with us. This made things weirdly easy. No bags to organize, no instructions for crew, just you and the C-store shelves.

We arrived at the race HQ in St. Charles, IA, around an hour before start time, leaving us plenty of time for last-minute prep and multiple bathroom breaks. The morning was cool, but the forecast called for a rise into the mid 70's before dropping again. With relatively mild temps and no rain expected, I limited my extra gear to a buff and arm warmers, opting to start chilly rather than carry extra clothing most of the day.

Not being a regular to the Iowa gravel scene, I saw few familiar faces.  Having parked between Steve Fuller and the Stillers, I had the chance to drool over Steve's new(ish) Cutthroat before rolling over to the start line. There, I said hi to Jacob and then ended up next to my St. Louis area friends (and all-around awesome people), Carrie and Jeff Sona. We had a minute or two for hellos before Sarah gave out last-minute thanks and instructions before leading us to the end of the neutral roll-out.

Getting ready to start.
Photo credit: Daren Munroe

Knowing E.J. was completely untrained for the race, I was totally out of race mode and looking forward to good company and Iowa scenery. There wasn't much sightseeing to be done over the first hour or so since we couldn't see much beyond the reach of our lights, and we had one early wrong turn when I had trouble seeing my Garmin screen in the early morning darkness.

After an early climb the the next 5 miles or so leveled out, and we had a great time pedaling along and talking. Not long after a big descent, though, E.J.'s rear shifter basically fell off. What's better than entering your first gravel race completely untrained? Not being able to change gears probably ranks up there. Luckily, he was able to take the screw from his front shifter, which was unlikely to see much action for the day (mine certainly didn't), and we were back on the road in just over 10 minutes.

Back on the road and heading up. Over dinner, EJ's wife had made a comment about Iowa being flat. We'd already ridden proof to the contrary when we were faced with a virtual gravel wall. "Yeah, Iowa's flat," he grumbled.

7:13 a.m.

Having a lot of room for improvement on hills, I was pretty excited to make it to the top without having to walk, and the view up there was awfully nice. My headlamp was giving me a headache, so sunrise was a welcome sight.

7:18 a.m.

The wall was followed by a screaming downhill. One of Sarah's pre-race emails had mentioned the forecast and then advised racers to "expect lows 5-10 degrees lower than predicted". Diving into the mist-covered low-lying areas, her meaning became clear. Brrrr.

7:21 a.m.
"Luckily" we had a few miles of climbing to warm up before the course leveled off again.

8 a.m.
I finally took off my headlamp when I stopped for this picture, putting it into EJ's pack since I didn't have one and didn't want to get it all sweaty in my jersey pocket. This would prove to be a minor mistake, but I wouldn't realize that for a while.

About 4 hours in we stopped at the mile 38 Casey's to rest and resupply. While I wouldn't have stopped on my own, it was a nice break. I supplemented my on-bike nutrition with a piece of pizza, a second breakfast to complement the cinnamon roll I'd picked up at a different Casey's early that morning: options are pretty limited at 4 a.m. EJ was clearly a little tired but doing awesome considering he'd already doubled his long ride for the year. After a 20-minute break we hopped back onto the bikes and pointed ourselves towards CP1.

Iowa gravel, at least the roads I've ridden in the two Iowa races I've done, is a lot different from Missouri gravel. The roads were well-packed and smooth, absent potholes and with very little washboarding.  Spotted Horse also featured miles of dirt roads, also called "B roads" or "minimum maintenance roads". At one point I also spotted a sign for a C road, which stoked my curiosity but not enough to actually diverge from the race to explore (also it may have been marked private, but I don't remember that for sure and anyway, I was "racing").

The combination of B roads and a rainy weather forecast gave Sarah some grief in the lead-up to the race. As events like Trans Iowa 2015, Dirty Kanza 2015, and Land Run pretty much any year have shown, mud plays havoc on bikes and bike races. I was less worried. For one, I wasn't race directing, but also, I may be a mediocre cyclist, but I'm a pretty darn good competitive bike carrier. Muddy roads would suck, but they'd also be an advantage for me.

Half facetious and half true.

