|My view at 9:30 Saturday night|
By 9:30 p.m. it was dark, and I was alone. I’d been riding for 15.5 hours and was almost halfway into a 5 hour stretch of utter solitude. When I left checkpoint 2 at 5:00, I knew I couldn’t beat the next time cutoff, but I had promised to ride out of any checkpoint I reached. Since I hadn’t guaranteed how far I’d go, though, I spent the rest of the evening bargaining with myself about when I could drop out. Standing all by myself in the Kansas night and trying hard not to be afraid, I turned to Facebook with the above picture and a slightly whiny post:
I wanted someone to give me permission to quit, but all I got was encouragement. “Go!” “You’ve got this!” “Keep rolling!” No one gave me an easy way out.
I thought back to the words of the Pablove spokesperson at the pre-race meeting: “It’s going to be tough out there, but remember: the worst day on the bike can’t possibly compare to what children with cancer go through with chemo.” I remembered Chrissie Wellington’s mantra: “Is my leg broken? No? Then keep going.”
Damnit. There was no getting around this. My ride wasn’t over.
This is not the story of glorious triumph. The underdog won’t shock everyone with an unlikely victory. Despite the presence of a fairy godmother-style benefactor and a
titanium coach, this is not a Cinderella story. This is real life. No matter what the movies tell you, you can’t go from beginner to pro volleyball player in two weeks, and you can’t train for Dirty Kanza in a month. Well, I can’t.
Dirty Kanza is a 200-mile gravel road race through the Flint Hills of Kansas. There is no on-course support; racers are expected to be self-sufficient. You can meet your support crew at three designated checkpoints, located this year at miles 62, 105, and 165. Otherwise, you’re on your own. Racers must reach each checkpoint before a designated cutoff time in order to receive the map for the next leg and be allowed to continue. Though the course is well marked, Race Director Jim Cummins will encourage you to use that map: “I can promise that the course was marked yesterday. I can’t promise that the markings are still there.”
Here are some of the things I was afraid of before this year’s DK200:
- ending up out there alone
- getting lost
- having a mechanical issue I couldn’t fix (this encompasses most any mechanical issue you could imagine since I have zero bike-fixing skills)
- needing to be picked up and having no idea where I was: “come get me….I don’t know where I am”
- being the last one on the course and having no one to help me with any of the above
I was not worried about my lack of training; there was no point. Registering on April 30, I knew going into it that I didn’t have the necessary base built or time to train properly. If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you I had fantasies of finishing but no expectation of doing so. My goal was to ride more than 105 miles, my previous distance PR (set during a paved, flat century ride two years ago). For me, Dirty Kanza was an adventure, not a race.
Leg 1: 62 miles
Of all the things I’d worried about in the leadup to DK200, being cold never crossed my mind. Despite this, we were shivering as we readied our bikes in the Kansas dawn and I was heartily thankful to have thrown my armwarmers in just in case the weatherman wasn’t delusional.
Since the race director had asked racers to self seed according to expected finish time, we lined up at the back of the 18 hour group…but only because there was nothing further back.
|View from the back|
At 6 a.m. we were off, riding a short stretch of pavement through Emporia until turning off onto the gravel a dirt roads. As expected, Robby, the strongest rider on the team, had quickly pulled ahead, but the rest of us rolled in near proximity for quite a while.
|The dirt roads were well packed by the tires that went before us.|
The previous day’s rain and the 400ish riders ahead of us had left the roads in good shape, and it was smooth going as long as you stayed in one of the tracks. Changing sides, however, necessitated crossing the loose gravel piled between tracks, a nerve-wracking proposition. I was pretty hesitant to switch and had to slow down and creep across. “Do you think I’ll be comfortable with this by the end of the day?” I wondered aloud.
