Double dose of Kanza
Well….almost double. Kind of a rounding error, right?
I completed DK200 for the first time in 2015 then again last year but when the team announced the larger version in 2018 dubbed DKXL, I immediately knew I wanted to tackle this event. 2019 would be the second year for the 350 mile event and they required you to submit an application of sorts listing out your experience with longer format races. I was pretty humbled, stoked, and nervous when I received my invite on December 15, 2018.
So then….I had five and a half months to prepare. No biggie, right?
About the time that DKXL email came out, Wendi and I plus our local race organizers were in the throes of preparing and driving registration for the second year of our local gravel series, the Mississippi Gravel Cup. I had initially planned on tackling the AZTR750 and Land Run 100 in the Spring, but the demand and stress of putting on four races in two months in addition my day job started to expose cracks in my physical and emotional capacity for this schedule. We were also adding an event to the Ordinary Epics portfolio with a new partner in late April called the Greenwood Gravel Grind. I pretty quickly shed my 2019 dreams of getting back out to Arizona to make some space. Ultimately, I reconciled this by knowing that investing and growing our local gravel community was a more important goal.
A few other setbacks including a crash requiring some stitches in my knee and a 24 hour bug that forced me off of the Landrun starting line really started to shake my confidence in being ready for DKXL, but working with my coach Lynda I simplified my training plan to just focus on riding with people during the week to keep my spirits high and banging out long weekend blocks. About a month out from the event, we worked a 3 day 6 hour block into the calendar which I blew the doors off of, drastically boosting my confidence. Everything through the rest of May was just maintenance and a bit of intensity.
In previous years of Dirty Kanza, Wendi and I would make it a pretty whirlwind trip getting to Emporia on Thursday night, then bolting out first thing on Sunday. This really limited our time to get settled and relaxed as well as not leaving a lot of space to invest in old and new friendships. This year, we planned to get there on Tuesday and not leave Sunday afternoon. This gave us time to get a few days of pre-riding in with local friends in Emporia and lots of time to chill with our gravel family.
On Wednesday we rode the route out of Council Grove with Kate, Tanya and Michelle, which gave us a taste of some of the more aggressive terrain north of Emporia. With the amount of rain and subsequent flooding in the midwest, there was a lot of concern about very poor course conditions for the weekend’s race. This rides squashed all of those fears. I made a little video you can find HERE which talks about my predictions for the best and fastest conditions ever at Kanza which was ultimately validated by the first ever sub-10 hour DK200 finish by Colin Strickland on Saturday.
Thursday, Scott Blubaugh and I headed to the tiny housing community of Neal, KS to ride the southern most portion of the DKXL route. These are roads that have been on previous editions of Dirty Kanza but would only be touched by the 350 riders this year. Wide grades and gentle rollers were on tap until we came over a rise and looked down upon flooded farmland backed up by waters from Toronto Lake to the east. Riding down to the water’s edge, we estimated it was somewhere between 5-6 feet deep based on the fence posts that disappeared on the right side of the road. We took pictures and forwarded them along to the race organizers but I secretly hoped that it would not be pulled from the route. Ultimately, this road and five other sections including the amazing Camp Creek Road would be rerouted leaving us with a slightly shortened 339 mile course.
The plan on Friday was to chill and get as much rest as possible as I was still feeling pretty run down from the bronchitis I had been fighting off for the past couple of weeks. I slept in as late as I could, woke up feeling pretty crappy and headed over to the ESU union for breakfast. The mood was tense as people talked about tire pressure and nutrition. I headed back to the dorms to nap for a few hours, feeling much better when I woke to have lunch with my brother at the union. I think we talked mostly about his race and other non-Kanza stuff. I showed him the work I had done to our sprinter van and did some last minute bike prep like chain lube and tire pressure (you can find a video of my bike setup HERE). We hugged, parted ways, and I dressed out and pedaled downtown around 2pm.
Damn man! There were a ton of people that came down to Mechanic Street to see all of us off. There was not a lot of order to where and how to line up but more of a loose crowd of people and bikes. In my experience, it doesn’t much matter who is where in a race this long and with such a small field. I was overwhelmed with gratitude as friends I hadn’t seen in awhile or that I only knew from social media came to say hello and take photos. I used this memory a number of times during my ride as motivation to push through a couple of dark spots.
About 5 minutes out from 3pm, you could faintly hear Jim Cummins talking over a PA telling us about the route, that we were on our own, and that we were all probably crazy. Between conversations and crowd noise I really didn’t pick up much of what he said. At some point he said “GO!” and we all started rolling pretty slowly behind a lead vehicle south on K-99 out of town. This neutral rollout seemed really long with the first of six flooding reroutes but once we hit gravel and the lead car pulled away it ramped up pretty quickly. We stayed with the lead group for 12 miles, then about a dozen of us dropped off a bit. With fresh legs and nerves, I pulled out of the chase group and caught up to the back of about 6 riders in the front.
I popped off the the back of this group at Road D to find my race pace. Eventually I found Jimmy and Steve who I worked with really well into Madison. I executed a really quick refill on Gatorade and headed out the door. Jimmy and Steve were taking a little more time so I rolled out with Kristin Legan and Dan Hughes, hoping to see them again so we could set our solid rhythm.
