The recent rains, as well as the 600+ riders in front of us, had left the roads pretty smooth and dust-free, and the first leg of the race had a distinct lack of headwinds.
|Race start was at the top of the picture, in Emporia.|
Remember that the winds were out of the northwest. You’ll notice that, other than a couple of short stretches towards the beginning of the race, the first leg was primarily south and east. This resulted in a lot of tailwind during the first 50 miles. Luke, Bob, Adam, Travis, Austin, our friend Justin, and I rolled together for quite a while. It was a great time. Luke, hopped up on his first Spike energy drink in who knows how long, was displaying the manic energy of a hyperactive puppy who’s just escaped the yard. It was pretty hilarious, and we all pretty much had a blast as we rode and joked around.
All of the recent rain had been reason for concern about the condition of the B roads. Basically dirt farm roads, they can quickly become a muddy mess once they get wet. Luckily, there was only one muddy section on the first leg, and the previous day’s dry weather and earlier riders had dried and packed this segment into something mostly rideable. Thanks, fast people!
|Photo credit: Chuck Vohsen|
Last year I only made it about 25 miles with the group before dropping off. This year was a little better and I was always at least near another teammate on the first leg, but while the guys kept remarking on the relative lack of difficulty, I wasn’t finding it nearly as easy. Much like the first half of Cedar Cross, I was having a harder time than I’d expected in keeping up. Watching the growing calorie count on my Garmin I wondered if my struggling was partially a fueling issue and started trying to eat even more.
Nutrition was a mixed bag for me on this race. Early this year I’d decided to go with more of a liquid fuel strategy to accommodate for my shaky handling and difficulty in letting go of the bars to eat, but I never moved from the research to implementation stage. Another big fail was bringing food that was difficult for me to eat on the bike; one thing I’d used successfully on training rides was a mixture of nuts and dried fruit, but without a mountain feed bag or something similar it was too hard for me to actually get them out to eat. Luckily I also had rice cakes, almond joy bars, Slim Jims, Ensure, and sport beans. One thing I remembered this year was to open all of my food packages before taking off so that I could easily get to them.
|Anyone who thinks Kansas is flat just hasn’t been to the right parts.|
We stopped at the top of this hill for a bathroom stop. As you can see from the picture, it’s just wide open. You could see forever. Thankfully my awesome teammates made a man wall for me so I had a little privacy to pee.
Hills are always my nemesis. I’m not as strong as the guys, so I fall behind going up, and I’m a huge chicken, so I really get dropped on the downhills. While I have a long way to go, I’m slowly getting my big girl panties closer to my waist, to the point where as I rode past Bob on one hill he commented, “It’s like watching a little bird leave the nest!” Of course, there are always things to remind me why I’m so timid. At the bottom of a big hill we passed a group surrounding a woman on the ground on the side of the road. Her face was covered in blood and it looked like she’d knocked out a couple of teeth. Bob told me later, “I was hoping you didn’t see that,” but that’s pretty much what I picture every time I go downhill. Since she was already surrounded and we didn’t have any skills to offer, we rode on. Hopefully she was ok.
There were a lot of water crossings on this leg, and I was always happier when I was close enough to watch the guys go through first so I knew how deep the water was and where a safe line was. Not all of the crossings were little, though. Coming down one hill we saw jeeps and a lot of water. I really appreciated the volunteers being there so that we knew it was safe to cross. Bob rode the whole way across, but being gun-shy after listening to my screaming bike for 20 miles at Cedar Cross (and probably incapable of riding all the way across anyway) I opted to shoulder my ride.
|I was also glad to be carrying my cross bike and not my two-ton mountain bike. Photo credit: Luke Lamb|
About midway through the first leg had started to feel a little better, though looking at the elevation profile I’m thinking that’s probably a function of the downhill trend of the second 25 miles.
Whatever the reason, we cruised into CP1 in Madison, KS, to the cheers of our fantastic support crew. They updated us on Robby and Casey (doing awesome) and got us all set for the next leg. I felt good and was trying to avoid sitting down because I hoped to minimize my stops and didn’t want to get too comfortable. I was really glad to be able to change into some dry socks while the girls refilled water bottles and made sure we had what we needed. After 15-20 minutes we were on the move again and faced almost immediately with a big hill. Boo.
At the top of the hill, though, were three little kids standing at the side of the street giving. We all rode close enough for a high five, and the little girl told me, “I’ve only seen like one girl today!” I told her there aren’t many of us silly enough to be out there (though I think there were over 40 women registered for the full 200). Pretty soon we were back onto the gravel and experiencing a serious drop in our ride satisfaction index.
