American Legion Post 197 Gravel Mission Race Recap

I had ridden 100 miles in a day three times before. All three times were during RAGBRAI (if you don’t know what RAGBRAI is I’ll have a post on that eventually too). The catch with RAGBRAI is that you ride 100 miles over 12 or so hours, stopping for food and drinks every 10-15 miles. It’s a pretty chill way to go about a century day. For some reason this gave me the confidence to think I could do a 100 mile gravel grinder. In fact, I signed up for five of them this summer… A normal person would think that starting with a 50 mile grinder would be appropriate and then move on from there but I tend to push myself to the point of misery in situations like this. It’s worth it when you reach success. That’s my addiction I suppose.

 

The first gravel race on my schedule was the American Legion Post 197 Gravel Mission in Eagle, NE. The race is used as a fundraiser to send a boy and a girl to Nebraska Boys and Girls State. This wasn’t a “sign up on the internet, pay, download the route, and show up” type of race. In order to sign up you had to send a postcard to the American Legion Post in Eagle, NE. Finding a postcard to send was arguably as difficult as the race. Aside from truck stops I had no idea where to get one. Let alone finding a stamp too. But I got it figured out and with my millennial woes behind me I realized the postcard signup gave it a real small town feel. The people who were there wanted to be there.

Pre-race: The American Legion offered all riders a little green army man to accompany us on the mission.

The race was to start at 8am. Naturally, I got there at 6:30. I signed my waiver and went back to my car to eat a banana and watch what other cyclists’ pre-race rituals were. Did they warm up at all? Did they pack a lot of gear for the ride? Sunscreen? Camelbaks? Being my first gravel race I had no idea how to prepare day of so I used others to wing it as it went along. This would prove to be the theme of my entire day. Of course, I had read a number of blogs on what to carry on the bike and what kind of attitude to bring with you past the edge of the pavement, but nothing quite prepares you like actually doing it.

 

It was a mostly overcast day, with little wind, and the roads had a couple of days to dry out from the previous rainfall. In my practice and training I had hit some soupy gravel and I was grateful I wasn’t going to encounter much of it during this particular day. We took off at 8am on the nose. Remember how I said this wasn’t a “download the route” kind of race? I had a key ring stuck through a stack of nine cue cards attached to my top tube bag. My first plan was to rely on the pack to guide me before I resorted to reading the cards for myself. Surely mob mentally would lead us in the right direction, generally.

 

The first thing I realized is that you can train for long rides on gravel all you want but you can’t train for having 30 people within a few feet of you all rolling along at 15+ mph. That realization almost got my adrenaline pumping harder than the race itself. I spent the first ten or so miles getting acclimated to the crowding and tried to stay within striking distance of the riders up front. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hang with them the whole time but I had no other plan so I figured I’d adjust as I went along. If nothing else I’d at least watch their riding styles and see what I could learn.

 

One thing I had read over and over again was to eat before you get hungry. I hadn’t given this part a lot of practice but I quickly learned that it sucks. About mile 15 I decided to rip open a stroopwafel and start snacking. While trying to open it with one hand on the bike, one hand on the packaging, and my teeth trying to find a “tear here” cut; I lost the lead pack. This would prove to be a mistake that probably cost me more calories than the stroopwafel provided me. I ate half all at once, slugged some water from the camelbak to wash it down, then tried to figure out how to catch back up to the leaders. If you’ve ever done any biking alone you’ll know that even when there is no wind, if you’re moving forward it still feels like there’s a headwind. I slowly worked my way back up by pushing it a little harder in the downhills instead of simply rolling. This let me get back into the group by about mile 18. I used roughly the next 15 miles to ride with the lead group of 10 or so guys and really tried to learn from them. I watched them come out of the saddle and power up hills, glide on the downhills, and accelerate coming out of corners. There were some guys I recognized from Strava ride I had seen so I knew I was in pretty legit company. Somewhere after mile 33 the realization that my current power output wasn’t sustainable set in and I fell off the tail end of the pack. I’d catch them occasionally when they’d make a wrong turn off the cue cards and double back but even then I wasn’t around for long.

