Thursday, June 13, 2013

2013 Dirty Kanza 200

I was 99% sure I would be able to finish the Dirty Kanza 200 this year.  The 202 mile bicycle race held on the gravel roads of the Flint Hills in Kansas.  I was able to finish the 2012 version of the race after blowing up in a spectacular fashion halfway through and putting on a great show for several people when I was laying in the ditch puking my guts out several times. If I could finish after doing that, I could surely pull it off again this year, especially if I raced much smarter. I might even finish a little faster than the 17 hours it took last year.  

For me, one of the allures of the Dirty Kanza is that despite being well trained, being on the best equipment you can afford, and knowing exactly what you need to do to finish, there are numerous elements out of your control that can take you apart.  Things you might not plan for.  Things you tell yourself won't happen to you.  There is the unpredictable weather of early June in Kansas, sometimes scorching hot, sometimes storms pouring rain that turns the roads to a sticky muddy mess, or as we faced this year, the mighty howling winds.  Don’t forget the millions of rocks you must roll over that have been known to shred the heartiest of tires.  In the morning you can be rolling fast and feeling like a super star, and then a few hours later you may feel like you have made a fatal mistake and won’t be making it off the course alive.  No matter how fit and prepared you are, the DK 200 is a huge day in the saddle and the finish line comes easy for nobody.

It was a must that I come back and do the race again this year.  Not only to redeem myself from blowing up, but to finally get one of the coveted finisher's pint glasses.  Brave 202 miles of hilly, rough, hot, soul sucking windy miles in the Flint Hills and they give you a glass and a sticker that says 200 on it.   Obviously, we don't do it for the prizes, but that glass means something if you have been there.  Even though I had finished the race last year, somehow, in my drunken stupor from being dehydrated, I had been so happy to get off the bike and stop moving that I left the finish line without retrieving my hard earned prizes.  I didn't realize my mistake until we were all at breakfast the next morning. On the way home I told myself it was the reason I would have to go back, I had to get one of those glasses. 

Where I would put a picture 
of last year's glass if I only had one.

This year the organizers added a new award to the race for those looking to do a little more than just finish the distance.  Brought on by Tim Ek’s inspiring blog about trying to beat the sun last year, this year, if you were able to finish before the official sunset at 8:42, along with the glass and sticker, you would get a custom Race the Sun print.  I decided I wanted this!  I now had a tangible finishing goal besides, "better than last year."  

250 of these custom prints were made, but only 67 people earned one this year.
I spent the year getting stronger.  I added mileage and hills to my commute.  I signed up for a couple other gravel races to get more experience.  Like last year, I had spent the winter and spring riding with friends Collin and Jamie.  This year we also added Tyler to our crew.  The four of us rode a ton of miles together getting ready.  Some guys can get by on much less training, but to feel confident and remove any doubt, in the month of May I put in 1,100 miles of riding.  I did not want to fall apart again and spend another year wondering what I could have done better.  

I even sold my car to buy a nicer bike. That's right, I sold my car to do better at the Dirty Kanza. Maybe the race wasn't the only reason, but it's very possible that it was a huge factor in making the decision as my old bike still had plenty of life left in it.  I hadn't driven the car but a handful of times in the last few years anyway and it was rotting on the side of the driveway eating insurance money so why not treat yourself was my line of thinking. 

More pictures of The Snake
You will see a lot on the internet about what a great job the organizers of the race do and how friendly and accepting the town of Emporia is for this event.  I find that all to be true.  The Friday night before the race, several blocks of Commercial St. in downtown Emporia become a cycling paradise.  All the businesses have window decorations and signs welcoming us.  The shops and sidewalks are full of other cyclists and their families and it's like a big party.  Most of the cars parked on the street seemed to have racks full of bikes.  I enjoyed just taking it all in.  

I finally met the Single Speed Pirate, Sean Burns, in person.  He had some handmade cycling caps from and I had to buy the one that makes me look like Yahuda Moon.  

After a quick and easy sign in for the race and then the pre-race meeting, we all went out to eat some Mexican food before heading back to the hotel to anxiously wait for morning.  Jake and I rode bikes around the parking lot and played some Frisbee.  The hotel was full of other racers.  All the lodging in town had been sold out for months and the only place to get a room now if you didn't have one yet was the college dorms that were available to rent for the weekend.  I got to finally meet several other internet friends in person.  At the hotel we spent some time talking with Emily Korsch and Bob Jenkins.  I was hoping to run into Super Kate at some point during the weekend but our paths never crossed.   