I was both relieved (because, let's face it, 150 miles was going to take me long enough without slogging my not-featherweight bike through mud) and slightly disappointed that the weather forecast moderated itself. The dirt roads ended up being in fantastic shape, well-packed and relatively smooth. They were a nice change of pace and a real highlight of the race.

Photo credit Eric Roccasecca
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

This dirt road picture was taken slightly after the above one. 
EJ was wearing down a little, but one of his superpowers is stubbornness and the ability to, despite lack of training, accomplish much more than you might expect. I didn't really think he'd ride the whole race, but I wouldn't have been shocked if he had.  The next stretch of the course was pretty moderate but had a couple bigger climbs, and at the top of one of these he told me, "I know this isn't what you wanted to hear, but I'm not doing this whole thing."

There wasn't really anything I didn't want to hear. Riding together was fun, but I've spent plenty of solo miles and was confident in my ability to navigate by Garmin and/or cue sheet. Either way I was good, and riding alone I'd be slightly faster. We hit  CP1 (mile 52) at 11:35, as it turns out a full hour after the last racers to arrive there. "What do you want to do?" I asked.

"I'm done," he told me. One of the volunteers offered to run him back to the start after she was finished manning the CP, so I waved goodbye and took off. I made it less than a quarter mile before remembering that my headlamp was still in his pack. For a moment I considered turning around but decided my bike light would have to do.

I can see for miles and miles...🎶 #hillsfordays #havemercy #girlsgonegravel #spottedhorsegravelultra #bikeiowa
11:50 a.m.

Some people might consider the midwest flyover country, but the course was really scenic. Iowa likes its straight lines: many roads stretched ahead as far as the eye could see, a sadistic preview of the hills to come. Occasionally the course would approach a dread-worthy climb and then, before getting there, turn; this led to my discovery of what I was to name Cooper's First Law of Race Directing: If you're turning away from a climb, it's only so that you can ride the bigger one around the corner.

Miles and miles of B roads at #spottedhorsegravelultra. We lucked out with the dirt roads in amazing shape. #girlsgonegravel #bikeiowa #gorlswhoridebikes

More B roads were to follow, and while they were still smooth and lovely they (and the course in general) were taking on a more pointy character than earlier roads. The more challenging conditions, loss of my suffering companion, and increased effort put a bit of a damper on my photo safari. I pulled into the Afton Casey's (mile 69) at 1:16, still feeling pretty good.

Leg 1. EJ dropped off at that low point after mile 50.
I refilled my water bottles and bladder, then loaded the second half of the race while I drank half of a gatorade. 10 minutes after arrival I was back on my way and looking forward to CP2. For whatever reason, I'd had in my head that CP2 was only about 8 miles from Afton. Luckily Mickey had made me a little mini cue-sheet with mileage to each C-store and CP on the course, and his cue sheet assured me it was actually 12 miles. I know it's only a 4-mile distance, but four miles of looking for a CP and wondering if you already somehow passed it would seem like forever.

The CP (mile 82) was at the end of a fairly flat section of road, and reaching it was a mental boost. So was Stretch's "Kate!". He'd volunteered to pick up any out-of-towners who had to drop, and I was the last of his people to come through the point. In fact, reaching it at 2:34, I was the last of all the racers there.

Having official confirmation of my last place status was, perhaps counterintuitively, not disheartening at all. I had minimal competitive spirit, having mentally assigned the race to pleasure cruise, but I really hate being passed. Knowing there was no one behind me meant there was no pressure from that direction. I could just ride my bike; anyone I picked off was gravy.

2:35 p.m.
Leaving CP2. The checkpoints were literally just crossroads with a vehicle.
Photo credit: Connie Mann
Incidentally, CP2 was also the spot where you had to make a final decision about which course you were going to ride. I had zero desire to switch gears and go for 200 miles and was so thankful that EJ's participation had convinced me to register for the 150. Next stop: the town of Orient in 20 miles.

The next couple of hours were tough. Looking at the elevation profile, the hills don't look horrible, but they just kept coming, one 100-foot climb after another. I'd ridden bigger hills earlier in the day and tried to channel those legs: You don't have to ride it hard, just soft-pedal up like you did this morning, but my afternoon legs weren't having any of it. Hills were walked.

