I'm starting this post with a celebratory shot: me wearing my brand-spanking new Dirty Kanza 200 jersey that I purchased the day after finishing the race. Such a sweet reward!
Editor’s Note: This blog post details my trip to the 2014 edition of Dirty Kanza 200 and the race itself. If you’re interested in the gear I used, my training plan and my race fuel, read Dirty Kanza 200: The Gear, Training and Fuel That Got Me Through 203 Miles.
Two years ago, I had no idea what a gravel grinder was. My riding was limited to smooth roads and mountain bike trails. Cyclocross was on my radar, but I’d never lined up for a CX race. But racing on gravel roads? No one had told me it existed let alone why someone would choose to ride low- to no-maintenance dirt and gravel roads in far-flung, nowhere-near-civilization dots on a map that require riders to be self-sufficient.
My foray into the scene is just this simple: I stumbled into gravel grinding when I sought endurance races to train for the 2013 edition of 24 Hours in the Canyon. It all started with the Texas Chainring Massacre. Several races later, I might even prefer gravel grinding to any other form of cycling. Seriously. It’s a blissful ride. I enjoy the sound of tires rolling across the gravel. The skills required for riding these routes are equal parts MTB and road; to ride gravel well you need to pick good lines, avoid rough spots, ride smart, “burn your matches” wisely, share the effort with fellow racers, alternate drafting and pulling. And, often, the scenery is beyond compare. These races are typically no-frills and camaraderie runs high.
Never content with doing the same races over and over again, I turned my sights toward finding the biggest, baddest gravel grinders in the country. There are two, clear top dogs — Trans Iowa and Dirty Kanza 200. The former covers 310-340 miles, and the latter is 200 miles. DK 200 seemed like the most reasonable next goal. So I signed up. And then I trained hard and assembled the necessary gear (reminder: you can read all about that here).
GETTING TO EMPORIA, KANSAS
First things first: I must thank TPG for serving as a fantastic driver, cook, motivator, crew and all-purpose, kick-ass girlfriend. The trip and the race would have been a lot harder without her.
I’m going to be entirely honest here: driving to Dirty Kanza 200 might be the least enjoyable aspect of the entire experience. It’s about a 7-hour drive on Interstate 35 from Dallas. There is very little to see or do en route to the northeast corner of Kansas. The stretch through Oklahoma is the most mind-numbing.
But there is one decent spot worth visiting: POPS’ Soda Ranch in Arcadia, Okla. Every good road trip needs a side-trip detour, and this was our best option. Neither TPG or I picked up a soda, but it’s not for a lack of options — more than 600 sodas. That’s probably too many options, really. There’s also a diner and gas station. We spent our afternoon at POPS making our lunch at a picnic table and making pictures.
At night, this 66-foot soda sculpture is a multicolored, LED tribute to fizzy drinks.
If you’re interested in racing Dirty Kanza 200 (or the 100-mile Half Pint), you’ve got to be quick: registration fills up in a matter of days. Hotel rooms fill up even quicker. I searched high and low, and only the sketchiest hotels still had vacancies. I considered reserving a camping space at a nearby state park and searched for spots near Emporia. Neither option was ideal, mainly because they weren’t convenient to the race site.
Enter Emporia State University! For the second year in a row, the home of the Hornets opened its dorms for Dirty Kanza riders. Our dorm room in the North Tower was a steal. A three-night stay (we actually arrived Friday) included a Friday brunch, Saturday breakfast and plenty of space for all the stuff we brought. It cost $245. Best of all, the campus is within easy walking distance of downtown Emporia, which is filled with nice shops, good food and drink (ate some dynamite pizza at Wheat State Pizza with TPG and Dat — maybe the best pizza we’ve ever had) and charm aplenty.
Speaking of charm, there’s nothing more impressive in Emporia (save the verdant fields) than the Granada Theatre, the site of packet pickup and the Dirty Kanza start/finish line. The theater was dedicated in 1929 by Emporia’s most famous native son, journalist/author William Allen White (his name is all over the city). Fast-forward a half-century or so, and the movie palace had fallen into disrepair. The good people of Emporia saved the theater from the wrecking ball and restored it into a pure gem.
Emporia is a charmer. The city’s downtown was lined with about a dozen decorated pianos to promote Symphony in the Flint Hills.
In a perfect world, every rejuvenated downtown would have a bluegrass band playing outside its landmark theater. And get a load of that upright bass. It’s aluminum, something I had never seen before; so I chatted with the bassist, who told me he found the Pfretschner. Apparently, that brand and Alcoa are the most common aluminum uprights. I love learning new things!
