Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Dirty Kanza 2012

The position I spent too much time in
I've been home for several days now from my first ever bike race, the Dirty Kanza 200, but I am still spending a lot of my time living back on the hot and rugged gravel roads of Kansas. Epic adventures have a way of doing that to you. They sear themselves onto your memory banks and force you to dwell on them for long periods of time after they are over. I'm a fairly confident person, some might even call me cocky. The Marines taught me to believe I could overcome anything and it becomes a habit to think you can. That's why, when I visualized the race in the months of training leading up to it, I never once imagined myself lying on the side of a road puking what precious water I had in my system out into the weeds.

There was really no reason to be surprised. I had read countless blogs of people doing the exact same thing. In the short history of this race, lots of strong people with far more bike racing experience than me have been beaten to the point of quitting. But I had made my mistakes and I was now flat on my back on the hot gravel, under the best patch of shade I could find. While my lofty 14 hour pre-race goal had long been shattered, and the urge to quit was pounding on my door, I was determined to get up and complete the rest of this race. First I needed to stop dry heaving and find the energy to stand up. I only had about 50 miles left to go.

The entire day had not been so dismal. Jamie and I had left the hotel at 5:00 am and rode to the starting line. Collin was staying in a different area of town and was to meet us there. The sun was not yet up and the temperature was a cool 49 degrees. After reading how hot this race is year after year, cool weather gear had not even crossed my mind. Fortunately, I had thrown a long sleeve jersey into my bag at the last minute just in case. The short 3 mile ride to the start had warmed me up nicely. We met up with Collin and the three of us stood anxiously at the start waiting for the adventure we had all looked forward to for months. The three of us had logged tons of miles together over the spring and spent many hours discussing how we thought the day would play out.

There were 420 riders who had made it to the line ready to face the challenge of riding 202 miles of gravel roads through the Flint Hills of Kansas (there are hills in Kansas, the course had nearly 7,000 feet of elevation gain). I have only been on a couple of large group rides before and nothing anywhere near this size. There was an overwhelming amount of energy and positive attitude flowing in the group. We joked and checked out everyone's bike setups as we waited for the 6:00 am start to come around. I was feeling strong and ready. Perhaps more ready for this event than I have ever felt in the past. I had trained smart and hard and I was ready to get this show on the road. In hindsight, a little more caution might have been warranted but we will get there soon.

Finally, the race director gave some announcements and began the countdown to the start. Below is a short video of the roll-out that someone put up on youtube.  That is a ton of bikes!

It felt way too easy to start off fast with such a perfect working temperature. The nearly 500 people jammed into a tight pack rolling out of town was a bit too many people for my taste. Everyone was in great spirits, and the positive vibe was encouraging, but I was feeling the need to get some space. It took quite a while for things to spread out, but eventually numerous packs of 10 to 20 riders were beginning to form. I'm pretty sure it was how easy the cool weather made it feel, and the claustrophobia I was feeling being in a large group, that led me to the first mistake of my race, an attempt to break free and catch the lead pack ahead of us that was slowly pulling away.

I was so wrapped up in the riding and breaking free to the faster group that I hadn't thought to say bye or tell Jamie or Collin what I was doing. Not that they expected me to. During our rides we discussed the ethics of issues that might come up. Do I wait for you if you flat? Do we stick together no matter what? No. We were individuals that didn't want to hold each other back. So without looking back or saying a word, I threw everything I have learned about pacing and patience in the beginning of a long race to oblivion. I crumpled my well crafted mental plan of conservation and pace control, cranked the effort up to 11, and hammered forward. It's funny too because the three of us talked often during the training rides about what mistakes we shouldn't make. There were several conversations, about me specifically, going out too fast. As both Collin and Jamie predicted, I did exactly that.

