15 hours 45 minutes.
Not bad for a race that I quit.
This year’s Dirty Kanza was punishing and difficult in a different way that the 2015 version – mainly because it was hot and windy. I’ve had the thought that this year was even more difficult, but discounted that thought since I’m 12 months separated from the physical discomfort and fatigue of last year’s race. I’ve read more than one race report, however, where other people have said the same thing.
I ran out of fluids and heat cramped for a good portion of the race, and missed my personal goal of beating the sun by an hour, but I finished. (I also had zero flats or mechanicals, and I’ll make an appropriate sacrificial offering to the future ghost of Eddy Merckx for that.)
When I read other people’s race recaps I admire their brevity and flow and attempt to emulate that. However, I’m afraid my report is much like this year’s version of the DK: grueling, needlessly long, and full of hot wind. You’ve been forewarned.
Part I: In which I overcome an advanced case of butthurtedness
However, the hardest part of this year’s DK for me was starting the damn thing. Without going into all the minute, whiny details, I had some setbacks this spring and at one point I was pretty demoralized (aka butthurt) and decided I was going to put my entry up for grabs and forego this year’s race.
A combination of crashes, mechanical issues, and heat cramps combined to the point where I was not having much fun. My cycling philosophy is simple – I ride because it’s fun. If it stops being fun, then I’ll stop. The tipping point came after a 100-mile race in April (the Cool Hand Luke grinder in Leavenworth) in which my legs started cramping at mile 47 and didn’t stop for the rest of the ride. It was so painful at times that I had to dismount and walk up several hills because I was physically incapable of pedaling.
Long story short, I took a week off, no one wanted my entry by the deadline, and I changed my nutrition strategy to address the cramp issue.
I did a 90 mile ride on a hot day and didn’t cramp. On that same ride I crashed again and tore up my palms pretty badly, but was able to find someone at a farmhouse with some athletic tape and bandages and finish the last 60 miles while gingerly gripping the handlebars with my bloody stumps of hands. Well then. Game back on.
(Pro tip: Don’t tell your wife you’re going to quit something and then later change your mind. Especially when she’s your support crew.)
Part II: Pre-game
Learning a lesson from last year, I took a day off work and went down Friday morning with my friend Mike. Mike had his own share of rotten luck in 2014-15 and was in a very nasty crash weeks before the DK and was unable to ride. He had some unfinished business. (Spoiler alert: He finished this year, had a great ride, and was top 100 overall for men. Congrats, Mike!)
We walked around a bit to soak in the atmosphere and signed in. After a fabulous lunch at the Commercial Street Diner, we decided to go for a short recon ride.
Frankly, I was worried about the Infamous Muddy Three-mile Hiking Muddy Section From Hell ™ from last year. About a week before this year’s race there was a huge storm that dumped 3 inches of rain on the region, and I had no idea if it the Infamous Muddy Three-mile Hiking Muddy Section From Hell ™ would be dry.
It was. It was dry and fast. Forecast looked good for Saturday – slight chance of scattered storms overnight, but a 30% chance of storms is basically the same as 0% chance of storms, right? And Saturday looks like it’ll be fine – 80 degrees with a tolerable NW wind. We’ll be fine.
Instead I fretted about my setup. Should I have gone ahead and replaced my bottom bracket? I’m not sure it feels right. Should I have replaced my big chainring? I haven’t been dropping chains but it’s pretty worn… etc. Then I went to bed. I slept better than last year, but I still didn’t sleep great.
Part III: Here we go again
I woke up at 3:30 from a bad dream in which the course was getting pounded by a hellacious storm. I heard thunder, and realized the course was getting pounded by a hellacious storm. I looked at the radar. I looked outside. I contemplated going back to bed.
Eff it. Nothing we can do but ride.
I biked the 1.7 miles to the start. This is significant because I navigate based off cue sheets, and forgot to restart my computer, so for the entire race I had to do math to figure out the right place to turn. Pro tip: Don’t do that.
I found Mike and another friend, Jake, and we lined up in the 14-16 hour group. My biggest concern at the start, based on last year’s start, was to avoid crashes and ejected water bottles.
We rolled out with the neutral start, and there was no waiting on a train this time.
I enjoy the start because it’s the only time all day that I’ll see the front of the race. We got to the first turn off of the highway and we could see gigantic rooster tails of water being kicked up by the leadout vehicles as they turned onto the gravel road. A collective groan arose from the pack.
