Loess Hills Enduro Recap
You’ve probably seen the most notable picture of the Loess Hills Enduro. It’s the featured image as soon as you get to their website and Facebook page. You know the one; three cyclists coming up a steep level B road (I think others call them minimum maintenance roads, I grew up knowing them as level B roads) with 25 feet of sheer dirt wall towering over either side. It has that dark and lush greenery almost appearing to form a tunnel over the top of them. Yes, that picture. I had seen that picture even before I knew what the Loess Hills Enduro was. That picture was part of the reason I bought my CruX in the first place. I grew up in the Loess Hills and spent many summer days ripping up hills just like that on a four wheeler. When I got this bike last summer I pictured myself exploring that exact level B section. To me, that was what having a bike suited for unpaved exploring was all about.
I heard about the Loess Hills Enduro early last summer shortly after it took place. I heard it was hot, I heard it was hard, and I heard it was fun. I don’t get very intimidated by heat and hills. I embrace grit and I wanted to take this route on. I checked the website and Facebook page almost every day from January until mid-May hoping the registration would be live. I think I was the first person to sign up when registration finally opened. I was so excited for this race.
I live by routine so this race day went smoother than last time. I showed up plenty early, got checked in, got my bib and timing chip on the bike, snarfed down a banana and some water, used the restroom about three times, and then I watched and waited. People kept pouring in. There were about four times as many people at this race than there were at the American Legion Gravel Mission. I recognized many of them but I’m not the most talkative person around acquaintances and strangers so I kept mostly to myself while others were chatting and getting ready all around me. It gave me a chance to get mentally ready for what I was about to put my body through again.
At the start of the race we all rode as a pack through town to the opposite outskirts for the first two miles. When we took a right onto the first touch of gravel for the day, the real race began. The pace quickly accelerated from about 16mph to 20mph and the pack was thick. Unfortunately so was the gravel. The first quarter mile of gravel was some of the chunkiest stuff I’ve ever ridden on (keep in mind I have little gravel experience so take those chunks of gravel with a chunk of salt). I was getting rocked left and right by the road and doing my best to stay in line and not make a mistake so bad that it took a whole group of riders down. But just as quickly as that tough section started it was over and we were on to smooth hard packed gravel roads. Then the hills began. My plan was to stick with the front riders until it got too tough and then drop back, just like last time. It was cool to be biking close behind some of the riders I’ve looked up to since I started racing. I was right there with guys like Mark Savery, Brady Murphy, and the Loewens brothers. But this was a bigger race than last time and these guys were all going much harder than the lead group went during the Gravel Mission. I fell back right around mile seven. I knew I couldn’t hang with that crew much longer if I wanted to have working legs at the end of the race. I wasn’t the only straggler though so a few of us left behind formed our own line and took turns pulling for a few miles to lighten the load over the first batch of hills. Once that line fell apart it was only me in my immediate surroundings. I brought headphones this time because I felt like some good music would’ve helped me hurdle my mental obstacles during the Gravel Mission. I used this alone time to put my head phones in and turn on O.A.R’s latest album. Good vibes there.
The other thing I wanted to focus on more during this race was taking in food and liquid at a more even pace. I took my own advice from the last time and got some fruit flavored energy chews to break up the monotony of eating dry and boring bars while swishing with water to try and wash it down like swallowing gravel itself. I decided to start with the worst of my snacks first. I knew as I got more tired I’d be happier to have saved the better tasting stuff for later.
Around mile 15 I saw one of my newer friends in the cycling community, Charles Erickson, riding up behind me. We talked for a bit about the course so far and how the hills felt. He mentioned that he pulled up and let others pass by during that chunky gravel section in the very beginning. Maybe it wasn’t just me! Charles went up ahead and I did my best to keep up with him and the couple riders around him but the pace was too quick for me and I fell back about 25 yards. I was already feeling sick of hills when I changed the screen on my computer only to see that I hadn’t even crossed 1000′ of climb yet. That was a bad mental sign. I was trying to get past the negative thoughts and looking for a distraction when I saw Charles take a sharp left midway up a hill…onto a level B road.
I hit that road topping 20mph in certain stretches. The dirt was almost perfect on this section. It was that hard packed, completely smooth, light shade of brown like it had spent three days in the sun after three days of rain type of dirt. My mentality shifted immediately. I caught the tail end of Charles and another rider ahead and we started the climb. There were those towering dirt walls. They were topped with dark green leaves casting so much shade I almost needed to take off my sunnies to see the definition of ruts in the road. It was an awesome stretch of the race and I was almost sad that it wasn’t longer. If I was biking alone it would’ve been a great place to stop and take in just how cool it was. That is what Loess Hill dirt roads are all about…but I’m competitive and I couldn’t stop during a timed race. We came rumbling down the hill dodging deep ruts by sharply cutting left and right and bunny hopping in a line one after another when our trio hit ruts that we couldn’t get around. It was awesome and I’ll do this race for years to come if for no other reason that to race through that section again and again.
