There are those race courses that have been etched into history like so much granite. The Monaco Grand Prix, the Daytona tri-oval, the Boston Marathon. Those courses are as much a part of their history as the list of winners who have conquered them. But there are also those races that are more concept than execution, where the course can be as changeable as the weather under which they are run.
In this class of event, stage races, and especially grand tours, come to mind. The Tour de France may climb the Col du Tourmalet most years, but it can approach from two different directions and in different weeks of the race. Some of the monuments, like Liege-Bastogne-Liege have courses that follow certain contours, but aren’t exactly the same each year.
So it is with Dirty Kanza. About all you can rely upon with that race is that it will be the first Saturday in June and it will be in Kansas. Oh, and the 200 will be within a couple of miles of 200.
This year’s route was billed ahead of time as the toughest course ever. Because it went into glaciated terrain that was especially hilly, the path the race wound included roads that seemed utterly forgotten, not to mention constantly rolling terrain, sometimes at double-digit grades. Despite the hills, the landscape spread like the world’s largest cookie sheet, expanding in all directions.
There was some disagreement on just how much elevation gain the course included. Dirty Kanza’s race bible suggested a bit more than 9000 feet, while Garmin’s web site claimed more like 11,000. The difference was probably immaterial to anyone who had already been on the bike 12 hours. The salient point for me was that I assumed the hills would be like the ones I had encountered when I rode the Half Pint two years before, which is to say, manicured, gentle in grade and low in actual elevation change. With some of the roads in this year’s DK200, I was wrong on all three scores.
A surprise water stop, complete with chicken mascot.
By the time 11:00 am rolled up, I’d traveled quite a ways, both externally and internally. We’d hit roads that hadn’t been graded since Bush—even the latter—had been in office. and my average speed was dropping by the mile. Thousand-mile views of the plains gave way to the relentless rolling hills of cattle land. The land here was scarred by glaciation and those scars make a football stadium seem puny.
The temperature had been rising ever since the start, at which point it had been in the 60s. And while the rising temperature had been noticeable, it hadn’t been a problem until it reached the 80s, at which point I and a couple thousand other riders collectively muttered, “Dang, it’s getting kinda warm.”
Our first checkpoint, in Alma, at mile 65 came at a point when I was ready to grab some additional food that wasn’t the Feedzone Portables in my handlebar bag. Already, I could see people who had arrived ahead of me sitting down to recover. I was stopped mere minutes before I hopped back on to ride through the gauntlet of support teams and it was quite literally a gauntlet, with people standing not just in the road, but often just a foot or two left or right of the yellow lines. My average speed had dropped three-tenths of a mile per hour, so I was eager to get back up to speed and restore that lost velocity, something I would only partially do.
This pink trailer saved my beans.
Just as I was beginning to concede I’d have to slow down in order not to perish, around mile 80, I came upon a house with a sign out front. There was a couple pouring water for riders. I filled a bottle, dunked my head under their well-fed spigot, said hello to the chicken and got back on the road while chewing the last of some more food. That bottle was done in no time.
I grew up in the South, where turns of phrase are as inventive and colorful as a volcanic sunset. One of my faves is the “come to Jesus.” With all due apologies to anyone that might offend, I find it hilarious because it speaks to a need to get square with your future, your reality. I had just such a moment somewhere around mile 95.
In any sufficiently long event a rider will enter the darkness. It’s that period where the riding isn’t just difficult, but doubt surfaces and moves from making its presence known and infiltrates sanity itself. We begin to wonder not just why we are at an event, but why we are riding this much, why we ride at all. For me, the doubt wasn’t quite as expansive as the prairie, but I began to concede that while I’m not a quitter, events could conspire to prevent me from finishing. My legs didn’t feel fresh like they did at mile 50. The snap snuck out the back door, only to be replaced by a flap.
When people are walking hills you know something is up.
The darkness arrived with a slurp. That was the sound my hydration pack made when I drew in the final gulp of the pineapple Skratch Labs. I hadn’t refilled my bottles at the checkpoint because I figured 2.5 liters of fluid would get me to the next checkpoint, and it probably would have, had I not needed more than six hours to get there. The sun seemed bright enough to blister paint, not over 20 years, but in a single summer.
