Photo by Kim Morris
Somewhere around Madison a thought came to me, seemingly from outside myself.
“You’re going to finish this.”
With that thought came a sense of quiet confidence, and I was able to relax and settle into grinding it out for the next 12 hours.
It’s been one week since I finished my first Dirty Kanza 200. I’ve been having troubles collecting my thoughts on it. I’m a rider, not a racer, so I don’t have much experience with training for something for months upon end and then being done with it. I’ve got something almost like postpartum depression going on. Post-velo blues? Depression is too strong a word. Who knows, it doesn’t actually matter.
My thoughts are all over the map. I’m very pleased that I was able to finish, especially on a day when over half the starters didn’t. I’m disappointed with my time – 17 hours 49 minutes. I was shooting for 14 or 15. I’m surprised at how lonely the ride was. I’m uncertain as to what I should do next. I’m annoyed that I somehow managed to avoid almost every camera lens on the course. But mostly I’m just glad I finished, and I’m looking forward to the next one.
Total time 17:49, 11.27 mph. 227th out of 427, 25th out of 45 in my age group. Solidly in the middle.
“You’re going to finish this.”
I was not concerned with the mental challenge of biking for 200 miles in adverse conditions. I’ve been in combat — a bad day on the bike is still better than a good day in Baghdad. As my wife said after the race, “You just out-stubborned 200 miles.”
My concern was that I had no idea what my body would do after 120 miles or so. I’ve heard stories of people’s stomachs just shutting down and refusing to take in any food. Spasms, muscle cramps, dehydration, etc. — I’ve biked 100 miles lots of times but I had no idea what to expect beyond that.
As it turns out my body was fine. In hindsight I was riding too conservatively, but at the time I had no idea how much gas I would need in the tank later on. Now that I’ve done it once I can focus on pushing it harder — but getting that first one under my belt was the overriding goal this year.
My training plan was pretty simple: Ride lots.
OK, actually it was Ride lots, and try to keep up with Dan Hughes.
I never once actually kept up with Dan Hughes, but I got better.
Dan and a bunch of other guys do 70-mile hammerfests on gravel during the winter on Sunday mornings, and I started tagging along. I went from getting dropped at the parking lot to getting dropped at mile 50 or so. I owe all those guys a beer or something because I’m not sure I would have finished the DK without those rides.
My winter rides also proved to be good preparation for the arduous conditions of the Dirty Kanza. I was frustrated all winter because I kept breaking stuff on my bike – I ended up replacing both derailleurs, the cassette, a chainring, brake pads, and the chain (twice.)
There was one ride in particular – a 50 mile grind through ice and sleet and mud — that taught me exactly what happens to chains, derailleurs and cables when they get caked in mud. That proved to be valuable experience.
I also learned how to do an emergency single speed conversion when you derailleur disintegrates. Thankfully, I did not need to apply this skill for myself but I ended up helping someone else do it.
I got to Emporia on Friday evening feeling like I was behind the 8 ball. An unexpected change in my work schedule meant I had been busier than expected all week and hadn’t quite had enough time to take care of last minute details.
I’d also been checking the weather obsessively — the rain forecast for Saturday went from 50% to 60% to 20% back to 50% to 0%. Way to really pick a position and stick with it, Mother Nature.
I was worried about the mud, like everyone else. I had brought a spare derailleur, and I spent some time Friday night obsessing about whether I should throw it in my pack or not. Ultimately I decided against it, mainly because I didn’t want to use the extra space. I was naively optimistic that once we started climbing out of the Cottonwood River bottoms that the roads would be reasonably dry. I went to college in Emporia and spent a little time driving around the Flint Hills — I don’t remember mud being that much of an issue.
I got maybe 4 hours of sleep. I was too excited and jittery to fall asleep, and once I did I couldn’t stay asleep. In retrospect, this may have had something to do with my low energy reserves during the ride itself. At any rate, I woke up way before my alarm and biked to the start.
It was misty, and colder than expected. In training for the DK I didn’t expect cold to be one of the problems, but at the last minute I threw my arm and leg warmers in with the rest of my gear. I ended up using both throughout the day.
