The 2012 Dirty Kanza 200 is in the books, leaving tales of victory and defeat in its wake. Aptly described as “North America’s premier annual ultra-endurance gravel road cycling challenge”, the race takes riders over 200 miles of gravel and low-maintenance roads through the Flint Hills of Kansas. This would be a year that raised the bar, seeing new records set in nearly every category.
Before I get into how my day played out, some thanksgiving is in order. First, a huge thank you goes out to my wife for putting up with my training and supporting us on race day, my brother for never refusing a challenge, and my parents for watching the kids. It would have been a much harder day if I had no training and had to pull the kids in the trailer by myself for 200 miles. Big thanks goes out to the DK team and volunteers that make the race happen each year, and to the towns of Emporia, Cassoday, Florence, and Council Grove that embraced a few hundred sweaty people in spandex taking over their towns for a day. I’d also like to give a shout out to all the members of Team Virtus for turning me onto the race and sharing some training time. Be sure to read Super Kate’s Report as well. She rode a Monster frame into the depths of Kansas and lived to tell.
Now it begins…
Like many riders, my journey towards the Dirty Kanza was solidified by the captivating photography of the Adventure Monkey. After pouring myself over his site and reading all I could on the event, I decided I had to give it at go. Knowing that I wouldn’t have the time to properly train for the full 200, and never having done an organized century, let alone twice that on gravel, I opted for the Team Relay Class. A quick e-mail describing the imminent suffering of the event and my brother, Steve, was ready to join forces. I rode through 10 weeks of the Time Crunched Cyclist Training Plan, spent hours sweating over a salvaged spin bike in my basement, and had countless solo night rides. I felt reasonably ready to tackle theKansas gravel. Hell, I was just happy for the chance to ride outside in the daylight.
Race weekend came, the kids were dropped off, and in no time we found ourselves in front of the Granada Theatre with race numbers in hand. We stuffed some farmers’ market pasta down our necks and headed back to the hotel under rainy skies for an early night. I spent the next few hours trying to talk myself into sleeping. It doesn’t matter when you go to sleep; 4:30am always comes early.
In the morning I made a full frontal assault on the free hotel breakfast. I would be riding the last half of the course, so I figured I had a good while to sort out any post breakfast binge issues. I think Steve ate half of a cracker and was ready to ride. We stepped outside into a 50 degree morning and what was predicted to be the perfect weather to be on the bike. After rolling over to the start, Steve found a place in the mass of riders waiting for the official start. The riders were to group themselves based on estimated completion time, with those racing the event in front, and those just looking to survive in the back. It was a noticeable separation that reflected on the riders faces. Those at the front were generally quiet and focused, ready to attack each other over the next 200 miles, while the back of the pack was alive with nervous energy and discussions of the best bike setup and of new acquaintances. Race Director Jim Cummins gave some last minute words of encouragement from atop Granada Theatre’s entrance and the racers were on their way.
Steve will be posting his report of the first 100 miles soon, so watch for that. Here is how my day went…
I rolled out of CP2 in Florence around 2:30 to start my first section of the race, a 60 mile ride north to CP3 in Council Grove. I had plenty of time to make the time cut off, so I eased into my pace, riding in and out of small groups along the way. I came across a couple of other riders who I recognized from Cedar Cross a month earlier and spent some time chatting about mid-Missouri gravel and what a great event it had been. I had hoped that my experience there had gotten all of my bad luck out of the way for the year. Shortly into the course we rolled off of gravel onto a hard pack dirt road. The previous day’s rain had left this section smooth, fast, and just soft enough to glide over. I couldn’t help but think of the rain storm in last year’s race that left these roads impassable by bike, and crushed many riders’ resolve. One more blessing from the cycling gods.
Back on the gravel I met up with Scott fromIowa Cityand we spent the next 20 miles or so chatting about all things cycling. At the start of the race I had seen a rider on a single speed fat bike who turned out to be Scott’s friend, also fromIowa City. We caught up to him and spent some time rolling as a group. I spent a good while drafting behind the fat bike, and had to take a picture to prove it. That’s correct, I was drafting a single speed fat bike on my geared cross bike and the pace was comfortable. They would both go on to finish the race together later that night.
With only 30 miles in, I began having pain on the outside of my right foot, an issue that has plagued me in the past, but I thought I had sorted out. I rode on through the pain for a while hoping it would magically go away until I could no longer put power on the right pedal. Luckily I knew what the problem and solution was. I dismounted at the top of a climb and took my shoe off. I folded and stuffed 3 empty Gu Roctane packets under the arch of my insole and pressed on, still a bit uncomfortable but able to pedal. It would eventually take 2 more wrappers crammed in my shoe, but the pain eventually went away completely. They are still in my shoe and will most likely stay there. I pressed on alone and began coming across other riders taking refuge in what little spots of shade they could find. I could tell by their faces as I passed that they were surprised by my chipper smile and pace. The only thing differentiating the regular riders from the relay riders was a slight pink fade on the number plates, and it became obvious that no one was looking at them.
I rolled onto another dirt low maintenance road and stayed busy navigating the ruts and rocks. A mile or so into the road I began questioning my location. The roads had been so well marked that I had barely looked at my map all day, and now I was standing in front of a giant road block with a “Bridge Closed” sign on it. Crap. I started to pull out the map, noticed tire tracks going around the far side of the sign, and decided to blindly follow them. The bridge had seen better days, but was fine to ride across. I was reassured that I was on the right track shortly after the bridge as I came across a Jeep on the trail/road. The Kansas City Jeep club had marked the course the day prior to the race and was out with some water coolers to offer refills. They topped off one of my bottles just as single-speed rider caught up, and we rolled on together.