The race start was at 6:00 am and only a couple miles from the hotel.  Collin was staying in the same place so we rode together to the start shortly after 5:00.  We wanted time to get a coffee.  My biggest complaint about the weekend:  There was no alarm clock or coffee maker at the EconoLodge, and the lobby didn't have coffee either!  On the ride over my hamstring on my left leg was cramping up with sharp pains and I became suddenly nervous that I was going to have some complications.  I tried to baby it and stretch it out as much as possible. Over the next hour waiting for the start, it slowly loosened up and, thankfully, didn't resurface again.  I still have no idea what caused that, but for 30 minutes or so, I was worried my day was about to head south.   

Me, Jamie, and Tyler waiting for the start.
Photo by Clay Center Sports
As the start time approached everyone began to move into the road and ready themselves. The women of Emporia's roller derby team, the Veteran City Rollers, were in the road holding up signs that had projected finish times.  12 hours, 14 hours, and so on.  It is up to you to choose where you think you belong.  Feeling strong and cocky, we lined up at the front of the 14 hour group.  While I wasn't excited about the unsustainable break neck pace I knew the front would take off at, we also didn't want to be stuck behind hundreds of people as the field took it's time spreading out for the first hours of the day.  My races this year suggest that we were lined up in the right place within the group, but I’m still a little self conscious about putting myself near the front.  I may have looked more experienced this year in my matching Kuat kit and new bike but I still feel kind of like a noob.

Photo by Clay Center Sports
From a megaphone I could hear Jim Cummins giving last minute instructions.  Finally, after a year of waiting for the chance at redemption, it was time.  There was a countdown and we were off under the escort of Emporia’s Police. Less than a mile in we dropped our escort and turned onto the first gravel road.  There was somebody on the side already changing a flat.  I felt sorry for that guy’s luck. 

We did not want to be stuck in this
Photo by Clay Center Sports
The race this year was broken into four 50 mile sections.  There was no support while you are on the course, but at the 50, 100, and 150 mile checkpoints, our support crews could meet and resupply us.  I had Sara and Jake as my trusty crew again.  My goal with regard to checkpoints was simply to make it through them as quickly as possible.  I didn't want a chair available and I gave Sara specific instructions to tell me to get out of the checkpoint and rest on the bike if I needed to sit.  I don’t want sympathy from my crew, I want them to quickly give me what I need and then kick me back out on the course.  They performed flawlessly all day and I couldn't be more thankful to have them there with me.

Kuat had set us up with a wind blade to use at the different checkpoints.  We were worried that finding our crew vehicles in the sea of other support crews would be difficult.  The race organizers had the great idea to divide the field into several color groups.  As you would pull in to the checkpoint, they would direct you to the general vicinity where your support should be parked, but even still, there were lots of people. The wind blade made it easy for us to scan the lot and find where we needed to be.  


Tire Beta for those here doing tire research:  I have been fairly lucky with tires and flats so far.  It is something that many people, including myself, agonize over when preparing for gravel grinders.  Last year, on 1.9 Kenda Small Block Eights, I didn't have any flats.  I ran the same tires at Land Run and OGRE, all without any flats.  Not wanting to ruin a good thing, I set my new bike up with the same tires, only the new bike wouldn't take one as big so I went with a 35.  Not quite as successful as the 1.9’s but I think it was because I was running the pressure a little low for tubes at 45-50.  Bumped it up to 60 and I didn't have any more issues. 

How do I know I had the pressure too low, about 23 miles in, a poorly timed bunny hop onto a cattle guard gave me a pinch flat.  I was worried this is where I would lose Jamie and Collin.  A testament to their loyalty, they waited while I swapped tubes as quickly as I could.  3 and a half minutes later we were rolling down the road again.  It was shortly after this we saw a pretty blonde girl relieving herself on the side of the course and everyone complained that I should have had my flat in that location instead.  I promised to be more aware of appropriate breakdown spots next time.  