Remember when I mentioned the winds coming from the northwest? If you look at the map, you’ll notice that the vast majority of leg 2 was due west. The wind was brutal and nothing if not consistent. In the leadup to the race, Travis had suggested using a paceline to work together and this seemed to be the perfect time for it. Drafting on a bike always makes me nervous (who me? Go figure), and doing so on the unpredictable gravel surface took that to a whole new level. It ended up that my nerves didn’t really come into play, though, because I only made it through the first person’s pull. On the second person, we started uphill and I was really struggling to keep up. Not wanting to ruin it for all the people behind me, I dropped out and watched the guys ride off.
|Obligatory picture of minimum maintenance sign|
Well, shit. I’d hoped that my better training would help me keep up, but I’ve ridden alone in Kansas before. I spent as much time in the drops as I could manage and kept pedaling, watching as my pace dropped down into the single digits. Around mile 60 I came across Austin stopped in the road looking at his map. “You ok?” I asked him.
“I think I’m going to drop out. I can’t ride into this wind for another 40 miles.”
Not having actually looked at my map and ever the optimist, I told him that surely eventually we’d turn out of the wind. Maintaining that sunny disposition was a little harder when he showed me the westward trend of the map, but I pointed out that we had a few turns ahead of us that might give us a break. Then Bob rolled up and asked what was going on. “I’m thinking about quitting,” Austin told him.
“Well….” Bob said, “Think about it a little longer.”
Shortly after this we hit the anticipated turn, which was unfortunately north into a headwind that seemed just as strong, and about two miles later we turned back to the west. It was like being trapped in a gigantic wind tunnel no matter which way you were going. I started telling myself to get to mile 65 and then I could walk for a minute, just so I wasn’t riding into the unrelenting wind. Just 5 miles before I’d helped convince Austin to keep going, and now I was wondering how I’d make it any further, wanting to stop but knowing there was no way I could write on my blog that I’d only made it 65 miles.
|The long-awaited turn to have the wind at our backs. You can see the flags on the route markers blowing and my twitter friend Cody, who I met in person on the course, in front of Austin.|
This turn was the beginning of a 10-mile section that gave me a new lease on life. Having a break from the wind was a huge relief. We hit a pretty sketchy downhill with much bigger rocks than the normal gravel, and Austin took it much faster than I did but had to stop to go back and get a water bottle he’d dropped. I crept downhill and rather than stopping just pedaled easily waiting for him to catch up. When he did, Adam was with him. I fell behind on some uphills, and pretty soon the boys were out of sight and I was on my own again.
I passed Austin again around the 75 mile mark and made sure he didn’t need anything. “You’ll be on your way again soon, right?” I asked, and his unenthusiastic response made me wonder if I was going to be seeing a crew car on its way before long. Once I turned back west I was hoping not to see one of our crew out on a pickup because I was afraid I’d give in and ask for a ride too.
In a kind of cruel twist, the last 20 miles of this leg was both primarily uphill and into a strong wind. I remembered this section from last year’s race, and when I wasn’t wishing for death I could appreciate the difference in how I felt. It’s hard to tell from the picture, but between 80 and 90 there are a bunch of rolling hills, and last year I did a lot of walking here. OK, this year I did a lot of walking too, but it was more strategic. I rode until my pace dropped down and I felt like I was struggling too much, and then I’d walk. At the top of the hill, I’d climb back down and shoot downhill. Of course, “shoot” is a bit of an exaggeration due to the wind; even pedaling downhill I was lucky to get above 15 mph.
I passed Kyle from Orange Lederhosen, who was feeling really nauseous and struggling. We talked for a minute and I gave him some ibuprofen before riding on. I kept looking at my Garmin and doing the math with grim results. Before the turn out of the wind I’d been pretty certain there was no way I could make the cutoff, but those downhill miles with a tailwind had boosted my pace enough that there was a chance. 24 miles in 3 hours…I can do that….that’s only 8 mph. 17 miles in about 2 hours…I’ve got a chance, that’s just under 9 mph…15 miles in 1.5 hours…ummmm….is that 10 mph?? My math skills suffer along with my body as I get more tired.
Eventually I saw Adam ahead of me and caught up. He pulled ahead of me on a hill, and as I crested the top I saw him stop and turn around. There was a long snake crossing the road.
|You can’t really tell from the picture, but this guy’s at least 3 feet long.|
I’d seen a ton of snakes along the course, including one huge one — seriously, its body looked as thick as those big snakes you see in the zoo — but this might have been the first live snake I saw. And honestly, that’s one too many for me. We plugged away against the wind, and I felt bad that Adam had to hear the repeated sniffle – cough – spit – gasp that I’d been doing for the last 40 or so miles as my medicine wore off and my sinus infection spoke up.
The worst was the wind, though. I know I keep mentioning it, but I had such a hard time against it, and it was so demoralizing to be constantly riding into it. For so much of this leg I just wanted to sit down in the middle of the road and cry. It was such a different experience from my first Kanza experience. Last year, my body hurt so badly and everything felt so hard. This year, it was tough and my MawMaw hip acted up at times, but overall my body felt pretty good. I was just exhausted, even more mentally than physically, from fighting against the wind. I hated the race and Kansas in a way I never did last year and decided I was finished with Dirty Kanza.