I really enjoyed the early riding, admiring the beautiful scenery, hanging out with the guys, and getting to know Austin a little better…until he pulled ahead and dropped me. We were maintaining a comfortable pace, and I was thankful that I could keep up with the others. The leg 1 map was in my bag, but I had barely glanced at it, planning instead to just follow my friends. If it wasn’t for twitter I’d have missed this cool note entirely:
Had I bothered to look at the map, I may have realized before getting home that those red numbers in circles mark off every 5 miles. When I did pull out my map on the third leg, I struggled with judging distance because of the lack of scale. Imagine my irritation when I realized the information had been there all along.
|My Garmin watch died about 86 miles into the race.|
I was able to stick with the guys for the first 25 or so miles, but then we spread out and I lost track of where everyone was. I was pretty sure I was in the back until I crept past Luke on the first big climb. It didn’t feel nearly as steep as it looks on the elevation profile, but it went on forever. I was thrilled to make it to the top without walking and to see Travis and Justin there. They stopped shortly up the road to wait for Luke and Bob, so I joined them and when the other two caught up we all headed off together.
|Photo credit: Ellen Thompson|
|Picture is supposed to be of the cattle guard.|
While my spirits hadn’t been low while I was on my own, riding with friends was much more fun. We stuck together until around mile 40 or so (?). I had already been slipping off the back a little when, reaching into my bag for some food, I dropped my pump. By the time I had backtracked, grabbed the pump, and eaten a quick bite since I was already standing there, they were too far ahead for me to catch.
|Nice view, huh? You had to work for it!|
I made it up the other big hill without walking, though I hadn’t planned to ride the whole thing. Despite feeling worlds better than I had even 10 miles into my previous long ride, I had a revolving set of complaints: lower back, left knee, thighs that seemed on the edge of cramping, and some general readiness to be off my saddle. Getting off and walking part of the hill would have been a nice break, but I was pretty excited to make it all the way to the top.
I walked some shorter hills in that leg, and it was the right call. I always felt better when I climbed back into the saddle. Still, this early into the race, I was a little thrown by how much I was struggling. I’d said all along that I’d be content as long as I made it further than 105 miles, and now I was wondering just how I’d manage to even get that far. I mean, I knew it would be hard. But it was really hard. And it wasn’t even noon.
I can’t tell you how happy I was to make it to the first cp. I checked in at the Salsa tent, got my map, and looked around for our crew. I didn’t see them, but I did see a bathroom; finding the crew could wait for a moment. Thankfully, Justin rode over to tell me they were at the overflow spot I’d passed on my way to check in.
Luke’s wife Becca, Adam’s girlfriend Michelle, and Casey were crewing for us, and Emma and Crystal were set up right near as well. By the end of the day they’d merged into this supercrew working together to support a host of us. They were amazing.
|Best. crew. ever.
Emma, Robby (getting ready to head out), Michelle, and Becca. Just missing Crystal, Casey, and Austin.
The guys were already there sitting in the shade of a big tent, and someone turned over his seat to me. Immediately Becca and Michelle were asking what I needed, filling up my camelback and bottles, and bringing me food, while Casey got to work wiping down my chain and checking my tires.
I don’t know what I expected, but this was so much more. I didn’t have to do anything but sit and recover. I can’t tell you how great it was. I mean, these were the guys’ significant others, but they took care of me too like they were there for me. They were our crew, but they really were our crew.
I ate half a Jimmy John’s BLT and some strawberries (and maybe a protein drink? I don’t remember), and I drank most of a hard lemonade, which was delicious. I re-chamois buttered and grabbed a pre-made baggie of my food. I had to rush a little because the guys, having been there for longer, were ready to go, and I wanted to ride out with them. I knew I’d do much better in a group than on my own.
|Getting ready to roll out|
Leg 2: 44 miles
|You can see the hill in the distance. I have only a vague idea of what was where, so the daytime pictures don’t necessarily go with the text.|
Eating during the race was one of my weakest areas. My bike handling is iffy on rough terrain, so getting food out was challenging. Also, though I’d premade bags of food, I didn’t pay attention to what I took for the first leg, and it was the bag that had the least food in it. Additionally, the trail mix cookies I’d bought thinking they’d be easier to eat than actual trail mix ended up being really dry and crumbly, so they were just as hard to eat and not very good. I never bonked, but I should have eaten more.
|Such a beautiful day|
Drinking, on the other hand, went well. I carried two bottles on my frame plus a 70 oz bladder in my camelback. I’d considered carryimg extra bottles instead of wearing the hydration pack but decided against it because it’s easier for me to drink out of the camelback than reach down or back for bottles. Since I tend to be bad about remembering to drink, ease of access is a big plus.
|Posts like this marked the route at turns.|
After around 20 miles on my own, it was great to have company again as we rode out of town. I still wasn’t looking at my map, but I’d started to pay much closer attention to route markings as it became obvious that I wasn’t going to be able to hold onto the group. “If I drop off, don’t you guys wait for me,” I told Luke.