I rode from 95 to 100 afraid to eat anything because I didn’t have any fluid to wash it down and the mere absence of something to drink made me feel desiccated as a worm on a summer sidewalk.
Just as the darkness turned to, “OhmygodImightnotfinishthisthingifIdon’tgetmorefluidsoon,” I rolled up on a stop put on by team EF Education First. They had a water trailer with ten or so spigots on it, all feeding reasonably cool water. Under two tents a small army of people were dunking bandanas into tubs of ice water and then tying them around our necks. After filling both my bottles as well as my hydration pack, and mixing more Skratch to make sure I didn’t cramp, I allowed a bandana to be tied around my neck and did a quick inhale as the icy H2O ran down my torso.
Unfortunately, I’d see pink bandanas littering the road for the next 50 miles.
Selfie from Checkpoint Two. Reality has taken control.
With my full hydration capacity restored, my spirits returned to equilibrium, but the come to Jesus only got a slight reassessment. As the hills at-ed me like Twitter responses I had to knock my queen over. I wasn’t going to beat the sun and if I tried, I’d ignite as thoroughly as old newspaper.
Our second checkpoint arrived a mere 20 miles later, but I began dreaming of it, drooling at its potential, a good five miles before I reached the town, at the point I could see the water tower. I rolled in on the pavement, which, after all that gravel, was utterly glassy. After leaning my bike on some granite memorial, I grabbed a piece of food and walked over to a pavilion that stood over picnic tables. I sat down in the shade for nearly 40 minutes, eating two of the portables and sucking on my hydration pack.
I watched riders stagger in and lay down on the concrete, on the picnic tables, on the benches. When they removed their helmet, you could tell it was over. Volunteers wandered in and out providing updates on the sag schedule.
When I stood up, I felt truly refreshed. I filled up one bottle at the big tank after getting a couple of handfuls of ice into the bottle, again added Skratch and rolled out. Volunteers stood in the middle of the tiny town’s streets, directing us back on to the grit. My average speed was now down another full mile per hour. I didn’t need Jesus to get square with reality. With an average speed of 11.5 miles per hour, my future was as locked in as a 30-year-mortgage rate. I’d be riding after sundown. I still had a four hours to think on that before I actually did that, though.
The hills, they do not end.
For as varied as the roads were in their composition and pitch, not to mention colors that ranged from the white of eggshell to the rust of weathered iron, one thing remained consistent: the double track. Sure, there were times when you could ride where you want, but there was always a binary this or that. Sometimes I was just right of center, cruising nicely. Sometimes I was at the far left edge of the road, just trying to find something firm enough to keep rolling. Other times I was on a grassy strip in the middle pounded flat by all the riders ahead of me who realized it was way faster than the rutted stuff.
Shortly after one of the water crossings for which I dismounted, I hopped back on the bike, pedaled a few strokes, downshifted and … my chain got sucked between my cassette and spokes. As I tugged at the chain, a rider passed and called out, “You okay Patrick?”
“I will be once I pull this chain out from my spokes!”
I’d meant to catch up to him and thank him for checking in. If I ever got anywhere near him, it must have been after nightfall.
Checkpoint Three came at mile 151 and when I rolled in I felt like I’d reached a finish line of sorts. With just 50 miles left, I was confident, sorta, that I’d finish. I’d just have to ride in the dark a while. And that while wasn’t far away. I rolled in just an hour before sunset.
The crew taking care of all of us who signed on for the crew-for-hire with Forget Me Not, were exceedingly well served. They had chain lube and a number of tools. There was food; there were sodas, and even special touches like pickles, and pickle juice. I munched a dill spear while I contemplated my next move. I nodded as a volunteer asked me if I wanted a Coke and he thrust an icy mini can into my hand. Then I noticed the sandwiches. Even though I’d eaten only 10 of the 18 Feedzone Portables we’d made (one was chocolate chip and blueberry while the other was sweet potato with salami), I was pretty done with those flavors. The idea of a sandwich just seemed awesome. I failed to notice (or care) that I ate it without condiments.
The roads stretched straight like nothing in nature.
My bottles were empty and there was only a half liter of fluid left in my hydration pack. I ditched it in favor of a fanny pack with another 1.5 liters of fluid, this time strawberry. I mounted a light on my helmet and two on my handlebars, choosing to run the lights at lower level so they might burn longer.
