Riding a bicycle is a choice made to improve fitness, escape the rigors and demands of daily life and disconnect for brief interludes of peace and reflection. Racing a bicycle over 200 miles of gravel is a choice made from some self-loathing, masochistic imp deep within your psyche that seems to believe you have an irrational desire to inflict punishment, stress and pain on your mind and body. It must be from some moment of mental fatigue that this little imp takes his strength in order to convince you to register for such an event. I did exactly that back in January of this year.
For those that may not know, the Dirty Kanza 200 is billed as "The World's Premier Gravel Grinder". The active words here are Gravel and Grinder since that's exactly what the day entails. 200+ miles of mixed gravel roads surrounding Emporia, Kansas grinding the racers down to shells of their former selves from start to finish. Mixed gravel consists of sections as hard as any concrete or pavement to the infamous "Minimum Maintenance Roads" that often devolve to grassy single track with loose scree flint sections thrown in for good measure. Luckily, the minimum maintenance roads are usually just connecting roads to the longer "main" gravel roads and byways. The course undulates through the flint hills of Kansas and passes through some of the most striking green, rolling open ranges I have ever witnessed. If it were not for focusing on finishing a bike race, I could easily lose myself out there for hours exploring and feeling completely solitary with nothing but the occasional herd of cattle ambling by without a care.
I should add that I didn't enter this race on a whim of ego-driven machismo... I've ridden 200 miles on a bicycle in a single day at least three times previously. The first time was completely self-supported with only two of my close cycling friends and teammates. We pedaled from my house to New Bern, NC in just about 12 hours total. It was difficult but I felt a wonderful sense of accomplishment and thus began my desire for pursuing distance goals. The next two iterations were fully supported by a sag crew with self-stocked coolers and stops along the route. All three previous 200 mile events had been on a road bike and, though North Carolina byways are not always well-maintained; they are at least paved and occupied with towns dotted regularly along the route for replenishment whenever desired. These previous events might have been a primer for Dirty Kanza but only in such a fashion as to know what 200 miles on a saddle feels like.
The DK200 course is laid out so as to avoid as much civilization as possible. The only towns on the route are strategically spaced 50 miles apart and are there only as support stations where the racers can replenish water, supplies, food and contemplate the meaning of their life in a shockingly brief amount of time. The roads and trails between the towns are desolate, unforgiving and immensely humbling. Most places along the course, you can look around in any direction and see nothing but lush green, rolling hills, a few sparse scrub trees that usually indicate a creek bed and lots of sky. It is easy to feel insignificant and humbled by the immensity of nature but wondrous and glorious at the same time. It's an unusual dichotomy but one I would recommend everyone experience at least once.
My bike: I knew the road bike would be far too stiff for the rigors of racing on gravel and wider tires would be absolutely necessary so I set about eBay and Craigslist searching for a gently used cyclocross frame or full bike. Gravel grinding is still relatively new to the cycling manufacturer's scene so I wasn't prepared to shell out a ton of money for a "gravel-specific" bike just yet... Through many weeks of searches and failed auction wins, I finally scored a 1997 Moots Psychlo-X full titanium bike with their YBB (your butt bounces?) soft tail. It's essentially just an encased spring attached to the seat stay that soaks up about ¾" of harsh hits from the rear. The titanium frame offers the supple ride of steel without the added weight and I scored this one at a very good price. It is equipped with a custom Steelman cantilever fork and Ultegra drive train.
After scoping it out and a few test rides as-delivered, I found that it needed a few modernizations. I left the Ultegra rear derailleur and Sachs top-pull up front since they were mechanically perfect. The Ritchey WCS crank set was swapped out for a true compact with correct length arms and shod with Crank Brothers Egg Beater pedals. I exchanged the entire cockpit with a Salsa Cowbell 3 bar, Thomson stem, Retroshift (now Gevenalle) indexed shifters and Jagwire low-friction cables. This setup would prove to be ideal as most of the time is spent on the hoods anyway and I would only get in the drops on long or sketchy descents. The stock, Serfas/Moots saddle was swapped over for a Brooks Cambium in slate though I'm still on the fence if this was really much of an improvement. I left the stock Moots Ti seat post and installed TRP Euro cantilever brakes. I would have preferred disc brakes but the TRP's are exceptional and proved to be very capable in the conditions. A wet course may have changed my mind but that's a story for another day.