“Why? Are you planning to?” he asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I answered.
“You’ll keep riding if you make it to the checkpoint, though, right?” Luke asked.
I looked at him. I really didn’t know. This was not my day on a bike, for sure, and the next leg was 59 miles. At this point, I couldn’t imagine riding another 59 miles. I was wondering how I was going to make it the rest of this leg.
“I made a deal with myself that I’d at least ride out of any checkpoint I made it to,” he explained. “Do that. Then you can see how you feel, even if you only ride a few miles and turn around.”
“Ok,” I answered, probably a little doubtfully, “Fine.”
I hung on for around 20 miles this time. I don’t remember a whole lot from this leg, other than reaching the top of a climb to just see amazing views all around us. My pictures don’t come close to doing the area justice. If you want to see some absolutely glorious shots of the Flint Hills, check out the Adventure Monkey blog. Eric Benjamin’s photos are stunning. Anyway, as we reached the top, Bob mentioned the big downhill that was our “reward” for the climb.
Well, it was maybe a reward for the guys, but we all know that downhills bring my yellow side to the forefront. Remember how I mentioned the mountain biking experience coming in handy? This was another of those spots. The boys bombed down, and while I rode faster than what I would have in the past, my brakes still came into play. Maybe my caution was a good thing, because when I caught up with the guys they had pulled over in a shady spot for Bob to change a flat tire.
I waited around little bit and then realized, hey, I’m the slowest one here…maybe I should go ahead and start, and that way it’ll be that much longer before I’m dropped. I told the guys my thinking and rode off, crossing a couple creeks on the way. Realizing it was time to eat something, I pulled out a protein shake and drank that. Mistake. While I drank several at LBL with no problems, this one really messed with my stomach. Deep in potential shart territory, I took it easy and tried to ride it out.
|The second creek crossing after we split up|
They caught up with me on a hill that I had to walk about halfway, and we rode together for a little while longer before I just couldn’t stick with them anymore. I had one last chance for company when I came down a hill and Bob was waiting for me at the bottom. There was an easy-to-miss turn, and he’d wanted to make sure I didn’t ride by. He gave me a Foosh mint (they’re like the Swiss army knife of mints: settle your stomach, keep you awake, perk up your energy…they’re awesome) for my stomach, and it seemed to help.
“We need to pick it up,” he mentioned.
“Go for it,” I replied. I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but I just couldn’t push any harder. Who am I kidding, really? I couldn’t push at all. I can keep going for a long time, but I can’t keep going at a decent pace for a long time. Nobody signed up for this race to babysit me, and I didn’t want to hold them back, so off they went.
My Garmin had died shortly after the flat tire, and now I realized that my iPod had fallen silent as well. I had borrowed my teenage son’s Nano, but I’d neglected to check and see if it was charged. Turned out it was only about half full, and I’d wasted that during the portions of the ride where I had company. Now I had somewhere under 20 miles to ride to get to the next checkpoint, and only my thoughts and the scenery to distract me.
|Beautiful, but no shade on the road.|
Around what I was guessing was 9 miles out from the checkpoint, I hit an intersection that threw me a little. I stopped and looked around, seeing the streamers on a road sign straight ahead of me instead of on a piece of PVC pipe. A guy on a bike was coming towards me from a road to my right. I guess he must’ve made a wrong turn.
“Almost there…” he said as I rode past him. Ummmm….I thought, I’m not so sure about that. 9 miles is nothing on a road bike. It’s a lot more on gravel, and a lot more for a substandard cyclist who’s already ridden 96 miles.
