Monday, July 30, 2012

Lesson From RAGBRAI 2012

CR Biker dips his tire in the Mississippi River at the end of RAGBRAI 2012.
So, blog fans, I did it again. I rode every mile of RAGBRAI 2012, just as I did RAGBRAI 2011.

Which means I was slow Joe, for most of the ride, being passed by young, lean bikers on sexy, fast road bikes; passed by middle-aged men on chunky hybrid bikes; passed by 10-year-old girls on mountain bikes. But, as they note in the RAGBRAI participant booklet, it's a tour, not a race. And I was a steady, albeit slow, tourist.

I decided one very hot afternoon, when the sun was beating down on my arms and I felt my body dangerously heating up, that the “don't walk up any hill” rule simply did not apply anymore. I made the decision that, if I felt bad going up a hill, I had special heat dispensation to stop, rest, and walk.

After all, it was friggin 105. And that's not the “heat index,” that was the humid, unbearable heat.

I also decided that my afternoon hydration rule (one drink every 10 minutes, it was one drink every 15 minutes in the cooler mornings) also had an asterisk—at the crest of any challenging hill I would pause and take an extra drink.

As it turned out, the second decision sort of negated the first one. There was one scary moment on one hot afternoon where I started to feel faint on the bike and honestly thought I might pass out. I stopped, rested, drank and ate a snack, and then went on slower than usual. But the scary moment didn't happen on a hill. Resting at the top of every difficult hill on any hot afternoon did the trick, and CR Biker was able to keep on trucking.

I will freely admit I did not enjoy my second RAGBRAI as much as my first. The primary reason is out of my control—the weather was a huge problem. No way to get around it—biking when it's over 100 degrees is just not a fun time.

And, due to the heat, I ended up on the tail end of things on at least two days. The tail end of RAGBRAI, where the riders are more drunk, the vendors are out of food and the support more worn out and grudging, is nowhere near as fun as the front or middle of RAGBRAI.

There was another aspect that contributed to slightly less pleasure, too. Last year, I was part of a group of young adults, bright Microsoft employees, who where riding together. Having that companionship in the campground every night, having people to debrief with and discuss the ride, is more important an aspect of RAGBRAI than I had anticipated. As a loner, I thought riding alone would be fine. I wasn't wrong—I still liked RAGBRAI—it's just that I wasn't totally right, either. RAGBRAI is better with company.

Finally, last year I did RAGBRAI for the first time. It was all new. Even riding my bike that far for that long was a novelty. This year, while the route was different and I saw cool new towns, the whole experience suffered slightly due to less novelty.

One of my RAGBRAI meals: iced tea, pie, a meatball and a pasta salad at a local church.
OK, so much for the downers. There was a lot to like on RAGBRAI, too. The food, for one. I ate lots of good pie. I tried to stick mostly to local vendors—churches and schools—and that strategy seemed to play out well. Granted, one Iowa fire department's pancakes won't taste any different than another Iowa fire department's pancakes, but the local Iowa vendors will usually be less pricey and more generous than other options.

My one food regret is that I failed to buy a kolache, despite three chances. In Cedar Rapids, I joined the stream of bikers after the bridge of the lions where vendors were located. Two other towns along the way offered the Czech pastry, too—but what with one thing and another, I had already eaten before I saw them.

Still, both rhubarb and raisin pie make for pleasant treats. And I consumed way more pork than I normally do, including a sausage on rye local specialty with some long Eastern European name that I don't recall (it was a Czech specialty that began with an “L”, I think, if anybody reading this blog can help out).

There were other highlights on RAGBRAI 2012. I really enjoyed the Cherokee Symphony concert, held in an air-conditioned auditorium right at the campground. That came right after a “sinful chicken” and noodle dinner (they called it that) served by a Methodist Church in a community center right next to the campground. That was a good end to a grueling day of riding.

I will fondly recall the sub shop in downtown Marshalltown, which saved me by being open during a thunderstorm that caused the shuttles to be shut down and the street food vendors to be evacuated. A night with rain and no supper would be worse than a night with rain and a full belly.