RACE DAY: START LINE
Race day started early — 4:15 a.m., plenty of time to eat a proper breakfast (coffee and oatmeal with peanut butter), check my gear and get focused before the race began at 6 a.m.
TPG and I walked to the start/finish; again, another benefit of staying in the dorm.
Racers get to choose their chutes based on how long they think it will take them to finish the race — 12, 14, 16 or 18 hours. Entering the race, I had a good feeling I could finish in less than 16 hours. I also thought it was very possible I could Race the Sun — finish the race in 14 hours and 41 minutes, before sunset at 8:42 p.m. I also knew that the race would be nuts for the first dozen or so miles — crashes and flat tires happen when hundreds of people jockey for position, take bad lines and make bad decisions to get an advantage early in a long-ass race. I wanted none of that. In fact, I wanted to start slowly. So I chose the 16-hour chute, opting to hang back and thinking I’d pass my fair share of racers throughout the day (this was a good idea).
A 16-hour race would be a very good showing, especially if I encountered a mechanical problem or a few flats.
Racing 200 miles isn’t impossible; the trick is fooling yourself into believing that you’re only racing 50 miles. So I started the race with the goal of finishing just a 50-mile race strong. Then I would finish just another 50-mile race strong. And then I would race another 50-mile race before racing a fourth 50-mile race. Breaking it up into four races makes 200 miles totally digestible and possible.
The 2014 edition of Dirty Kanza 200 began on a few paved roads, but we were on dirt within minutes. The beginning of the race wasn’t incredibly frantic, and the first sections of gravel weren’t entirely treacherous. That being said, there were plenty of frustrated riders repairing flat tires in the first 10 miles. Many of these riders were making their repairs shortly after turns on the course; my best guess is that they took the turns too quickly and/or sharply, pinch flatting tubes or worse, slashing their tires’ sidewalls.
As the morning sun continued to rise, the plains were shrouded by a mix of fog and dust (peep this Adventure Monkey photo). It was eerie and difficult to determine where the fog ended and the dust began. Prerace, TPG wisely advised me to wear a bandanna over my mouth and nose to filter the amount of dust I would inhale. On the course, I looked like a Western movie-style bank-robbing bandit. But I was able to breathe OK.
The first 50 miles went by quickly. I chatted with a couple of riders, kept a good cadence and did my best to not race too hard, too fast.
Highlight of the first 50: The low-water crossing was just as awesome as I expected (another Adventure Monkey shot worth perusing). The water was deep, and the stream was moving at a decent pace. Some riders rode through it, but I did not. My main reasons: I didn’t know what was at the bottom of the calf-high water and the hill coming out of the water was a slick, muddy mess. So I walked for a few hundred feet. It was the right call.
I reached the first checkpoint — Madison — in 3 hours 27 minutes and 10 seconds (14.7 mph). I promptly found TPG, talked with her about what I needed for the next leg of the race (more water, alligatorade, bananas, bars, gels, Endurolytes, etc.) and got off the bike to hit the restroom in a convenience store. I must thank the young woman who insisted I cut in front of her in the five-person deep line for the unisex toilet; she said, “You’re in more of a hurry than I am.” Yes, yes I was.
As planned, I spent 15 minutes at the first checkpoint. I told TPG I’d see her at the next checkpoint soon and confirmed that I’d want to follow the plan we discussed earlier — I would want lunch and a longer break, probably 30 minutes.
The second 50-mile segment started with an incredibly rude hill — Sandpipe Hill. It looks much steeper in this picture. I felt good. I knew I’d have no trouble keeping my pace. I stayed on top of my hydration and food.
The large packs of riders were starting to thin out, and there were fewer times where I had to maneuver to pass riders as we climbed up the rolling hills. About those beautiful, green hills — I didn’t spend much time at all taking them in during the race. My eyes were focused on the road 90 percent of the time, evaluating the conditions, selecting good lines. Success at Dirty Kanza requires a rider to ride smart; if you stop thinking, you’re opening yourself up to something bad happening — rolling over a sharp rock, dropping into a pothole, falling into a cattle guard with a tire-wide gap. The amount of mental energy needed to ride this course isn’t as great as a twisty, technical MTB trail. But you can’t just pedal carefree.
On the second leg, I saw one unlucky racer — bloody face and scraped to hell, he was being tended to by his crew who had come to rescue him. This scene on the side of the road was a reminder that riding gravel wasn’t a piece of cake, walk in the park or whichever cliché you prefer. The “roads” were capable of inflicting major damage. Respect them.
