Wednesday, June 10, 2015

2015 Dirty Kanza 200: Dirty Isn't Just a Clever Name

Collin and Jamie picked me up at 6 am to head towards Emporia, Kansas. I took my usual spot of leisure in the back seat and let the driving be done by someone else. We were heading west to the Dirty Kanza 200. A 200 mile bicycle race on the rugged gravel roads of the Flint Hills that attracts soul seekers from all over the world. The 2015 version featuring riders from 45 states and 5 countries.

As it has during the drive to the last 3 gravel races I have attended this spring, the rain poured for the entire drive. Mother Nature ensuring the maximum amount of water damage is done to the course before I begin. Much to my superstitious friends’ dismay, I have been taunting Mother Nature before every race and she has been delivering. You can blame me if you believe in such nonsense.

This will be our fourth trip to Emporia to punish ourselves on the unforgiving Flint Hills. This would be my first time attempting the race on a single speed. Collin has finished 3 times. Jamie has finished 3 times. I have finished 2. That deficit has sat heavy on me for the last year. It was in last year's attempt, our third where we should have the most experience, that I made the least experienced mistake possible by setting personal records in the 50 and 100 mile distances before exploding and nearly passing out in the middle of nowhere 145 miles into the race.

Dehydrated and near heat stroke I had given up. In the weeks after while wallowing in shame I committed to myself to do better. I make that sound like it was a pivotal moment but I have made such promises to myself after most failures. Sometimes I make the changes needed and other times not so much. Would I make a change that would help me this time? I'd had a year to do so and we would soon be at the starting line to find out if I were any smarter.

We arrived before lunch time on Friday the day before the race and it was already a party on Main Street in downtown Emporia, despite the rain that was still falling. This would be the tenth edition of the race, a "Decade of Dirty." In its first year there were 34 riders. This year's 1,500 rider limit had sold out within 24 hours. 900 riders in the full 200 mile race and 600 people in the 100 mile half pint. It has tripled in size since our first attempts in 2012. Everywhere you looked in town there were cyclists and their families. I heard an elderly woman comment, "so many fit people," which is what I had been thinking as well. You could feel the buzz of excitement and anticipation of the adventure that loomed before all of us. Everyone was worried about the rain and mud. Would anybody be able to finish?

Nobody knew quite what to expect. This year the rain has devastated many midwest races. The last race I had attended had been Trans Iowa where the entire field was stopped short by the mud, not one person made it to the end of the course. I still haven't come to terms with that ending and I wasn't ready to add another unfinished race to my list. It wasn't supposed to rain the day of the race, so we had that going for us, but the reports we were getting from people who had been out on the course was that it would be a muddy slop fest. Judging by the Jeeps we were seeing around town, the predictions for mud were not over exaggerated. I was ready for it.

Photo by Collin Little
Saturday morning the alarm went off at 3:30 am. The race would start at 6:00. I went about my normal daily ritual I had used over the last year of training. I don't like to jump out of bed and do a workout, almost every morning starts the same for me. 30 minutes of wake up and shower, 30 minutes of coffee and internet on the phone, 30 minutes of getting dressed. 90 minutes after opening my eyes I'm ready to get on the bike. We met in the hotel parking lot at 5:00 and for the first time ever we drove to the start instead of riding. I felt dirty about it but was enjoying the last few moments of sitting still as I went over my plan for the day in my head.

Since the main mistake I had made last year was to go out way too hard, of course my plan for this year was to be more conservative. I didn't want to go easy and just eek by, though. I have been using a heart rate monitor this year in an attempt to find that perfect space where exertion and conservation meet. For me it seems to be around 150 bpm. Out of fear from blowing up last year I went a little lower even and chose 140 to 150 as the range I wanted to ride in. I would try and sit at 140 but would allow it to climb to 150 on the hills or hard parts.
Kate - Photo by J. Greg Jordan

I didn't want to line up at the front and get swept away in a pace I couldn't maintain all day so I set myself further back, near the roller derby girl holding a 16 hour sign over her head, a couple hours further back than I have lined up the last couple years. I find SuperKate Geisen, one of my favorite people to see at races. Her blog was one of the first I found when researching DK back in 2012. We could tell there was some sort of announcements going on at the front but we couldn't hear a word of it. When the crowd started to roll we just followed along. We stayed together and chatted for most of the 2 mile neutral roll out until we reached the gravel. Kate bid me farewell and I started my push forward through the crowd.