 The pace was working pretty well for a little while. I was grooving to good music and flying as I was passing tons of strong looking riders (you guys can thank me later for the motivating experience of blowing by me like a freight trains later in the day). The morning stayed cool and I cruised through the first 60 mile section in close to 4 hours. I pulled into the checkpoint feeling like a rock star. I changed out bottles, took off the long sleeves, and was back on the road in less than 2 minutes, foolishly thinking I could maintain this effort all day.

It was shortly after I pulled out of this first checkpoint that it started to get a little hot and a lot harder. For some reason I was getting sick to my stomach already. The pedals were getting much harder to turn. It was too early to feel like this. Around mile 75, Jamie caught up with me. He is a tough customer and has plenty of experience at endurance racing. It wasn't a surprise that he caught me at all, but it was a surprise that it had come so early. I was hoping he could rally me and get me back on track. I jumped behind him for many miles and regained a little strength resting in his draft. Jamie and I stayed together for all but the last couple miles of this 40 mile leg to the second checkpoint. We had also linked up with a single speed guy named Pete that seemed to be having a much more relaxed time of it than I was. I normally think of myself as a much nicer person when things get hairy, but I was suffering early and nervous about it, so I just wasn't very talkative.

I think we were just over 90 miles in when me, Jamie, Pete, and several other guys all hammered straight past a turn. We rode on for another 3 miles or so before Jamie turned to come charging back towards us. "We missed a turn," was all I heard as he rode past and then someone else said, “I think it's only a few miles back.” It hit me hard emotionally and in hindsight this is the moment it all became a death march. We had thought we were only like a mile from the checkpoint. This mistake meant it was more like 7 or 8 miles. I was tired, hot, and I didn’t feel like backtracking. Not that a couple miles should have mattered to me since we weren’t even halfway yet.

I turned around with them but I only soft pedaled and prayed that they were wrong. I was hoping they would turn around and come back flying my way to say, "I guess we were going the right way after all," but they soon vanished over a hilltop and never returned. I resigned myself to the mistake and did my best to pick it up again but I was seriously dragging. I wouldn’t see Jamie again until the end of day where he would already be showered and in clean clothes. He maintained the pace we were at until the end of the race and finished in less than 15 hours. Respect.

When I pulled into checkpoint 2 at 100 miles, I was ready to rethink my fast pit stops and take a longer break. I sat in a chair for 15 minutes and drank some Coke and ice cold water. I don’t normally drink soda during a race but it tasted amazing and brought me back to life. I was ready to get back on the bike. I figured I was going slower than I wanted to, but I would certainly still make it.

Unfortunately, my new found vigor only lasted about 5 miles. This section, from checkpoint 2 to checkpoint 3, was definitely the crux of the ride for me. 65 miles in the baking heat of the afternoon. This section was taking a toll on everyone. There were many riders sitting on the side of the road under the shade of the very few trees there were. I was no longer able to drink the Gatorade and Endurolyte mix I had in my bottles. Every sip made my stomach queasier. This mix is my second large mistake of the race. Finding the perfect way to take in calories, hydration, and electrolytes while racing is proving to be extremely difficult.

I started looking for a place to get some water. We seemed to pass more farm houses on this stretch but not many were close to the road and I didn't want to venture too far onto someone’s property uninvited. Though, as time went on I was getting more desperate for something to drink and decided to head up the next driveway no matter what. Finally there was another house and I pulled in. A large scowling dog on the porch made me turn around and head back out, my mouth feeling as dry as it’s ever been.

A little further up the road, I finally saw my oasis, a tiny house sitting right up on the road. Amazingly it had a brightly colored hose sitting right in the front yard with the water already running. I filled a bottle and gulped the entire thing down and then filled it again. I’m not sure why I didn't, but I should have dumped more than one of the stupid hot Gatorade filled bottles that I couldn't drink and refilled them with water but I only filled the one. After filling myself with cold refreshing water I was feeling renewed again and got back on the road with a lot more faith in my ability than I had been feeling just minutes ago before finding the hose. Another rider pulled up just as I was leaving and he seemed equally happy to find a water source. I wonder how many racers took a drink from that hose.