I added a Revelate Tangle frame bag to house all my tools, tube, air, battery and phone while mounting a Revelate mountain feedbag to the top-right of the stem and handlebar for holding my third water bottle. The two cages on the bike were just for storage while I could more easily pull and drink from the feedbag as it also has some small, mesh pockets for the hazelnut-almond butter mix I was using for calories. Bonus that the feedbag also gave insulation to the first bottle inserted and kept it cold until finishing off.
For navigation, I opted for the Garmin Edge Touring GPS head unit. While I already had the Garmin Edge510, I felt the published battery life of 17 hours on the Touring model along with the pre-installed maps but this would prove to bite me in the ass later. Luckily I had backups ready for just such an event.
The tire and wheel choice proved to be the most difficult piece of the puzzle. I researched numerous race reports from other gravel grinders and read through dozens of tire spec sheets to narrow my choices. My largest concern for the DK200 course would be that the majority of gravel in Kansas is flint. If you're not familiar with flint, it is a superb material for chipping off in shards and was widely used by Native Americans for crafting pointed arrow heads and spear heads as well as lighting fires from striking together. In other words... it will shred a set of bicycle tires under any conditions. I had good experience with Schwalbe Racing Ralphs in the NUE races I had completed but none of them could offer the same level of treachery as the flint hills promised. As luck would have it, just prior to this year's Cohutta100 race; my friends and I were discussing tire choices and my perplexity. It was recommended that I run Kenda tires with their Iron Cloak protection so I added that to the shopping list. I finally decided on the Kenda Slant Six in a 700x32C size but worried they might be too narrow after I mounted them. The Racing Ralphs were a 700x33C and appeared much wider on the rim. With no more prep time to worry over it, I settled on the Kendas mounted tubeless to American Classic TCX wheels aired up to 46psi front and 49 psi rear. I believe this was an exceptional combination as I passed hundreds of riders randomly fixing flats along the road side while I kept rolling. I had only a single incident where I bottomed out after a long descent onto a cattle guard and my rear tire burped a little air but never went flat. I added a bit of pressure at the next stop and rolled on.
My kit was the easy part. I wore a previous year's top that fits so well I forget it's there and is mesh in the back for exceptional breathability. Bibs were a compression style with a great chamois and I opted for my Lake MX230 shoes with Crank Brothers zero-float cleats. I really like this setup but may have liked a shoe that breathed a little better after so many hours in them.
Now to the race itself:
Leg 1: miles 0-50
The start/finish line is on Commercial street in Emporia and the town rallies behind this event in full force. Coffee shops open at the wee hours of 4:30am and the sidewalks are packed with onlookers encouraging all the racers. The local roller derby club girls are the official sign holders and each one indicates a time slot you intend to finish by. The front pack starts out at 12 hours, then is broken into two-hour sections back to an 18 hour group. I lined up with the lead group hoping to hang on as long as possible in order to gain as many miles with them as I could. My goal was to beat sunset but that might have been a bit ambitious considering the seething crowd of racers toeing the start line. These guys and gals were intent to crush records while I would be content to finish in one piece. I spoke briefly with Garth Prosser whom I had raced with a few times in the NUE races. He wished me good luck and head up to the front of the pack where I'd not see him again until after the finish.
A local young lady gave a resounding rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner and we were set off at 6am on the dot. The pace rocketed to 20+mph within the first half-mile and stayed there even after we made the turn onto gravel. The dust cloud from our tires erupted viscous, heavy with the humid air and sticking to everything. I could feel the dust lining my nose and mouth while trying to get in as much clean air as possible. It was immediately evident that bike handling skills were not the priority for many of these riders. They would hammer on every straight and come to a crawl entering the turns. Passing took some time and effort as I had to not only find a clean line through the group but also consider the gravel surface as every acceleration would move the bike... sometimes enough to feel squirrelly and unsettling. I never saw the front of the pack, nor wanted to but inched my way into safety where I felt comfortable with the pace. Riders were being shelled off the back like so much chaff off wheat stalks and I tucked in a quiet pocket of clean-ish air for as long as possible.
The sky was overcast with ample cloud cover and a heavy fog settling over all the low areas. As we crested the hills to grasp a view over the land; it provided an eerie scene of calm while a seething pack of hard-charging cyclists hammered a cloud of dust in their wake. The scene was eerily reminiscent of medieval battles with stout warhorses charging in formation. Battle armor replaced with stretchy lycra and carbon fiber. The air was still cool for now but the heat of competition had everyone stirred into a frenzy.
