Deceptively Dirty Kanza
When I raced DK for the first time in 2015, I suffered a bad sidewall cut just 30 miles into the race that I had to nurse to the first support area to get fresh rubber. Ever since, I've had sort of a tough time getting retribution on this course. In 2016, I was hit by a car about a month before DK which put me out. Last year I had a work commitment and transferred my entry to another local rider. 2018 was going to be the year of improving my time and getting in a clean run. I have had a lot of great ultra-racing experiences between 2015 and now which have set me up for success.
For Wendi and me, this year was really special as we had a huge crew of local Mississippi folks, predominately women, heading up to take on this huge race. Three years ago, gravel was a mostly unheard of cycling format in our home state of Mississippi and I am so stoked to see how it has grown in a very short period of time. Now there are weekly group rides and no less than nine gravel races over the past calendar year in our state.
I had three goals for DK this year.
- Just finish - This has become my mantra for every race since my struggle with this mental hurdle at TNGA a few years ago. Finishing is always the #1 objective.
- Beat my 2015 time - As long as I protect my equipment and ride with groups this should be achievable.
- Race the Sun - Finishing before the sun goes down is always a top goal for strong mid-packers like myself.
We headed up to Emporia on Thursday and got in town early enough to spend some time with gravel family at Mulready's Pub. There was a lot of buzz going on amongst riders about the new 350-mile version of Kanza, dubbed DKXL, which was being beta tested by a hand-picked group of 35 riders. I was really stoked for some friends like Bobby Wintle that were in that small group and admittedly a little jealous I would not be joining them. After finishing TransIowa this year, I know the thrill of racing non-stop through multiple sunrises and sunsets.
The rest of Thursday was super chill settling into our home for the next few days at the Emporia State University dorms. We knew of the dorm accommodations in years past but opted to stay at hotels or AirBNBs instead. We were blown away with the location, nostalgia, and ease of staying in the towers. Standard four block rooms with a common area in the middle....just like being back in college!
Friday we slept in, ate breakfast at the student union then rolled out for a ride on the course. I really enjoyed organizing a group of about a dozen friends for a shakedown ride. For those not initiated to Kanza, the route rolls out heading south of town a few miles before taking a right-hander onto the first taste of gravel. These initial miles are a little deceptive as they are dead flat until you turn onto Road D. This gives you the first taste of the Flint Hills. We crested the top of the first big hill within a few minutes of each other, snapped some pics and gave high fives. Bombing down the hill we just climbed, we had a pretty nice tailwind rolling back into Emporia.
The rest of Friday consisted of rider check-in, hanging around the vendor fair, and watching everyone make last-minute preparations for the next day. We all ate dinner at the ESU dorms, which cut out the craziness of trying to find a restaurant without a super long wait in downtown Emporia. It is amazing to see what an influx of thousands of people does to a relatively small city, and I am super proud of the positive economic impact the DK team has driven with this event from humble beginnings. I sometimes have conflicted feelings on grassroots vs. megarace approaches in the adventure racing community, but there is no doubt cyclists have had a good impact here.
My new buddy Ken Theis (who supported me at TransIowa) swung by the dorms and we chatted while Wendi and the rest of the Mississippi dorm crew buzzed around getting their last minute nutrition and gear selection in order. It felt pretty nice to have everything race ready and to be pretty stress free the night before the race. This is probably the most valuable thing in my eyes that comes from a few years of experience. I was also pretty stoked when Ken told me in Iowa that he was volunteering for the Never Let Go support crew which I was using this year. It was going to be really nice to have a friendly face waiting at CP#2 in Eureka.
In bed by 10pm. Alarm set for 4am. Lights out.
Get up, shorts on, walk to the union for breakfast. Slam down my normal oatmeal and coffee then head back to the dorm to get dressed. I met up with my friend Shannon Estes and we rolled down to the starting line in downtown Emporia. Our plan was to ride together as long as each other's pace would allow. No strings. If you have goals, one of the worst things you can do in a race like this is make a pact to stick with one other person regardless of what happens. Emotions and pacing can run high and low, so your best bet is to ride your own ride with the hope that you get to spend a lot of time with your friends. Getting downtown, the vibe was amazing and all that I remembered it to be. Hundreds of people turned into thousands. The skies darkened and the winds started picking up. Shannon and I laid out bikes down in the middle of Commercial Street somewhere towards the front to guarantee a nice spot in the field while we found cover under an adjacent church entryway. The rain started and before long there was an announcement that the race start would be delayed by 30 minutes to allow the front to pass. Lots of nervous riders looking at weather apps on their phones. One thing I have learned over the years of riding is that weather is one thing you cannot control. Just go with it.