 Many more miles passed and the afternoon continued to get hotter. My energy was getting low again and I was looking for another house to get more fresh liquid but I wasn't having any luck. This is when Collin passed me. Like, he blew blast me and at first I wasn't even sure it was him. I hadn't seen him since I had pulled ahead within the first hour of the race. While I’m sure he was feeling the effects of the 140 or so miles we had covered, he looked fresh and was moving fast. He was riding with a guy named Bob and I think they were laughing and joking. Here I was scraping the bottom of my emergency energy reserve bucket and they seemed to be out for an easy afternoon cruise. I was simultaneously impressed and jealous. The gracious friend he is, Collin slowed to my pathetic grind and tried to rally me to jump up to their pace. Unfortunately, as we rounded a turn together, Collin’s back tire went flat and he was forced to stop and take care of it. I knew I was running on fumes and told him I had to keep moving but he would catch me soon.

He would find me about 2 miles up the road. I was lying on the ground leaning against a bridge embankment. I had seen a patch of shade over a bridge at a low water crossing and thought it looked perfect. I thought maybe I could soak my legs in the water and bring my body temperature down somewhere below boiling. Unfortunately, to get down to the water I was going to have to climb over a barbed wire fence and then trek down a small embankment through poison ivy and weeds to reach the water. I said screw it and just sat on the edge of the road. That is when the puking started. In a strange way it made me feel a lot better. I knew, however, that throwing up when you are already severely dehydrated is not a good thing. I needed to take in some fluid desperately.

Collin stopped to check on me and make sure I had everything I needed. I must have looked pretty bad because several other guys stopped to help and offer me anything I needed as well. It was a great testament to the character of the people who do this race. Here we are, everyone in their own race and suffering towards personal goals, yet they were all putting those aside to make sure a stranger was alright. Collin found me half a bottle of clear water from someone who stopped (whoever you were, THANK YOU! I owe you big time). I assured Collin I would be alright and eventually he continued on. I must have laid there for another 20 minutes trying to cool down before I finally got up, but when I did I was feeling a lot better.

I was able to make it another 10 miles or so before I collapsed for another round of puking. It was a strange time, I was laying on the side of a gravel road completely spent and I remember thinking how wonderfully comfortable laying there felt. Other riders continued to pass me and I would give them a thumbs up and say, "I'm good."  I bet it wasn't very believable.  At this point I got a text from my long time friend Nate asking me to let him know when I would be done.  Since I wasn't busy at the moment, I responded.  He did what any good friend would do and immediately put it up on facebook.

This time I was saved by the Jeep Club that was driving the course. After assuring me I wouldn't be disqualified if I accepted water from them, they refilled one of my bottles with ice cold water. It might have been the sweetest tasting drink of water I have ever had in my life. Thank you, Jeep Club!  It was also just enough to get me to the third and last checkpoint at 165 miles.

I took about a 30 minute break at this last pit stop. I was able to get a lot of fluids down and began to feel much better. The sun was going down and the heat was dissipating. Sara and Jake refilled all my bottles with plain water and electrolytes so I would be able to keep drinking on the move. I also took one bottle of ice and Coke with me, maybe not the healthiest choice, but the refreshing comfort was well worth it this late in the day. I mounted the rest of my lighting, as I obviously wasn't going to beat the sun this time, and pushed off on the final 37 mile stretch to the finish at around 8:15. I felt leaving the final checkpoint that I had the event in the bag. All I had to do was maintain a conservative pace and continue on.