Madison to Eureka
My stomach was a little soured from a Snickers, so I dropped off of Kristin & Dan’s wheels and soft pedaled a bit to let my stomach settle. I watched a beautiful sunset, called Wendi, and made it into Eureka hours ahead of time. I went into yet another Casey’s to reload on food to make the 100 mile push to Cottonwood Falls, grabbing a bean burrito to eat on the sidewalk outside for some much needed energy. I learned the magic of burritos a few years ago during the Arizona Trail Race. You can pop a frozen burrito in your pack or jersey pocket and within a few hours it is ready to eat! I chatted with Jason Ebberts a bit as he was taking photos of riders rolling in and out and then I pedaled into the night.
Eureka to Cottonwood Falls
This was the 100 miles of the route that I was most looking forward to. Riding solo into a beautiful night with a crystal clear sky and no moon made for an incredibly dark and serene backdrop. The miles were clicking off pretty easy with the relatively flat terrain making it into the small railroad community of Matfield Green around 2am…still a couple of hours ahead of my race plan schedule. I topped off water and changed headlamp batteries at a spigot I found on route. Bikepacking experience told me that there would be some source of water on this 100 mile stretch that would keep me from lugging around extra liters. I packed some aquamira tablets to sanitize any wild water I might have to pull from, but ultimately I did not them.
About 15 miles outside of Matfield I rolled up to a right turn that I had been anticipating since Lyn mentioned it earlier in the week. Coyne Creek Road…such an amazing trip! It reminded me of Hatchet Creek Road on the Trans North Georgia route. Like….WTF is this road here? Who uses it? Why all the piles of dirt and rock? Why is the road covered in really loose shale rather than the typical flint and limestone? So many water crossings, so many questions. I loved this road more than anything on the route.
I passed a few riders through the night with mechanicals and other broken bits. A few that were pulling over to put on a layer but I was feeling fantastic. Every hour or so I would stop to shove some food in my mouth, turn all of my lights off, and look up at the most amazing starfield. No light pollution from the moon or cities. Breathtaking. Turning my lights back on seemed to constantly catch the reflecting eyes of mostly cattle, but every once in a while a coyote, skunk, or deer.
More fast, miles into Cottonwood Falls with a beautiful sunrise blazing into my eyes.
Cottonwood Falls to Alma
Gas station number…..um, who knows. I ducked in and grabbed yet more orange or purple Gatorade bottles along with a few doughnuts and a coffee. I knew that hot nectar from the gods would get things moving so I made it a really quick stop and didn’t snag any food as I planned on taking a nature break a few miles up the road in Council Grove. Hopped back on the bike fueled by sunshine and chocolate frosting to tackle the 30-some miles into Council Grove where we had pre-ridden just a few days prior. I knew what was to come with the push past Council Grove into Alma so I attempted to soak up the easy miles and good vibes. The grades up to K-177 were pretty shallow and then almost entirely descended into the city.
A second breakfast of a burrito and iced coffee was on tap. Loaded up with many snacks. Popped in my earbuds in for the first time with a mix of Metallica + Matt & Kim. The grades heading north were pretty wide and rolly. I spent a good bit of time on the tops of my bars jamming out the miles until I made a right onto the fabled Little Egypt Road. I had heard the legend of this road but I don’t believe I had ever ridden it. The first half mile or so wasn’t that bad…just a little chunk. Maybe the stories had been blown out of proportion. Then the road bent to the south and BAM! Chunky rock (not gravel) motherlode! I had noticed some cars when I turned off of Bluestem Road and didn’t really think much of it till I saw what seemed like a dozen photographers on the side the the trail (note….trail, not road) turn towards me and start shooting. Damn! That was pretty awesome of them to come all the way up here to catch images of DKXL riders coming though the gnar. Oh wait…..is that Colin Strickland riding towards me in the opposite direction? Why yes it was…..slightly sketch pass with a quiet hello well executed. My sleep deprived brain put 2+2 together and prepared for an oncoming onslaught of chasing groups followed by a peloton of dust.
It was really cool to see all of these guys, but the anxiety of popping over a roller and being met by totally gassed riders rolling 3-4 abreast was a little much. It did keep things interesting and made some of these tough miles roll by a little quicker. I was able to see a number of friends in the lead group of the 200 and it was uplifting to have them scream out and cheer me on. One thing that was notable was that nearly every rider that I crossed said “hello”, “good job”, “keep it up”, or some other words of encouragement. What was most special were those riders that realized that I was an XL rider and gave me an extra “woohoo!”. At some point I passed by Yuri Hauswald in a small pack of riders and I wondered if it gave him reflection on his DKXL ride last year. I remembered reading his account of the ride, and it was motivating to hear how much he dedicated himself to training for what was his longest bike race ever.
The heat of the day was starting to get to me and my legs were slowing on the climbs. Luckily there were a lot of winding turns to keep things interesting. Somewhere there was an EF sponsored neutral water stop which looked to be head and shoulders better than the neutral stop in 2015 but I passed on by both because I really just wanted to get to Alma and I don’t believe we were allowed to accept race provided support. Those cold bandanas looked pretty nice though…
Alma was a nice oasis where I stopped for a bit to cool off drinking a big styrofoam cup full of ice water and filling two bottles for the short 22 miles to Eskridge.