The weather passed and folks started getting their bikes into position. Before long the race director, Jim Cummins, started making announcements. A long list of pro-racer call-ups which seemingly fell on deaf ears to the majority of racers lined up in the streets of Emporia. Thanks to lots and lots of sponsors for making the day possible. One important note that we would be given 30 extra minutes to beat the sun given the delayed start and then we were off!
Start to Madison - Rocketship Fast
A mass start of 1500 people is understandably chaotic. The goal in the first few miles rolling out of the town of Emporia is to stay upright and to try to place yourself around other racers that are calm. There are inevitably a few folks that believe that racing hard and weaving in and out of other riders in these early miles is going to provide them significant gains in a 200 mile race. Easy does it, stay calm, don't panic. Once you crest the Cottonwood River bridge you make a pretty hard right onto Road 155 which is the gateway to Flint Hills gravel. These first gravel miles were a great opportunity to settle in and get comfortable in what was still a massive peloton of riders occupying the entire road four abreast. Every couple of miles there seemed to be a bit of a slowdown or minor crash, causing the quad paceline to collapse but it would quickly recover. Coming to the infamous Road D turn, there was a large group of what appeared to be spectators cheering the group on at the intersection and then confusion quickly ensued. A number of us familiar with the course recognized that a turn was missed and doubled back to Road D where the spectators suddenly turned into makeshift course marshals, directing us to continue to Road YY and proceed south to connect back with the prescribed course. A slight hiccup in tempo, but Shannon and I were quickly back into the groove. These lower lying farm roads did not drain water terribly well with the early morning showers, leaving a thin layer of mud on top of hardpacked gravel roads. I am positive that the last minute decision by the DK team to bypass Road D was to avoid the carnage of 2015 where there was a 3 mile stretch of muddy, rutted roads that had to be hiked.
A gradual climb heading south of town cresting at an overpass of I-35 started to break the massive group of riders into smaller, easier to manager groups. With a slight tailwind and fast groups, we were absolutely flying into the open range and cattle pens of the Flint Hills. Blasting over cattle guards and finding some good flow into the lightly travelled grazing land made for a very fast start to the race. On sketchy descents, I focused on staying light on the bike, scrubbing speed early, and staying off of the brakes. The larger, sharper rocks out here on the open range tend to settle towards the bottom of hills and washes. The default reaction is to grab a handful of brake when you start to hit a patch of these sketchy stones but as I learned in 2015, that is the opposite of what you want to do unless you like cutting your tires. A locked up rear wheel drug over a craggy flint outcropping could mean the end of your ride.
Before we knew it things changed from pastureland to rural homestead, meaning we were getting really close to the first checkpoint town of Madison. We would hit this city twice on the route for support: first at the high school (CP1), and second in downtown (CP3). Before we made it to the checkpoint, Shannon and I made a loose plan for catching back up after the stop. Both of us were planning on fast stops just to grab fresh bottles and some food. To my surprise we crushed the first section in about 2:45 covering right around 48 miles. I was in and out in 3 minutes flat and the two of us met back up just a few minutes into the second segment pedaling around what looked like a rural golf course. A literal country club. It reminded me a bit of a similar golf course in Sharkey County Mississippi. Nothing but miles of corn, cotton, and bayous and then BOOM. Perfectly manicured golf course. Weird but awesome. Check out the Delta Epic if you want to experience it for yourself :)
Madison to Eureka - Tailwinds for Miles
Getting back into the groove, we attacked a number of classic Kanza climbs like Texaco Hill, Teter Hill, and the aptly named "Bitch". Having a majority of big climbs frontloaded into the route was a nice luxury as I can think of a few race directors that would enjoy putting these crushers towards the end of the day. Honestly I remember this section being an absolute joy. Shannon and I yo-yo'd back and forth as our energy levels ebbed and flowed catching onto big trains of riders making the miles just fly by. The body was feeling great, eating on a regular schedule was easy, and we had some incredible tailwinds pushing us south towards Eureka. Every once in a while there was a tiny little voice that would remind us that we would be fighting these winds when we turned back towards the north, but for the moment we just enjoyed it and pushed those thoughts for our afternoon selves to deal with. Rolling into Eureka we both planned for a slightly longer rest stop to get food and for Shannon to deal with what he thought was a creaking bottom bracket (death to pressfit). We made excellent time on this segment as well covering 54 miles in about 3.5 hours.