I couldn’t find my friend Phil at the start. (As it turns out, Phil had a kick ass ride and there is no way in hell I would have been able to stay with him.) I found a couple other guys I sort of knew from Lawrence and we made loose plans to ride together.
As they say, we make plans and God laughs.
We finally got started and started rolling at a decent pace. I’d started in the 14 hour group. My goal, other than just to finish, was to beat the sun. My average speeds over gravel for the past few months made me pretty optimistic about my chances — as long as I didn’t run into any major delays.
At mile 11 I ran into a major delay.
If you haven’t already read about it elsewhere, it was HOLY JESUS CHRIST I’VE NEVER BEEN IN SO MUCH MUD IS THIS SOME SORT OF POST-APOCALYPTIC HELLSCAPE WHAT KIND OF CORMAC MCCARTHY FEVER DREAM IS THIS WILL THE MUD EVER END OH MY GOD THIS IS AWFUL!!!
It was a three-mile section of dirt road that had been turned into soup by a month of heavy rain. Having resolved to keep my chain clean at all costs, I dismounted before we hit it and started walking on the side of the road as much as possible.
Not that I had a choice. Everyone was walking. At first a few people tried to ride through it, but 50 yards later they were walking as well.
Three miles of mud at 3 mph = 1 hour. At first, not knowing how long the mud would last, I tried to jog, or at least walk quickly. Later, word filtered through the peloton that it was three miles.
Doing some math in my head I quickly realized that beating the sun may no longer be an option.
Doing some more math in my head I began to worry about my support crew — I told them to expect me around 10:30 or 11. I could just imagine my wife watching all the other riders rolling in and making up worst case scenarios for my fate. (As it turns out, she was fine.)
The worst part about the mud wasn’t the unexpected physical exertion (although the frame bag turned out to be a hindrance in carrying the bike.) It was the thought that we have 190 more miles to go and no idea how much more of the course is like this.
I felt really bad for the people whose rides ended right there. I saw a couple pushing a tandem the opposite direction, their gear busted. I couldn’t imagine coming here from thousands of miles away to get knocked out in the first 15 miles.
My biggest mechanical issue turned out to be that the sensor for my bike computer got knocked off and for the rest of the day I had no idea how fast I was going. The computer stopped working at 16 miles, so I got to stare at that number for the rest of the day.
I’d thrown a small brush in my frame bag at the last minute and it turned out to be my most valuable tool all day. I cleaned my tires and brakes and drivetrain as best I could and set off. For miles and miles the side of the road was littered with guys staring at what used to be their derailleurs.
I was so relieved to finally be back on the bike I started bombing down hills faster than I should have and soon enough I had a pinch flat somewhere near the Cattle Pens. After fixing that I approached the descents much more carefully.
The upshot of the mud and the pinch flat was that I soon lost anyone I had any hopes of riding with. For most of the day I rode by myself. I was either catching people or being caught – I never found a group to ride with until the last leg. When the route turned into the headwind this proved to be challenging, to say the least.
I finally got to the first water stop, somewhere around 35 miles, and looked at the time. That is possibly the slowest 35 miles I have ever biked in my life. Any thoughts of beating the sun were long gone. My strategy switched from speed to survival. I began to conserve my energy at every chance. I was extremely grateful for the decision to go with an 11-36 cassette. I didn’t think I’d actually need the 36-tooth big cog, but I ended up using it a bunch. However, I didn’t have to walk up a single hill. Not even “The Bitch”.
The hike a bike had taken more out of me than I expected, and I was much more spent after 77 miles than I should have been. My spirits started to lift, very slightly, as I rolled into Madison and started seeing the little kids with signs cheering us on. I got past the checkpoint and started looking for my support crew.
The checkpoint was a little confusing, but suddenly I saw my beautiful wife waving and smiling and jumping and yelling my name. For some reason, the sight of her smiling and looking excited brought everything to a head and I had to choke back tears for a minute.
Madison. After my crew hosed down both me and my bike with the pump sprayer I’d thrown in the car at the last minute.
