I am now one week removed from crossing the Dirty Kanza finish line. I wanted to give myself room to breathe and reflect before I began organizing a weeks worth of notes into a coherent story. Not because I’m slow, but because the journey to my Dirty Kanza finish was an emotional endeavor and I wanted to be able to look at it with some objectivity… I don’t think I will ever be able to gain said objectivity after that experience. My knees still hurt bad enough that I constantly want to sit down and my sit bones constantly remind me that they aren’t ready to accomplish sitting down well either.
The 2012 Dirty Kanza was my 4th time toeing the start line and first time to cross the finish. The quick stats look like this: 210 miles, 19 hours 10 minutes, somewhere around 7500 feet of climbing, no less that 5 new friends made, and more beautiful scenery than one should ever be allowed to take in during a single sitting.
My first three attempts at DK were failures. I look back and realize that while I was young and brash enough to fully believe that 200 miles was within my realm of capabilities, I was nowhere near mentally adept enough to cross the finish line. After I hung my hat up in 2009 from gravel racing I would get asked at least a few times a year if I was coming back to compete. My answer always was, “No way, I know I can’t finish right now.” It was never a matter of being able to physically finish, it was a head space that I could never seem to find. The DK is a patient man’s race for the majority of the racer’s who are not in the front of the pack. Mental fortitude is not something that many 19 year old male’s possess at that capacity. And I can only see that the light I began to shed on that sentiment when I quit attempting at 21 years old was a fraction of what it actually took to earn the title of finisher.
After Dirt Rag magazine held the video competition last year it gave me a sense of how special this race had become to so many people. It had grown massive compared to the last time I had seen it and I knew I wanted to go back, at least in some capacity. I always held DK near and dear to my heart as “that race that starts in the hotel parking lot with 50 people, most of whom I know by first name.” It doesn’t even resemble that anymore, the hardest one day race that no one has ever heard of has turned into a massive start list that transforms a community for one weekend every year.
Putting my name on the start list in January I knew I was going to have a long road ahead training wise. I took a completely different training route than I ever had before and I started early. Long solo rides were the name of my game this year, leaving early in the morning and just sticking my nose out in the wind for 7 hours at a time. I figured this was the best way to begin to break myself down mentally and the stronger I could ride solo, the easier it would be in a draft.
The minute I pulled into Emporia seemed to be when I started holding my breath. Standing in the back of the theater during the rider’s meeting with Joe Fox, Josh Patterson and John Waller I felt a bit overwhelmed. A few years ago we were all sitting around at Bruff’s sharing pitchers of Boulevard and demolishing burgers as pre-race fare. Maybe it was just in my head but I definitely felt a more serious weight to the situation this year as I re-united with old friends, listened to what was un-folding in front of us and promptly returned to our hotel rooms to attempt sleeping.
The actual race: I toed the start line with my fellow Bad Goats. We all put ourselves in the 14 hour starting group. I knew full well I would not finish in 14 hours but my game plan was to hit the first turn onto gravel hidden in a top 50 draft and out of the way of any carnage that I was sure would ensue with a 500 person mass start. My game plan worked and then I slowly started rolling backwards through the pack on my own accord.
My general game plan was to finish within 16 hours. My more immediate game plan was to ride slowly enough that I could breathe through my nose for the first 100 miles, constantly be fueling myself and keep checking the mental dashboard cluster.
The first 60 miles was phenomenal, I just rode my bike and looked around at the scenery. The sun was low and the temperature cool enough that I was in arm warmers. I would hop on the occasional “train” of riders that would pass me until someone took an unreasonably hard pull and then I would just float away and continue on with my own pace. I ended up riding an exceptional section up Texaco hill and met Annie (a fellow Coloradan), a high gear rider who regaled me with stories about the old Flint Hills Death Ride and some singlespeeder who was having a rather difficult time keeping a steady pace and or line. I was all smiles rolling into checkpoint one and was ecstatic to see my Mother cheering and directing me to the camp that she, my Dad and Neta my girlfriend had setup. They helped me refuel and get back onto the road.
I was surprised when I got back on the bike and mile 60-100 was still good. I rolled out of the checkpoint with two gentlemen from Alabama who had just given TransIowa a run for it’s money and had some great stories to share. I saw one of their blog posts already but for the life of me can’t remember their names. I was still feeling good, breathing through my nose and just trying to dispatch the miles with a smile for the time being. I found Chris Burger out on that stretch of road as well. I hadn’t seen Chris since I graduated college and moved away from KS. I think it’s funny that I can be in the middle of a 200 mile death march and end up having a conversation with someone who I haven’t seen for a few years. I much preferred his stories about his kids and what they are doing now to thinking about the gravel under my tires.