That freak thunderstorm dumped about a half inch of water on Emporia in 20 minutes, and left the prone-to-flooding roads by the Cottonwood River with standing water on them for the first 10 miles or so. I backed off because I wanted to leave plenty of space between me and the riders in front, and moved towards the middle of the road.
The water wasn’t bad but it got a bit muddy. The mud was not anything compared to last year, however, and I just concentrated on staying upright and avoiding the guy in front of me. Then we came around a bend in the road and it was derailleur graveyard hell.
The sides of the roads were lined with hundreds! (Ok maybe dozens!) of riders staring forlornly at their busted derailleurs. It’s a look I know well, because it’s the look I had on my face at mile 20 of the Land Run 100 this year.
I got paranoid. My drivetrain looked OK, but I thought the same thing at Land Run, biked 10 feet further than I should have, and paid the price.
Some people got off and walked, but most were riding. My chain seemed ok. I compromised. I didn’t shift, and I rode very gingerly. Every time I started to feel even the slightest bit of “that ain’t right” I backed off, and soft pedaled. Was I lucky or was I good? Who knows. It worked.
Enough about that. I made it through that section and we started climbing. I kept looking at my computer to see when we would hit mile 13 – the Infamous Muddy Three-mile Hiking Muddy Section From Hell ™. I couldn’t tell from the radar if the surprise thunderstorm had hit that section or not. It seemed to take a really, really long time to get to mile 13.
As we got closer, the roads got dry. I started to allow myself to be cautiously optimistic. We left the Cottonwood flood plain and the roads were dry, smooth and fast. Can it be? Can it be that we caught a break from Mother Nature?
We hit mile 13 – the Infamous Muddy Three-mile Hiking Muddy Section From Hell ™. Dry as a bone! It took me an hour to get through last year. It took 10 minutes this time! Hallelujah!
Mother Nature giveth and taketh away. More on that later.
The rest of the first leg was fast and smooth. I’d lost Mike and Jake somewhere at the start and settled into my own pace. I calculated I needed roughly a 14 mph average to beat the sun & have reasonable checkpoint stops. I knew we’d be fighting a headwind later so I tried to conserve my energy when there was a tailwind and a descent.
Leg 2: Madison to Eureka, or, how I learned to stop worrying and love the bonk.
I got into the checkpoint at 9:16. My wife gave me food and water bottles for the second leg, I ate something and drank a Coke and some water, and my friends Jake and Serena cleaned and lubed my bike. I was out of there in about 5 minutes, feeling good.
I had 4 bottles with me – double what I normally take on a 50 mile ride. I was making a point to eat and take electrolyte tablets every hour. As I left Madison I remember thinking vaguely that maybe I should have drank more water there, but the real heat wasn’t supposed to hit until noon so I figured I would be good until Eureka. (You see where this is going, right?)
Jake (not my support crew but the other Jake) and I ended up leaving Madison at the same time and rode a few miles together. We took turns pulling against the headwind, and a couple other riders joined us, until we got on a climb and they were going faster than I wanted to so I let them go.
Around mile 65 or so I came across a nasty crash. I found out later a SS rider from Oklahoma crashed on a descent and borke his jaw, and had to be airlifted out of there. There was a big crowd tending to him by the time I got there and I figured the best way I could help at this point was to stay out of the way. I said a prayer and engaged in some somber contemplation for a few miles.
Then the cramps started.
This is some bullshit. I’ve addressed these. I’m taking the Hammer Endurolyte Extreme pills in even greater doses than recommended. I’m eating. I’m drinking Skratch. It’s not even hot yet, by Kansas standards! WTF?
Flashbacks to the Cool Hand Luke ride ensued. In that ride, once the cramps started, I was screwed.
This was not helped by the realization that I was going through fluids a lot more quickly than anticipated, and I was going to run out well before I got to Eureka.
But – if I couldn’t get on top of the cramps it wouldn’t matter. So I stopped for a second to eat, swallowed a big handful of Endurolytes, and downed one of my precious bottles of Skratch.
Shockingly, it worked. I was able to get through the rest of the ride without having leg cramps stop me in my tracks.
