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The Grind: How Kae Takeshita became the only female finisher of the 340-mile Iowa Wind and Rock

A conversation on getting chased in the dark by farm dogs, riding for 33 hours, and discovering just how good bacon jerky and convenience-store cappuccinos can taste.

The Grind is a weekly column on all things gravel.

Kae Takeshita (Abus) got lost, soaked in rain, chased by dogs, and brought nearly to a standstill by weighty mud. She was alone for most of her 33-hour odessey, often in pitch darkness in rural Iowa. But she persevered — often with a laugh — and became the only woman to finish the Iowa Wind and Rock, the successor to the TransIowa gravel race.

This week I caught up with Takeshita at her home in Chicago. I wanted to know how she fared, how she was recovering, and why the heck she wanted to do this monster event in the first place.

Iowa Wind and Rock is quite the gravel event. It’s free. It’s 340 miles. There are no digital routes to follow — just a cue sheet that is handed out a few minutes before riders set out into the darkness. There is zero support, unless you count two checkpoints where racers can restock from the two 2-gallon bags they packed and handed to organizers at the start. Hardly anyone finishes.

This year, 120 people were signed up at the end of 2020. Only 52 made the start, perhaps due to the forecast for rain and cold. And, more than a day later, only 11 people finished.

VeloNews: Why would you do such a thing?

Kae Takeshita: I started gravel in 2014, and I had always heard about TransIowa, a 340-mile event in Iowa in April. It just sounded insane. It ended a few years ago, but Iowa Wind and Rock follows a similar format.

This year, it’s been a long time since we’ve had anything. The Mid South (in March 2020) was the last gravel race I did. I knew this would be a small event, and I knew as soon as it started it would break apart and become an ITT. I knew in my (Abus) team, gravel races weren’t going to happen.

(Last winter) I sat in front of the computer for like three days before I clicked the register button. The temptations of this adventure stuff, I couldn’t resist. And as soon as I clicked, I was like, ‘what have I done?!’

Racers were given a cue sheet just a few minutes before the 4a.m. start. Photo: Michael Conti

What did you do for preparation? 

I live next to O’Hare (airport). We have pretty brutal winter. I was on the trainer quite often, a few hours here, a few hours there. Once I did an 8-hour ride on the trainer. I was able to get three or four century rides in April, that was about it.

What was the longest ride you did previously?

I did 255 miles at The Crusher in Michigan. That took a very long time, but that was with a lot of stops to eat, or wait for somebody. There were a few locations for support. And that was summer when it was warmer and didn’t rain. That was more like an adventure fun ride.

What was the best part of Iowa Wind and Rock?

Seeing people. I didn’t really ride with anyone (during the last 12 months), maybe two or three people. So it was just nice to be around people. I think the greatest thing I felt, besides the sense of accomplishment, was that it reminded me of the early days of grassroots, homemade, good old gravel. I’m not saying commercial gravel events are bad. But this brought back good memories of getting lost, riding with friends, and having fun.

Also it was very picturesque, with so many hills.

What was the total elevation?

27,000 feet.

Mud early on forced most riders to walk and push or carry their bikes. Photo: Michael Conti

What was the worst part or parts?

The hills; it’s like looking at a saw blade from the side. There is no flat in-between. It goes on for many hours, and you are by yourself for three and four hours on a loaded bike.

Secondly, the night riding. It’s pitch dark and kinda creepy. And cue sheet navigation at night is tough. And you’re getting sleepy.  Luckily I had someone to ride with at night from the second checkpoint. Then we were just chatting.

Also, the farm dogs. Getting chased at night was not fun.

I took a wrong turn. I ended up doing 355 instead of 340 miles. I had 15mi to go, and I skipped a line on the cue sheet. I was mad at myself, but I just had to laugh. What else can you do?

My knees were hurting so badly towards the end. I felt like flesh was torn and I was bleeding.

What time did you start?

There is a 4AM start. We got the cue sheet at 3:30. So I woke up at 2 or 2:30AM.  It was dark and raining and cold.

Did you have everything you needed? What did you bring?

I ran to REI to get some rain pants the day before. I had more than I needed. Someone told me I looked like I was going bikepacking. I had two headlights, two taillights, which was good because I lost a taillight. I had three pairs of gloves, four pairs of liner gloves, a midweight jacket, a winter jacket.

What advice would you give to someone considering an epic gravel event like this?

If someone is interested and hesitating to do it, I just say go for it, it’s fun! Afterwards you forget the bad part. Make sure to pack everything you need and more. Try not to get frustrated because things don’t go accordingly to plan. Expect things to go wrong, and don’t be too hard on yourself. Bring a lot of food.

Doubling up on lights paid off, as Takeshita lost one taillight. Photo: Michael Conti

What did you bring for food?

I usually eat a lot of dried fruit. This time I discovered bacon jerky. It was so great! I don’t even eat bacon usually. This was the best thing I had. There was one gas station where I stopped for a hot drink in the morning. They had these super sweet machine cappuccinos. It tasted so good! That tasted so luxurious.

How much did your bike weigh?

I didn’t weigh it, but it wasn’t light. In the morning, only two hours into the race there was a B road, it was very tacky and you had to carry your bike. My back was hurting. I had two liters of water on the frame, and 1.5 more on my back. I am not a big person. I am more a skinny mini. Maybe if I was bigger it would have been better.

What is your next race?

Unbound Gravel. I haven’t ridden a race yet. This Iowa Wind and Rock was more like me versus the road. I haven’t done a race since Mid South last year. I hope to do a couple races before that. Hopefully it’s not too hot or humid!