I came upon the Dirty Kanza in much the same the way all good adventures come; dumb luck. I was bound to my computer one day in January, and I got an email from The Reverend suggesting I sign up for this race before it fills up. It was $50. This aligned nicely with my recent manifesto against race-promotion-as-vehicle-to-new-Volvo style events. I figured if I couldn't make it all the way to Kansas, I had only wasted the financial equivalent to a night of heavy drinking.
The race snuck up on me as I transitioned from unemployed to inexcusably busy. I also had planned on racing on a new bike, but Cicli Polito doesn't seem capable of coming through on that. Work plans fell through. Disorder led to order, and I found myself flying to Dallas to meet the Reverend with a Ritchey Break Away grotesquely fitted with a 1.9 Kenda Karma up front, and a slew of shifty bits that had never been further than the bar near my house.
We drove fireman pace all the way through the great state of Texas, Oklahoma and the southern Flint Hills of Kansas. Our crew was made up of Shannan aka Mr Clean, Matt "Hot Rod not Diesel" Kocian, The Reverend Ben Thornton, The King of Support Dave Foster, and myself. We made the scene at the Best Western, determined that it was not our hotel, found our hotel, returned to the Best Western, registered, waited way too long for way too little, and then back to our hotel for a good nights rest.
4:45 wake up call. Scramble to eat, drink lots of fluids, pound a few double shots, strap things to bikes and get out the door. The race start was at 6 am. The much discussed plan for all of us was to go for a long ride together. Two hundred miles is a long way to go, far further than I had gone on a bike in one day, and the record highs called for by the weather channel weren't favoring a race day. As usual I took a little longer finalizing stuff at the car and rolled to the start area to find Ben lined up in the second row with both iPod buds in. This was not looking good.
The first mile or so was controlled by the Emporia police, but they soon deposited us on our first gravel road. A rider ahead of me asked his neighbor, "what flavor gravel is this." I knew I better pay attention to gravel in these parts, if its so important that it has different flavors. Like snow to the Eskimos. Pack riding always feels comfortable. We had a slight wind from our left, and the group represented safety. It also represented our plan of keeping together for an enjoyable ride. Ben was a few spots back, Matt was a few spots up, so I'd just hang.
Within a few miles I realized that I was really trying to hang. Not because I wanted to go fast. Far from it. Staying in the group meant shelter from wind and stray cows. Stay to the inside of the pack and the bovine kamikazees lining the roads couldn't get to you. It also meant that I was still with Ben and Matt. The leaders were already trying to shake the likes of me off. Every turn was an acceleration. Every wind gust was an acceleration. Every roller was an acceleration. There was a creek crossing and a climb with a few rocks that caused the not so nimble to crash and split the pack. Ben landed right on me. We got things sorted out, and I went for a chase. Again, not to go fast, but I wanted in that pack.
The wind was picking up. After a 20 minute TT effort I started looking over my shoulder rather than up the road. If a few people would catch up, we could gather ourselves and work together. I caught a guy from Lincoln, and then we caught a guy from Salida, and the three of us proceeded to chase down some other folks, and then basically sit up in our little safe group. Ben caught up with another group, and somewhere we gained Matt. Ben flatted, so we all stopped, found another group, and ended the first leg somewhat together. It had been a lot of rolling terrain, plateau top roads exposed to the wind, pretty loose gravel, and frankly unnecessary race tactics. It was a hard 60 miles and the town of Cottonwood Falls was a welcome spot to top off the bottles and fill the feedbags.
Leg two was a relatively easy 40 miles. Looking back I probably had my nutrition and hydration dialed, and it hadn't heated up for the day yet. We had the wind at our backs for most of the leg, and there was the bonus of actual pavement in sections. Our threesome rode much of the leg together, along with two members of the Nashville crew, and a few other riders we absorbed from the front or back. I felt light on the bike, wasn't concerned with drafting, and was even off the front at times talking to other riders before returning to the group.