The upshot, however, was that every time I put down real power to the pedals I could feel the tell-tale twinges in my legs signaling imminent cramping. As long as I rode at 50-60% I was fine, but 70-90% were danger zones, especially for extended periods.
I frankly don’t remember too much of the rest of the leg, it was fairly uneventful. It was hot. I guess at some point we rode past the Dr. Pepper ranch but I must have been staring at the road because I had no idea until I saw pictures later. I did end up running out of fluids, but the last few miles into Eureka had a stiff tailwind so we were able to fly.
It was 1:17 when I got to the second checkpoint. 4 hours to go 50 miles is slower than I would have liked. I grabbed my 3-liter Camelbak and also had 3 bottles on my bike. I drank a significant amount of pickle juice. Someone threw an ice sock on my neck while I changed into dry shoes and socks. I tried not to think about the upcoming headwind.
Leg 3: The long and winding road
I had no idea what to expect on the back half of the route. I knew we were getting close to the eastern edge of the Flint Hills, but did that mean it would be flatter? (Spoiler alert: No.) We had a bit of a stay of execution as we headed east, but it was tough to enjoy because I knew at any minute we were going to turn north and into the headwind. I hoped, naively, we would be far enough east that there would be trees to block the wind. (Spoiler alert: No.)
The roads were pretty cool, though. We went on some pretty rough and wild minimum maintenance roads with amazing views. I was descending like a ninny, to avoid getting pinch flats, but this saved my bacon several times because I was able to avoid eating shit when there was a nasty rutted section of the road I might not have otherwise seen.
(I still run clinchers, mainly because I understand them and I fear change. But, I put some Orange Seal in my tubes and I didn’t flat once. I haven’t actually looked at my tubes but I know I felt my rim bottom out a couple times when I hit a cattle guard that I didn’t see until the last minute, but my tires kept air the whole ride. In fact, I haven’t put any air in them since the DK and they’re still holding air.)
At this point everything runs together. There were at least two more fords somewhere in here. By the time I got to the last one all the photographers had left, probably to get pictures of the fast people. I don’t blame them.
I do remember running out of fluid. I drained that 3-liter Camelbak in 38 miles. That’s four bottles’ worth. I still had 3 bottles of Skratch, although the sugary drink was not the most appealing. I rationed my bottles and allowed myself a sip every time I was thirsty.
My bike computer (Lezyne Super GPS for the battery life win!) shows it got into the low 90s in the afternoon. Although the actual towns of Emporia, Madison, and Eureka show highs in the mid-80s all day, out in the hills with no shade and elevated out of the river valleys, it was much hotter. It was in the mid-80s by the time we hit Madison at 9:15 a.m. It only got worse.
And I’m a big guy at 200 pounds – it takes a lot of liquid to cool down this engine. And a lot of electrolytes. Hence my preoccupation with hydration.
(When I was serving in Iraq, heat casualties were always a concern. I became pretty anal about proper hydration, especially because the first thing they do when you have a heat injury is to stick your arm with an IV, and our medic was kind of a knucklehead and I didn’t want him to be sticking my arm with a needle. Sorry, Chuck.)
At the top of one climb a group of what I assumed was the jeep club patrolling the route was handing out bottles of water. That got me a few more miles.
I stopped at the bottom of another hill to rest in the shade in a driveway a few miles outside of Madison. The homeowner was sitting in a Polaris, watching. He asked if I wanted a bottle of water. Yes. Yes I did. It was a gloriously large bottle of Aquafina. I love that man and want to marry him.
Leg 4: No, I wasn’t having an animated conversation with myself when you rode by me. You must be imagining things.
A lot of people have mentioned that this is the part where things were dark. I never felt like quitting, but the grins and jokes were pretty much gone by this point. I remember distinctly thinking, more than once, “I don’t think I’ll do this next year.”
At the final checkpoint I ignored my own rule and sat for a few minutes in the shade. Even the Casey’s pizza, which was so delicious and such a lifesaver last year, that my wife had thoughtfully procured, was not that appealing. It was still delicious, but my stomach was rebelling at food because of the heat. I try to eat real, solid foods when I ride by the mini-pies and mini-sandwiches I had made were just too difficult to choke down, so I reverted to GU Roctane gels and Clif Energy Food (basically baby food pouches.)
However, it was 46 miles to go, the temperature was starting to drop and the wind was dying down. Let’s get this over with.