As I rolled out from town, the horizon glowed with late afternoon light. The sun squatted low in the sky, tomato red, and the temperature was finally comfortable again. I felt as awesome as I could hope to feel for 150 miles in my legs.
By this point in the day my regions of nether were ready to go on strike. One already had, I suppose. Each time I rolled over the top of a hill, I’d either stand, or shift to the side to sit side-saddle and attempt to get some blood flow back into the those tissues. I’m sure it helped, but it didn’t feel like it.
Eyes adjust so readily to failing light that by the time I noticed it was fully dark, it had probably been so for 15 minutes or more. The only difference terrain-wise from earlier in the day was that the truly sketchy roads seemed to be gone—seemed being an important descriptor—and the grades being mostly easier but the hills just as ceaseless.
Red dots stood in for the riders. I’d see one or two in the hundred meters in front of me and then several hundred out from them a couple more somewhat higher and then a few more higher still at what was probably the horizon. The elevation of those dots kept me from being surprised by the hills.
The up and down was almost always unaccompanied by turns. In the dark, that was a feature I learned to be grateful for, with nothing shocking me from the side. However, with two of my three lights on, I could outrun my lights somewhere between 20 and 21 mph. Even at 17 things came at me quick, so I found myself braking on the downhills until I finally turned on my third light around 10 o’clock.
It occurred to me that knowing many people will be riding into the morning hours, Jim Cummins wouldn’t plan any really crazy roads for the final 50 miles. That’s not to say they were all easy, but the most screwy stuff earlier in the day had to be done, otherwise there’d be a real risk of someone crashing because they couldn’t sufficiently see what they were riding.
Friends who were following me on the live tracker began to text me with encouraging notes, but as often as not, I let the thing just vibrate in my pocket. Simultaneously, my device grew a mind of its own and began butt-dialing my ex, my mom, my father and a few other people, just for better measure. In at least one case, I got a call back from someone wondering what the hell was going on. I wouldn’t learn any of that until the next day. Oops.
Coming up on one turn, I could see lights fan to my left, but a collection of riders gathered right at the turn, plus some extra lighting. Was a car door open? I couldn’t figure out what was up. Then, just as I rolled up to the turn, I could see the couch and the photo lights. Ah. It was Salsa’s Chase the Chaise.
It was almost 11 pm, and I was roughly 20 miles from the finish. If I killed myself, I might beat midnight. Stopping for five minutes to wait for my photo might be the difference in making it and not. I figured the photo was too cool to pass up and besides, I wanted to enjoy my run into the finish, not suffer.
Another text rolled in as I was standing there. This one told me that the final 16 miles were flat. Hot diggity. It was the perfect piece of news.
As I drew close to Emporia, I could see the glow of the city, and then the glow of the searchlights waving in the sky. However, with all the turns, it felt like we were being kept right at the brink of the finish without the actual finish. Riders were talking more now and you could hear relief in their voices. I was encountering more cars on the road, with people who may or may not have been drunk, cheering us until they were hoarse.
Turning onto pavement was relief the likes of which usually only occurs in a bathroom. I allowed myself to coast for a bit, just to savor the sensation. Winding through the university was an adventure as I had to slow down to make sure I was making the correct turns. I rolled onto Commercial Street and people honked hors and leaned out their windows to cheer. I couldn’t not grin.
And then I rolled into the finishing chute. It was a moment I’ve dreamt about for a couple of years, wondering how it would feel to reach the finish after 200 miles of gravel roads in Kansas. Could it be anything other than seriously fulfilling? When I got to Jim Cummins, I got off my bike, leaned it against the railing, waited a moment for him to finish greeting the rider who finished ahead of me then grabbed him for a big bear hug. His reaction was a bit amazed and caught off guard. What I hadn’t thought to do was turn off my head lamp. I’d blinded him and he had no idea who I was, other than some guy so tired he was staggering.
I stepped away and walked toward the kids giving out the pint glasses and that’s when he saw my jersey and called to me. We embraced a second time and this time tears filled my eyes. I don’t even recall what I said to him, but there was a thank you somewhere in there, one I’m happy to repeat now.
If there’s a better event on the planet, I want to experience it. In the meantime, I’ll just plan to return to Emporia someday, but I’m not sure I’ll do the 200 again. I don’t know that I need to top top.