I don't have unmixed memories of the Marshalltown Police, however. The cops I met downtown were friendly and helpful, but when the shuttles finally started running at 11 p.m. (two hours after my typical RAGBRAI bed time), I was delivered into a large, dark park that was totally strange to me. I had pitched my tent before taking a shuttle ride downtown and getting stranded there—I had not anticipated returning to the campground in deep night. Nor did I expect the park to be totally unlit—is it really usually that way, or was the storm to blame? Anyway, the sky was still cloudy, rain was fitfully spitting down and lightning occasionally flashed as I exited the shuttle. Next to a building with an ominous looking pile of ruined tents.

Was my tent still standing? Was my bike OK? Where were they? I started off through the park.

And walked. And walked. And walked. I was always clearly in the wrong place. Here, there were RV campers, clearly not me. There, there were identical brown tents with little numbers to differentiate them. Also not me. In that place, there were random assortments of tents—OK, that's my tribe, but it was a vast and unorganized tribe, and I could not find my tent.

I crossed the park several times. By about 12:30 a.m., I was getting a bit dispirited, and I decided I needed aid. On a street by the park, I flagged down a passing police cruiser.

I held out my hand in a “stop” sign, the cruiser stopped and the window rolled down. I explained I was a lost RAGBRAI camper, and the immediate answer was, “Sorry, we can't help you buddy.”

Oh, come on. In the first place, they could have directed me to a shelter. In the second place, they didn't even let me explain what I wanted—I knew they didn’t know where my tent was, but I wanted them to direct me to the baggage trucks because I knew that, even in the dark, from those trucks I could find my tent.

So I explained I just needed directions to the baggage truck. There were two cops in the car. First, they said “you need to head north.” Now, I was in a strange town, in a dark park, during a lightening storm. I had no hope of finding the drinking gourd and following it north to freedom. I didn't know what way was north. I briefly noted I didn't know north, and one officer then said to “go down that road and veer left.” The other chimed in, “no, I think you veer right.”

Gee, thanks Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee. Let us review: I was alone, in a vast park, lost in a lightening storm. Officers Dum and Dee were merely cruising the edge of park, not urgently on their way to save a creme-filled doughnut at the local bakery. They both knew where the baggage trucks were parked, but together could not articulate clear directions to a soggy, tired, dispirited stranger. Instead, they drove off, to serve and protect nobody.

Well, OK, they did at least point out the right road. And they were both right because there were two forks in the road. At one you veer right and the next you veer left, but there was still 30 minutes of pointless trial and error before I cracked that code.

By 1 a.m., I found my site. Old Blackie had been knocked over into the tent, but only the edge of the tent, causing, as far as I could tell in the dark, no damage to either. The inside of my tent was dry. I did manage to get 3 hours or so of fitful sleep that night.

That was after an exhausting day, a 77-mile slog full of heat and headwind. I wondered what the new day would bring, the ride into Cedar Rapids, the longest leg of the whole week. I didn't feet up to it. I was still dog tired the next morning when I struggled to pack my tent, pick up my bike and soldier on.

Final day scene--bikers zoom past blooming wild flowers.
As it turned out, as often happens in Iowa weather, the storm was a harbinger of change. The wind had shifted, and for the first time that week, it was the biker's friend. It got warm, but only warm, that day. I think the high might have been just shy of 90. Friends, when you've ridden in 105-degree heat, 90 feels excellent. The ride that was longest in miles, but turned out to be shortest in effort, and the cruise to Cedar Rapids was relatively easy.

And the final days, while I had low energy and struggled, particularly on the last day, still featured decent biking conditions. If they had been hot, I don't know if I could have finished RAGBRAI. I wondered whether to even try the final day, but was giving a ride to my family members, so felt duty-bound to try.

Well, I did it. And the views of east Iowa scenery were great. And it was fun to have my sisters and brother-in-law with me on those final days when I was most drained.