A new addition to the race this year was the thigh deep water crossing through a river.  For half a second I thought about riding it, but then imagined slipping and laying down sideways and having to ride in a cold wet kit for a couple hours, so I decided against it.  Apparently several guys did ride it, and were successful, forcing me to regret wussing out.

Dude, Collin, Me, Jamie
Photo by Clay Center Sports
The first section really went by in a blur.  Our group stayed together with the exception of Tyler who had pulled ahead early on.  Everything seemed to flow fast and smooth all the way to checkpoint.  A quick stop of only a minute and a half and we were back on the road.  Tyler had waited for us and the 4 of us embarked on the second leg together again.  This only lasted a few miles, however, as the course made its turn into the howling wind that would plague us for most of the next 7 or 8 hours.  Jamie and I stayed together but when I looked back, Collin and Tyler were gone.  We wouldn't see them again until the end of the day.

The wind may have been stronger and more in our face during this second section but it didn't bother me as much then as it would later in the day.  We used other people to hide from the wind when we could, and each other when nobody else was around, but eventually we made it to the halfway checkpoint.  Another quick stop of less than 5 minutes and we were back on the road to checkpoint 3 with only 100 miles left to race. 

Mustache full of Gel
After leaving the second checkpoint and enjoying a fast and fun 13 mile stretch with a tailwind, the first in several hours, the course took another turn into the face of the blowing wind and we put our heads down for a 35 mile slog directly into the gusts.  I quickly started cramping in my calves.  I ate and drank but it didn't help.  Keeping up the pace was becoming extremely difficult and I really just wanted to stop and take a break.  This was one of the lowest emotional points in the race for me.  I was getting really frustrated with myself for falling apart so early.  I had expected it in this section as this is when the race snuffed me out last year, but I was hoping the low spot wouldn't be as devastating this time.  I chalked the difficulty up to the wind and just kept mashing.    

I was finally able to take a short break when I heard air hissing from my front tire.  I was almost happy to have another flat as I just needed a rest from the pedaling.  I changed the tire quickly and as I was getting ready to roll again I noticed I was having an issue with my front wheel turning.  The left brake pad was sitting tight against the rim.  I was having trouble diagnosing the problem and Jamie came over to help.  One of the adjustment screws had rattled loose and I had been riding with the front brake constantly on.  As I fixed the problem I was pissed off and relieved at the same time.  Angry because who knew how much time and energy I had spent pushing that stupid brake, but happy as well because I knew fixing it would make things easier.  And it did help, my legs felt revived when we went back to rolling. 

Jamie sticking with me through my mechanical issues was awesome.  I felt guilty and wouldn't have blamed him at all if he had left me in the dust.  I still had my two bathroom breaks coming from the OGRE navigation save so maybe he was letting me use the flats instead.  I won’t be needing the bathroom breaks anymore, though, as one of my most notable achievements this year was I finally learned to take a leak from the bike!  I have been trying to learn this for the last 2 years and it is even more difficult than it sounds.  Even if you have the skills to keep your bike rolling down a gravel hill while standing up and pulling your junk out of your shorts, relaxing enough to go is the real trick.  And then keeping it from blowing all over you and your bike is also a trick that still needs work but I wasn't really as concerned with those parts.  This new found skill will save me much time and comfort in years to come. 

We passed a lot of people who were in the same situation I was last year.  People who took off hard and fast in the early part of the day but had come to the end of their rope.  Zombies slow pedaling through a world of pain and suffering.  Once you have burned every match in the book, you're left to move at a snail's pace with nothing to burn but the desire to reach the end.  Because of my experience here last year I felt for them as I knew exactly what they were going through.  
We tried to keep the mood as light as possible.  As a by-product of spending so much time together on the roads training, our crew has developed a bunch of long running inside jokes.  Calculating our speed in knots, bunny hopping dead animals, determining a formula to predict the frequency our discussions turn to women, who has dibs on Collin's carbon wheels when he dies on the course.  I think the majority of our topics would be highly inappropriate for most crowds but it helps pass the time and it keeps us laughing.  One of the topics this year was derived from the ziplock bag I always had over my taillight that someone once thought was a condom.  The seal on the light was bad so I had to keep it covered to keep water out of it during the constantly raining spring.  Before the race, instead of the usual ziplock, I put an actual condom over the light.  We got a lot of entertainment throughout the day as different people would fall in behind me and ask in a puzzled voice, "uh, is that a condom on your light?"  The reservoir tip would light up bright red when the light was flashing.  

