Spotted Horse 2017

A Sarah Cooper race will make you question every life decision that led you to this place. As a bonus, you'll get hours upon hours in which you can contemplate your hatred for Iowa's sadistic weather (all headwind all the time) and relentless hills. When you're finished with those thoughts, you can meditate at leisure on your poor training -- pro tip: once a week 50-ish mile rides on the Katy Trail aren't sufficient prep -- and still have time left to mentally compose notes to yourself.
Dear future Kate, I know that Spotted Horse registration sounds like a good idea right now, but it IS NOT. You hate Iowa. You hate hills. It's all hills. Do not come back here, no matter how much you like the people.
I did this race last year, I knew how challenging it was, and still I signed up again. I actually registered for the 200-mile course before coming to my senses in the weeks before the race and dropping down to the 150-mile "sprint". Last year's race weather was pretty much ideal, but Mother Nature had other ideas this time around, and while lousy weather is kind of my thing it definitely bumped up the difficulty level.

The lead-up to the race featured rain and then more rain, leading Sarah to cut most of the B (dirt) roads from the course. This was a huge mercy but also a disappointment. Those roads, when rideable (key point here), are a major highlight. Still, their continued inclusion would have rendered the course unfinishable, and I think we all appreciated Sarah giving us a race course that could be completed in the given time.

Mickey, Yvonne, and I rode from St. Louis together and made great time, even managing to go look at a bike after race check-in, before arriving at our wonderful hosts' house in time for dinner. Huge thanks to Saraleigh and Bill for taking such good care of us all weekend! After a delicious dinner and some final bike prep, we headed to bed gloriously early in advance of our 3:15 alarm. And then I laid awake for probably another three hours, managing around 4 hours of sleep. Not ideal.

It had rained all night, and though we got a short reprieve as we prepped our bikes at Wildwood Hills Ranch, drizzle was falling again at start time. None of our carload was overly concerned about the weather; our AR and rainy/muddy race experience has been good prep for suboptimal race conditions.

Sarah giving out last minute instructions. The weather definitely impacted the field. 81 people originally registered, 59 were expected at check-in, and 48 actually started.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

With the temperature already at 65*, I left behind my base layer and knee warmers, starting in my kit and arm warmers and carrying a rain jacket in my back pocket. With extra batteries for my headlamp, Garmin, and bike light, I felt totally prepared until four minutes before start time, when I realized my fender was still in the car. I could have hurried back and maybe missed the start, but I opted to go without.

Taillights reflecting off the wet pavement as we roll out.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca
Right at 6:00 Sarah led us on a neutral roll-out to the gravel road where the race officially started, and with that we were off. The early hours of the race were calm and fun. Last year I'd quickly fallen behind almost everyone, but this year I had people around me for a long time. I rode for a little bit with Jacob and got to cheer on the Sonas as they motored by on their tandem, then Yvonne and I rode together until I dropped a bottle and turned back for it.

The first not-actually-a-B-road-even-though-it-looked-like-one had a wide, grassy shoulder that was semi-rideable for me. Katherine and a guy or two passed me here as first tried riding in the mud (dumb, I know better), then sort of struggled after them through the grass. Sarah and Steve met us with smiles at the end of the road. "Sorry about that!" she called, "This isn't even a B road!"

In what seemed like no time I was passing the first convenience store at mile 35. I'd planned to skip it and was proud of myself for following through. The rain continued on and off, accompanied by a stiff headwind, which had apparently gotten hold of the race map in advance and made its plans accordingly. While the route headed south, the wind blew out of the south; as the course shifted towards the west, the wind moved in from the west. At this point, I just felt amused exasperation about this.

I have no idea where this was, but it was early enough that I hadn't bothered to take off my headlamp yet and still warm enough that I'd shoved down my arm warmers.
Photo credit: Eric Roccasecca

We had at least one reroute, but it was well-marked and uneventful for me and so the location didn't really register though I did wonder how it would affect the race mileage. Somewhere around Hopeville I hit another B road, and this time I didn't mess with trying to ride it. For a while I was able to roll my bike in the grass, but eventually I hoisted it onto my back and carried it.

At the end of the road, I was able to hop back onto my bike and ride away while other racers were scraping mud off their bikes. Granted, I think they all passed me eventually, but this brief, shining moment propelled me into CP1 as the second woman, only 8 minutes after Yvonne. It really was a brief, shining moment, as another girl rolled into the CP a minute after me and shortly passed me.

Still, I had 50 miles down and only 100 left. 17 miles to the Afton Casey's. No problem, even if I was entering the third of the race that I remembered as the most terrible from last year. It took me about 2 hours to cover that stretch, fighting both the wind and extreme sleepiness. That was weird; I got lousy sleep on race eve, but I'd banked sleep in the week before and have done lots of longer races on less sleep. I did my best to fix it, eating a caffeinated GU, eating more food, shaking my head, and talking aloud to myself, but my eyes kept closing and I began fantasizing about pulling over, wrapping up in my rain jacket, and napping on the grassy shoulder.