Miles 50-100ish were uneventful for me. I rode smart and strong, working in pacelines to conserve energy on flats and breaking away on most ascents. The descents were long, fast rewards. I pedaled down a few, but I mostly dipped into my drops and got as low as possible so I could coast at 25-30 mph. Not every hill afforded me this luxury. Some were pockmarked with potholes and large, sharp sections of rock. I took my times on those descents. On several occasions I saw a racer changing a flat at the bottom of these hills; that was my sign to take it slow. It makes no sense to bomb a sketchy hill if it’ll cost you 10 minutes when you have to fix a flat.
I reached Cassoday, the second checkpoint, in 3 hours 32 minutes and 48 seconds (14.22 mph). The parking lot situation was … well, not a parking lot. It was an overgrown field. TPG flagged me down at the checkpoint and led me to our piece of this haphazard plot of land. Several teams, who probably have done this race before, had large flags (countries, sports teams, bike company logos) flying high in the air at their sites, which made their spots easy to find. That’s a smart move that I highly recommend for anyone who plans to race Kanza.
Again, TPG was a champ. Her crewing skills are elite. She knew where everything was and got everything I needed as soon as I asked. At each checkpoint, she had the Comfiest Camping Chair in the World set for me to sit. I, however, didn’t use it. I was wary of getting too comfortable. Just getting off the saddle, standing and stretching my legs was good enough for me.
At this checkpoint, I ate more, drank iced coffee, visited the Porta-Potty and re-upped on chamois cream (critical to do this at every checkpoint). All told, I spent almost 30 minutes here.
The third leg of Dirty Kanza 200 would be a milestone for me — the longest distance I’ve ridden on my Salsa Vaya. I wasn’t sure what 150 miles would feel like; my previous maximum distance — 133 miles of the Red River Riot route — felt tough. I started feeling very fatigued in the final 10 miles of that training ride. But the big difference then was that I was riding solo. At Kanza, I had hundreds of riders joining me, albeit even farther spread out at this juncture.
The first few miles of this section of the race was paved — a blessing (smooth!) and a curse (it was heating up!). Within this first few miles, I realized my bike’s front derailleur was misfiring; I couldn’t shift to the large chainring. I tried twice and dropped the chain. Not good because, for better or worse, I ride hard — always trying to mash the largest gear I can.
With 10 fewer gears, I knew this leg would be a challenge. To stay on pace, I had to spin at a higher cadence — an unnatural motion that led to slight pain in my right knee. To make matters worse, I was starting to cramp up — my right quad and hamstring taking turns griping about the effort. I never had to get off the bike to work out the muscles or give them a break. Instead, I growled through the pain, making inhuman noises that diminished the pain and made me feel stronger (and probably made nearby riders assume I had gone rabid).
Despite these setbacks, I kept riding as strong as I could. I continued to press forward, working in pacelines for a bit before zooming forward to the next rider or group of riders on the horizon.
I can’t recall if this was the section of the race where free-range cattle were in-play. Regardless, you’ve never lived until you’ve ridden past unimpressed bovine that are a) not impressed with your kit or bike and b) at a moment's notice could stampede your ass into the dirt.
My slowest stage, I reached Cottonwood Falls, the third checkpoint, in 4 hours 4 minutes and 4 seconds (13.68 mph). I have to give it up for this town — the locals were super friendly and accommodating. TPG said that a town councilwoman used her power to keep the county courthouse open for riders after it was briefly closed. I greatly appreciated being able to wash up in the clean, spacious bathroom — a huge improvement over a convenience store john or a Porta-Potty.
During this checkpoint, I worked on my chain and derailleur as TPG refilled all of my stuff — more of everything! She was so encouraging, which I really needed. I was starting to have less fun, and doubt was seeping into my brain. I was pretty sure I could finish; but she was posi-friggin-lutely certain I would finish the race. Her enthusiasm was just what I needed. She reminded me that what I was doing was a major accomplishment and that there were just 50 miles remaining. I ride 50 miles all the time. No sweat.
After logging my slowest stage, I was fairly certain I couldn’t finish the race before sunset. Fatigue was increasing — my legs were tired and my lower back was sore — and the wind was picking up, making every mile just that much more difficult. Also, there were fewer racers in front of me, so there were fewer opportunities to draft.
|Corky the Hornet|
As I pedaled, there were signs that I was returning toward civilization. There were highway crossings and houses, glorious houses with families outside cheering on racers and offering cold water and “fat” Coke (none of that Diet Coke crap). I saluted each as I passed, declined offers of beverages and mustered a couple of howdys as my throat constricted — I was getting emotional.