I quickly found the Never Let Go support tent and was really excited to see my brother, Jared, there to greet me. He was supporting his wife, Heather, for the 100 mile version of the race. After seeing her through the checkpoint, he made the quick drive from Madison so he could see our crew through Eureka before heading back to Emporia to watch her finish. Even though I was feeling really good at this point, it lifted my spirits even more to see him. He helped me get food reloaded on the bike and fed me a PB&J sandwich which was really good. Ken had already filled my bottles and was keeping them in a cooler on ice. At some point Ken made a comment about how I had been at the checkpoint for too long and that quickly got me back on my bike. I texted Shannon and let him know I was rolling out of town then I was off!
Eureka Back to Madison - The Unraveling
Within a few miles of soft pedaling out of Eureka, Shannon rolled up behind me with a much quieter drivetrain. Turned out he just needed his chain lubed and the SRAM neutral support team got him taken care of with the efficiency of a Formula One pit crew. When I looked back at my ride data it turned out I only took an 11 minute break in Eureka which was about what I had planned. Just enough time to eat, drink, and get back out for what would be the toughest segment of the day.
The first 20 or so miles out of Eureka were pretty awesome as we headed east with our noses still out of the wind and gently rolling hills, and then I think the heat of the day started to mess with me. I forced drink and food into an unwilling stomach, focusing hard on keeping things inside. In a race this long and with the temperatures gradually creeping up, emptying your gut on the side of the road could have bad consequences. Around mile 130 we rolled by a rural homeowner who had kindly pulled a hose to the edge of the road with a sign welcoming racers. Shannon, myself, and another rider stopped to drench ourselves in the cool water which provided some relief for a few miles. Shortly after that quick stop we found a nice group of strong riders and latched on. We all took turns putting in efforts but after about 10 miles I just couldn't maintain. I told Shannon to roll on and stopped in a shady spot on the side of the road to cool off and assess my supplies.
I drank a bit, forced some food down, and calculated the distance to the third and final checkpoint. 17 miles to Madison and a half a bottle of water. It wasn't going to be pretty but I had no doubt that I could get there. It took me back to a particularly long, hot, and dry section of the Arizona Trail last year when you leave the Gila River and head into never ending canyons making your way towards Picketpost Mountain. This Kanza stretch didn't even compare.
Back on my bike after about a 10 minute break, I pedaled at a conservative pace. In about 5 miles at the top of a hill there was a very sweet lady with her kids handing out bottled water from the bed of her truck. I stopped, downed two entire bottles, dumped one on my head, and topped off the two bottles on my bike then made my way down the road. Within minutes I was human again and could feel the power come back into my legs, and my queasy stomach was settling down for the first time in hours. On the stretches heading due north I got low in the drops and dug hard into the wind. This was a very valuable lesson I learned during TransIowa this year. When there was a turn jogging back to the west, I eased up and recovered a bit. Before I knew it, the town of Madison reappeared on the horizon. The Never Let Go crew was setup in a shady spot in a patch of grass which was a welcome oasis to recover from the mild dehydration and heat of the previous 58 miles. It took me way longer than planned (4:45 with about 20 minutes of stoppage) but I was just happy to have arrived intact.
The support crew quickly brought me my drop bag and helped get needed food and water in my system. At this point, I did not have a specific amount of time for exiting the checkpoint. The goal now was to get some calories onboard and leave Madison feeling good. I ate a cookie I had brought with me, a banana, and a bag of chips. After eating a bit too much in Eureka I didn't want to make the same mistake. Looking around at the checkpoint there were shelled riders with thousand yard stares everywhere. I struck up a conversation with another veteran rider from Colorado who was having a tough time as well, and I gave him a few words of encouragement before making my way out of the checkpoint. It is good to commiserate for a little while but at a certain point things can turn negative and you can quickly get pulled into the darkness. There have been a number of ultra-endurance athletes like Jay Petervary and my coach Lynda Wallenfels who have helped me develop a positive mental attitude even in the darkest of points during races like this, which has helped immensely in rebuilding my confidence over the past year.
Madison to the Finish - Third Wind and Enjoying the Ride
Getting back on course and feeling good I finally had my head in a place where I could start doing some mental math. The previous section delivered me a pretty serious time penalty and given the headwinds that were in the forecast for the 46 mile return to Emporia, I had calculated that I may not have enough time to finish before the adjusted 9:15pm "Race the Sun" finish time. It was around 6pm and the sun was finally starting to fall over my left shoulder to the west giving way to slightly cooler temperatures. I was feeling really good at this point surrendering to riding hard and just enjoying the rest of the route. It is times like this in a race that I feel grateful just to be out here doing something I enjoy. There are always goals that you want to achieve but at the end of the day, the number one objective is to finish with a sense of accomplishment.