Alma to Eskridge
Whoops…..Alma to Eskridge was easily the hardest part of the entire race. The guidebook failed to mention that it had nearly 2000’ of gain and some of the steepest climbs in the entire route. They were wearing my ass out. There were a few that I walked over the top. I worked hard to carry as much momentum as I could until my legs would give out in the last hundred feet. There was at least one water crossing where I stopped to soak my legs for a minute and cover my sunsleeves with with cool water. Finally about two and a half hours later, I made it to the tiny convenience store that was nothing like a Casey’s. I kindly asked the lady at the counter if I could stay inside to cool off and eat a few breakfast sandwiches. She obliged.
Filled with real food and ice water I started to come back to life. I bought a few more snacks and loaded up on fluids for the final 40 mile push to the finish in Emporia. There were a few moments where I considered breaking here for a while to let my stomach settle down and wait for the heat of the day to pass, but I just wanted to keep moving forward.
All packed up and ready to roll, I saw a couple of riders out of the corner of my eye. It was Nick Legan and Jake Wells. I cannot remember which of them asked if I would be willing to wait for a few minutes for them to resupply and ride with them. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, as 250 miles solo left me longing for a little company.
Rolling out with these guys was pretty awesome. Chatting about the sections we thought were tough. Me telling them that there were no more hills (not true). Nick telling us there were no more b-roads (also not true). Fanny pack jokes. Talking about TransIowa. A lot of lighthearted conversation that made the easy miles just fly by. 20 miles of really gentle rollers and then 20 miles of mostly flat to downtown, and in no time we were joined up with 200 milers that were ready to be done with their ride as well. The last big climb up into the ESU campus and then it was home free. Jake joked about a sprint finish (I wasn’t so sure he was joking) and ultimately those two sat back to finish together after riding 140 miles as a duo while I finished slightly ahead of them.
The Dirty Kanza finish line has been said to be the best and most exhilarating finish line experience of any race of its kind. A chute nearly a quarter mile long lined with locals and other racers ringing cowbells. This was my third time down that cone and barricade lined path but this one was a little more special. Typically ultra races do not have that much fanfare at the finish line (or the start for that matter). You might end in a park or downtown area at a totally random time of day and quite possibly alone or with another racer if you are lucky. This was very different and very special. Kudos to the DK team for taking that same finish line experience you have built a brand around and offering it to riders that have battled the Flint Hills for over 24 hours.
The first person I saw when I crossed the timing mat was Kristi Mohn, who gave me a hug and put a finisher lanyard over my head. The next person I saw was my wife, Wendi, which was very unexpected as she should have still been out on course but there was no one else I would have rather seen (you can read her DK story HERE). Fueled by stoke and a few beers, we stayed up until about 3am cheering friends and other riders on down the Kanza finish chute in what is the greatest show on gravel.
Live in the present, pedal now - I cannot remember if it was Jay Petervary or someone else who said that feelings only last so long. If you are riding a high, savor it because it won’t last forever. If you are in a dark place, eat some food because it will soon pass. Investing in a meditation practice to better understand thoughts and feelings over the past year has helped me with this in my daily life. DKXL was the first time I was able to exercise that practice on the bike and I can tell you that it kept me in an amazing headspace.
Be patient, make new friends - For rides/races like this I am rarely at the front and I do it more to experience a new landscape (or rediscover an old one in a new way), to challenge myself physically and mentally, and maybe most importantly to inspire other people to do things they may not think possible. I only rode the first 50 miles and the last 40 with other humans. There was a 250 mile stretch in there where I was solo, which I enjoyed a great deal but could have made it better with other riders. I don’t know the precise answer to this but will be thinking more about it.
Everyone hurts, we are all human - I will save names in respect of my fellow riders but I saw a lot of pain and heartbreak this weekend. Whether it is a mechanical, a crash, or a physical problem that challenges us…we all struggle. My friend and spirit animal Bobby Wintle said it best during his LR100 rider meeting this year….we all have pain. Regardless of your station in life or experience as a cyclist, no one is immune to the blows that 339 miles of Flint Hills can dole out. To me what is special about this is that it level sets us as humans.
Long miles on gravel binds us - I was fortunate to ride with Jake Wells and Nick Legan in the last stretch into Emporia. I knew Nick but had never heard of Jake, and I certainly had no idea of his accomplishments until I got home and Googled him. In those 40 miles…Nick, Jake, and I were just three dudes on bikes. This is the purity I believe gravel offers us if we are willing to accept it.
Special Thanks To:
Wendi Shearer - Without you, none of this would be possible.
My Mississippi Gravel Family - Thank you for hopping on this paceline with us. Kanza is what inspired us to bring this home.
Lynda Wallenfels - You are not only my coach but my mentor and guru. On the bike and off, you make me better.
The Lauf Family - Gudberg, Oli and team. An amazing bike with ZERO DKXL mechanicals.