I left CP2 with just half bottle of water, and 10 miles to the next convenience store. I dropped in behind Jana Vavra and (I believe) Paul Chapman. I tried keeping pace with them, but I was still in survival mode, so I ended up about 10 - 12 bike lengths behind them all the way into Gladbrook. After 50 minutes and a bit of pavement through town, I pulled into a Casey's parking lot and found a number of other riders sitting there refueling. This was the last convenience store for nearly 100 miles and everyone was taking time to fuel their bodies as well as stock up for the next leg. It also appeared that a number of the overnight groups were being worked out while people ate and rested. I parked my bike on the west side of the building, said hi to a few people and stumbled into the store to get some food and drink. Mark hadn't warned the store that there might be a group coming in, and the staff appeared a bit flustered with the sudden rush of traffic. Cornbread spied my leg and suggested that I should clean the wound out while I was there. It didn't really hurt, so I politely shrugged off his suggestion. After two more mentions of the need to clean the wound up, I finally gave in. He grabbed a bottle of hydrogen peroxide from the shelf and got in line behind me. I grabbed the bottle from him, paid the cashier, and pulled up a slice of curb outside so I could eat and clean up.
As I ate, more riders showed up and I struggled figuring out why I had to arrived ahead of this many people. Many of them were people I considered favorites to win, some of them with multiple TI finishes under their belts. Cornbread and one of the other people from Lincoln cleaned my leg off, for which I was very grateful. The H202 had a bit of a sting and foamed a lot, but it was good to know that we were taking a swipe at the germs sooner rather than later. Riders continued to come in to the parking lot, some, like Jim Cummins, looking completely spent. I hoped that they were able to rest, recover, and finish the race. While I ate and talked, I noticed a number of the favorites getting their stuff together and leave. I used that as my cue to get going, and quickly grabbed a can of coke for the road, packed my stuff up and headed out. As my friend and TI finisher Paul Jacobson said, "Get back on the bike." I'd spent just over an hour recovering and felt loads better as I headed north out of town. As I rode down the pavement I could see a good sized group of riders forming in the hills ahead of me. I really wanted to catch them, but I wanted to take a cautious approach to how much energy I used to bridge up to them. I rode at a steady pace, slowly closing the gap between me and the group. Near mile 195, I pulled in behind them as they slowed to change cue sheets. I quickly took stock of who was here. First, was Charles Parsons, Tim Ek, Mike Johnson and Jay Barre. All of them had finished on one or more occasions, and were well poised to finish again. Next, Paul Errington and Ben Oney. Both super strong riders with lots of ultra-distance experience. Paul had finished the Dirty Kanza 200 last summer, and Ben had finished 13th in the 2011 Tour Divide. Both brought more firepower to the group. Finally, Chris Wells and Paul Carpenter. I had not met either of them before today, but if they had made it this far, then they had to be strong, and feeling pretty good. After about 30 seconds, I felt that all of these riders were likely to finish, so I decided to sit in with them for the rest of the race.
Spirits in the group were high, considering that we were not even two-thirds of the way through the race. The sunset and susequent twilight were gorgeous and there was a lot of talking and joking going on when the roads were good. On the hills and loose rock, things quieted down and it became obvious that TCoB was the order of the day at those points. Jay was doing a bang up job as navigator and Charles was moving around in the group, talking to people and keeping things organized. Being the "FNG" of this group, I made sure I took long pulls at the front and tried not to do anything to jeopardize being allowed to stay in the group. I was still not sure how I had arrived in a position to ride with this particular group overnight, and I was waiting for the proverbial hammer to fall on my personal race at any time. The next few hours were routine. We pedaled, and we stopped every hour or so for food or a bio break, as long as the majority of the group needed to do so. There were times where we didn't stop if only one person needed to stop. I was having issues holding my line as twilight turned to dark. It was obvious I was starting to get fatigued. At one point, I started getting whiny and negative about the road conditions, and Charles Parsons dropped back from the front of the group, quietly told me "Say nothing but positive words from here on out." and then proceeded to ride back up front. I took the kindly worded hint and kept quiet, unless spoken to for quite a while. During the night, the talk died down other than the announcement of milestones ("only 100 miles left") or warnings about dangerous road surfaces. I had a number of instances of paranoia hit me, especially if I was by myself. I was convinced that there were people in the group that didn't want me there, and they were plotting out a way to get rid of me. Close to midnight, the fatigue really set in and I started cat napping for a few seconds while riding, even on the steep downhills. This went on for at least 30 minutes until I realized what a danger I was becoming, and told the group I needed to stop for a bit. Charles stopped with me for a few seconds to make sure I was OK and then took off to catch up with the group. I broke into my seatbag and drank one of the two bottles of 5 Hour Energy I had bought just in case something like this happened. I had used it for the same reason during my first ultra distance event, the Metamora 4x50, in 2006, and knew that it worked for me when the chips were down. Drinking that, and some water, made me feel quite a bit better, and soon I was alert, back on the bike, and making contact with the group after a steep hill or two.
As I looked around, I realized that we were on a portion of TIV7 course again, as we were descending towards the Iowa River a bit north of Montour. I was happy that Mark had opted to not use the particularly hilly section of B-road on our route this year, and soon we crossed Highway 30 and cruised on pavement into Montour. As the evening wore on, we exited a B road and everyone stopped to make sense of a huge mileage jump between two cues. After confirmation by all nine riders, it was decided that this really was a long push in one direction, and we had not all lost the same sheet. After this big push, thoughts started turning to the next convenience store stop. We were all ready for a break at this point, and the thought of the 24 hour oasis was increasingly appealing to everyone. Cresting, a short steep hill, we could see a glow only a mile or two away. Surely we would be there soon! However, road signs and cue sheets indicated otherwise. We turned away from the warm glow, and towards the town of Brooklyn. Again, knowing the area you are in can be a good and a bad thing. After the first disappointment, I was convinced that the promised convenience store would be in Brooklyn, and near the freeway. However, the cue sheets turned us away from the freeway, and I became really confused. It was now about 2:30 AM, and we all stopped in the middle of Brooklyn and took stock of the situation. Reading the cues, we still had another 10 - 15 miles to get to the c-store. At this point, everyone deflated a bit. The temperature had dipped into the mid 30s, and fatigue was really starting to set in. Most people were prepared for mid 40s as a low. Some where chilled and were looking for more layers, while others were resigned to their fate, and tried to push the cold out of their thoughts. We took a few minutes to pass extra layers to people in need and refueled. In silence, we all remounted our bikes and left Brooklyn behind us. For the next 12 miles, the pop of rock against the tires was the only sound we heard. The roads were hilly, littered with fresh rock, and no one in the group made a sound. Mentally, this was the lowest point for me on the entire ride. I was tired, none of the food I had with me sounded appetizing, and I could see the light of the c-store off in the distance, calling me like a siren. After what seemed like an eternity, we finally pulled into the Kwik Star near the intersection of Hwy 21 and I-80. It had been nearly 100 miles of riding by this point, and it had taken us about 9.5 hours to get here. I was, once again, behind on fluids and not feeling well, with only 3 large bottles and a can of coke since we left Gladbrook. But, we only had 40 miles left to go and a finish was looking more like a "when", rather than an "if" as long as nothing out of the ordinary happened. I parked my bike and stumbled into the warmth of the store, knowing that we would soon be seeing the sun rise a second time.