An alarm blares out of the darkness. After the third or fourth time I comprehend the noise and reach around for my phone which reads 4AM. The groggy mind reels with the instant realization, I am two hours away from premier gravel race Dirty Kanza 200.
Ok lets hit the pause button…
How did this roadie get dragged into this atrocious race? Back in January my brother convinced me how wild the race was being a two time finisher of Dirty Kanza himself. The fast sellout as well as highly sought after entries convinced me I could always sign up and sell the entry later easy peazy. Juggling my road season as well as completing Dirty Kanza right before Tulsa Tough was something at the time I thought I would not be willing to compromise.
However a unfortunate crash early on in the season left me with cracked ribs causing any strenuous training to be put on the back burners. Suddenly I was signing up for training events and rides much similar to my brothers training strategy. While avoiding races that had been on my race schedule only months earlier.
The longer I held onto the entry the more attached I became to the idea of actually riding. There was now only one problem I currently did not actually own a gravel bike. The weeks trickled down and I found myself two weeks out. I needed a bike to make Dirty Kanza a reality. I briefly took a browse on EBAY and like a pure miracle one of the first bikes that popped up was the perfect size with the perfect buyout of $800 dollars.
Yes, a bike of $800 dollars can get you across the 200 miles of gravel in a rock solid time of twelve hours and forty minutes..
Meanwhile back in Kansas I am grabbing all my gear then proceeding to jam food down. This girl loves food but the thought of another spoonful of granola with almond milk almost caused me to upchuck.
We reach the start and briefly go over strategy for the three rest stops while I anxiously double check that I had everything needed. I head to the start line thirty minutes early and to my surprise the entire street was already packed.
Gotta give it to these gravel riders they’re a tenacious bunch all eager for the front spot with 200 miles to prove their worth. Least I was prepared for the criterium style start that would proceed for the next five miles. As we reached the gravel a stampede ensued. The air now ridden with dust made eye sight extremely difficult.
The pace twenty minutes in already feels like a typical Athens WBL ride sprint finish. I hear folks around me breathing like freight trains. Sure enough gaps begin to appear every few minutes as we wind our way into the Flint Hills.
I find myself in between groups so I pause my tt sesh to wait for a larger group close behind. The group surprisingly contains Amanda Nauman, the reigning champion. Apparently, she had the unfortunate luck of a flat a few miles back. A victim like many that day among the cruel terrain of the Flint Hills. This group was the ticket. I found myself clinging on for the next twenty miles pulling through sometimes but only momentary.
The first aid station at mile fifty found me frantically grabbing two water bottles and immediately departing fast but alone. One of many lonely stretches I find I would encounter that day.
I see a distant figure coming back toward me that looks somewhat familiar. The shape morphs into my brother shouting, “I broke my wheel have to go back”. Multiple flat tires are one thing but to tack on another sixteen miles would leave any hopes of him winning at the wayside. I sigh heavily continuing to smash the pedals with a even stronger vengeance than before.
Another few miles go by and I look back again to see a somewhat larger group I had managed to leave behind in the feed zone rapidly gaining ground. This time headed by none other than Amanda Nauman. I stay on for a few miles but as we approach a hillier section I find the pace Nauman pushing too ferocious for me to hold anticipating the trek ahead. The pace would eventually deal a blow causing me to be beyond recovery. I forcefully make a conscience effort to let off the pedals as I begrudgingly settle into a tolerable pace.
I continually catch, drop, and recatch groups the next forty miles as I head into stop two.
The effects of the hard efforts and dust are now starting to affect me. As I whip into feed zone two I almost miss my support crew waving me down. I frantically drop my bike as I reach for some blueberries, pickle juice, dates, a blueberry smoothie, followed by more blueberries.
Less than five minutes later I depart the crowds distant roar drains away. Little did I know these fifty miles would be the longest, hottest, and most trying miles I would have to encounter that day.
This leg found me always being caught by people but never being able to hang.
The defeat really starts to set in more so by the empty roads ahead and behind. Multiple times I think I see people just ahead but never fully. Just wishful thinking. Now I wonder if I am hallucinating at this point. The only proof that i am indeed not imagining things are the freshly trodden path layered with wheel tracks.
The heat blares down with a intolerable ferocity. I finish off a second bottle of water now only the smallest one remains. Forty miles left. One water. I am almost mentally defeated.
I regain a smidge of hope as I make out a figure in the distance. The figure slowly turns into a little girl holding up a ice cold bottle of water. My savings grace; my little angel. I now only wish i knew her so i could tell her how crucial she was that day. How much that simple bottle of water meant. It ignited my dim fire to a roaring blaze.
Now the shapes that had continued to elude me earlier in the day appear closer and closer as my pace quickens. I began to climb a steep section of gravel and prepare for a right when I hear a familiar voice shout, “get on my wheel”. My brother had returned from his extra sixteen mile trek . I feel a surge of energy and gratitude as I jump onto a welcoming wheel.
Around five to ten miles from stop three I find I cannot hold onto his wheel any longer and we part ways. The extra effort required to hang on has left me completely destroyed. I take my last sip of water and begin my five mile crawl toward checkpoint three.
I arrive at the checkpoint and let my bike be grabbed from me as I hobble toward the cooler. Hmm what I can shove down this time. Everything looks unappetizing even the iced chocolate coffee makes me want to hurl. I Swallow a few swigs of pickle juice followed by more coffee.
I want to cry my stomach screams with resounding NOOOOO at the thought of stomaching any whole food. My throat becomes even more tight and constricted as the thoughts of my breakdown ring louder and louder. I slump onto the ground as I try to regain control mentally. I finally pull myself together with supportive comments from my crew long enough for me to swing my leg over and slug my way out of station number three.
Again I am left alone as I struggle to keep the pedal strokes going strong. Grabbing wheels for a few minutes here and there only to watch them escape up the road.
My stomach has halted its cease and desist long enough for me to start jamming gels down. A mere few miles later I feel myself kicking into overdrive. I slowly begin to reel riders in one by one.
The last five miles I finally catch onto a rider I had previous rode with fifty miles ago. He seems surprised and re energized. Momentarily distracted by thoughts of finishing I forget to tell him to turn. Luckily I spot my Garmin frozen and look behind to see the two racers behind turning. Enraged at the prospect of another added mile I scream, “we missed our turn” flip a hard u-turn and furiously engage in a full on tt assault. As we approach the guys ahead we had previously passed the railroad road tracks light up with signs of a approaching train. I immediately jump up out of the saddle valiantly surge up and over the tracks. I then proceed to limply wag my elbow signaling my comrade to take over. I was spent for the time being.Not long after we hit the pavement and proceed down the hill onto the finishing stretch.
A million thoughts were running through my head and if you asked me now what I remember….
I would tell you how the loud roar from the crowd brought chills.
The children outreached hands eagerly waiting for high fives lifted me up.
Welcoming faces of my family almost brought tears.
The touch of the pavement on my back was as comfortable as the finest memory foam money could buy.
Yes, 200 miles of gravel makes you comfortable with being uncomfortable.
I am STRONGER.
Dirty Kanza number one in the books. Round number two anyone? The atmosphere, the people, the racers everything is contagious. I’ve never felt so truly supported and lifted up as I have in those moments of comradely with fellow competitors and supporters. #BucketList