The sun dropped lower and lower and 8:42 p.m. was getting closer. I managed to pull two other racers for a few miles at a 16 mph clip, when it was their turn to pull, I was exhausted. I couldn’t keep pace and stay behind their wheels. I lost my final opportunity to draft.
And just like that, the sun had set and I flicked on my front and rear lights. I wasn’t disappointed. It would have been nice to finish before sunset. But I was still very much thrilled that with every passing second I was approaching my goal — finishing the race. I could have a dozen flats and need to walk the bike for the remaining 6 miles. It wouldn’t matter; I had plenty of time to finish.
Twenty-eight hours after this photo was snapped, I
rolled past this sign toward the finish line.
The final couple of miles were paved. I pedaled up a city street and turned onto a familiar road leading back to the Emporia State campus. I passed the dorm (and briefly daydreamed how sweet it would be to shower soon), rolled over the words of encouragement that students wrote on the sidewalks with chalk and passed clapping Emporia State staff and faculty as I approached the intersection leading to downtown.
The light turned green just as I approached the intersection. Volunteers on the other side cheered and yelled “just four blocks to go!”
I slammed my gear shifter to my biggest gear, stood on my pedals and mashed them as hard as I possibly could. I was flying inside and out. This long damn day — a fun one, to be sure — was almost over. On each side of the road, there were cars loaded up with bikes, cyclists and their crew hanging out, some cheering.
Three more blocks.
I blasted past familiar storefronts that line Commercial Street and avoided drivers that were haphazardly searching for parking spaces.
Two more blocks.
I could hear the cowbells. I could see the finishing chute. I could taste the sweet satisfaction of accomplishment bubbling up inside me. I could feel tears that were threatening to escape. I gave them permission to roll from my eyes as I rolled toward the finish.
One more block.
I entered the finisher’s chute. The crowd clanged their cowbells and I threw my hands into the air, yelling “Yeah! … Yeah! … Yeah! …” It was an incredible feeling.
“Aaaaand … from Dallas, Texas … Rrrrroberrrrt Traaaaay-seeee!” the announcer said as I made it to the finish line. It. Was. Sweet.
I reached the finish line in Emporia in 3 hours 44 minutes and 8 seconds (13.54 mph). Total time for my first Dirty Kanza 200: I covered 203 miles in 14 hours 58 minutes and 54 seconds (13.54 mph), good for 210th of 469 finishers (31st of 66 in men ages 35-39).
Jim Cummins, executive director of Dirty Kanza, hands me the coveted Dirty Kanza 200 finisher’s pint glass and details how to procure a free beer. I shook his hand, thanked him for one helluva race and smiled for the first time as a Dirty Kanza finisher.
TPG was quick to find me in the mess of bikes and bodies filling downtown Emporia. It was great to be off the bike but even better to hold her and kiss her. I could not have asked for a better partner in this adventure. Her support made it possible for me to finish. There’s no doubt in my mind.
We soaked up the scene unfolding downtown. It was a party, but I was most enjoying the opportunity to sit down and relax. I wanted nothing to do with that free beer (TPG would tell you that’s the first thing I told her when I saw her after finishing).
It was tempting to spend more time downtown, but I really wanted to be clean. I was gross, totally filthy — dirty, sweaty and stinky. Just like my bike.
That’s a hardworking machine right there. I couldn’t be happier with how my Salsa performed. It’s going to be very difficult for me to choose another bike brand for the remainder of my years as a cyclist.
Proud of my feat and thrilled to be off that dirty bike, we drove back to the dorm, got clean and recapped our Dirty Kanza experiences before passing out from exhaustion.
We woke up in time to walk to the awards ceremony at White Auditorium. It was packed and the ceremony was great, even if the gushingly apologetic Kiwanis ran out of biscuits they served for breakfast. It was wonderful seeing all of the top riders accept their awards. The top riders shattered the course records; former pro racer Brian Jensen smashed the men’s record (just under 12 hours) by finishing in 10 hours and 42 minutes. Remarkable!
Kansans’ support for the race is INCREDIBLE. They realize they have something special; the Dirty Kanza is a premier cycling event that more and more cyclists add to their bucket lists each year. Emporia and the Flint Hills region are on the map. And these locals are proud, as well they should be. Thank you, volunteers, organizers, Emporia State University, local business owners and residents of the Emporia region. You made quite an impression. You have a charming city and a challenging race. I wouldn’t hesitate to make the trip again to race Dirty Kanza again. And, for anyone on the fence about racing Kanza: Do it! You won’t regret it.