On one of these returns I noticed Matt was no longer with us. He had been feeling fine, probably one of the strongest during the early sections, and then he simply stopped talking and disappeared off the back. I didn't yet know what that was going to feel like, drifting away into exposed solitude. Tiny dots climbing away towards one of many gravel horizons surrounded by green. Your mind, both physically and psychologically melting in the heat. Ben and I rolled into the 100 mile mark, Council Grove, in just about 7 hours. That's a hundred miles on essentially rolling mountain bike terrain, and plenty for most of us. I had never really gone further in a day.
I rested during the slightly extended pit stop. Ben tubed up a slow leak that had been plaguing us, while I stared creepily at a high school girls car wash across the street. My only lust being that for a good hosing off. I actually checked my wallet for denominations smaller than a $20. No dice. It was already above 90. The water in our bottles was hot, the water in our coolers was warm. Off we went for another 40 miles.
Somewhere in this section, and it doesn't surprise me that I can't remember, I faded from the rear wheel of Ben. I remember wanting to stop to open a package of dates I had on board. I looked up and was alone, and the sun had the vertical extensions of an old western film. It was extremely hot. I rode by myself, sometimes looking down and noticing I was doing 10 miles an hour. I made it unscathed through the much talked up Little Egypt. Maybe the 1.9 tire up front made it a little tamer. I did have to walk out of both ravines involved in LE, and the slow progress started to chip away at morale.
The course was lined with bikes with no riders; their owners presumably off seeking shade. I passed Jason Sheldon's ride, and then seconds later saw him laying down under a railway bridge. I was hanging in there, but starting to feel the effects of the heat and the extended effort. Shortly after the railway bridge we popped out on some pavement, and a quick check of the map suggested it'd be a pavement run-in for the last 6 miles to Alma.
With hopes up, and a survival style approach to simply making Alma, the course took a sharp left back onto gravel. I was broken. My head felt like it was swelling in my helmet. My vision was a little tunneled. I was obsessed with the heat, or more accurately, avoiding it. I was swerving from side to side to sweep through grass thrown shade that only reached my calves. Similar to Matt's disappearing act, I went from coping to in trouble in just a few miles.
I started looking at shady spots on the side of the road and judging their softness. How comfortable would that be? Could I just lay down and sleep a bit there? Eventually, while pushing my bike slowly up a hill, I just sat down. I imagined myself lobster red, with a swollen balloon shaped head, eyes popping out behind my glasses. Shaking my head wasn't clearing up the vision. My shoulders, thighs and gloves were marked by the advances of the salt army. I was drinking liquid but sweating seasoning. It was a low point. I was maybe 3 miles from the town of Alma and relative safety. Getting up was an easy decision, but it still took a few minutes for the body to follow through. I limped into the gas station in Alma, coasting down a gentle grade, hands up, stretching the back and enjoying the gentle breeze brought by salvation.
The convenience store looked like a blend of Trailer Park Boys and a civil war camp. There were drunk shirtless hillbillies and dust covered souls in line, all sharing a desire for Fritos and Rockstar energy drink together in strange brotherhood. Outside the scene was grim for the racers. Ben was lying under a truck, resting in the shade. I grabbed a wet towel, and proceeded to strip off all that was legal to remove and lay under the same strangers truck. I pronounced my love of not going anywhere and shut out the rest of the world.
Dave and Matt (who was looking much more alive in civilian clothes) helped me get some food and water in. They encouraged me to do what no one wants to do after 140 miles; drink electrolyte spiked water and energy food. Ben made his way out of Alma, determined to carry on. I sat a while and thought. After some bike food, a coke, and some real food (salt and pepper kettle chips) I started to come to. Riders were milling about sharing tales of their trek to Alma. My thoughts cleared up, I seemed more aware, and it was time to go.