Again, there were some pretty wild and wooly minimum maintenance roads. There was a pretty sunset in there somewhere. The wind stopped blowing and the hills smoothed out as I got near the end.
Sometimes, when I’m out by myself on a long ride, my internal monologue becomes an external monologue. I.e., more than once I was talking to myself when someone rode past me. Did they think I was losing it? I doubt they were paying much attention, or maybe they were just trying to get away from me. I remember at one point saying, “Jesus Christ, I could use some steroids!” right when 3-4 guys rode right past me. Oops. It was a joke, but that’s hard to explain when you’re talking to yourself.
I was glad to be navigating from cue sheets – it saved me from lemming mistakes a few times when the riders in front of me took a wrong turn, and it saved me when I was all by myself. Which was often.
At this point, having ridden solo for so long, I kind of preferred to ride by myself for the remainder of the ride and not worry about someone else’s pace or bike handling skills, so I slowed down to let people go. I knew, well before I got to Madison, that I wasn’t going to beat the sun. Oh well.
As I left Madison, a fellow rider asked what time it was and then said “Hey, we can still beat the sun!” I hated to rain on his parade but felt obligated to tell him that we would have to ride 20 mph in order to do so.
As I got closer to town there were more and more houses. Several people were in their yards, cheering as we went by. A lot of them had dogs. It took a lot of discipline not to stop to pet each dog as I went by. I really start missing my dogs around hour 15 or so on these things. They’re good dogs.
The sun came down with 15 or so miles left. I fought bugs in my eyes and teeth as I turned my lights on. I navigated the railroad tracks successfully. I crossed the Murder Bridge without incident. Soon, there was the tunnel to ESU and the final climb into campus. The sprint down Commercial Street and cowbells, hugs, and relief.
I remember the post-race melancholy from last year, so it didn’t catch me by surprise but it still happened. I had trouble eating for a couple of days but nothing major. I relaxed and spent a lot of time on the couch with my dogs.
As I said above, I think it was harder this year, mainly because of the heat. I can deal with mud and rain better than I can overheating.
I’m not sure what it is about the DK. It’s epic, sure. It’s known nationwide. It’s in my backyard. I went to school in Emporia. I feel like I have a stake in it. Where else am I going to be in the same race as Ted King and Rebecca Rusch? (Although I’m racing in much the same way that shrimp is an ice cream topping just because they’re next to each other in the freezer.)
It’s 200 miles, and no matter how slowly you finish the damn thing, no one seems to care. They just think it’s cool that you rode 200 miles. I think it’s cool that I’ve ridden 200 miles. Twice.
You meet a lot of cool people. I can interact with the winners on Instagram and Twitter and they respond. Frankly, I’m kind of a lone wolf and I don’t make small talk easily and I rode by myself for much of the race and was fine with it, but there’s still a sense of belonging and accomplishment with these hundreds of other riders. Even if we didn’t talk as we rode by each other, it’s still a connection.
Enough naval gazing. It was a tough race this year, but has anyone ever finished a Dirty Kanza and been like “oh that was super easy this year!” It’s not like we signed up for Bike MS.
I go back to “I ride because it’s fun.” I’m still riding.
Double epilogue: Thanks
Thanks to my wife for putting up with my bike nonsense and being a fantastic support crew for the second year in a row. Thanks to Jake and Serena for also being great first-time support crew personnel.
Thanks to Mike for the training rides and support. Thanks to Mike’s wife, Jean, for combining forces with my support crew to make one super support crew Voltron. Thanks to Mac and the rest of Mike’s crew for also helping; sorry I wasn’t very talkative but I really appreciate all the help.
Thanks to James Grooms for the use of the frame.
Thanks to Matt and Kami for letting me borrow the van for the weekend.
Thanks to Deborah for letting me and the crew crash for the weekend.
Thanks to Brenna and Dennis (and Otis) for watching our dogs.
Thanks to Dan Hughes, whose example of bouncing back from a broken clavicle and riding with 4 weeks of training time made me feel pretty sheepish about my own complaints prior to the DK.
Thanks to the organizers, Jim, Tim, Kristi, and Lelan, for putting on a great event year after year, and putting up with some bullshit that they shouldn’t have to put up with.
Thanks to Elisha Otis, for inventing the elevator brake, without which modern skyscrapers would be impossible.