#Iowa likes its straight lines. Dirt roads and rolling hills stretch on forever. At least, it certainly felt that way at times. #spottedhorsegravelultra #girlsgonegravel #longwayhome
You could see for miles on the dirt roads, too.
Around 4:20, probably on the dirt road above, my Garmin started flashing "low battery" and I stopped to plug it into the portable charger I'd brought. Mickey had told me I should just leave it plugged in the whole time, but I'd thought that was silly and did it my way. Thanks to my stubbornness, I got to spend about 6 minutes moving things around on my handlebars when I realized I couldn't plug in my Garmin were it was situated. Awesomeness.

While I was in the middle of moving my Garmin, Tina and Joe Stiller and another rider passed me, the first bikes I'd seen since leaving EJ 5 hours earlier. They sped off after making sure I was ok, and I followed soon after. Before leaving, though, I had to get a panorama of my stopping point: a 4-way dirt road intersection. First of those I've ever seen. (If you click on the picture it'll take you to a panorama).

 The dirt road ended at another intersection, and I stared at my Garmin in confusion as I rode up. The race route was a purple line traced on the roads we had to ride, and all I saw was a "+" in purple.  All the roads were purple. Huh? Luckily, a volunteer directed me to ride to the left towards the town of Orient. "The middle 50 miles is the worst, right?" I asked him as I passed.

"I don't know about that," he replied. "I've only ridden it in a car and it all looked pretty f*cking hard."

In retrospect, it's obvious that the roads were all purple because I had to ride on them all, and I had cue sheets (which I hadn't looked at since our wrong turn early in the day) to answer my question. In a "this is your brain on drugs 100 miles of Iowa gravel" state of mind, though, I didn't even manage to figure out the question. I didn't get beyond Huh???? to even ask myself Now, which way should I go? Thankfully, Scott pointed me in the right direction and around 5:00 I rolled into Orient.

The Stillers were still there along with several other racers in various states of relaxation. This was the most bikes I'd seen since the end of the neutral roll-out. One of the other 150-mile women was there, having decided to drop. I think she said Spotted Horse was her longest ride yet. She definitely picked a doozy; she earned that century!

I refilled a water bottle in the bathroom and bought a soda, small can of Pringles, and a Snickers ice cream bar. Nothing really looked all that good, but I wanted to sit down and eat something. It felt like I was there forever, but my Garmin data shows I was there for around 15 minutes. Before leaving I texted Mickey to let him know where I was (knowing he'd be finished soon if not already) and EJ to tell him "Good call on when you dropped. The next 50 has been SO HARD."

I followed the Stillers out of Orient, and we immediately realized that the wind, which had been blowing out of the South and West all day, had shifted to the North and we now had a headwind. At times I was able to tuck in behind them, but mostly I just really enjoyed getting to talk to them about past and upcoming races and about bikepacking.

They were on the 200-mile course and had about 40 more miles than I did at that point. If I worked hard and they backed off I could keep up on flats, but they flew down hills where I spun my legs to no avail, and despite what Joe said about them not being great on hills I couldn't keep up for long and dropped off. Their company had taken me about 8 miles from Orient; I had less than 30 to go to Winterset, the final opportunity to stop before the finish.

Thirty miles...that's like a medium Trailnet route...from hell. My normal positive self-talk tricks were subverted by tired-of-riding-this-damn-bike negativity. This is the least enjoyable "pleasure cruise" ever. Typically I like to just leave the route up and ride in blissful, no clue where I am zen, happily surprised when I reach the next point of interest. As I tired, though, zen failed me and I resorted to rationing peeks at the total mileage. Every 30 minutes (sometimes every 15 minutes...I suck at rationing) I could look and see how many miles were left.

Goodbye, sun. Nightfall gave me my first opportunity to try out the lights I bought way back in May. Good thing they worked well! #spottedhorsegravelultra #sunset #whatcouldpossiblygowrong #nofilter
6:43 p.m.
One of the really cool things about long races is seeing sunrise and sunset from the saddle. Also cool? Maybe managing to finish before sunset. But whatever.
The mileage checks gave me something to look forward to, but the math was ugly. 26 miles to go; that's only 2 hours at 13 mph. OK, that wasn't so bad, but following it up with things like 20 miles to go...that's only 2 hours at 10 mph was less happy, and there were times when I looked at the mileage in dismay, praying I'd remembered it wrong from the last time. That's all I've done in the last 15/30 minutes? This will never end. 