About 23 miles in, I felt my legs screaming in revolt of this pace and no longer thought it beneficial to my goal to continue burning matches to stay with the lead pack. It was clearly evident they weren't relenting and I had to remind myself that this year's goal was to finish and not chasing any records; so I tapered off and settled into a good rhythm. The only screen I watched on the Garmin was the navigation as I thought any other metrics might prove to be distracting and cause me to miss a turn or play mind tricks that I was pushing too hard. You see, the course is not marked at every turn like a standard road event. It's just physically difficult to mark that many turns with free-ranging cattle wandering the course and errant ne'er-do-wells stealing or altering route markers. The organizers were very explicit in stating that we should not depend on the course markings and every participant better be very comfortable with reading a map while simultaneously coordinating with a cue sheet. I crossed my fingers and watched the screen as it bleeped and blipped when turns would approach. I was cautiously optimistic about the battery life but acknowledged that I'd need to have analog routing at the ready should technology decide to flake out. It's a good thing to have backups on backups.
We were repeatedly warned about the cattle guard crossings and their ability to suck a bicycle wheel down without even a second thought. I crossed the first of many on this leg and found them to be imposing but not intimidating so long as they were crossed with enough speed and the front wheel was lofted just enough to clear the entry lip. The more ominous crossings were the wash basins with their concrete crossings and always at the base of a gully. The transitions to these were almost always abrupt and they were often covered in loose dirt so as to add a new level of difficulty while already at speed. Luckily the waters were low and all crossed that day were dry.
There was a single, wet crossing about mile 43 that involved a precarious, washout descent line into a flowing stream complete with spectators and coaches. As I approached the edge of the water and looked for a crossing line, I could see the water moving faster in a slight arc to my left and just in front of the spectators standing in the water. I'm still not sure if they were there to coach or waiting on the next victim to take a dive but I clicked down into my small ring up front and spun all the way across the stream without so much as touching a foot down or unclipping... at least until I reached the opposing bank. I was immediately greeted with thick, wet mud about the consistency of fresh peanut butter. As soon as my front tire hit this slop, I came to full stop. Off the bike, up on the shoulder and do a run-up until I hit dry trail again. The next seven miles were just enough to sling the mud from the tires and dry out my feet.
Rolling in to the first rest stop was both a relief and cause for mass confusion. It had taken me just over three hours to ride the first 50 miles and I was elated. The race organizers were doing active timing so I had to cross the timing chip line before being directed to the blue support area. Rejina was yelling at me to go left as I searched for the face to match the voice. Slow pedaling through a sea of people and bikes trying to find her car was nerve racking but didn't take too long. She had bottles and food waiting as I unloaded and swapped everything over. I took another minute to liberally oil the chain as it had developed a significant squeak since the water crossing. With my goods replenished and drive train quiet, I slogged up a ridiculously steep, brick-lined street to exit the quaint little town. As I crested the hill, a local gentleman was headed down to the court square to see all the activity and gave me a good chuckle when I asked who was responsible for this ridiculous hill being in our way.
Leg 2: Miles 51-100
The next section would prove to be the toughest on me. I suppose, looking back, that I had burned through far too much energy on the first leg by staying with the lead pack out of the gate. In hindsight, I should have just eased up to a sustainable effort that I knew to be within my level of ability and stayed there. The second leg contained a good measure of climbing and, though I didn't yet know it, I was grossly under-nourished. My calories depleted from the previous leg were becoming very evident as I ached every time I lifted from the seat to climb and my rolling speed was way down. I was mostly alone throughout this section and it was wearing on my motivation.
By mile 77, I felt as if I could not pedal another foot. My brain had convinced my legs that it was time to quit and I could not override the thoughts of quitting and pulling out of the race right then and there. I pulled over to the ditch on a slight grade, laid the bike down and sat on a hillside trying to eat my portable pies while rectifying my own self-loathing. I hated myself for wanting to quit so easily and early. My mind continuously offered up one excuse after another. I had not trained hard enough, didn't have enough miles on the bike, didn't have enough miles on mixed-terrain roads, I bit off more than I could chew... It was a storm of negativity washing over me. I resolved to lie down in the grass, close my eyes for a minute and try to abate the negative thoughts with silence. Every few minutes, another rider or group would pass by and ask if I was okay. I gave a thumbs up in silence for fear I might say something that I could not retract. My internal voices were screaming at odds with each other trying to will myself to continue.
