Holy Asides
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June 5, 2015, 9:55 PM

Grinding Gravel (and Mud) in Kansas

This is the first of two reflections on my ride in the Dirty Kanza 200.


Many of you know that this past weekend I rode in The Dirty Kanza 200, a grueling 200-mile gravel road race in Emporia, Kansas. My preparations for this event began several months ago. Since the start of the year, I had already put 1000 miles on the bike I would be riding. Some were long rides to get me used to the bike position. Some were shorter rides over difficult gravel and stone terrain. And a couple were intense Ultra Cross races that improved my bike handling skills and gave me a glimpse into the difficulty that awaited me in Kansas. 


I came into the Dirty Kanza with 2 goals. The first was to survive and finish. The 2-checkpoints and finish time cutoffs were based on an average of riding at a pace just under 10 MPH. Considering that the highest rate of finishers was only 48% in any of the previous nine races, this was a reasonable goal. The second, more lofty goal, was to achieve the “Race the Sun Award.” This award is given to the riders that complete the race before sunset, 8:42 PM. This means completing the race in 14 hrs and 42 minutes. However, that goal vanished about 45 minutes after the 6:00 AM start time.


After several years of drought conditions in Kansas, there had been weeks of rain leading up to the race. This created a course much muddier, and with many more water crossings, than normal. After only nine miles of riding, everyone had dismounted and was carrying their bike through three miles of unrideable mud. This took about an hour, which basically annihilated any hope that I had of finishing before sunset. That was bad news, but the good news was that I could focus solely on my first goal... to just finish. 


In order to finish, I needed to do four things: keep eating and drinking, ride steadily at an aerobic heartrate, overcome the obstacles that would come my way, and be lucky. There is nothing particularly exciting about continually eating Clif Bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and sucking down Gatorade in order to keep up my energy.  And while being lucky was obviously out of my control, it was certainly necessary as I witnessed bikes jammed so full of mud that they could not even move. Generally the sharp rocks of the Flint Hills cause a never-ending barrage of flat tires (of which there were still many), but broken chains and demolished drivetrains seemed to cause the most destruction this year. One of the riders from our cycling club in McDonough had to withdraw at mile 32 with a rear derailleur that was ripped from his bike. For the most part I was lucky, not that this saved me from having to overcome several obstacles throughout the day or from the physical toll of riding 200 miles (minus the ones that I walked carrying my bike through the mud or over streams).


If hauling my bike through three miles of mud was the first obstacle, the second was a direct result of that fact. Somewhere buried in that mud is the screw to my cleat. Without that screw I could not unclip from the pedals, resulting in me falling over into the next muddy section and having to remove my shoe, and finally, after much work, I dislodged it from the pedals. But now I could no longer clip back into the pedals, which made it much harder to pedal, especially up hills. So I rode this way for 50 miles, until I could replace the screw (actually, the entire cleat) at mile 77, the first checkpoint. About 30 miles before the second checkpoint, I got my only flat tire of the day when a rock got kicked up from the rider in front of me. I hit that rock dead on and the sealant from my tubeless tires started spewing everywhere. I was able to fix it with only a little drama. I had both a pump and CO2 cartridges. The pump adapter for the tube valves was back in my truck (rending the pump useless).  I used one of the CO2 cartridges to see if I could reseal the tire (which I couldn't), and the last one to inflate the spare tube. So for the next 30 miles, I had to ride a little less aggressively (and be lucky) in order to avoid another flat.


Of course, the largest obstacle was just riding. The biggest difference of riding on gravel, versus riding on the road, is the constant attention that is needed. You are always watching for the rocks, ruts, and other objects that may cause a flat or crash. So I needed to keep riding. To keep moving. To stay focused. To ignore the pain in my legs, my back, my ummm…you know. I had reached the final checkpoint at nearly the same time as I had hoped to finish the race. I still had 43 miles to go, and the remainder of this ride would be in the dark, illuminated only by the light attached to my handlebars and the blinking red lights of the riders in front of me. In order to help me keep focused, I created a new goal: finish before midnight. I started to push a little harder, to move a little quicker. I watched the miles slowly tick down on my bike computer. Soon I could see the lights of the city. Then I could hear the music of the block party. Finally I could feel that I was back on pavement. It was only a mile or so to the finish. And then, there it was in front of me: the runway into the finish, with a crowd of spectators cheering me in. And I crossed the line at 12:03 AM. Not quite midnight, but I wasn’t too devastated. After 18 hrs (and three minutes) of riding 200 miles through the Flint Hills of Kansas, I had done it!!! I was beat and exhausted, but not so tired that I didn’t take my finisher sticker and immediately apply it to my truck’s rear window—I had achieved my goal of completing the Dirty Kanza 200, and it felt great!!!

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