For the first 10 miles the riding was easy going. The temperature was cool, the wind wasn't a factor, and the gravel, although damp, was rolling pretty fast. Watching the backs of riders in front of me accumulate a strip of muddy tire spray, I cussed myself for leaving my clip on fender at home. For almost an hour we were lulled into thinking this might not be a bad day after all. This happy go lucky period was almost over. We crested a hilltop and rolled down a long hill into a pit of mud that had ground the front of the race to a slow trudge through ankle deep muck.
Photographer unknown
I don't know who took this one but it captures the mud marathon perfectly. Some were on the grass, some were pushing in the road, all were wondering how they were going to get through another 190 miles of this insanity. I tossed the bike on my back and started jogging through the crowd of staggering zombies wherever I could find a gap. The wound of missing the time cut at Trans Iowa still tender, I was not about to be slowed below the cut off here. 

I kept an eye on the heart rate monitor and shuffled through the quagmire as quickly as I could. I passed hundreds of people. Strava shows for me the mud marathon began at mile 11.3 and shows no long periods of riding until 13.8. After 41 minutes of trudging through the wasteland I emerged onto slightly more solid gravel with shoes three times as large each weighing over a ton. I cleared all the mud I could from my bike and shoes and jumped back on the bike. I would have to stomp and scrape on my pedals for several minutes before being able to actually clip back in.
Mud Marathon Dream Killer 400
Nearing the end of the mud marathon I was coming up on more and more sad souls with mud ruined drive trains. It was here I saw Stephen Mickey Boianoff kneeling next to his bike with his broken derailleur in his hand. He didn't look like he had given up trying to fix it yet at that moment but I would later see him at checkpoint 2 helping other people and taking awesome pictures of me applying more Chamois Butt'r. He took a selfie at the start that showed a lot of what it's like in the road waiting to go.

Photo by Stephen Mickey Boianoff
I had been able to ride several parts of the mud marathon. I felt sorry for the geared folk who had tried to ride the mud only to be stripped of derailleur far too early in the day. How I have felt their pain. It was the reason I was on a single speed this year. The memory was still fresh of being stopped mid race in TI 2014 short of an epic finish in muddy conditions by the explosion of a mud packed derailleur. I was riding 42x19 and found it to be just about perfect. Slightly spun out on the flats but low enough to handle the steady headwinds and 8,000 feet of climbing that seemed to be in the form of continuous rollers 300 feet high and 3 miles long.

Photo by Jeremy Kershaw
I spent several miles riding near Jeremy Kershaw, another single speeder who muscled his way through the entire course that day. We spent some time together in the mud during Trans Iowa as well. The best thing about riding near Jeremy is that besides being a cool single speed brother, he is also a bad ass photographer so I’m likely to get some great facebook profile pictures when I ride with him. 

I saw Jeremy waiting across one of the bigger river crossings digging his camera out so I paused in a track stand to wait for him to get ready. I’m a camera whore, what can I say? When Jeremy was ready I went for it but only made it half way. He caught this picture after I hopped off that looks like I’m doing some sort of dance with my bike in the water. Thanks for another great picture, Jeremy!
With Thomas at the start

Photo by Thomas Adams
Even single speeds break sometimes
At Land Run a couple months ago I was bumped off the single speed podium by Thomas Adams. Beside our good natured competitive rivalry, through facebook we have also become friends. We had lined up next to each other at the starting line and spent the first part of the race riding together. I had looked forward to racing him again, and more importantly, beating him this time. After the mud marathon he had gotten ahead of me but I was keeping faith in my steady pacing and hoped wisdom would win over youthful exuberance allowing me to pass him by later in the day.

I would soon get my lead back from Thomas, but not in the way I was hoping to get it. I found him some 35 miles into the race standing next to his bike holding a broken chain. I stopped and tried to brain storm a fix for a few minutes with him but it didn't seem repairable. Finding some extra links from another racer out for a derailleur I had just passed was my only idea but then I discovered Thomas was running 1/8 inch on his fixed gear and the likelihood of finding someone else on the course with that size chain was slim. I eventually had to leave him behind and press on. Sorry it ended that way my friend, I have no doubt redemption is in your future.

I had my own two mechanical issues shortly after seeing Thomas. The first was a flat tire. Pinch flat on the rear from trying to descend one of the many rocky downhill sections too quickly. In my experience, flats at Dirty Kanza are caused more often by choosing bad lines through the boulder fields than by the razor sharp arrowheads that everyone worries about. Changing a flat when the tires are covered in gritty and sticky mud is a great experience, I never got all the mud off my hands after this point. The handlebars were covered in mud and my grip would slide around on it all day long. While changing the flat I froze the tip of my dirty wet finger to the CO2 cartridge. Then I scared myself to death by unscrewing it from the inflator when it wasn't quite empty causing a loud "POP" with enough pressure to force my hands apart. Such a smooth operator.

My second mechanical was just a few minutes later when my rear wheel slipped forward in the dropouts and I threw my own chain. It wasn't broken, though, and all I had to do was move the wheel back into place and tighten it down better than I had after fixing the flat. Take your time and do it right the first time. There were so many broken bikes I passed in the first half. Broken derailleurs, broken wheels, flats, and crashes all took too many riders out before they were ready to stop.