I knew the checkpoint was located at mile 105.7, but I wasn’t sure what mile that would be on my screwed-up odometer. Since it was off by around 4 miles on the 62-mile stretch, I was guessing 2 or so more miles on this 44-mile section. I wasn’t sure, though, and as the number on the bike computer rose slowly, the time seemed to drain away. Checking the clock near odometer reading 109 or so, I saw that I my time was almost up. I had to check in by 4:30 in order to get the next map, and I was going to be cutting it close.
|Why do I do this to myself??|
I have to admit that I was really torn. It was hot (Kanza 2012 hot, not hot hot — last year’s high was around 105, and I can’t imagine riding in that. Our highs were in the mid-high 80’s.), I was struggling, and I was sore. I didn’t want to ride any more. All I had to do was miss the time cutoff. The thought of stopping and waiting to make sure I missed it briefly crossed my mind. I could hang out with the crew, get off my bike seat, and help the guys when they came in to the next checkpoint.
I didn’t want to give up, though. I didn’t want to miss it. I wanted to get there; I wanted to beat the clock or fail trying. The opposing feelings warred inside of me as I pedaled. I was hot and sore and tired and lonely, pretty miserable really, and I was pushing as hard as I could to do something I didn’t want to do. I hit the pavement as I rode into town, looking around for the checkpoint. Where is it?
The route was still well marked, and I followed it down the road. WHERE IS IT? Riding as hard as I could manage, I saw a small hill ahead of me. You have to be fucking kidding me…they put the checkpoint at the top of a hill?? As I came to the top of the hill, I saw the Salsa tent. They checked me in at 4:27. I’d made the cutoff by 3 minutes.
|This is your brain on 105 miles of Kansas gravel.|
I don’t remember ever feeling such a mix of triumph and despair. I made it!!!….and now I have to go out again. I pushed my bike to our tent, laid it down, and sank into a chair.
Someone gave me an ice bag for my head and a wet wipe for my face, and that was wonderful. I ate the other half of my sandwich and some watermelon while the crew filled my water bottles. The guys were getting ready to roll out again, and this time I didn’t hurry to go with them. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to keep up.
|Shade. Ice. Watermelon. Pickles. So good.|
My bike shorts and Monster jersey were soaked, so I changed into my Team Virtus jersey and a different pair of shorts for my last leg. I re-applied chamois butter and grabbed another bag of food, even though I hadn’t eaten all of what I’d taken for leg 2. I walked over to the bathroom, walked back, drank part of a hard lemonade…basically stalled. If you think about what your son or daughter looks like when you tell them to go clean their room, that’s probably a good picture of me. As I begrudgingly walked over to my bike, the crew was already packing for the drive to checkpoint 3.
“Get moving,” Emma told me, “You don’t want your crew to beat you out of here.”
Leg 3: 59 miles
When Casey was trying to convince Austin to go out for the second leg, he’d told him, “Just go. Stop every few miles if you need to. I can come pick you up after 20 miles if you’re done. Just go.” That was pretty much my frame of mind as I rode away: I don’t have to do this. I can stop whenever I want to. Someone will come and get me.
It was 5:00 when I left checkpoint 2, and I had no idea how long I’d last. Two things were certain: I couldn’t get to CP3 in time, and I wasn’t riding the entire 59 miles. Just in case, I’d tucked my headlamp into my bike bag, but I had left my good bike light behind since I wasn’t planning to still be out there in the dark.
A few people passed me fairly early on during this leg. Smiley Keith was looking for the Virtus guys, and then the California group, now down to a duo, rode past as I was eating something. After that, I was on my own until I passed some guys waiting at an intersection. “It’s that way,” they pointed ahead of me. “We’re riding down the road to get picked up.”
“I envy you!” I called.
“We envy you…a little,” he replied.
I rode on, and it was a pretty lackluster effort. By 6:30, when I looked at the odometer, I’d gone maybe 13 miles. I started bargaining with myself about when it would be ok to quit. Just ride til 7:30. That’s 2.5 hours. Stick it out til then.
Riding further, I saw what looked like a bicycle laying on the side of the road with a person under it. As I got closer, I realized that it was Justin, who was laying in the road with his bike as he talked on the phone. He’d gotten another flat, and it wasn’t fixable even with a boot. He had to call for a pickup. I felt terrible for him, because he’d been riding really strong all day. What a lousy way for his race to end.