After about 15 minutes of some intense internal reflection, I eased back to my feet and swung a leg over the bike. With my calories depleted and my motivation at its lowest, I slowly pedaled the next 23 miles in angry silence trying to resolve my own conflicting thoughts. As I rolled into the second rest stop, Rejina could immediately see I was struggling. I fought back an outburst as I explained what had just transpired and she just told me to lie down next to the car for a minute while she gathered my spent bottles. I sat up and saw her snapping a picture so I contorted my face to show just what I was feeling at the moment. She had the bright idea of sharing my twisted mug to Facebook and asking all my friends and family for words of encouragement. Within a minute or two she had 23 replies of everyone cheering me on from all corners of the world. From my home in NC to my family in Texas and even my buddy over in Japan virtually kicking my ass into gear.
I had built this race up as my penultimate event for the year and to concede defeat now would be the worse feeling in the world. I cannot express how much it meant to me that everyone near and far was cheering me to continue. I stuffed my face with as many calories as I could stomach and resolved to finish or die trying. This race would not beat me unless it killed me.
Leg 3: Miles 100-151
I could feel the energy surging back after the calorie intake from the last stop. It was very clear that I had depleted my reserves far below the minimum level to maintain good performance. The fog and stress lifted from my head as I exited the town to start the third leg. I cursed myself for overlooking such a paramount rule of endurance racing... Fuel early and often.
As soon as my tires touched gravel, the front derailleur began exhibiting a bit of a problem. I could shift into the small ring with no problem but shifting up into the big ring was a chore. I had to really put some pressure on the front shifter to move the derailleur cage enough for the chain to grab the big ring. Sensing that this might cause a mechanical failure if I continued the stress, I pulled over to troubleshoot. Since the Retroshift front lever is a friction style, I just adjusted the limit screw on the derailleur a bit until the shifting returned to a satisfactory level. While stopped, I slightly adjusted the tension on the rear shift cable to clean up some of the clicking that had developed in the last two legs. With the drive train back in spec, I breathed a sigh of relief and pedaled on.
This leg of the race included a good deal of descents but came with a generous side helping of a strong, easterly wind. By now the temps had crept well into the 80's and the sun had long burned off the cool mist of the morning. I would get a respite from the orange ball in the sky every hour or so when a stray cloud moved in but they never stayed long and left me to bake on the dirt roads. Water and nutrition was going down much faster this time with the added heat of the afternoon so I had to remind myself not to take in too much and ration my three bottles for about four hours.
I played leap frog with a few of the same riders as they would either get a flat and have to stop or they could not sustain speed to stay in a group. I felt recharged with the encouragement from my friends and the replenishment of calories. When the route turned northwest, I had a beautiful breeze at my back to put some power down and could easily hit 20+ on the flats. Turning east or south was straight into the wind though and my progress slowed to a crawl.
By now, the Garmin had "lost" the course at least a half-dozen times and each time it instructed me to make a U-turn, I would stop navigation, back out to the main screen and re-load the saved course. Honestly, while reflecting on the way I programmed the GPS course, I made an error... or more of an oversight really. I had re-written the entire course plot on BikeRouteToaster (much more detailed than any other GPS routing site) and, in doing so; had unknowingly caused myself more stress than necessary. Instead of creating and loading the entire course in one map, I should have created four separate courses for each 50 mile leg. Doing so would have caused much less consternation on the part of the GPS and my stress level would have been greatly reduced. It takes a few minutes for a device like the Garmin to calculate a 200+ mile route and locate exactly where on that route you are currently located. Breaking it down into 50-ish mile chunks would have been a much better approach.
Speaking of the GPS; at mile 115, the display flashed a low battery warning. This was not accounted for so soon as I had left my second, charged GPS unit back at the last stop. I quickly went through the options of navigating without an active GPS route to indicate turns and, at the same time, record my mileage. Rejina had made me a set of small, laminated course maps on a key ring that highlighted each individual leg. As long as I could orient the map to north, I could determine the correct turns to make. By this time of day, I was solo most of the time and would only occasionally encounter another rider or group.
At mile 122, the Garmin battery had dropped to 4% so I quickly removed my phone from the frame bag and took it out of airplane mode. As soon as it found signal, I started the Strava App to at least have a record of mileage from that point on to the next replenishment stop. I would have to do a little math in my head at each turn to know what mileage I was currently at while looking at the map to verify turning direction. It didn't sway me much and I'm glad I had the mental faculties to come up with a working solution.
Fatigue was setting in again and all I could think about was a tall glass of Coke and ice at the next stop. With my phone back on, I texted Rejina my location and that I was navigating without the GPS. She replied okay and offered words of encouragement. The miles ticked by as I watched the sun cresting high in the sky. I looked at the time and knew that I wasn't going to make my 14 hour goal. It was a punch in the gut and I hated knowing that I should have been more consistent with my nutrition and conservative with my efforts at the race beginning. There was no sense in demotivating myself again so I shrugged it off as a difficult but valuable lesson learned and just vowed to finish no matter what.