 

I did my best to keep the leaders in sight, checking for the little dark spots moving forward on the light colored road far up ahead each time I’d come over the top of a hill. I eventually had to resort only to my own cue cards though. I lost sight of any other riders in a town called Murdock when I missed the Main Street/Nebraska Street turn and went all the way through town. I rode alone for most of the remainder of the first loop just trying to take in calories and stay hydrated. One cyclist caught up to me over the last couple miles. We rode into the checkpoint together to finish out the first loop.

 

I didn’t stay at the checkpoint any longer than to devour another banana, have a bottle of water, and quickly stretch out. Then I got back on the bike before my muscles had a chance to stiffen up. I wanted to wait and leave with someone else but I knew waiting wouldn’t be good for me. I get lazy as soon as I stop moving. I left the checkpoint alone and used the first ten or so miles of loop two to reset my mind and body to do it all over again. I filled my head with positive thoughts and pushed out any of the negativity telling me how bad my back and legs were already hurting. I told myself I could handle another 50 miles. I’d look back every mile or two to see if anyone was coming up behind me. I kept hoping someone was because I was more concerned about having others to ride with than I was about bettering my finishing position.

 

Eventually I saw two small dots headed closer, looking like rolling horses kicking up dust as they moved along in the distance. I slowed my pace for a little while to recover and give them a chance to catch up to me. When they did, I picked it up again made the group into a trio. About 25 miles into the second loop we hit a checkpoint. We stopped just long enough to have some soda or water, and a snack and then it was back on the bikes. We spent the next ten miles pushing forward and talking about where we were from, what we all did for work, and how long we’d all been biking for. Their names were Mark and Randy and they made lap two far more bearable than it would’ve been for me on my own.

 

With about 15 miles to go we all started to break into our own finishing paces. Mark pulled away from me and I pulled away from Randy. Over each hill I’d take a look ahead at the next hill and back at the hill behind and each time I again became a little more alone. At this point I’d already gone about 95 miles and the last 13 would be some of the most taxing I have done. Since this was my first gravel grinder this was all uncharted territory for me. I’d take a look at my computer every couple minutes and try to do the mental math to figure out exactly how much distance I had left and how long it would take me to do it. Looking back I’m not sure if that helped or not. The mental math was a good distraction but realizing I had so much time left over and over was not enjoyable.

 

Since I was all alone again it was back to the cue cards to finish it out. “9 miles left, 8 miles left, 7 miles left, I am so close to finishing my first gravel grinder”, I kept repeating the math to myself. I ripped off all but the last cue card and put them in a jersey pocket. I devoured half a stroopwafel, popped a salt pill, and mentally reset for the finish. The last 20ish miles had taken place on a painfully straight stretch of road so when I finally came to the cue to turn left it felt like I had new life. The hills were hurting more with every one but I creeped ever closer to the end until I was finally close enough to see the word “EAGLE” written in all caps across the side of a water tower. The gravel stopped and I was back over the edge of the pavement. I gave it all I had for the finish. I didn’t do it for time but I did it to get off the bike as fast as I could. I was greeted by applause from the others who were already done, and given a firm handshake and a finishers patch. I was ecstatic.

Mission accomplished!

The beautiful thing that I came to learn that day was that even though we were all competing against each other, we were still all on the same team. Everyone was happy to push each other and to see one another succeed. No one seemed bitter that someone else had edged them out at the finish. We’re all there because we enjoyed biking, pushing our limits, and growing the sport we all love. It was a great atmosphere to be a part of. As I was packing up some of the veteran riders told me not to get used to a race that perfect. No mud, no wind, no rain. “Don’t get used to weather this perfect on race days because you won’t get it very often,” a guy named Robb said. I suppose I’ll need tastier nutrition and more practice in the wind and rain for the next one.

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