This weekend, my mother and I were Iowa-bound. Being from the New York City, my mom was a little leary at first. Because, after all, what could be in Iowa other than corn and pigs? But after two days of driving along corn-lined roads with rolling hills, blue skies filled puffy cumulous clouds, and a few trips to grocery store (she really liked the Hy-Vee), I think she now knows why I spend a week each summer at the end of July to ride 500 miles from border to border across Iowa.
I know Iowa intimately because of my experience with Ragbrai. And I feel that it is perhaps the best kept secret in the Midwest. Hidden in the rows of corn, beyond the undulating hills, and through the whipping winds, there is a state of pure green beauty, lakes, and landscapes like no other.
With 5 years of Ragbrai, I have ridden through the innermost bowels of Iowa, I have seen it’s small towns marked by nothing more than a grain elevator and a post office. I’ve eaten sweet corn outside of regal county courthouse buildings, enjoyed $1 drafts at the local American Legion, tasted sumptious fruit pies, and sampled pork on a stick. Spend enough time riding through these small towns, and you get the feel for Iowa, you get to know it both inside and out.
As we drove west on Route 20 towards Cedar Rapids, I recognized the names of dozens of towns our Rabgrai team had rolled through, passed through, even passed out in. The town names brought memories of baking in the Iowa summer sun, the whirring sound of wheels on pavement, and random senseless moments that make Ragbrai what it is, like passing out, or watching a friend climb a beer tent pole naked, or slip and slides coated in beer, or borrowing lawn jockeys, or paying $3 for a small Gatorade; Maquoketa, Coralville, Hiawatha, Anamosa, Mount Pleasant.
And since this year I traded in a week of riding across Iowa on Ragbrai (Register’s Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa) for a silver medal in Canada, I was eager to get back into Iowa and visit the hills, the heat, and the corn.
I was excited about the Pigman Triathlon because I thought it would be low key, regional, within driving distance. I signed up for the elite wave and to my delight I would be joined by Heather G. (pro) and Malaika H. (once pro, not sure if she’s still pro).
The elite wave started first and for the first 10 minutes I dare to say I may have even been drafting. I swam long and smooth, focusing on rolling my hips as effortlessly as possible. I thought about Karyn telling me to swimming in a long hollow tube so I pictured myself as small as possible and snuck right into that tube. I thought about Mira singing Just Keep Swimming though I couldn’t remember the lyrics but I thought it was a good mantra to get through what can feel like forever in the water.
After 31 minutes, I find myself on my bike in Iowa. In my mind, I’m on Ragbrai, the guys have dropped me and I am doing a solo effort to ride to the end town. If I make it in before 4 pm I might just enjoy a refreshing hose shower. The day is beautiful, sunny and 75 degrees. The winds are from the east and are cool.
I ride comfortably. My legs are heavy but I tell myself to give it 20 – 30 minutes then reassess and pass judgment. Usually by then I’ve forgotten that my legs even felt heavy or bad in the first place. The first 10 miles my mind keeps busy watching out for the railroad tracks or cracks in the road or climbing the long rolling hills. But then the course takes you out onto a loop towards Vinton, with smooth roads and no distractions. And like Ragbrai, I ride looking ahead in the far off distance for a water tower signaling the next town.
Finally, the Vinton water tower and I roll into town, just like on Ragbrai. But where’s the pie, the band playing a polka, where’s Mr. Porkchop? I am entertaining myself a little too much and probably need to get serious. But in getting serious, I realize I am not enjoying my nutrition plan. So I crawl back into my imagination – I push into the wind towards the next water tower – Urbana. How does an east wind at 5 – 7 mph feel like 15 – 17 mph? I remind myself because you are in Iowa.
I think I am the only one doing this race. Perhaps everyone else is sitting in the American Legion enjoying $1 drafts? Other than being passed by a woman on a relay team, I have seen no one for the past 90 minutes. I think about our friend Marshall, who has been known to say ‘if you find yourself alone, in the corn, in the middle of Iowa, fear not because you are on Ragbrai and you have been dropped.’
Finally I ride back into the park. I have no idea what my position is, where everyone is, I am expecting they have shut the race down and all gone home. But in the last mile riding towards transition, I see Malaika and Heather running and realize I am about 10 minutes behind them. A hefty distance, but this is 1/2 IM and anything can happen. Let the race come back to you, I think to myself. And to me, setting out on the run course, the race feels like it has just begun.
I take off on to the run course like a rocket. I am running, full speed ahead, chasing someone, anyone. Despite my disgust with my nutrition plan today, my legs feel the best they have ever felt in a ½ IM. I hit mile 2 at 13:00 and think to myself ‘this is a ridiculous pace.’ But then the course flattens out and I realize that it is only a little over 4 miles to the turnaround. So I bargain with myself. For sure we can hold this to mile 6, it’s just an out and back, you do this all of the time in training. My breathing has settled down and my legs are on fire. I think about Dave Walters telling me to use my arms so I am pulling an imaginary rope with each hand as it reaches forward. I hit the turnaround at 45 minutes thinking how silly it is to be on pace for a 1:30 ½ marathon. At mile 8 the pain from my blisters is building. Mile 9 takes forever. I realize I might break my best time of 4:47 today. Though I may not catch Heather, I can at least keep pushing to be better than myself. At mile 10 I think to myself that I have kept this ridiculous pace this long so why not finish it up. I push up the final hill to mile 11. My foot explodes in blistery pain and I want to be done NOW. The last 2 miles felt like 20. I reach the finish line in 4:47:24, 10 minutes behind Heather and 12 minutes ahead of the next amateur.
Indeed I did ‘dig the pig’ – because it was in Iowa, because it was well-organized, because it was in a beautiful park, because I got to see Leslie, Jeff, Kirsten, Michael, and Briana. And because I took my mom – who brought her special events chair, who found me at every single point in that race when I told her to look for me, who took pictures, and even carry my pee-soaked shoes back to the car.
So goodbye, Iowa. I will see you next summer because after riding your roads this weekend I told myself that I would not miss a year of Ragbrai again!