Iron Cross IV – Long Distance Cyclocross

Billed as the “longest cyclocross in America”, this race seems to have an increasing cult following. In it’s fourth season, the race garnered double the registered entrants of last year’s race. Having now done it, I will say this—it’s EPIC.

For the 9am start, my husband and I set out to the race site from the hotel at 7:15am to a sun peeking over the horizon and 27 degree temperatures. This made me really, really glad to not be in those non-insulated bunkhouses at the camp. We arrive to people bundled up looking sleepy and not exactly rushing to hop on their bikes and “warm up.” Like most of the others, I put off any riding until right before necessary shedding my extra layers at the last moment. To keep me warm but not too much for the long day, I settled on tights, gortex socks, fingered gloves, noggin cap under the helmet, short sleeve liner under a long sleeve jersey with arm warmers that I could push up or down based on whether I was climbing (down) or descending (up). This ended up being perfect for the conditions.

For the start, all the men and women are glommed together and just as we start rolling, the announcer starts yelling “Ladies stop! Ladies stop here!” Ooops. We sort ourselves out and wait our extra minute before going. The race runs us through the Iron Cross Lite course once before routing us off into the hinterlands. At “go” the top contenders take off to get a gap on the rest of us. Without any warm up to speak of, I just cruised through the course and hoped to find some good draft once we hit the pavement early on. It worked, and myself and Kerri Robbins snagged a couple of fast moving wheels that pulled us through the crowds. Very nice. Eventually, one of the guys in the matching jerseys went on ahead but I marked the remaining guys wheel and claimed it as my own as we rolled/walked through a sandpit and onward. Eventually, I moved on as the still paved road turned upward.

So far, I felt great, and entered the first trail portion in 4th position. Oh. The TRAIL portion. A couple guys around me saw all the huge rocks and boulders and ID’d this as a hike a bike section. But then it didn’t end and some mountain bikers and brave cross riders came barreling through even though the technicality of the course didn’t get much better. This included eventual 3rd place finisher mountain bike pro Danielle Musto looking oh so effortless on her Slingshot. Wow! Hmmm. I suppose I should give this riding thing a go. So I do, but unclipping and dismounting for the really rocky parts and all 50,000 logs strewn across the path. I end up with a long line of guys behind me, even though I asked repeatedly if they needed to get by. I think the two directly behind me were just so amused at my attempts and commentary every time something moderately technical came up (which was almost constantly) that they didn’t want to miss the entertainment behind them. In particular, there was some vocal appreciation when I saved myself from an almost endo after trying something a little out of my skill range. Finally, the trail spilled out onto a less technical piece of the course and I was relieved and tried not to think too much about what else lay ahead.

Things were pretty uneventful until we reach the famous powerline “walk up”. No one in their right mind would ever call this a run up, but then is there really anybody doing or otherwise affiliated with the race in their right mind? Before my report is over, the answer will clearly be NO. In fact, within 60 seconds of this walk up, I was absolutely certain that the race course organizers were certifiably insane. I don’t know what % grade we were working with, but it seemed near cliff like. It was then that I realized how woefully under-prepared I was for slogging a bike up such a steep incline. It was mostly rocky, with little dusty dirt spots for our feet. My calves and lower back quivered and balked at the effort way before I was even 1/3 of the way up. I worried about my feet losing traction and falling backwards into the exhausted, panting bike-toting individuals behind me like the fateful domino that fells the whole design. What have I gotten myself into? How is this even remotely safe? Oh. My. God! Really. God, please get me through this without collapsing. I took several rest breaks and finally made it to the top, or so it seemed. We ride up a moderate grade for a short bit until we find the second part of the walk up, which is thankfully less steep but littered with loose, dusty earth and large fist-sized rocks to prevent solid footing. Towards the top, I could finally release the bike from my shoulder and push to find my wonderful husband ready with camera. Here’s what he saw (pic).

After surviving the walk up, we descend on paved roads. It was fast, but being solo at that point, I quickly maxed out of my triple ring cyclocross gearing and couldn’t bridge up to the group ahead. Then a tall, strong looking guy blazed by and I jumped into his draft and immediately gained several mph’s with the help. As the road turned slightly up, I offered to help work even though it might mean going a little slower and he agreed to a small break. We continued to work together as we entered a long section of fire roads. I learned that he’s from Houston, where there are no hills to train on except overpasses and that dire walk up we just did was nothing compared to the 40 minute hike a bike at the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. All things are relative, I guess.

