DK 2019 - Faith Shattered, Faith Restored
To give DK2019 the context it deserves, I have to go back to the beginning.
We discovered Dirty Kanza on a visit to see family in Kansas City in late 2014. Jason’s brother casually mentioned this 200-mile long gravel race in Emporia, and Jason heard “new challenge”. I am used to Jason’s thirst for conquering new opportunities, and I agreed to be his support in addition to participating in the 25-mile fun ride. For me, this was just another fun weekend.
The morning of the 2015 race changed all of that. It was still dark when the 200 riders were lining up, and I had never seen so many bikes and riders in one place. The energy was electric. There had to be twice as many supporters as there were riders. Everyone was hugging, taking pictures, ringing cowbells…kids were holding up posters saying, “Good Luck, Dad!” or “You’ve got this Mom!”. I was amazed. I had never seen a community this large get up so early to see off a bike race. I will never forget watching Jason and thousands of others take off and thinking, “I wish I was going with them”. I wanted what they had.
When we took off for our 25-mile fun ride, we received (almost) the same fanfare as the other distances. People were standing on the sides of the road for miles, waving and holding up signs of support. The weather was perfect (cold and rainy, but it still felt perfect to me), the distance was perfect, I loved the company I was with and I fell in love with gravel. Jason had a great race despite the muddy conditions, and we knew that we had to somehow bottle this community vibe and bring it home to Mississippi.
Since then, I have attended three Dirty Kanza Camps (2016, 2018 and 2019), finished the 100 miler and twice attempted the DK200. I have progressed from having no business being anywhere near camp (thank you Kristi, for sweeping me, and only me, so graciously that first year, and to Crystal for giving me my very own tour of the Murder Ordained route because I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the campers) to having the DK crew cheer me on with positive words as they saw my progress each year.
Let me stop here and say that one of the most inspiring relationships that have come from this journey is the one I have with Kristi Mohn. Looking back, had she not been so patient with me during that first camp in 2016, I wouldn’t be riding gravel today. I had no idea that I was surrounded by past DK winners – professional cyclists – and that the others there with me had trained hard so they would get the most out of the opportunity to learn from those ride leaders. Had I known just how far off the mark I was, had she criticized my lack of fitness or hinted that I wasn’t strong enough to be out there, I would have hung that bike up and never looked at it again. She allowed me to be ignorant of the level of riders I was surrounded by, and she filled our time with her stories of growth on the bike and encouraging words and suggestions. She made me believe that you didn’t have to be a lifetime athlete to be a part of this event. You just had to put in the work. It wasn’t until several months later that I understood the opportunity that weekend offered and the grace shown by Kristi and the rest of the DK team by not pointing out that I was a fish out of water. Oh, and that the guy who was wearing the Yeti kit that one day was the overall winner of the previous year’s DK200 – the guy who was in all the podcasts I had been listening to.
2018 was my first attempt for the 200. I attended camp again that April and Kristi was less forgiving, letting me know I wasn’t riding to my potential while educating me on how I could make improvements (when she wasn’t doing single leg drills in front of me). This was exactly what I needed from her, minus the drills.
2018 was a failure that could have been prevented. I had a flat at mile 132, and I had not practiced tubing flats enough to be able to change one when I was on course and exhausted. Also, I had stoppage of over THREE hours (!!). Because of these two things, the sweeper jeep caught me up in its wake. I was crushed. I vowed to never let a flat kill my ride again. The lingering sadness I felt the weeks after surprised me. I was more emotionally invested than I cared to admit.
This gets us to 2019. This year. 2019 was going to be my year. I worked hard on my bike, the gravel community now thriving in my hometown was there to help me get miles in, and I had a tightknit group of gravel family who trained with me for their own DK ride. My LandRun experience was amazing, leaving me feeling strong both physically and mentally. If I could replicate that at DK, it was in the bag. My bike was at its best and had been upgraded with a Lauf fork to smooth out the rough terrain. I had seen Jason off for the DKXL the day before, I had a good night’s sleep and I was ready to take on that chunky, hilly course.
