Over the past weekend I had the pleasure of finally participating in one of the most epic events I have done in my athletic life, the Almanzo 100. Known as the Granddaddy of Gravel Racing, it is a 100 mile course through southeastern Minnesota. It is almost exclusively held on gravel roads, and has about 8500 feet of climbing. Add to that the often unpredictable weather in mid-May in that part of the world, and you get an event that you will remember forever.
A good friend, Jon Kruse, has been telling me about this for years. Finally, schedules lined up and I was able to make it out. I caught a late afternoon flight out of Baltimore on Friday, got into Minneapolis around 10 pm, grabbed my bike, my rental car and made quick work of the 80 mile drive down to Jon's place in Rochester. While I got in a bit later than I had planned, Jon was great and helped me build up my bike, and get it set on the car. I was in bed by 1230, which was a good thing given the 615 wake up call the next day.
Saturday morning we headed out around 7 and drove south to Cherry Grove, dropped a cooler, and went back up to get signed in and ready to race. One of the cool things about Almanzo is that it is a free, unsanctioned, self-supported race. And the part of MN it is in doesn't exactly have stores on every corner. However, as the race has grown in popularity, the course's three checkpoints have become really good. I ended up not needing any fluids from the cooler.
Fast forward to Spring Valley, MN, where the race starts and finishes. Jon and I got our numbers, got our bikes set up, and proceeded to put on literally all the clothes we had. It was COLD!!! I definitely didn't pack perfectly for it, but had enough gear with me to make it work. The start was in the mid-30's with a 20-30 mph wind. Ouch. And while the sky was perfectly clear, the wind and cold would last the entire ride.
When it was about 5 to 9, we did the last bathroom break, and got ourselves to the start. Time to ride! There were about 1000 brave souls who showed up to take on the ride. Ultimately, a little more than 500 would officially finish. It was a seriously tough, but beautiful, day for an adventure. Jon and I rolled out together, and then after about a mile settled into our own paces to tackle the day. One of the great things about the Almanzo is that it is for everyone. There were people who raced, people who rode, cross bikes, mountain bikes, fat bikes, and even a few tandems. I didn't see any unicycles, though.
I settled into a good, conservative, pace and luckily found lots of people to ride with as I tackled the gravel. Much of it was hard-packed, but there was also a good amount of fresh, deep, looser gravel to contend with. The kind where you tires sink a bit, and your handling goes to hell. But it was dry, which was a blessing, because adding mud and muck to that would have just been cruel. On the 40 miles to the first checkpoint, I just settled in and really enjoyed the scenery, made sure to take good footage with my GoPro, and focused on fluids and food while I went, to keep my energy up. It worked well. I got to the first checkpoint and felt great.
After a quick stop to refill bottles and throw away my trash, I was back on the road. Checkpoint 2 was around mile 67, and I found a good crew to ride with that was going my pace. It was awesome, because when we hit 50 the course turned really into the wind. And the road had a ton of fresh gravel on it. While this was probably the most physically demanding stretch, it was also the coolest because those around me really knew how to ride. We were holding tight echelons against the wind, and made good time, even with the tough conditions and soft gravel. When we got to the Forrestville State Park, checkpoint 2, I was stoked. There was even a guy there who had just finished grilling hot dogs!!! I had one, and even had to grab another before I left. I've honestly never enjoyed a hot dog so much.
Unfortunately, though, my group kind of broke up after checkpoint 2, with different people leaving at different times. I left to chase down a few guys, but ended up passing them and would really spend the rest of the ride more or less by myself. This is when the going got really, really tough. Checkpoint 3 was about 10 more miles down the road, and I spent that time really pushing myself, trying to chase up to a few guys I knew were ahead of me, and who I knew I could ride well with. But on gravel it is way harder to bridge than on the road, and even though I could see them for much of the 10 miles, I just couldn't find a way to close the gap. I rolled into checkpoint 3 in Cherry Grove just as they were rolling out.
But, Checkpoint 3 turned out to be the most epic of all! Complete with grilled hot dogs, fresh-cooked bacon, watermelon, and lots of salty snacks! On a cold, windy, tough day, you can't underestimate how stuff like that can lift your spirits. I got my fill, and got back on the road to finish out my race. I knew that the biggest climb of the day was coming at mile 90, so I spent the 10 miles from Cherry Grove there getting mentally prepared. When I hit it, it was all that was promised. I was glad that I had the 50/34 crankset and an 11/27 cassette. I needed the 34-27 to get up that hill! Once I crested it, I knew that it was only a matter of time and toughness until I got to the line. I stayed strong, pushed through the wind and gave it everything I had left until I rolled back into Spring Valley and crossed the line. I ended up finishing in 6:34:54, with 6:11:39 of moving time on the bike. That put me in 51st of 504 finishers. It wasn't a race, but you know...
As I cooled down, and warmed up, and really had a chance to reflect on my effort, I have to say I was incredibly proud. Almanzo is a tough race, it was a tough day, and I really pushed myself throughout. I felt like I did Almanzo justice and really earned my hot dogs. To top it off, Jon and I go to have some awesome Mexican food with his wonderful wife and kids that night in Rochester for dinner. Some beers and catching up later, I was back asleep, waiting for my 3:30 am wake up call to head back to Minneapolis for my 6:30 am flight home on Sunday. I may not have been there long, but I definitely made the most of my trip, and truly lived up to the #doepicshit credo.
Almanzo is amazing. Add it to your list, get your butt to Minnesota, and go crush some gravel!