Right around mile 180 there were signs on the side of the road letting us know that the Salsa "Chase the Chaise" stop was right ahead. This was a brilliant half-marketing / half-motivation campaign the Salsa crew was putting on this year, where towards the end of 5 big gravel races they had a photo crew and a red velvet chaise lounge positioned for a little fun. Throughout the year it had turned into a contest to see who could do the funniest or most outlandish poses on the furniture using props, but I am just not that creative. The crew just asked if I wanted my bike in or our of the shot (in of course!), snapped a few quick photos, and sent me on my way. What an awesome way to send riders into the final miles towards Emporia! What I appreciated the most was that Salsa's marketing manager, Mike Riemer, was out there cheering on all of the mid-packers rather than being back at the finish line party with the front of the pack. This is the type of sponsorship and rider support that sets Salsa apart from their competitors.
Somewhere around 15 miles to go, Wendi texted me telling me she had been picked up by course sweepers after having a tire issue she couldn't get fixed in time. She had made it 132 miles, which was her longest ride ever! Although she was very disappointed, I was very proud of her for working so hard to accomplish what she had. Around 8:45 the sun ducked behind the horizon and I flipped on my single Fenix UC35 light. One thing I enjoy more than nearly anything on the bike is riding at night. The landscape is transformed and it has a renewing effect on the psyche. The same is true for riding through the night and into the sunrise of the next day. Once the sky darkened completely, you could clearly see the soft glow of Emporia in the northern sky. The end was near. In the distance I heard the sound of train horns, and I knew that at some point we would have to cross the same busy east-west rail line to get back into Emporia. After cresting a hill I saw flashing red lights. Were these the tail lights of other riders, a train crossing, or both? As I got closer, there was a volunteer course marshal directing riders to head west towards Road N to get around the train that was stopped on the tracks blocking traffic. I made my way to the end of Road N where there was another marshal who directed me to take a left onto a dark gravel road with no other riders around. Within about a mile I intersected US-50 and there was no one directing traffic back onto the course. I zoomed out on my Garmin and pulled out my phone to see how far I was from the route. I texted my brother to see if he had heard any info on the train reroute and he said there was a lot of confusion on the issue at the finish area. I plotted the most direct route to get back on course and started pedaling north through a few neighborhoods, eventually crossing under I-35. At some point I rejoined with some other riders who had been sent on a different route than I had.
When we hit the ESU campus, the excitement of finishing hit my bloodstream and my last bit of adrenaline powered the ride through the campus and down Commercial Street to the chute leading to the end. It felt just as awesome to finish this year as it did in 2015 and LeLan Dains was right there at the finish to congratulate and give me a big hug. Apparently with the late start and the train reroute confusion, they were crediting some time and I had finished soon enough to snag a "Race the Sun" finish. I had hoped to actually finish before the sun went down but I will take it!
Shannon, Jared, Heather, and Ken were right at the end of the barriers when I rolled across. Shannon and I immediately started reminiscing on the day and filling in the gaps in our stories from where we split. Sean Mailen rolled across the line just a few minutes after me, wrapping up his successful 350-mile DKXL ride. He is a good dude and a big inspiration. We cheered our friend Alison across the line a short time later and I caught up with Wendi. She was on the way to the hospital with our friend Kate, who had suffered severe dehydration and was getting an IV stuck in her arm to replenish lost fluids. We all sat around drinking a few beers and eating some street food for about an hour until finally retreating to the dorms to clean up and rest.
Amazing comatose sleep.
What is Next?
I feel like I have made my peace with the DK200 route this year after the struggle I had in 2015, and I do not have plans to tackle it again. That being said, I would love to have the opportunity to race the new, longer DKXL route next year when we return to Emporia. I personally feel that I am better at and enjoy longer format races that cross the 24-hour barrier.
The rest of 2018 for me is made up of Gravel Worlds in Lincoln, NE and putting on the second year of the Delta Epic (300 mile race through the Mississippi Delta). 2018 has been a huge year of transition for our family with Wendi and I both starting new jobs, living through a massive home remodel, and me rebuilding my cycling confidence after Arizona last year. I am really stoked about a sort of unofficial gravel trifecta of TransIowa, Dirty Kanza, and Gravel Worlds. After that, it is focusing on a few months of fun and planning what adventures and challenges will be in store for 2019.