Riding away, I considered offering him my bike. He could make the cutoff, and I could wait for a ride. I’d have an excuse to quit. Maybe that’s what I should have done, but I didn’t. I came to Dirty Kanza to ride, and like it or not (not) that’s what I was going to do.
A little later, I came down a road to see a truck pulling away. It stopped, and Emma poked her head out. “I’ve got a dead Kyle in the back,” she told me. Kyle, who also had been having a great day, had been hit by back spasms and unable to continue. He waved at me from the back of the truck. I waved back, but I was looking at Emma with hope in my eyes.
“You’re here right now…I could just…” I started.
“No!” she answered. I must’ve given her a shocked look, because she continued, “I mean, it’s your call, but you’re going to regret it if you quit. I know you can make it.”
I. was. done. I can’t tell you how much I wanted to get into that truck, and if she’d been all hey, let’s load you up! this race report would probably be finished. But I couldn’t quit when she believed in me. I could feel myself getting ready to cry and shoved back the hysterical edge as I told her, “Well, I’m going really slow. It’s going to be after 11….you need to make sure somebody’s there for me!!”
“I will,” she assured me, and then she drove off.
She drove away, and the woman walking on the other side of the road from me as I rode off was the last person I saw for the next 5 hours. “You’re doing great! Keep it up!” she called, and all I could muster was a sad wave.
I made it just a little bit past that woman when the tears came. I spent probably the next half hour riding and crying. At one point I was crusing down a rocky hill sobbing. Thank goodness no one could see me; it was a little ridiculous. And had anyone else been out there with me, I probably would have been fine, but it’s hard to stay strong when you’re on your own.
|“You’ve spent 30 minutes crying! What are you going to do now?”
“I’m going to walk up this hill!!”
Eventually I settled down and rode and enjoyed the fact that the growing dusk was bringing cooler temperatures. Cooler temperatures, and new bargaining opportunities. It’s almost 7:30. It’s going to get dark. This is good enough…No, I don’t want anyone to think I’m afraid of riding in the dark. I’ll wait til dark. Then I can quit.
I was still stopping frequently. Once, I just got off my bike and walked a flat stretch of gravel just because I was sore. I checked facebook and fed off the supportive messages and was SO thankful for the people who took the time to encourage me. They definitely gave me a lift.
One of the coolest experiences of the day happened as the sun was setting. Riding very slowly past a small herd of cows, I heard a chorus of coyotes behind me. As I neared the cows, they crowded close to the fence, watching me curiously, and then turned as one and charged off in the other direction. I wouldn’t have seen this if I’d quit.
|Reflective tape on course marker|
By 9:00 it was dark enough for me to put on my headlamp, and I was very happy to see that the PVC pipe markers had reflective tape on them. They were even harder to miss in the dark than in the light. Still, I was careful to refer to my map regularly on this section when I came to signed intersections. It was bad enough to be riding through the middle of nowhere…alone…in the dark. I did not need to add “lost” to the equation.
|The vast light by which I was riding|
At 9:30 I decided that 10:30 was my limit. I could quit at 10:30. That way, all of the crew would be there to support the guys, and then someone could come and rescue me. 10:30 was the cutoff time anyway. I was regretting my decision to leave my bike light back with my gear at the last checkpoint, because choosing a smooth line in the dim light of my headlamp was an adventure at best. Granted, I couldn’t see the hills lying in wait, but even the flatter roads were difficult because I rode through rougher sections because I couldn’t see the clear parts. Downhills were plain scary since I couldn’t see what was coming. Torn between wanting to take advantage of gravity’s help and not wanting to outride my light, I erred on the side of caution and gave my brakes a good workout.
At 10:30, I checked in with the crew to see how the guys were doing and to let them know I was still alive.
I’m not sure at which point I decided to ride the full 59 miles. Now, mind you, 10:30 was the time cutoff, so my race was over. I wouldn’t be allowed to continue from the checkpoint. This whole leg was something like carrying a baby you’re going to put up for adoption: you put in all the effort and pain and emotional baggage, and you go home with nothing to show for it but stretch marks and stitches. But I’m never going to be one of those athletes who’s racing others in contention for a win. My race is destined to be between me and the clock; in this case, the clock had won, but I still wanted to reach the finish line. And checkpoint 3 had become my finish line.