Finally I arrived in Afton. I lost about 12 minutes at the store, making a bathroom stop, refilling my bottles (one with a coffee-hot chocolate mix to warm me up and hopefully wake me up) and water bladder, and buying a couple candy bars to supplement my "nutrition". Some other racers were in the store, and I heard one of them say something about staying there until they dried off. I knew that would be a quick recipe for quitting for me, and I hurried back out to my bike. With the on and off rain, my jersey and arm warmers weren't doing the trick, so I put on my (very un-aerodynamic) rain jacket and set off for my next target: the 13 miles to CP2.

Photo credit: Greg Grandgeorge
This stretch was mostly north, and the crosswind was much more pleasant than the headwind. I wasn't moving fast at all with the hills, but I was still in decent spirits when Greg passed me as I closed in on CP2. My mood was further enhanced by the wonderful volunteers, who told me I was third woman, offered me cookies, and then asked if I wanted whiskey. Having spent the past hours shivering in spite of my jacket, my answer to both was a delighted yes.

Purely an anti-hypothermia measure. ;-)
Photo credit: Jill Marks
I only had 20 miles to my next goal, the town of Orient, but CP2 was the last highlight for a long time. This stretch was almost entirely into the wind, which was blowing hard enough that I couldn't even build much speed on the downhills. The soggy roads were soft enough to make pedaling even more work, and to top it off my slop-coated drivetrain was barely functional. I could shift into my big chainring, but shifting back down was unreliable at best. My rear derailleur was only responding about every 6th shift, and then at its leisure. Not to be left out, my legs were staging their own work stoppage.

I walked a lot of hills. I walked a lot of gentle inclines. I'd tell myself, ok, you can do this...just get to the halfway point...and then stop near the bottom of the hill and get off. I'd trudge to the top of the hill, only to be greeted by the blast of wind the hill had blocked, pedal down, and all too soon repeat the process. Only halfway into the race, I was utterly demoralized. What are you doing here? How can you finish another 70 miles if you can't ride up any hills? You're doing worse than last year.

I tried to counter my defeatist thinking with positive thoughts. Aren't you lucky to have a body that can do this? You love to ride your bike and you get to ride your bike all day long. Isn't it beautiful here? It's not an adventure if it's easy!

I have to admit that the whiny thoughts were much louder. I was cold and miserable, I was only halfway there, I was riding terribly, I wanted so badly to call for a ride...but how do you look at Sarah Cooper and say, "It was hard, so I quit."  I thought back to how shitty I felt after DNF-ing Dirty Kanza in my windy year, and I thought about what I'd written afterwards:
Quitting is like eating too much pizza or that extra big bowl of ice feels so good when you're doing it, but once it's done you're miserable and uncomfortable. I had valid reasons for quitting -- I still don't think I could have made that third checkpoint in time -- but I still wish I'd ridden that third leg.
That memory has pushed me through a lot of shitty miles, and it worked here, too. Besides, all I had to do was get to Orient; then the wind would be at my back as I rode east back towards St. Charles. It would be silly to quit right before it got easy. I celebrated with every turn. Only 18 more miles! Only 15 more miles! Only 10 more miles!

With around 10 miles to Orient I hit the most soul-crushing stretch of the day. Three miles, due west, straight into the wind, which I heard later was 25 mph with gusts up to 35. I watched the tree branches blowing and the weeds bending over and hated Iowa with everything I had. I wanted to stop and take a video to send to my teammates and my friend Brian, who lives in Iowa. Will you look at your fucking state??

I was hanging on by a thread, living for a turn to the north, but when I rolled up to the long-awaited intersection I was greeted by the smiling face of Scott Newbury and a reroute stake leading me straight ahead. I listened in tearful dismay as he told me to ride another 6 miles into the wind. "You don't want to go the other way," the volunteer with him assured me, "It's all hike-a-bike."

I did a little crying as I rode away, and it was terrible, but really no worse than the previous 3 miles and maybe a little better. And then, after taking nearly 3 hours for 20 miles, I was in Orient. I hadn't planned to stop there and didn't really need to from a practical standpoint, but I needed a mental reset. I used the bathroom, filled water, bought something, and rolled out again. Finally! Time for the tailwind!

But first, let me hike a B road. I groaned as I made the turn and saw the muddy mess before me. I tried riding some of it, but between the uneven shoulder, mud under the grass, and nearly crashing a couple times, I resorted to hiking the mile. I celebrated as the guys ahead of me reached the end of the road and got back on their bikes, but when I got there I realized it led to an intersection with another mile-long B road. After one final hike-a-bike, I was greeted by the smiling face of Carolyn, who was taking pictures at the intersection.