There were some nice, long gradual descents on packed dirt fire roads with very few tight turns. I barely need my brakes so long as I kept on the wheel track and stayed loose for when I took to the air when I hit the occasional partially buried large rock. It was a blast. My friend from Houston mentioned some strong cyclist women he trains with back home, which I guess was a compliment suggesting that I was strong too. I finally mentioned I was a triathlete, which must have been pretty shocking because shortly after I said that he wrecked on a seemingly easy section of downhill. He was a little behind me at the time in the other tire track, so I just heard a noise that didn’t sound right. I slowed as well I as I could and looked back. Another rider came by and said that he was being helped by someone else, so I continued on.

We climb a ways on more fire roads and find myself very grateful to have a triple chain ring. How steep are these climbs? Maybe it’s best I don’t know. After climbing almost interminably and passing several with insufficient gearing, we begin another descent. Overly confident from the previous descent, I quickly discover that this one gets very, very steep. By the time I realize this, I have too much speed to scrub very effectively and am laying into my brakes with all the force my hands and forearms can muster.

I worry that my hands will just give out as I hit steep pitch after steep pitch with loose dirt and rocks for traction challenge. I fly down each in full brake mode but quite a bit faster than I liked. I keep my cool though and hope that the insanity would end soon and I could slow down. By about the 4th really steep section, I am yelling out loud from the extreme effort of braking and know that I am at my limit. My hands and arms are going to give out soon and if I let up on the brakes for even a second, I’ll instantly be flying way faster than I can control into these hard to handle turns. I am not a mountain biker. As I round the corner yelling, I peer down to see yet another steep pitch with a turn at the bottom. I quickly discern that if I keep going, I will not make that turn and it will be disastrous. So I bail, throwing my bike out from under me and slide over the loose gravel. Even through the two layers of padded undershorts with tights, my right butt cheek is covered in scrapes. No, there are no photos of this injury, and there will not be. I check my body parts and I seem fine but feel a liquid dripping off my back. Oh my gosh, this better not be blood. I turn to see a white cloudy liquid dripping onto the ground. OK, phew. Wait. Ewww what is that? Oh, my goo mixture that was in a plastic bottle in my right rear pocket is emptying itself all over my back side. Nice. This I have a picture of.


I now assess the damage to my bike and find the handlebars turned slightly to the left and the left brake hood a little cockamamie. I try to force them back into position but cannot. Still shaking, I remount my bike take the remainder of the descent very slowly and gingerly. Between my now blown confidence and uncertainty on how a bike with wonky bars will handle, I still feel a little off when I survive to the next paved section and find a couple of guys to kindly pull me for several miles. The mental break is much needed.

We finally roll into Checkpoint 3 where the very helpful volunteers yell up the road as we approach asking what we need. I yell back, “Can you fix my handlebars?” and this fellow springs into action grabbing a tool kit and fixing me up very quickly while I get my extra bottles of Ultima that I had stashed in a bag to be dropped at this stop. He even takes my empty bottles and returns them to my bag. They were having some kind of contest for favorite Check Point, and if I’d remembered to vote, #3 would have had mine for sure!

We then hang a right turn upward. It appears harmless at first—just a moderate hill, but that’s only because you can’t see what is beyond the next turn. Me and my cohorts in pain then grind our way up up up. Again, I am in the teeny cog on the triple, spinning with the mountain bikers and rolling by those with fewer gears taking intervals of mashing and walking. After my scare on the previous descent, I worry about what lies on the other side. I needn’t have been concerned, though, as the worst of the crazy fire road descents were over.

At some point, I’m not sure really because things get a little fuzzy here, we are back on trails with more rock gardens and endless downed trees disecting the trail into a million little rideable sections. The lost goo has taken it’s toll and I didn’t replace those calories with eating more of the homemade bars (walnuts, dates, dried apples, sorghum flour and egg white powder food processed together) I had with me nearly enough. The check points were well stocked, but with my food allergies my choices are more limited. I didn’t see anything other than grapes that would be safe, which I foolishly passed on. Yes, I found myself in full BONK. On technical trails, no less, where my already meager off road handling skills were further compromised by lightheadedness, weakness and the general inability to ride a straight line. This was not a pleasant time. At one point, I try and push my bike over a small ditch and simply drop it in the path of a lady trying to execute a pass. It was not one of my finest moments. Two spectators looked on and spoke encouragingly, so I had an audience. Yay. I then stopped and fished out my bars and chowed down on a good portion of them before resuming my zig zagging into the still somewhat technical quarry area. Another female passes not too long later. How many more before I get going again?