Why yes, it is a condom, thanks for noticing.
Darker clouds were overcoming the skies as we worked our way through section 3 and it made me fear rain.  Fortunately, rain never came and the clouds just kept us cool.  It would have added a whole new level of adversity if the sun had been beating on us along side of that wind.  There was a lot of quiet time just working  during this leg.

I have become the navigator of our group.  It was a responsibility I tried to hide from in the past but somehow I've taken it on.  It does give me something to do.  One part I like about it is how it helps me break the long day into manageable mental pieces.  I just think about the variables to the next turn and not the entire race ahead.  I only remember one turn not being marked and from reading other blogs, people added as much as 10 miles by missing that turn.  The mileage you should be at was on the map and it matched with my gps so we didn't miss it.  We did stop just to double check and I think saved several others from heading off track.  

This year the maps were on 8 1/2 x 11 sheets of paper.  I really liked the smaller maps of last year because they were easier to manage on the bike, but apparently some people complained about them being difficult to read.  I completely understand the change but still like the old ones better.  I had to fold the map in half to put it in my holder and then fold that in half again to mount it on the bars.  Several times in each section I would have to un-clip the map, refold it, and then clip it back into place.  I tried to make a holder that would make that easy to do but it was still a bike handling challenge to do all that while moving over gravel and into a stiff crosswind.   At one point I was flipping the map over and the wind took it out of my hands and carried it down the steep slope next to us.  I had to run it down while Jamie laughed and waited patiently.  

When we left the third checkpoint, we had 3 hours and 40 minutes to make it to the finish line before the sun went down.  50 miles in that amount of time wouldn't normally be a challenge, but we had already pushed a hard 150 and half of the distance we still had to cover was into the damn headwind that I was starting to fear would be in my face for the rest of my life.  Within a few miles after leaving the checkpoint we were stopped by a train crossing. In the first half of the race this would have made me angry, but at this point in the day, I was thankful and hoping it would be a really long train.  There were several other riders waiting at the stop already.  It only blocked our path for a couple minutes.  The train had allowed us to catch another team of 2 guys that seemed to be working well together.  All I remember about them is their jersey was green and it said "Pizza" on the back and that sounded so good I could hardly look at it.  I jumped on their wheel and Jamie was on mine.  They were pushing hard and it was difficult to stay with them.  There was no talking, everyone was just working, pushing wind.  We eventually let the pizza guys go ahead and it was just Jamie and I again.  

Big long roads that go forever.
With about 30 miles to the finish another two guys caught up from behind.  Chris Knight and Pierre Echasserieau. I hadn't met Chris before but Pierre had come in just in front of us at the OGRE 150.  They were a welcome addition to our group.  Chris was upbeat and motivating to be around.  He was trying to beat the sun so he could give the award to a friend who had recently lost someone.  If we didn't have a good enough reason to lay it all out there yet, we did now.

Finally, at mile 175, the course turned east and out of the wind.  We wouldn't have to push that headwind again for the rest of the race.  I had been doing math problems in my head for the last several hours trying to figure out the pace we needed to maintain to beat the sun.  It was almost 7:00, we had an hour and 40 minutes before dark.  I was beginning to think we would make it, barring any mechanical issues.  I think only took one pull in this stretch. Something overcame Jamie and he put his head down and drug the 4 of us home at a pace that was punishing to even draft behind.  

This was the only part of the day that I let my nutrition slip.  I was so sick of gels and drinking that I just stopped.  I was tired of sugar and my mind had been stuck on pizza ever since seeing it on those guys’ jerseys a little while back.  I realized it was a mistake not to be eating and drinking when we were less than 10 miles out and my energy levels were dropping off quickly.  At one point I had fallen off of Jamie's wheel by about 5 feet and Pierre rode up beside me, put his hand on my lower back, and shoved me back up the road into position.  It was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced on the bike.  Thanks again for the help, Pierre!  

With only a few miles left we crossed the bridge where I saw the dude crash last year.  It was so different to see it in the light of day.  It seemed much smaller and less scary.  It still had those treacherous gaps for grabbing bike wheels. It had been so dark last year that my memory of it had been much spookier than it really was.  Again this year I have read several stories about people crashing on it.  If you do this race, remember there is a treacherous bridge at the end that you need to stay alert for. 