I came into checkpoint number two pretty hot. When I realized we were about to hit the pavement I rode away from the group I was with just to get to the shade and a chair. I still felt good but knew that I was starting to crack a bit, I wouldn’t admit it at all though. For all of the, “are you feeling okays?” that I received I just kept saying that I was great. Neta kept telling me to blink, I guess I was pretty wide-eyed and rugged at that point. I don’t feel like I spent too much time at that checkpoint but I probably did, maybe 30 minutes.
Blink damnit! You look like a wombat.
Leg 3: I knew if I could get through this than I could get through the race, so my immediate focus was the next 65 miles. It was rough. That was by far the hottest and most brutal part of my day. At mile 140 I began to crack hard, I found a tree and laid down under it for… I have no idea how long. I was having a hard time going more than a few miles without taking a break in the shade. I believe I did the math sometime during that stretch and it took me about 2 hours to cover a 12 mile stretch. I finally called Neta and told her that I was cracking but would continue on as long as I could, with an emphasis to be ready for my bail-out call.
It was at that time I encountered Pete. Meeting Pete wasn’t a significant part of my plan at the moment but it’s a significant part of my story. At that moment in time Pete was just someone who was riding around my same pace and at least somebody to ride in the general vicinity of. He told me this was his 7th Dirty Kanza and will be his 5th time finishing. I told him that this was my 4th Dirty Kanza and the longest I had ever made it in the race.
I rolled into the final checkpoint and found my crew. My stomach was wrecked and I couldn’t fathom any more energy food. But I was so filled to the brim with whatever was happening in my head I wasn’t worried about it. I slammed a coke and took a few bites of a sandwich, dropped my Camelbak, filled my bottles and my Dad assisted me out of my chair and back onto my bike.
Leg 4: “This is it”, I thought. “I made it to the final leg without cracking. So what if I needed another human being to help me get on my bike? I have 37 miles to go.” I found Pete again as we rolled out of the final checkpoint and onto the rail trail.
I started cranking out a 20 mph pull on the first flat part of road I had seen all day. I guess I thought I could do that and just end the race that way. I couldn’t and I soon started slowing my pace again. As the sun set over the Flint Hills and the full moon took its place in the sky I was riding the biggest wave of adrenaline I have ever felt. I looked over at Pete and said with a smile on my face, “I don’t know how I am still dong this.” He calmly told me that my adrenaline would wear off and it would hurt again. He was right and I cracked hard around mile 190. We had taken a wrong turn a few miles earlier without realizing it and our sub midnight finish pace was slowly fading away. I began to realize I should have eaten more food and began to dry heave, my abs hurt too bad to actually project anything out of my body… even if my body may have had something left in it. I had lost my ability to stand up on my bike a few miles earlier as my knees politely turned to me and gave me the finger, so I subjected my sit-bones to taking more abuse than they ever asked for.
Then the fun part happened, my light system died. I was about as dejected as it could get. Laying on the side of a road outside of Emporia, trying to vomit, lightless with little to no ability to project forward motion. Pete calmly waited for me a half mile up the road. I rode up to him and he informed me that I would be finishing. He told me to sit directly on his wheel and share his light. And then we just rode, slowly. I was weaving harder on my bike than I used to in college trying to ride home from the bars in Lawrence.
As we rolled through Campus I began to hear the finish line. There were still some people waiting and cheering. My day was over, I had seen the sun rise and set over the Flint Hills on a bicycle, I had ridden my first double century, I had finished the journey that I began as that brash teenager. As I crossed the finish line my parents, Neta, Josh Patterson and John Waller all crowded around me to share in the finish. I turned to Pete to say “Thank you.” My mouth made the word but I was too filled with emotion to get it out. He pointed at me and said, “You did it.”
Pete and his journey saving light setup
And that was it. I did do it. I never would have done it without all of the Dirty Kanza riders that helped me along the way, or my support crew. This race is special because it is hard, it is draped with some of the most beautiful, rugged and remote scenery in America and it is smack dab in my home state. But the real reason this race is special is the participants, the support crews, the race organizers and volunteers. These aren’t just people who are passionate about bicycles but they are individuals who are more compassionate towards their fellow athletes than anything I could ever fathom.
Trying to climb off of my very pink bike
So here's to the gravel, the crews and the athletes.