The 36 miles between Orient and Winterset were the longest. miles. ever. From Winterset to the finish, though, was only about 14 miles. Eventually measuring my mileage to the end became less depressing than the distance to Wintereset. 14 miles to the C-store, that means I've only got 28 miles left. That's less than a medium Trailnet route.

The Winterset Casey's was a block off-course; I saw it down the street and hesitated. I didn't really need anything. Maybe I should just finish off the last 14 miles. And then, unable to resist the lure of the bright lights and the coffee I'd been promising myself since the sun went down and the evening got chilly, I turned.

Three racers left the parking lot as I rode in, one of them a woman. I didn't know if she was in the 150 or 200 and didn't really care. I stopped my bike, gratefully climbed off, and stepped into the warmth of the building with my phone and money. I had three messages from an unfamiliar number, so I checked voice mail. It was Stretch: "Kate! I heard you were dropping. Call me!"

I called him back to tell him I wasn't dropping, just slow. I bought my coffee and ate peanut butter filled pretzels while checking facebook. Eventually the woman at the counter noticed that I'd left my bike light on, which I decided was probably a good cue to take my leave. Again, the stop felt like forever, but Garmin tells me it was only 13 minutes. Granted, it was 13 unnecessary minutes, but it made a nice morale boost. I dumped my remaining coffee into my water bottle and then took off again. 14 miles to go.

Apparently Winterset is home to some of the famous "Bridges of Madison County", and apparently the course passes directly by three of them. You couldn't prove it by me, though, because rural Iowa is mighty dark once the sun goes down.

Mile 12 was CP2, Orient was mile 32, and Winterset was mile 69. For whatever reason, the elevation scale on this profile is twice that of the one above (100 foot intervals vs 50 foot intervals)
After a general downward trend over the previous 22 miles and a 3-mile almost level lull, the course delivers a few last throat punches in the form of three huge hills. At least, they felt huge. They certainly took a long time to walk up.

Meanwhile, my bike light started to blink low battery, which would have been far less worrisome if I hadn't left my headlamp in EJ's pack. I turned it to its dim setting, which eliminated the battery issue and most of my downhill courage. While the roads had been lovely and smooth, I really didn't want to find the one bad spot by outriding my light in the wrong place.

The last hill seemed to go on forever. Finally back on my bike, I'd barely pedaled before the road appeared to rise again. Oh, please don't make me ride up another hill, I whispered in dismay. At the crest of the hill, a truck waited. I think she called out to ask my number and then cheered me on. There was one last downhill to lights and cheering and cowbells, and finally I was finished.

The first thing I said at the #spottedhorsegravelultra finish line was "That was SO hard!" Probably the toughest 150 miles I've ever ridden. Great course and a race director who was there to see all of her finishers. #girlsgonegravel #finishline #girlswho
On the left: stopping and saying, "That was SO hard!!" The other two pictures are with Sarah, who between her speedy first finishers and the rest of the field had a long time to wait out on the road.
There were only three women in the 150-mile field. One had dropped at Orient. The other had finished 16 minutes before I did.

16 minutes. Do you know how many 16 minutes-es I gave away over the course of the day? Gah. I know Katherine could say the same thing, though. Like every race, I feel more competitive about it once it's over, but I'm at peace with how it went. My priority was riding with EJ, and my second goal was to finish. Anything else was just gravy.

Sarah and her crew did a great job putting Spotted Horse together. It was a great race on a scenic and challenging course. Congratulations to everyone who took it on. Those hills...they just never stop. My 152 miles took me 16:38; in contrast, the first time I finished Dirty Kanza, I rode 204 in 19 hours. The second time, after carrying my bike through 3+ miles of peanut butter mud, took 20 hours. Spotted Horse was really hard, so much so that afterwards I said I'd need some race amnesia before signing up for it again.

So now I'm just waiting for the 2017 date to write on my calendar.


  1. Fantastic write up Kate, glad you made it all the way through. See you next year. Stretch

  2. Kate,
    I was the last voice in the middle of the night. I was so excited to see you. I love this report. You rocked it!



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