All of the final miles seemed tame compared to the first 3 sections. I was no longer feeling on the edge of death and my pace was respectable again.  There was no wind to speak of and the course terrain had mellowed out to mostly wide flat farm roads with the exception of two long hills near a lake. I rode for two hours in complete darkness with only my headlamp and headlight to guide the way. There were a couple of cool things about the night portion of the ride. The first was how you could see the lights of Emporia, where the finish was located, about 20 miles before you got there. There were also several houses along the way with bonfire parties going on. As you would ride by you would hear them cheering for you. Surreal outbursts of people and excitement sandwiched in between long gaps of dark lonely road.

The main thing I remember from this stretch, however, was a crazy crash that happened right in front of me. With only about 2 miles left before the finish line we had to ride across a metal grated bridge. There were solid strips of metal about a foot wide to get across but to each side there were also large gaps perfect for grabbing your front wheel if you weren't careful. A rider right in front of me made just that mistake and was slammed onto the bridge after going over his handlebars. It looked rough, and not that there is ever a good time to go over the bars, but I’m sure after the day we had all just had, it must have hurt badly. Myself and several others around stopped to make sure he was good. About that time another rider slowed to see what was happening, he didn't get unclipped in time and went down hard on his side. Everyone seemed to be alright though and the rider who went down first had several friends around so I pushed on.

Finally, I pulled off the last stretch of gravel onto the asphalt roads of town. The bike rolled so smooth and all the nagging pain I had been unsuccessfully trying to ignore faded into the background. I hammered into the town of Emporia and promptly took a wrong turn due to some old painted arrows on the road leading into the college campus (I have read several blogs since the race and it appears this was a common mistake). After a short detour I was back on the route and came around a corner to see the craziest finish line I have ever crossed. Riding through a small downtown street lined with what seemed like thousands of people cheering and ringing bells after spending an entire day mostly alone in the country, the last few hours in total darkness, was to say the least, an amazing rush.

My official time was 17 hours 16 minutes. I placed 155th of the 261 riders able to make it to the end. While I did make a few mistakes, there were several things that ran smoothly. My support crew, Jake and Sara, performed flawlessly, as they always do. I couldn't do this stuff without their help, both on the course and at home. From the NASCAR style first checkpoint, to the hospital like triage at the third, they motivated and nursed me back onto the road each time with smiles and encouragement. Another thing I think I did right was choice of bike and tires. Because of the rugged gravel of the Flint Hills, tire selection at the Dirty Kanza is debated like politics and religion. I went with the 1.9 Kenda SB8 with tubes at 60 psi and had a flat free race.

The winning time for the race was just under 12 hours. It’s humbling to race next to such strong and determined people. Also, something I didn't learn until the day after the race, apparently the rider I saw crash on the bridge damaged his front wheel and was unable to get it going again. He ended up carrying his bike over the last couple of miles on foot. Impressive!

So will I be back for more Dirty Kanza next year? Absolutely! The people, the town, the event staff and volunteers, all top notch. Not to mention, while I’m not necessarily disappointed with my finish, I certainly see plenty of room for improvement. For now, I’m going to bask in the refreshing perspective a hard event like this gives life; everyday things seem a little easier and all my relationships a little bit richer. Good stuff!

“Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease and power we never dreamed ourselves to own..." -William James


  1. Words of congratulations seem inadequate after a post like this. My hat's off to you!!

  2. Congratulations on another huuuuuge achievement in life, and a great post to boot! I wouldn't even know where to begin giving this its proper due and respect.

  3. As a graduate of MCRD San Diego, all I can say is - oorah!!

  4. Right on, Stoneman! I'm a Hollywood Marine as well.

  5. Congratulations on powering through all the adversity and finishing! Great totally makes me want to be out there again, even though now it's 10 degrees hotter and surely infinitely more miserable. That race really does get inside you once you've been there.

    1. Thanks, Kate! I have thought a lot about how lucky we were temp wise and how much harder still it could have been. I found your blog right after you committed to the race and enjoyed reading about your lead up to and day there. I always respect jumping in with both feet! See you there next year.

  6. Wondered how that went for you. Good job for hanging in there to finish!