Monday, November 7, 2016

200 Miles and the People That Made It Possible - The Spotted Horse Ultra

     Where to start??? I know some say that the beginning is the best place to do so. In this instance that would require rewinding the clock 40 plus years. It would require revisiting a time long ago when my Grandma Rachel would retire for the night, say around 8 pm, equal parts tired and excited. Granny was a lifelong Cubs fan and listening to the nightly radio broadcasts on WGN was one of the many loves of her life. The first of course was Grandpa Bill, the greatest man I ever knew. Many others I am sure have said the same over the years. He was extraordinary. They are no longer with us but are with me in spirit in so very many ways. It is because of two of these ways that I nearly missed the start of Sarah Cooper's Spotted Horse Ultra, and also why I was there in the first place.

     This was the inaugural year for the Spotted Horse Ultra. If you knew Sarah Cooper then you    arrived knowing you were about to be put to the test. In Ultras it is sometimes best to share what a race is NOT to best understand what it really IS. Here is what you will NOT find at Sarah Cooper's Spotted Horse Ultra. You will not find long extended sections of flat gravel roads that have you begging for an end to the monotony. Nor will you find cheering sections lining the roads, broken up by an aid station every two miles, or in this case, even fifty. There will NOT be a drop bag waiting for you at the Casey's (Mile 70) or the local C- store (Mile 135). There is NOT a single course marking. Not even an occasional "left turn here" where only a nondescript dirt road travels quietly off into the distance, hill after bloody hill hiding it's terminus. Not paying attention to your GPS or Cue cards at that moment? Enjoy the ride. Even going the wrong way, the scenery of this race is stunning. It's hills and views equally breathtaking in the effort needed to climb and the expansive countryside you will be overlooking upon conquering one of the hundreds...yes hundreds of hills this race gifts to all who dare. You will NOT share the company of others side by side 10 deep in each direction. There will be no roadside bands to quell the inner speak that says " Can I do this? Am I up to the challenge?" No Eye of the Tiger will blast around the next corner..No man made distractions exist here, unless you count the occasional farm home or shed as such. There will be no one cheering your name, no signs or cowbells....unless from around an actual cow's neck.

     What there IS. A true individual test, equal parts in and out. It is truly a privilege to spend an entire day on a bicycle. You WILL see the sunrise to your left shoulder, welcoming you to the day ahead. A mix of orange, purples and hues so beautiful they remain unnamed. Real quiet, the kind one
experiences on a walk, or in this case a ride through the countryside, far away from the ambient noise of the city. It is a quiet that can only be experienced. Attempting to describe it requires word smithing that is beyond this writer's skill set. If you are able to welcome the sun and realize it will be your companion for the day, time loses it's meaning and then it's power. You are free to ride all day long, free of the "when will this be over?", free from the "god, how much farther?". Then it's just you and the very best that Iowa has to offer, hill after hill, winding streams, dirt roads and the sudden realization that not a soul on this earth knows where the hell you are. Can you feel that? When the sun switches shoulders and now gives you it's last bit of warmth before setting, you will, if quick, be done, if not so quick, close to done. The day will end soon enough and after recovering you will long to return.

The Spotted Horse offers a space to clear the mind and get lost in the moment. It offers a true challenge, one of both body AND spirit. 150 miles or 200 miles. Thousands of feet of elevation gain. (My GPS showed close to 15,000 for the 200. I'm told it is closer to 12,000). If you come to Iowa, to The Spotted Horse Ultra, hoping for a true test of put the bit firmly into your mouth, no frills, no excuses, no BS, it's me vs. the distance gravel grinding, you will come away completely satisfied. It is as stout a test and at the same time stunningly beautiful a ride as you will find ANYWHERE in these United States. It is every bit the equal of the Almonzo 162, The Dirty Kanza 200, The Heck of the North and I say this having ridden them all.

     I showed up at the race on just a few hours sleep, suffering a Game 3 Chicago Cubs' loss in the World Series. A 4 a.m. wake up and 6 a.m. start came all too quick and with sleep still in my eyes,  I nearly missed it. My love of Ultras be damned, I was not going to bed before the game was over, win or lose. Grandma Rachel wouldn't have liked that. To win the series would have meant more to her than I could have ever imagined. For those non-baseball fans, it had been 108 years since the Cubbies had won it all. It was the longest drought in all of baseball. I felt as if while I watched, she watched, through and with me.

      When times got tough, and they always do at some point in a race like this, I'd look over the countryside, reminded of the long Sunday drives Grandpa and I would take. He'd take note of everything as we drove..."See that eagle there in the distance son?" "That next farmhouse... I've sold feed to them for 16 years, over a hundred cows in that lot.". "Keep your eyes open, the deer will be coming out as the sun gets lower". Everything became so much easier remembering those special times. The soreness of the legs drifted away, the voices in the mind fell silent. It was as if he was right there with me again.

That is what Sarah Cooper's Spotted Horse Ultra offers.

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