I begin to feel a lilttle less heinous and manage to stay with this girl and we ride up to another walk up. This one is not as steep as the previous ones, but it is a tough part of the ride to have this obstacle. I look down at my bike for the remaining full water bottle to find it missing. Hmmm. Not so great a discovery. The girl offers me some Accelerade, which I decline, although the offer was very appreciated. It is still very cool and I’ve stayed pretty well hydrated, so I think I can make it the rest of the way OK. I apparently am coming out of the bonk as I’m able to pass on the walk up and ride a little up a middle section that’s less steep. The other girl that passed earlier is well out of sight.

Finally we make it to the final paved section that is mostly downhill. I get rolling as quickly as possible to keep anyone off my wheel, because now it’s time to time trial my way in. I spin out of gears quickly and tuck as low as I can for as much speed as possible. I look ahead for people and begin to see some in the distance. There are one or two small climbs, which I take fairly aggressively. I am closing in, but it looks to be too little too late. The descent to the gravel road into the finish comes quickly and I see her ahead with a couple of guys making the turn a good 20-30 seconds ahead of me still. I wave and smile to my husband perched at the turn with his camera and keep my effort up for a strong finish.

Unbelievably, after the last turn, I see her just ahead and keep pushing hard closing in, closing in, then passing just before we hit the grass field into the finish. She responds and tries to pass back on my left then sees the barriers they have set up just before the finish. This is lucky for me because triathletes can’t sprint. No, really, not at all. It’s pathetic really. A rush for the line on wheels would have meant me getting nipped at the line, but instead we dismount, jump over the barriers, and lunge our bikes for the finish line all while the announcer is having a great time playing up this “sprint finish for 5th place”.

So I did it. I bonked then fought my way back to 5th. Amazing. Later research shows that she’s an elite mountain biker, which explains why she made such short work of me on the trails. So it wasn’t just my calorie deficit. I am proud that I was able to hang in there and earn my Iron Cross Medal

As tough as this was for me, I also wanted to point out some amazing performances from other athletes at this race. First of all Diedre Winfield and Mandy Lozano who went at it hard from the start and finished only 50 seconds apart in an amazing 4:38-39 finish time. So close after such a long day, with Deidre pulling out the win to stay undefeated so far for the season.

Also amazing was Mark Santurbane’s dominating performance on the men’s side, finishing in 3:49:58. It took me almost 5 1/2 hours, which is longer than the fellow who did the race on a fixed gear. Yes, a FIXED gear, and finished in around 5 hours said the race announcer. Possibly more amazing was the couple that completed the course on a tandem. How they dragged that rig up those walk ups is beyond me, but wow.

This Iron Cross has been a true adventure and one of the most challenging events that I’ve done. I was put well out of my comfort zone many times, but had some opportunities to capitalize on some of my strengths. I had physical obstacles to climb over. I had mental and physiological obstacles to overcome. In a race like this, I think everyone has challenges, whether physical, emotional or mechanical. It’s the nature of the beast and what makes this race worth doing. Once. If you hear me saying it sounds like fun to do this again next year, please slap me silly, because my addled brain has forgotten the suffering.

One of my first thoughts after finishing was that I have no desire to do it again. To improve, I would have to work on specific skills and the race would need to be higher priority, instead of a throw in late season. So to those that haven’t done this race—do it. You won’t regret it. Just don’t expect me to be there. We can compare notes later and reminisce.


P.S.. OK. But I need a few years to pass first. How about when I’m 40? It’s closer than you think. :)

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6 comments to Iron Cross IV – Long Distance Cyclocross

  • LIz

    GLAD you recovered from that crash and what a great way to finish! Epic is right, such a cool race. We call them “crawl ups” and you’re right the organizers are insane.

  • You had me at EPIC… also used to have friends who lived near Michaux. Cool shirt… just happen to be wearing mine now!

  • Great Job, and very nice write up! I just did my 3rd ironcross and am hooked. You will do it again, i’m sure…

  • Marc van der Lasser

    I believe that the helpful Houstonian was race sponsor Dave Smith…and the CP3 folks were middle school VP Dave Bitner, his wife Shelly, and school nurse Kris Baer and her husband Mike.

    Hope you decide to race IC again before you’re 40!


  • congrats!! Maybe we can race IC next year together. That would be interesting. Wanted to do it for the past two seasons.

  • […] Unfortunately, my Silverman adventure means no Fall NC Cyclocross for me this time around.  Furthermore, even if I weren’t petrified of going back for more suffer-festivities, that means no Iron Cross this year.  To those of you who landed here in your research for this coming weekend’s Iron Cross V, every word of my race report is true.  It is every bit as insane as claimed and more.  If your thing is epic adventures, you have chosen wisely.  Until then, enjoy your stay in my little strange corner of reality and send me links to your Iron Cross race reports so I can reminisce upon the pleasures of surviving the barely surmountable saga known as Iron Cross. […]

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