One of the best things about the lineup is reuniting with those you’ve met in previous years or at other gravel races. Everyone is so encouraging and excited to ride! The street was alive with anticipation and excitement, and we took off with cheers of support and good luck. I was grateful to be a part of what I expected to be a long, challenging and rewarding day (and night). The course was beautiful, the group I was with was friendly and fun – this was my year!
Mile 13.5 - I hear a noise come from my derailleur, and a guy behind me yelling something I couldn’t understand. He ended it with “you better pull over”. I looked down thinking I must have caught something on my chain but saw nothing so assumed it fell out on its own.
Mile 14.2 - I can’t pedal. The chain won’t move. I pull over and inspect my bike, but I can’t see anything missing or stuck in the chain. I pick up the bike wheel and try to move the crank, and the whole derailleur pulls back against the back wheel. After a few more tries, I see that the bottom jockey wheel isn’t spinning. It’s frozen. I take the back wheel off and try to clean the frozen piece with my fingernails, try to make it spin, but no dice. I decide to take it off the bike to work on it some more, and as soon as I do it disintegrates into pieces in my hand. My ride is over an hour and a half after it started.
Not everyone bikes or participates in endurance sports, so just substitute anything you have worked hard for – poured your heart and soul into – for years, sacrificed other things to train in cold and in the heat, only to be sidelined by something out of your control. It’s devastating. I know I’m not the only one who experienced loss out there, and I’m fortunate not to have been cut short by injury. Standing there realizing that my effort was over almost before it started, though, made my heart break. In the end, all my hard work hadn’t mattered. I was crushed, and I was done with gravel.
As I was dealing with this realization, two of my Mississippi friends doing the 100 rode by and saw me. Frank looked at my bike and expressed sympathy before he took off again, and Michelle offered me her bike (and I knew she meant it.).
My beautiful friend Sharon came to get me and helped me through the initial feelings, and then all I wanted to do was go back to the dorm and sleep. To wallow in my loss. I’m so thankful I didn’t. Had I done that, I would have missed out on an amazing day, and what I was ultimately there to learn.
I would have missed the opportunity to be at the checkpoint with Sharon for Kate (who also offered me her bike!), helping her get back out on course so she could finish the ride we started together.
I would have missed seeing Jes, a fellow camper, at the checkpoint and giving her a hug of support.
I would have missed seeing my Kansas City family and friends support each other as they took on the heat of the day after that first checkpoint.
I would have missed seeing FIVE of my Mississippi crew finish the 100! I was able to be at the finish chute to see each one of them come in, their faces glowing with tears in their eyes as they said in a proud voice, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done!”
I would have missed seeing my amazing husband shed the weight of insecurity he was carrying because of his rough start to the 2019 season, coming down that chute smiling and slaying the DKXL in 28.5 hours (!!).
I would have missed seeing my Brother-in-law Jared come through the finish chute, overcoming a knee issue that plagued him for most of his ride.
I also would have missed the opportunity to experience what it’s like to have this community of amazing people validate my loss and understand my grief. Being vulnerable and taking the risk of failing in front of others is a tough one for me. Having the very thing I feared – failing to finish the race that was four years in the making – crushed me. I wanted to curl up inside myself – I was embarrassed that it had happened AGAIN, and embarrassed that I couldn’t control my emotions about it. What I came to understand is that this was the best place I could be that day. Rather than hearing judgment, or sympathy, or ways I could have made the ride still happen, I received hugs of support, had others cry with me, and was reassured that this was a fix that couldn’t happen on course. Tina Kahn, that hug in Mulready’s Sunday Morning was the best hug ever! I still feel that love. The very community that made me fall in love with gravel in 2015 showed up again for me four years later, when I needed it most.
For anyone who says that the gravel vibe is changing for the worse as it grows –you are 100% wrong. The generous heart of this tribe is still beating strong. I take back what I said out on course Saturday. I’m not done. This community reminded me that failure is part of the journey and that quitting is not.