In 2016 I was convinced by a couple friends of mine that it might be a really good idea to take my single speed cyclocross bike out to the Flint Hills of Kansas and ride it for 200 miles in one go. At the time, I had never considered gravel racing to be something I’d be interested in, but as someone who is always looking to push my limits it seemed like a 200 mile ride on the world’s most uncomfortable roads would be a proper means of doing so.
The 2016 Dirty Kanza would be my first true gravel race and needless to say, it left a pretty massive impact on me. Up until that point, the longest I had ever ridden in one stretch was 120 miles. It was 120 miles of chill roads at a chill pace with chill people. Kanza’s 200 miles would prove to have zero chill as I struggled through every mile.
As a full on rookie, I did everything wrong. I ran out of water in between every checkpoint. I didn’t carry enough nutrition. My navigation died. I had no lights for riding after sunset. When I reached the last checkpoint at mile 160 I was completely satisfied with calling it a day, however my dear friend Kym NonStop was filming my whole experience and she knew that as long as the camera kept rolling, I would as well. Thanks to her persistence I pushed on and finished my ride in 15 some odd hours of both misery and elation. When I crossed that finish line I accomplished something I didn’t think I could do and I was immediately thinking about coming back the following year.
I indeed came back to race the 200 the following year and shaved 2 hours off my time. The year after that I would finish 4th place, which is good enough for a dirt podium. That year was also the beta-run of the DKXL. The DKXL would be 350 miles rather than 200 and riders would have zero outside support. That meant no checkpoints with support crews bringing you fresh water and nutrition. Riders would have to resupply at their own discretion at gas stations and in towns along the route. They started the day before the 200 and rode into the night with the leaders finished around the same time as the leaders of the 200. I watched that group of hand picked riders roll out with a strange sense of jealousy. I told myself if I had a good ride in the 200 the next day, that I would come back in 2019 for the XL.
So this year, with 600 miles of Dirty Kanza under my belt I rolled out with the 79 other DKXL riders. Since my first Kanza, my dirt and distance resume had fattened up quite a bit. Having done several multi-day ultra races and bikepacking trips I felt like I was ready to tackle the road ahead of me.
We rolled out of town at 3 pm on Friday giving us a solid 5 1/2 hours before the sun would go down. We headed south out of town and onto some familiar terrain as the course traversed many of the same roads I had ridden in my previous three DK200 rides. Being surrounded by some pretty heavy hitters in the world of endurance cycling I definitely felt humbled to be in a pack with so much talent.
The pace picked up around the 20 mile mark and I did my best to hang on to the likes of Lael Wilcox, Jay Petervary, and Matt Acker as they led us into the onset of twilight. The group strung out a bit as the hills began to roll and I found myself off the back of a group led by Lael. With no delusions of winning this race, I decided to dial it back and not get caught up in the excitement of chasing a wheel I knew I couldn’t hold. I found myself riding solo about 3 minutes behind the next rider in front of me and about 3 minutes ahead of the next rider behind me. The first re-supply on the route was a gas station around the 45 mile mark. I was already starting to feel pretty rough, but I knew I had enough water and nutrition to get me to the next gas station at the 100 mile mark.
It would only take another 5 or 6 miles to realize that I came out of the gate way too hot and tried to hold a pace that wasn’t going to be sustainable for the next 300 miles. The gaps between me and the riders ahead got bigger and bigger as more riders passed me. I made several attempts to get on the wheels of passing racers, but I couldn’t hold pace with anyone. At mile 80 I stopped. The sun was getting close to setting and it felt like some ominous metaphor. I was cracked. I wanted to keep going, but felt like I couldn’t. I sat there for a moment on the side of the road as my mind was overcome with doubt and disappointment. I hadn’t even hit 100 miles yet and was already feeling like I couldn’t push on.
I ate some of the food I had on me and knocked back some hydration. I figured even at my worst I could push out another 20 miles, so I threw a leg over the saddle and carried on into the evening. I watched the sun set over the horizon as the Flint Hills rolled and wound around the farms and fields. This was the quietest Kanza I had ever experienced. As night flooded the sky I looked up to the stars and took a deep breath. I looked at the message I had scribbled on the top of my dynamo light. “FTW KEEP GOING” it commanded.
Still solo, I rolled into the Casey’s General Store at the 100 mile mark to find the last group of riders to pass me before I cracked 20 miles earlier. There was a bit of relief knowing that I hadn’t fallen completely to the back just yet. I refilled all my water bottles, crushed a can of Pringles, and downed an ice cold Red Bull. I wasn’t sure how much I had left in me, but the only way to find out would be to push on.