With a renewed spirit I set off back on gravel again. I knew Tabor was close and almost the half way point. There was also a check point there with some food and water. I was carrying two water bottles with electrolyte mix in them as well as my Camelbak full of water. I wanted one mix bottle for each half of the race, or at least I had planned on that. Coming in to the checkpoint I downed the remainder of the first bottle and snapped open a banana. I didn’t want to stop but I thought I’d better refill my empty bottle just in case something bad happened. Since I started to eat the banana while coming into the checkpoint I was trying to carry it in my mouth while dismounting my bike and filling a water bottle. In that moment, my tired brain forgot that bananas are soft and easily break. It broke and fell right into the gravel. Normally I probably wouldn’t finish it but I basically look at gravel grinders as survival situations. I dusted it off the best I could and wolfed it down, gravel and all. I’ll say it was a “become one with the road” sort of thing.
I left the checkpoint alone just like I did in the last race. While I was still on pavement I wanted to pull out my phone and find the next lineup of albums to get me to the end of the race. This was a small Iowa town and I should’ve known better, no phone service! I had one playlist downloaded that I listen to when snowboarding. It was a little slower than the vibe I was hoping for but it was still super chill music with good vibes so it would have to do. I’ll learn lessons like this all summer long as the grinders go on.
The second half of the race started out mostly uneventful. I went the first ten or so miles with a few people ahead of me and a few people behind me. There were about five of us in all and we all traded position as the race drug along, never getting more than a quarter mile apart from front to back. About this time I started to get a headache and my right quad would cramp up every time I stood up to power over a hill. I was annoyed because I was only 40 miles in and felt like my body shouldn’t be feeling this way yet. This made it really hard to stay competitive as the hills kept coming. Did I mention there were hills? My brain’s calm half kept telling me to slow down and just finish the race with my legs intact but I still had these five people around me and my competitive side was telling me to keep racing and find opportunities to pass over the next 25 miles.
It isn’t all about finishing position but someday I want to keep up with those guys up front and any practice at staying tough and working my way up will help. I kept at my pace and waited for others to struggle up hills or relax and slow down once they reached the peak. Some even slowed up with leg cramps themselves. These were my usual opportunities to pass. Of course, I almost made a couple bad mistakes of my own. On one section I came quick down a hill only to run into a sharp right turn. I didn’t brake quite enough and as I turned my back tire slid out from under me. Luckily I crashed the same way a handful of times during my first cyclocross season last fall. I learned from those crashes. I was able brake just right and adjust my body position to catch my balance without going down. #Blessed.
My second close call was on a straight and mostly flat section of tilled dirt with two smooth tire tracks down the middle. This gave every bike the option of two tightropes to roll along through this patch of farm road. As I was making my way down the right lane of the dirt two track I came up to what I thought was a twisted piece of old metal fence post that was darkened from time spent in the elements. This trail was in the middle of two fields so it wouldn’t have been an uncommon sight. As I came up to it I realized it was a dark black snake about three feet long. I’m not afraid of snakes but having my right side narrowly pass by this one, when I thought it was scrap metal just a second before, startled the crap out of me. It made me jump so bad that I veered left off the smooth railway of dirt and into the deep grooved tilled section in the middle and almost went down. I was able to throw my weight back to the right into the smooth track and use my forward momentum to stay on top of the bike. I grew up 40 miles straight north of this area and I had never seen a snake like that. I did a quick google search after the race and I discovered the black rat snake and exactly why I’d never come into contact with one before. (Check the bottom left of the county map in that link. This race was in Mills County. I grew up in Harrison where Black Rat Snakes don’t live. It all made sense now!)
With about 15 miles to go my electrolyte mix was almost gone. I had downed a lot of it when the quad cramp and headache kicked in. It helped alleviate my pains enough to keep going but at this point I was ready to be done. The heat of the day was climbing and with that came the humidity. I managed to get ahead or stay ahead of each of the riders that I was hoping to pass and now I was in outlast mode. I just wanted to stay in my position, keep my pace, and get across that finish line. I cranked over a few more hills and then checked my computer’s climb. It read about 4800′ after 62 miles. Did I mention there were hills? My descent read 4650′ so I was pumped to know that it was mostly downhill from there.
I gave it all I had for the last three miles and didn’t let up until I crossed the finish. I hopped off my bike (and got cramps in both quads so bad that I dropped for a second), got my finishers sticker, and shook hands with the organizer. His name was Rafal Doloto. I told him I thought he put on a great event with a tough but fun route. My final GPS reading was 65.14 miles and 4852′ of climb. Most other riders showed well over 5000′ of climb though so I’m going with that stat. More climb makes you look tougher and this course’s climb was monstrous. I think I mentioned the hills right? It’s a good thing that hills don’t scare me…at least not as much as surprise snakes scare me. This route featured the same kind of hills and terrain that I grew up on. Even though I wasn’t tearing through it on a four wheeler with my high school buddies I still felt right at home. I can’t wait to head back to Malvern for the 2020 edition of the Loess Hills Enduro.
© 2019 by Road and Gravel