As we rode on, I could tell this guy was in a dark place. I’ve read plenty of good advice to not spend much time ridding with negative folks, but I was feeling good and I was hoping I could cheer him up enough that he would at least ride out of CP3. We pedaled on, and I started feeling the beginning of cramps in my quads and calf. Within 3 miles I couldn’t stand up on the hills for fear of my legs locking up. I’ve never once had an issue with cramping before and now they were coming just halfway into my ride. I slammed the rest of my Perpetuam in hopes of holding them off until Council Grove, just a few miles away. We rolled onto pavement (which now felt smooth as glass) at the edge of town and cruised into the third checkpoint around 7:30.
I met up with Steve and Janie and felt the glory of sitting on something other than a bike seat. Luckily, prior to the race we had stopped and picked up some pickle bags. I drank a few big swigs of the juice, gnawed through half the pickle and my cramps were gone for good.
I knocked back a few Gatorades, some water, and a banana while my wife refilled my grub and Steve took the bags off of my bike. The weather was cooling down, and with the next section only 40 miles, I wanted to carry as little as possible. Robby Brown, of Team Virtus, whom I had ridden with earlier on the day, was already at the checkpoint and had positioned himself directly below some buffalo genitals.
Robby said he wanted to roll out together and I was happy at the prospect of some familiar company. I stuck my headlight to my helmet and we rolled out of CP3 together through town and onto a rail trail towards the finish inEmporia. Now, a good portion of both of our training had been done on theKatyTrailaroundJefferson CityandColumbia,MO, so we had mixed emotions about this section. It was nice to be on a smooth, flat trail and not worry about finding the best line through the gravel or watch for turns. However, anyone who has significant time on these trails knows that they can be their own form of purgatory. No turns, no hills, and no coasting can destroy your spirit after a while, so luckily this section was over in 7 uneventful miles. I was told by another rider that this last section was all down hill. I would soon realize that this was not a literal interpretation of the course.
We rolled on through some of the flattest sections of they day and as the sun set we reluctantly fired up our headlights. We had hoped that the full moon and clear skies would let us ride without our lights, but it was pitch black in no time. We moved on, passing a few small groups and some lone riders. I know from some previous training rides that Robby can crush me on a bike, but he had 100 more miles in his legs than me and it was starting to show. This was a blessing for me, because now I had a new purpose. I wasn’t riding just for me now. Come hell or high water, I was getting him to that finish line. He tucked in behind my wake like precious cargo and we motored on.
For those who haven’t ridden in the pitch black with a headlight before, it can play with you. It makes you feel like your riding much faster than you are and your whole world is reduced to the spot of light in front of you. What that means for me is that I can’t get intimidated by the hills in front of me because I can’t see them. All you see are a few blinking red lights of other riders well above where you know the horizon should be. So as the road grew steeper, all I could do was ride up the next 20 feet of gravel as it appeared in my headlight and hope that it would eventually end.
We went over a series of these large climbs and were met with a fast decent each time. Flying down the backsides of those hills you don’t dare touch your brakes. You’re going 30mph down a gravel road at night on 1.5” wide tires and you’re not about to slow down because that means a few extra pedal strokes later. We chugged along in our man train straight intoAmericusand I missed a turn. Now I’m leading Robby and he is trusting me, and there are a few more headlights behind us that I know are just following our red taillights. So even though we only rode ½ a mile or so on pavement before realizing the mistake, I felt pretty bad. My butt and my bike seat were at war by now and I had only ridden half what these others guys had. I made the course correction and we were back on track toEmporia.
The next 15 miles were head down, mouth open, gravel grinding. No more talking, no laughing, no looking around, just going. I made the occasional glance to make sure Robby was still on my wheel, but I was feeling strong and ready to be done. I knew better than to look at my computer, because the mileage wouldn’t ever move as fast as I felt it should. The last 20 miles ended up being my fastest, no doubt motivated by the magnetism of the finish line. We hit the pavement at the outskirts ofEmporiaand new our ride was almost over. I was glad to almost be off the bike, but a bit upset that the experience was over. I doubt Robby was anything but happy.
We rode through the university campus, down the blocked off street and back across the line in front of the Granada Theatre to the cheers of a few hundred fellow riders and fans. A finisher’s glass was stuffed into our hands and it was over. We crossed the finish just before 11:30pm. I drank a delicious cold beer that my crew had waiting for me and devoured some chips at Jimmy Johns. Finally, the high of the finish wore off and I my body started feeling the mileage. At that moment and even into the next day, I had no desire to ever ride my bike over 100 miles. It’s funny how the smallest thing can change your mind.
Included with each finisher’s glass was a sticker with the number 200 on it and “Dirty Kanza” written underneath. I was a bit uneasy about getting the same prize as those that rode the full 200 miles, and that sticker kept glaring at me. I was given something that I hadn’t earned and that others had buried themselves for. Sure, I could just throw it away or give it to another rider, but it was handed to ME. I had another rider at the finish come up to me and give me a big slap on the back and congratulations, commenting that he had only made it 160 miles. Ouch. So let that be a warning to those future riders thinking that they will just ride 100 miles and be content. That sticker will be going in front of my trainer and I’ll be back next year to earn it.