Entering the town of Emporia and leaving the last of the gravel behind us is an emotional part of the day.  At that moment, when the world stops vibrating and you know you are only moments from the end, any discomfort you have been struggling with fades away.  There were a couple quick turns taking us through the college campus and then, finally, the end was in sight.  There were more people there this year than last when I arrived closer to midnight.  The finish chute was lined with people cheering and holding hands out for high fives.  Cowbells were ringing and someone on a speaker was announcing our names and where we were from.  

I tried to modulate my speed so that I would cross the line next to Jamie.  As I reached out a few feet before  the line to put my hand on Jamie's back and roll through together, he grabbed a handful of brakes and let me shoot through first.  While few may have seen this move of chivalry and friendship, and while the record books will always show that I finished first, I know how much of the day's success is owed to him and it is no small amount. We finished the race in 14 hours and 14 minutes, a full 3 hours faster than I was last year.   

Chris Knight and Pierre Echasserieau
Collin came across the line a couple hours later.  Tyler was one of the 134 unfortunate souls that the day got the best of.  He bowed out at the second checkpoint and now has to carry that weight until a chance at redemption next year.  Of the 636 riders who registered for the full 200 mile experience, only 465 toed the line, 331 were able to finish.  Dan Hughes pulled off a third win in a row with a time of 12 hours and 3 minutes.  While many of us complain about the wind slowing us down, our excuses ring hollow as Dan was only minutes slower than he was in the perfect conditions of last year. Tough.  Results

The most unfortunate event of the weekend is that I somehow managed to lose my wedding ring.  I noticed at breakfast when we were talking about wedding rings.  I went to look at mine and it was gone. I have lost some weight over the last couple months and I think it was getting a little loose.  Fortunately, I don’t have to go without a ring, I had been wearing my dad’s ring on my right hand trying to get some of the good mojo from the 47 plus years my parents were together before my mom passed away.  Though, I guess losing your wedding ring in a 200 mile bicycle race on the back country gravel roads of Kansas is a pretty good story.

Will I ever go back to Dirty Kanza for a third round?  Well, apparently I'm going to have to if I want one of those glasses, and I do.  The universe seems to be conspiring against me when it comes to claiming this prize.  After missing it last year, I made sure not to leave the finish line without one this year.  I was only able to keep it until the next morning.  At the hotel I opened the tailgate of the car to get a bag out and from the corner of my eye I saw something moving quickly towards the edge.  I made an attempt to catch whatever it was but wasn't quite fast enough.  As the sound of breaking glass registered in my head I knew what I had just done.

Maybe next year I'll actually get to take a drink out of one.  


  1. [stream of consciousness]Oh, no...your glass... My buddy Dave was one of (maybe the) last finishers at the OGRE, and he dropped his glass basically as soon as they put it into his hands. Apparently the look on his face was utter devastation. Unfortunately, they'd just left with all of the other glasses, but fortunately they sent him a new one.

    Too funny that we were in the same hotel and never saw each other.

    One of the coolest things about doing a long race with other people is all of the inside jokes that come from the journey.

    Tires...heaven knows you know WAY more than me on this one and you *might* be a little harder on yours than I am on mine, but no one on our team who's ridden Continental Travel Contacts for the past two years has had a flat. Maybe that's luck, but I'm sticking with them next year too.

    Yeah, I said next year. I can't quit this stupid race yet.

    Don't think I ever noticed the quote at the bottom of your page. I like it.

    [/stream of consciousness]

    Fantastic job! Definitely redeemed your last year, which was awfully impressive itself in my book, puking interlude or not. Gonna have to stop thinking of yourself as a noob, I'd say.

    1. Thank you, Kate! Glad to hear you will be back! The race seems to really get in your head doesn't it? Those Continentals look tough but they are HEAVY!! :)

    2. Good point...for me it's worth heavy tires to save the time it would take for me to change the flat.

  2. Awesome write up Jim! A class act my friend, well done.

  3. Been waiting for this report! Awesome job, Jim.

  4. Great read! What a race. Hope to enter the ranks next year. JasonS.

  5. One of my favorite reads of the year. Great ride, great stories. Thanks Jim! - Sam

  6. Well worth the wait. Congrats to the four of you!