As I rode back into the empty night I could see the occasional tail light of another rider on the horizon. When you are suffering in a bike race, it helps to remind yourself that the others are suffering too. We’re all in it together. I saw a rider coming back in the direction of the Casey’s with a wheel that was no longer rideable. I saw another rider with double punctures. My brain started saying things to me.
“If you slash your tires you can quit and it won’t be your fault.”
“If your brake rotor just happens to accidentally bend from a ‘crash’ you can quit and it won’t be your fault.”
“If you quit the pain will stop.”
“What are you even trying to prove, just stop and you can call for a ride back.”
The late Mike Hall said to never scratch at night. Get through to the morning and see how you feel then. I knew going into this race that the night would be long and trying, but that if I could make it through until sunrise that I could finish what I started.
I did my best to ward off the temptation to stop as I rode onward into the dead of night.
Somewhere around mile 120 I came across James, who had just finished fixing a flat. He had been with the group just ahead of me. Knowing we had a long night still ahead of us we decided to ride on together. Having some company can make all the difference between pushing on and succumbing to the voices in your head telling you to stop. As we paced each other forward we came across others who were deep in the same pain cave as us. Some rode on ahead of us and some fell behind, but we all benefited from each other’s energies.
As the night pushed on we passed more riders who had scratched and were waiting for their rides back to Emporia. We passed over B roads that were more like C or D roads. There were river crossings that led to roads that were more like dry river beds than a way forward. Hours passed. Delirium came and went. Peaks. Valleys. Highs. Lows.
Eventually we could see the first hints of the sun rise that was to come and we knew that we were on track. The next re-supply was a little over 90 miles from the previous one, but we continued to grind forward. Around 5 am we gave ourselves a solid 10 minutes off the bike. Not quite a power nap, but just long enough to ward off the drowsiness.
Before the sun rose, we watched a crescent moon rise just over the horizon. It faded into the distance as the light of the sun took over and before we knew it we had made it to the next Casey’s General Store. Now that daylight had officially arrived we knew we could make it to the finish. Granted, the finish was still roughly 150 miles from where we were, but it now was attainable.
Fully refueled, we were off into the daylight. The temperatures kept rising as the sun kept getting higher. With no cloud cover to offer any relief we found ourselves fully exposed to the heat. All night long I was praying for the sun and now that it was finally here I just wanted it to leave me alone.
The next few resupply stops came and went and we started to see some of the 200 riders around the midpoint of their day. There was a brutal set of climbs and descents on Little Egypt Road that were shared by both races though going in opposite directions. We cheered on the 200 riders as we descended and they climbed. The 200 riders cheered us on as we climbed and they descended.
The mercury said 90 degrees, but I’m sure it was 100 on the ground. River crossings became chances to dunk our heads or soak our jerseys with cold water. The moments of headwinds became moments of relief as the wind cooled our burning skin.
The miles ticked away slowly until we found ourselves at the last gas station before the finish. There were 40 miles left to do and 3 1/2 hours to do them if we wanted to beat the sun.
We ground out the next several miles of steep climbs and destroyed B roads. With 29 miles to go I knew that whatever I had left in the tank I would burn through to get to the finish before sunset. I took a few bites of food and dug deep to put the hammer down. The slight tail wind helped me keep a pace that was faster than anything I had ridden all day. I was holding 25+ miles an hour down the straightaways and 20 miles an hour up the punchy climbs. Everything hurt. Everything was at the brink.
The sun continued to creep towards the horizon as I pushed my hardest towards Emporia. When the gravel ended and I hit the pavement at the outskirts of town the tears began to flow. Whether purely from exhaustion or purely from emotion, it was all I could do. I pushed my legs as if I was sprinting for the win, but I was only sprinting for the finish. I wept as I came down the finishing stretch to a crowd of people cheering on riders as our days finally ended. When I finally crossed the line 29 hours had passed. I dropped my bike and gave Jim Cummins the strongest hug I could as I cried in his arms.
The Dirty Kanza continues to teach me what our bodies are capable of doing when we push beyond what we thought possible. I tell myself mid-ride every year that there is no way in hell I’ll ever do this to myself again, but I keep coming back. And I’ll keep coming back. As long as there is a road to ride, or some semblance of a road, I’ll be there.
See you next year Kanza.