Rolling into the third town gave me both a sense of relief and dread. I was elated that this would be the last time I had to stop and take on supplies but cursed under my breath that I needed to re-attach my lights to finish after sunset. Rejina had made a new friend in Casey, who's boyfriend was riding the course on a single speed. While I can respect the desire, I jokingly told her he was a lunatic for doing it on this course. Rejina sat me down in the folding chair and shoved an oatmeal cookie in my hand. Almost too tired to eat but knowing I absolutely needed the calories; I scarfed it down as quickly as possible. Within a few minutes I had finished off the bottle of Coke and started on a Mt. Dew for hopes the Caffeine and sugar would give me a little pep while she put an ice cold towel on my neck.
By now, everything hurt. Neck, back, legs, arms and shoulders were just beat into submission after 150 miles of gravel, rock, dirt and baked by the sun. She installed the lights on the bike while I tried to gather my motivation to get out of the chair. Probably should not have sat down to begin with but I knew my goal was already shot and I was not a happy camper.
Leg 4: Miles 151-200
I chucked the Garmin Touring into the bike bag and installed my Edge510. It was just out of sheer dumb luck that I decided to load the route into the 510 the night prior to the race start. Valuable lesson here is to use the electronic tools available but know how to get by without them in a pinch and always, always have a backup at the ready.
This leg would be mostly east and south... which of course meant into the wind for nearly the entire time. Luckily most of the elevation was over with and the setting sun provided some spectacular vistas over the green prairie grass. Since I knew that my time goal was gone, I stopped a couple of times to catch a few pics before losing all the light.
Soon after that last pic was taken, the sun set behind a knoll and I switched over to full lights. The Garmin indicated the turns well and most were easily found in the dark though it had not really cooled off as much as I'd hoped. I was still sweating and my progress had slowed in this leg due to the winds and course direction. Once again, the groups and riders would ebb and flow along the leg but were now only dots of white or flashing red as I approached or they passed. We all wished each other well as we knew we were closing in on the final miles.
The real insult comes about 12 miles from the finish. As I'm pedaling to the end of a very long southerly section, I can see the glow of lights from downtown Emporia. There are spot lights waving about the night sky in arcs above my head teasing that, though the finish is within my grasp, I still have another 12 miles to go.
The final miles leading into Emporia are a set of east and south road sections with no respite from the wind. At five miles out, I crest a small rise and the remainder is mostly flat and a huge relief. There is a group of four riders in front of me that just passed me about 12 miles back. I mustered whatever strength I had in the tank to pass these guys again and hold them at bay to the finish line. I might not hit my goal time but my spirit of competition wasn't completely dead. Three of them go down within a couple of miles and I'm holding the fourth within sight. We hit the Emporia town limits and cross back on to pavement then make a sharp left and right on to the Emporia State University campus.
Weaving through the campus and hearing the cheers from passing students has my spirit pumping and I'm feeling motivated. Adrenaline from the lights and crowd ahead are pushing me to the finish line as I hear my name called out and I can see a chute lined with eager spectators all holding out hands for a high five. It's such an awesome and overwhelming experience that I find difficult to explain in words. I just knew the streets would be empty as I rolled in under darkness to a solitary figure recording my time but the crowd I saw before me was enormous and the streets were jumping with a block party as everyone cheered me on with such enthusiasm. A truly amazing way to finish such an epic day.
I rolled under the tent and was immediately greeted with a DK200 finisher's pint glass and a 200 sticker along with a coupon at the bottom of the glass good for a pint of beer. Looking ahead, I caught some spray of Champagne as the guy I was chasing knelt down on one knee to ask his fiancee's hand in marriage. I nearly broke down as I could sense the wave of emotion coming from them and the crowd. Rejina was standing off to the side beaming from ear to ear in relief and joy that I had persevered to finish the race.
A long day in the saddle but so many lessons learned and so many hard-fought miles of accomplishment. This one goes down in my history book as an epic day that almost crushed me but showed me just how to resolve my own self-doubt. Sometimes, just on rare occasions, grit will get you through a tough spot until you can recover, re-evaluate and adapt.
Total distance: 205.3 miles
Total time start to finish: 17 hours, 3 minutes
Total moving time: 15 hours, 1 minute
Total elevation: 8,200 feet
Total weight lost: 8.5 pounds
I will do this race again with new resolve to learn from my errors and vow not to repeat them.
Get out and explore...