It was a hard decision to make. The next 60 miles were an unknown, there'd be no turning around or easy way to get back to Alma or Emporia. Survival is always an option, but crawling along at 10 mph meant another 6 hours on the bike. That seems an insurmountable goal when you've been out for 10 hours. I almost broke twice. Once when the salty handed application of chamois butter nearly brought me to tears. The second time when Matt pulled open the map. I felt like a bludgeoned prize fighter taking advice from his coach in the corner. The combination of heat stroke and stinging balls left me half aware to his advice. I just stared blankly out to the road while he pep talked me over the last 60 miles. Simply hearing him rattle off info about mile 15 and mile 30 and mile 45 etc, reminded me that even though this was the closing stretch, 60 miles was a long way to go. I think I said, "I'm not going back out there," as I put my helmet back on and climbed aboard the bike.
Blissful ignorance got me through the next 25 miles. When explaining the map to me, I heard (vs. Matt actually said) that the first 25 were easy rolling miles and the last section had a few big climbs in it. So I went through the first 25 miles thinking I was doing the easy stuff. I took it easy on most of the hills, and walked some of the dirt and rock double track climbs that just seemed too hard. All the while I could clearly see the goal; the horizon.
"This is the easy section, so just get off your bike and make it to the top of this climb, and then you get to go down. We'll make it to Eskridge, and then the hard stuff will begin."
I passed a few riders in this section, moving through it in about 2 hours. The whole time I just kept hearing Matt's words about the tough climbs to come, and the dread kept my focus off the terrain I was actually covering. I arrived in Eskridge and found Ben sitting on a stoop with a bag of ice over his neck. A lot of riders were calling for support or were pulling the plug. I had just come through the crux without knowing it. Ben said he was out. I went in for a gatorade and some skittles, and pretty much got back on the bike and headed out. Ben was back in. I think he just needed a little push.
I got all my legs back when the sun went down. Leaving Eskridge was 15 degrees cooler than it had been all day, and that's all my body was looking for. Hydration snapped in, mental distress subsided, and I took off. There were a lot of miles of dirt and rock double track early on, but the profile was gentle. The clouds were turning purple and the lights of Emporia were visible from our high plateau vantage point 25 miles away. The wind that battered our southerly progress early in the race had now turned. A storm to the south east was sucking in strength from across the plains, and a mighty tailwind had come up to support our finish. I lost Ben a few times, and chased down some other groups of riders. As the sun's light disappeared I partnered up with eventual single speed winner Scott McConnell for a couple pulls. We both would have answered the same, but I asked first, "How you feeling?"
"Honestly, like I'm making a comeback." was Scott's response. We both knew the end was near. I left him out geared on a barely perceived decent. My hands were at the very ends of the drops, and I was stomping on the pedals, the first time I had done so all day. There was no reason to leave anything in reserve. I passed a few groups of riders I had been yo-yo-ing with over the last 15 miles, and started the pavement section through town and into the campus. After all that had transpired that day, I wanted to hold off the riders chasing me down. I pushed hard through town, and barely caught the flashing beacons directing us into campus. A slow navigating turn and some cross traffic held me up long enough that one rider caught my wheel and followed my blinking red light while I searched ahead hesitantly in the darkness. He took me at the line. That's hilarious. 205 miles into the race and we sprinted for the line. I never saw him again. Would have been a good handshake and congratulations. I was greeted by the Support Texans, waited just a few minutes for Ben, and we went to the car, triumphant, and prouder of ourselves than we had ever been on a bike.
I finished in 16 hours; 21 minutes. Good enough for 13th place in the open men's category, a fact that I neither cared about, or knew about for days. It felt exceptionally well to simply have finished against those odds. Of the 163 counted riders that started the day, 98 had pulled the plug somewhere out there. I had completed the ride that I set out to do. It was as hard a day mentally as I've ever had, especially mulling over my options at Alma. I'm glad I finished. As the days roll on my attitude about ever doing something like that again is slowly shifting, a little like the Kansas wind.