I’d hoped to make it to the second checkpoint before going to the bathroom again, but by mile 95 I really couldn’t wait any longer. I felt 1000% better afterwards and my pace jumped up (although now looking at the elevation profile, it seems that this improvement was probably partially a function of the downhill trend of the last 5 miles). When I caught up with Adam, he asked if I wanted to try to make the cut-off. I did, so I jumped on his wheel and we pushed hard towards Cassaday, the site of CP2. We’d had about 3 miles of pavement on the way into the first CP, and I was hoping for a repeat, but instead we were on gravel almost the entire way. It’s hard to complain too much about that, though, because the gravel was pretty smooth and packed. Still, it wasn’t hard to find things to complain about after 100 miles.
As we neared the town, Adam told me, “I almost want to just stop here and wait until the cut-off is over.” I responded that I was pretty comfortable with making the cutoff and saying I’d had enough. Without a map showing a less windy third leg, I was finished. I just didn’t have the spirit to fight that wind any longer. We made it into the CP with 8 minutes to spare (a full 5 minutes ahead of my previous year’s 3-minutes before cut-off). Austin and Bob were there, having been picked up around mile 78. Robby and Casey were long gone, and the rest of the team had beaten us in by several minutes.
This time I was happy to sit down. When our crew asked what I needed, I said I didn’t know. Looking at the map for leg 3, there was a 14 mile stretch with a tailwind followed by the remainder of the leg into the wind. I couldn’t do it. Michelle reminded me that I’d said the same thing last year and then later was happy I’d gone out, and Luke said I could ride out with him as long as I knew he’d be slow (having trained for an ultra this year, he hadn’t really been on his bike since the end of April and still rode circles –sometimes literally — around me for the first 100 miles). Everyone on the team was going back out to at least see how they felt, though I think it was kind of a game of chicken. If one person didn’t go, there might have been a lot more dropping.
|Totally faked smile|
Very unenthusiastic and resigned, I ate half of the sandwich Michelle had picked up for me while Austin got the light on my bike. Having left CP 2 with only a dim headlamp and no intention of staying out on course for long enough to need it only to spend 3.5 hours alone in the dark, I wasn’t taking any chances this time. After a long break, we reluctantly rolled out with around 5 hours left to ride 52 miles and, with the majority of the leg into a headwind, little chance of actually making the third cutoff.
Since the first 14 miles were east, we had a nice tailwind. Even so, none of us felt great. The rolling hills were pretty fun, though, as I was too tired to bother with braking when each downhill just fed into the next incline. Some of the guys were making noises about quitting, and while part of me wanted to go on more of me was just waiting for someone to drop. 8 miles from the checkpoint, Luke and Adam were ready to call it. Travis, his friend Garrett, and I stood there for a minute.
I was torn. I didn’t feel great but didn’t feel terrible. I could definitely ride a little longer. On the other hand, I really didn’t want to face that wind again and was convinced there was no way I could make the cut-off. I knew I could eventually make it to the CP, likely far faster than I went last year, but I wasn’t going to get there in time and this year CP3 was at mile 152, still 8 miles shorter than I went in 2012. I rode by myself last year in the dark. It sucked, but I did it. I really didn’t feel like I had anything to prove or to gain by doing it again this year. I signed on for the ride back.
|What we think of the wind.|
I’m disappointed. I’m disappointed I wasn’t able to finish or at least surpass what I did last year, and frankly I’m disappointed in myself for quitting. But it’s easy to sit here in my computer chair and say that when the wind is a memory and not the reality, and it was very sweet to get to be at the finish line cheering when Emily, Casey, Robby, and Aaron crossed. I wish I’d been there to see my other friends finish, especially Chuck who did so many training rides with me and whose DFL, I’m here to tell you, far surpasses a DNF. And if the sting of watching the finish line and crossing it myself wasn’t sharp enough, there were a couple of unwitting twists of the knife.
First was a conversation with a friend (who is a total badass) after she finished. I’d mentioned her hope that conditions would be terrible and someone asked why she’d want that. “Because if it was really bad out, other people would quit, and I wouldn’t.” Ouch. And then this picture that I saw posted.
I did quit. I didn’t want it badly enough. Those things wouldn’t hurt if they weren’t true. If you’d asked me during the race I’d have sworn this was my last attempt, but with a little distance, that’s not a sure thing. I keep thinking, Ok, I was trained to finish under favorable conditions, next year I need to be able to finish, period. Next year? What am I saying? So thanks to everyone who cheered me on and encouraged me. I really appreaciate all the support, and I’m sorry if I let you down. Huge thanks to my awesome teammates and our fantastic support crew. I couldn’t ask for a better group of friends. And thanks to Kansas, for another lesson in humility and my limits.
|To be continued…maybe|