My support crew was my wife and father. But I was also surprised to see my friend Mark there. We were staying at his house, and he had decided to tag along. The moral support of friends and loved ones is no joke, and its value is not to be discounted on a ride like this.
They hosed down me and my bike. I was able to eat and relax for a couple minutes while they replenished my food stores. I put on some arm warmers and some dry shoes and socks. I was shooting for 5-10 minutes at the stops but I think it was closer to 30. I rolled out of Madison at about 1 p.m.
“Well, the hard part’s over,” I thought. “It won’t take me another 6 1/2 hours to get to Cottonwood Falls.”
LOL. LOL again!
Other than one more short section of hike a bike the rest of the course was rideable. But most of Leg 2 was against the wind.
Remember how I said I never found anyone to ride with? Yeah, that sucks in the wind.
Also I had No Legs. I felt like I was biking through sand. I tried to catch a wheel a few times and realized quickly I just couldn’t spin worth a crap, so I just settled into my own pace and let people go by. (During my post-ride bike inspection I realized my bottom bracket was spinning very stiffly. That may have contributed to the fatigue.)
I don’t remember a whole lot of Leg 2. It just kind of became a blur. “Red Eyes” by The War On Drugs was stuck in my head most of the time. There was a section through private land that was pretty muddy but I was able to ride by staying in the grass. Paul and Hannah, from the bike shop, caught up to me at one point and I tried to hang on to them but realized quickly I couldn’t maintain that pace. I was crawling. Was it because of the lack of sleep? Did the hiking take that much out of me? Was it the headwind? Who knows. I just focused on spinning.
The stretch between Madison and the second water stop seemed incredibly long. I went through all four bottles by the time I got there. I had no trouble getting water, but I heard later that they ran out a couple times. The scene at the water stop looked like a refugee camp. Guys were huddling in blankets with 1000-yard stares in their eyes.
I saw a guy I knew and asked him how he was doing. He was waiting for his ride. He told me he just couldn’t deal with another 50 miles of headwind.
I didn’t try to talk him out of it. I know that guy is a strong rider and can spin my legs off any day of the week. There’s no good, intelligent reason to keep riding when you’re miserable, when you don’t have to. I’m not going to begrudge anyone for deciding it’s not worth it.
So why was I doing it?
Like I said, a bad day on the bike is better than a good day in Baghdad. I’m not riding to prove anything, or to test myself, or anything noble like that.
I’m riding because it’s fun. When riding stops being fun, I stop riding. But even though it was tough and arduous and one of the hardest physical things I’ve ever done, it was fun. I’m pretty busy during the week and I often don’t get to ride my bike as much as I want to. On that day I was able to ride my bike all day long — how great is that?
I stopped to help a guy fill a tube. He’d lost his frame pump somewhere on the course. We ended up riding together for a few miles (before I had to stop to pee). We were coming up on Sharp’s Creek Road. I’ve ridden that section before — I remembered it as being a fun 10-mile descent. I told that guy “This is a fun 10-mile descent.”
It’s a fun 10-mile descent when you don’t have a @#$%& 15 MPH HEADWIND BLOWING IN YOUR FACE THE ENTIRE WAY.
When you do have a 15 mph headwind blowing in your face the entire way, it’s just one more stretch of pedaling into the wind.
Somewhere near Cottonwood Falls. Photo by Kim Morris
Oh well. I finally rolled into Cottonwood Falls around 8 p.m. There was no one in sight in front or behind me.
My wife said the difference in attitudes at the checkpoints was striking. At Madison people were still in relatively good spirits and there was lots of smiles and laughter. Cottonwood Falls featured much less laughter. Mostly grim determination and singleminded focus.
My wife had gotten some Casey’s Pizza and it ended up being the best thing I tasted all day. I had three slices and a Pepsi. I completely changed kits, and changed shoes once more. (My loving wife had cleaned and dried my first pair of shoes with a hairdryer. She hates feet. She must love me lots.) I threw on the leg warmers. I put on my helmet with the light mounted. I swallowed about 6 ibuprofen. I left Cottonwood Falls.
I changed into a dry kit at Cottonwood Falls. It stayed dry for like 10 miles before I wiped out in a mud puddle.