By this time, I’d been racing since 6 a.m. 16.5 hours. Pretty much every part of me hurt. I was alone in the dark. And I’d already lost. I’m not a quitter, but I can’t tell you how much I wanted to quit. I made a list of reasons it would be ok to give up:
- if I got a flat tire
- if a made a wrong turn. Any wrong turn.
- if I had any kind of mechanical issue
- if I crashed
Unfortunately, none of these disasters occurred, and as I inched my way closer and closer on the map I began to get excited. Yes, I was going to miss the cutoff by over an hour. Yes, I had already racked up my first ever DNF. But I was going to ride that whole damn third leg. 59 miles, almost entirely alone. And as crappy as I felt, I also knew that, if I’d been allowed to, I could have ridden the entire 202 miles. It may have taken me ages, but I could have done it.
|We saw a lot of these signs.|
Somewhere after 11:00 and probably closer to 11:30, I turned onto a farm road. Of all the unmaintained roads, to me this was the worst. It was basically two wheel tracks in the dirt with weeds between them and on either side. As I rode down one of the tracks, weeds brushed up against my sides, and the light of my headlamp on the plants made for a weird 3D movie effect that messed with my vision. It felt claustrophobic and creepy. I realized that the track was quickly becoming a rut, and since I’ve had bad luck riding those in the past, I steered out of it.
Someday I’m going to learn not to do that, because just like last time, my wheel slid and I went down hard on my side. I couldn’t have asked for a better place to fall — all soft dirt, no rocks — but I twisted my knee on impact. Cue the waterworks, because I immediately burst into tears. Hoping to walk it off, I pushed my bike down the road while I cried.
I could hear all kinds of noises around me as I walked. Over and over I jumped and gasped as critters rustled away in the weeds next to me. Whereas before in the dark I’d simply been conscious of being alone, now I was scared. Climbing back onto my bike, I discovered I couldn’t pedal with my left leg; it hurt my knee too much. Eventually I learned that, if I set my left foot on the pedal, it could float around while my right leg did all the work. That was ok on flats, but the first downhill I took was scary, and I couldn’t push down on the uphills.
I alternated between walking and riding/coasting, but eventually I realized that it was going to take me forever to finish the ~8 miles I had left. I knew the girls were waiting for me, and I was afraid they were going to miss seeing the guys finish because of me. I also worried my knee was actually injured, rather than just sore, and I didn’t want to make it worse. I pulled out my phone to make the call.
I walked/coasted to the next intersection.
I followed the course markings back onto Y Ave. (no signal) and did more walking and coasting until I came face to face with this:
|There was some serious cursing going on.|
I just about lost it for the third time. What do you mean bridge closed??? The markings sent me this way!! I didn’t see any markings on the bridge. There were no notes on the map indicating this. At this point in the night, there was no way I was backtracking. I would have swum across that creek first.
Noticing a slightly tracked down path to the left of the sign, I followed it around to the bridge. It looked old but stable enough for me. I cautiously walked my bike onto it and then quickly scurried across. Ha. Bridge closed, my ass!
Checked for a signal: nothing.
I kept walking and coasting and checking my phone until finally, at 11:59, I was able to send Emma a text: I fell and hurt my knee. Would you please come get me?
30 minutes later she was there. My 18.5 hour slice of Dirty Kanza was over, but the evening wasn’t. We had to get back to Emporia to see the guys finish. By the time we got to the finish line, Robby, Wendy, Jim, and Travis had all finished. Luke, Bob, Adam, and Derrick were still out. At 2:10 or so, the Virtus guys rolled through the finish line to our cheers, and Derrick made it in at 2:27. I was so proud and happy for them all.
|So happy for my friends! Way to go Adam, Travis, Bob, Robby, Luke, and Derrick!|
Though it stings to be the only one on the team who raced and didn’t finish, I wouldn’t change my decision to go at all. I’d much rather try something big and come up short than have had to sit home and read all about it from afar, and though I’m disappointed that I couldn’t ride stronger, I’m very proud of what I could do. I rode 160 tough miles in one day. I got braver on downhills. I rode alone through the night. I didn’t finish the race, but I conquered a lot of my fears. I guess that’ll do for this year.