I think I was trying to smile here.
Photo credit: Carolyn Marsh
"Do you know how to break a derailleur?" I called to her.

"You mean, fix one?" she asked, "Is yours broken?"

"No, but I wish it was."

We chatted for a minute, then I rode off, eager to finally reap the benefit of the day's strong winds. I wish those final two B roads had been my last nasty surprise, but Iowa had one more in store for me. The wind, which had been a steady presence all day, disappeared to, as Sarah put it in her post-race note, "single digit disappointment". If I'd realized before Orient that a) I'd have two more miles of B roads and b) there would be no glorious tailwind to carry me to the finish line, I'd probably have quit somewhere after CP2. Ignorance is bliss, and all that.

 My next target was Winterset, 35 miles away. I returned to checking off the miles towards 10. At the next turn I'll only have 8.5 miles left in this 10. Then it'll just be 25 miles to Winterset. Also back were my thoughts of quitting. I couldn't just quit, but what if I crashed? Could I crash myself enough to justify quitting without actually hurting myself? That seemed like a bad plan.

Maybe I could break my bike. What could I break on my bike so I could quit? Something that wouldn't be that expensive to break? That seemed like too much trouble, so I resorted to hoping my bike would break on its own. From the sounds it was making, that was likely to happen anyway, but no. Reliable as ever, this bike that has carried me literally thousands of miles let me down by once again failing to let me down.

Somewhere in my second 10 (less than 25 miles to Winterset!), I was stopped to eat something (and probably walk a hill) when Jeff rolled up. He'd been on his own for a long time and, Garmin dead and lights questionable, was happy to see another person. After riding almost the entire race alone, I was thrilled to have company, and though I'd been doing a lot of hill walking, I rode a lot better with him along and time went by much more quickly. For a long time, we chased Lee's taillight, sometimes nearing but never closing the gap. The last we saw of her was at the final reroute.

Daren called out an explanation, but none of it really registered. Thankfully the turns were marked just as explained on the pre-race email, though they were a little harder to see in the dark. Before long we were rolling into Winterset, where we saw Greg at the Casey's. There I refilled on coffee/hot chocolate and stuffed as much of a bag of Gardetto's snack mix into my mouth as possible, looking up with chipmunk cheeks to see a couple staring at me from their car in what I can only assume was awe and admiration.

We missed a turn after leaving Casey's but quickly corrected. We had some fast paved miles and then were back onto the gravel and some mostly fun rolling hills. There was still some hill walking, but overall the riding was much easier than earlier in the day. And we were almost finished!

I wasn't sure how much the reroutes had changed the race, and I wasn't sure exactly what mileage Winterset was supposed to be, and I wasn't sure exactly where the finish line was (most if not all of those questions could have been answered by my cue sheets or a little better pre-race course study), so as our mileage crept towards 150 I began eagerly watching for the finish line and thinking I recognized a spot from last year. After the third or fourth wrong assumption I quit hoping and started quietly sulking, so it was Jeff who spotted the waiting headlights.

I was going to say I was more relieved than happy, but I'm not sure my smile agrees with that statement.
We flew down the hill to the smiles and hugs from Sarah, Steve, and Daren at the finish line. I swore all day long that I was never, ever doing this race again, that next year I'd do something easier and more fun, like a self-appendectomy, but of course all that crazy talk is fading. In the end, the difficulty in getting there is what makes the finish so sweet. Besides, I'm hoping next year is dry enough that we get to ride all those dirt roads we couldn't ride this year, and even if it rains again I have an Iowa gravel family reunion I don't want to miss.


Congratulations to Mickey and Yvonne, 1st place SS (and 2nd overall) and 1st place woman. If I couldn't be great myself, at least I was surrounded by greatness. :) And huge thanks to Sarah and all of her wonderful, amazing volunteers. As I mentioned on facebook, it's the most supportive "unsupported" race you'll ever see. They're a fantastic team, and they put on a great (painful) event.


  1. Thanks for writing this Kate - experienced it all pretty much like you did. See you next year. Mark

  2. That is a beautiful medal/trophy/thing, I would almost consider going through pain for that.

  3. Great write up Kate. I did have this on my to do list but now I am not sure. My cycling motto is "If it was easy it wouldn't be a memory." "You just hope you don't have all your memories in the same ride. You almost had all those memories. Congrats on a strong finish. I have read lots off ride reports and have never read one where someone wished their bike broke down.Lol

  4. Absolutely nothing about this sounds fun in any way... except your finish line smile! Congrats on toughing it out on a rough day!


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