My wife yelled, “I’ll see you at the finish line under your own power!”
“God damn right you will,” I thought.
I’ve heard a lot of people talk about the monster hills going north out of Cottonwood Falls towards Lake Kahola. I don’t remember that so well, but by this point I’d become somewhat numb to hills. Also, by this time it was dark so you couldn’t actually see the hills in front of you. Somehow that makes it better. I remember seeing blinking red lights up ahead and focusing on them.
There was another short section of mud and by this point my bike handling skills had gotten sloppy, and I lost control and fell right in a mud puddle. I really didn’t give a crap at this point, but my gloves got super muddy and I had a hard time gripping the handlebars after that.
Somewhere around Lake Kahola I somehow found myself part of a group of about 6 guys. We were loosely organized and there wasn’t really a paceline taking place, but it was nice to actually ride with other guys for once. After 16 or so hours by myself I start getting a little weird.
There were a few more climbs but I knew that somewhere between Kahola and Americus it got flat, and stayed flat into Emporia.
We finally reached the flat part. I started taking pulls with another guy and at some point I looked behind me and realized the other 4 guys were nowhere to be seen. So it was just the two of us at that point.
I knew where we were going (like I said, I went to college in Emporia), so he let me navigate. Finally, the right turn onto K-99 into Emporia was up ahead.
“Hey man, we’re going to finish this thing!” I said. He just kind of grunted.
A quick ride through campus and down Commercial Street. Even though it was 11 minutes to midnight and the cops had made everyone put away their beers, the streets were still lined with a surprising amount of people. There was cheering and cowbells. Not being a racer or a cyclocrosser, I’d never really experienced that before.
We rolled in together and got hugs from the organizers. I’d ridden with Tim Mohn on a pretty challenging 100-mile gravel race a couple months prior. He said he wished he could’ve helped me the way I helped him.
I was too exhausted and mentally spent to say anything intelligent. All I can say now is that putting on the Dirty Kanza is more than enough.
Finish line, with my awesome support crew.
My trusty steed.
My wife gave me a huge hug, mud and all. I looked around for anyone that I knew, and didn’t see anyone. I saw the Sunflower Outdoor guys tearing down the pop-up shop. I told them thanks for all their mechanical support over the months.
I wanted to hang out and partake of the fesitivites. But it was midnight, and I’d been riding my bike for 17 hours and 49 minutes. I’d gotten 4 hours of sleep the night before. I was hungry.
So we got some McDonalds and went to Mark’s house. And I slept.
The next morning I went to the awards ceremony, but again didn’t see anyone I knew. I found out later that my friend Phil had finished in 15:14 and was 15th in his age group. Another guy I had tried to ride with had to abandon at mile 50 because of a mechanical. Some other guys I’ve ridden with all had good rides. I was slower than everyone.
One of my dogs, Steve, helping me recuperate.
We went home. I spent the rest of the day on the couch with the dogs.
Sure I would have liked to have been faster. But in the end I finished.
And I got to spend all day riding my bike. How great is that?
More of a coffee drinker than a beer drinker. That’s a tasty coffee mug now.
Dirty Kanza mud.
Words cannot express my gratitude adequately but I need to acknowledge my huge debt and thanks to the following:
Katie, for all her love, patience and support and tolerance of being a bike widow for the past few months.
My dad, for his patience and work as my support crew.
Mark, for letting us stay with him and for joining the support crew.
Phil, for all the great training rides this spring.
Dan Hughes, Joe, Larry, Tom, Geoff, Roger, and everyone else who has helped kick my ass on the Sunday morning and Friday afternoon rides.
Joe, Grady, Colin, Caleb, and all the other great mechanics at Sunflower.
Gary at Cycleworks, for finally figuring out my rear shifting issue.
Ashton at Sunflower, for riding with me through two long rides with incredibly challenging weather this winter.
Craig, for the curse of the singlespeed.
Jim Cummins, Kristi and Tim Mohn, and Lelan Dains, for running the Dirty Kanza.
Everyone I was able to chat with even for a few seconds on the ride.