Clinton is a tired, old river town, but I saw our house at 735 7th Avenue South, which had been falling apart, and it's been fixed up. What seems in disrepair, be it a house or leg muscles, can be revived. A maple tree that I recall my dad transplanting from a hedge that was cut out long ago has grown to a massive tree. Our favorite Italian restaurant from the 1960s is still there and still good.

My son-in-law Brandon and I celebrate in traditional RAGBRAI fashion after completing the ride, 2012.  Mississippi in Clinton in background.
What advice to I have, having completed my second RAGBRAI? OK, since you asked, here goes:

  • Pack light. I did better this year than last year, I did not have a huge amount of stuff I didn't need, but the less stuff you have to cart or sort through, the better. When you've ridden more than 60 miles in humid Iowa heat, you want simplicity.
  • Get the right tent. I was lucky, Audrey helped me pick the tent, and we picked well. This year, I had a little two-person tent that was actually perfect for one—it was much simpler to put up than last year's huge four-person tent. If I were tenting with someone, last year's larger tent would make sense. As a lone biker, I'm glad I had a smaller, simpler one.
  • Carry toilet paper. I did last year, because the guide said to, and never needed it and thought “ha, that's extra weight I didn't need.” As luck would have it, I didn't need it again this year, but there were some close calls. Kybos often run out. If you're going potty, you always want to have a little TP with you, just in case. On RAGBRAI, you can't always wait. You don't need much, maybe just enough for two “events” the entire week—but you don't want none.
  • Carry a variety of snacks. Last year, I brought granola bars and got very sick of them. I also brought just two flavors of sports tablets to mix electrolyte drinks. This year, I had granola bars, nuts and pretzels—with three kinds of snacks, I did not get sick of any one of them. The nuts, packed in small individual servings, were the best addition—more than the granola bars, they really seemed to provide a boost when needed. Having three, instead of two, flavors of electrolyte tablet also improved the drink situation a lot. The snack situation this year was an improvement.
  • Bring a blindfold. I think ear plugs and a blindfold are must-have items for RAGBRAI camping. Last year, I had the plugs but not the blindfold. Again, it was Audrey who found the blindfold for me, and it was a good thing to have. You don't know how light or dark your camping area will be, and you need to be able to shut out the light.
  • Don't bike alone. It's not necessary to have someone with you every second of the day—it's OK for members of a group to bike at their own paces—but, as I learned this year, a social network is a big plus on RAGBRAI.

Well, there you have it, blog fans. Would I do RAGBRAI again? If you had asked me early Saturday, I would probably have said “no.” But, as I dipped my front tire in the Father of Waters late that afternoon, of course, my mood was different. I had done it. I would think about it before doing it again.

Then, I would do it.

Next time, I'll record my training rides more rigorously. While I did train this year, I was more serous about it last year. I've learned that you need to train seriously for any RAGBRAI.

And, while I'm not 100 percent certain about next year, I'm pretty sure there will be a next time.

Final notes: Thank you, Cate, Brigid and Eldon for providing the companionship and support on those final days when my batteries were totally drained and I didn't really want to carry on. Without you, I doubt I would have finished RAGBRAI.  Thank you, Sam and Nikki and Richard for that mid-week night on a cot in AC and the spaghetti.  I needed that.

And most of all, thank you, Audrey. You encouraged me to do RAGBRAI again, and despite the challenges, it was a worthwhile experience. You pointedly suggested I needed to go on a bike ride on some days, and every mile I biked before RAGBRAI was important. You got me essential supplies, including the tent, the blindfold, the necessary drug-store products such as sunscreen and ibuprofen. You left me off and picked me up.

And you told me that you missed me. I'm sure that was a huge part of what kept me going.
Audrey,  saying goodbye at the start of RAGBRAI.  My bike handlebars are also visible.


  1. Your summing up made me think of childbirth. Immediately afterward? Hells no. Now? Well... maybe just one more time... eventually.

    1. Ahh! RAGBRAI as a birth analogy. So....eventually...hmmm. Your sisters are being busy...