Because of the forecast I was expecting to carry my bike a lot during the race so I was traveling very light this year. Running 32 Schwalbe Marathon Supremes at 55 psi on a Kona Paddy Wagon SS road bike. Temperature was perfect, staying in the 60 degree range all day, I didn't need a bunch of clothes, just a vest and sleeves. All I had on the bike was two water bottles, small pump, and a Jandd Mini Mountain Wedge Bag with 2 tubes, 2 CO2, Wrencho, and multitool. The Wedge Bag worked well except for the zippers getting clogged up with mud spray from the rear tire. I had to use my water bottle to rinse it enough to open it for supplies when changing the flat. Should have had my stupid fender.

Around the 50 mile mark I was caught by Dave Mizelle who was also on a single speed. We have been to a couple of the same rides this year and had both honed our mud chops at Land Run and Trans Iowa. He is always a pleasure to ride with and has an intensity that makes you want to ride faster. Trying to stay with him had the heart rate over my desired threshold and I had to ease up and let him go. I caught him somewhere later and was able to finish before him so it turned out to be a wise move to let him continue without me. This is an important lesson I think for Kanza. You must ride the pace you have trained regardless of what those around you are doing. Don't let discouragement from being left behind push you into a range you aren't trained for and you will have a greater chance at reaching your potential.   
Photo stolen from Dave's Facebook

Attempting to adhere strictly to the heart rate numbers was a difficult task at some points in the day. Especially early when I still felt fresh and would have to let people that I wanted to be with ride away from me. This happened a lot when we came out of the mud marathon and people were finally able to ride again. Sprinting by me like I was standing still I had to keep reminding myself of my plan. However frustrating, this left me feeling much more in control, and I never fell into the deep hole of discomfort I have often found here before.

Navigation is one of the challenges you face. For the most part it was pretty easy to keep up with the cue sheets. I had been disappointed by the lack of information regarding reroutes at the prerace meeting, but in the end, the few times the course deviated from the original cues, it was easy to follow and there were volunteers at most of the corners that weren't on the cue sheet to point you in the right way. The only confusing part was you had to figure out on your own when you were back on course which I did by watching the names of roads until I found a cue down the list that matched up. When we reached the first checkpoint at 70 miles the course had been shortened by about 3.7 miles which added a nice little math problem to the rest of the day. Quick, what is 107.3 minus 3.7? Now add in some fatigue from 8 hours of riding and enjoy the trip into confusion town.

I shrank the cues down, laminated them for weather,
and had them spiral bound to keep them together.
Nutrition is also a big variable in events like this. In the past I have bought into the plans sold by various companies telling us to buy exact quantities of their often expensive supplies and powders. My more recent research has suggested that we need far less fancy food and more attention to pacing. This year I ate when I thought about it, every hour usually, and drank when I was thirsty. I have been training this way for the last 6 months and have been having more success with my stomach than ever. If you're curious about the research look up "Waterlogged: The Serious Problem of Overhydration in Endurance Sports." I kept track of exactly what I consumed during the race.

5 Huma Chia gels - 500 cal.
3 Epic energy bars - 600 cal.
1/3rd of a can of Pringles - 300 cal.
10 Starbursts - 200 cal.
16 oz. of Coke - 210 cal.
32 oz. of Gatorade - 240 cal.
32 oz. of GU Brew - 200 cal.
64 oz. of plain water
3 caffeine pills, and
2 Ibuprofen.

2,250 calories and 144 ounces of fluid spread evenly throughout the day. It worked well for me this time, but I may be doing something totally different come the next race, nutrition seems to be an ever evolving equation for me.

There were lots of crashes on the course but somehow I was able to avoid being involved in any, a rare occurrence for me. I saw a dude just slow to a halt and tip over sideways while riding through a large puddle. I saw Collin with his tools out straightening his handlebars after crashing in front of one the paid tour vehicles that were out on the course. They kind of made me feel like a wild animal in one of those parks you drive through. In my head I heard the tour guide narrating, "If you look to your left now I see we are lucky enough to encounter one of our more unique attractions, the red bearded single speed masochist. I must remind you for your own safety not to attempt to feed or pet any of the animals."

The longest stretch of the race for me was the same section that always hurts the most, miles 110 through 150. Once you get over the hump of 150 the finish line begins to draw you in. The middle section from the century mark to the last aid station, however, is always a long painful affair. Unlike the last few years, I never had to stop and lay down or hide in the shade while I cooled off. I felt a burst of energy as I was able to ride past the stretch of course where I had crumbled and dropped out last year. I'm sure it was partly due to the unseasonably cool temperatures, but I also think it was because of consistent reasonable pacing.
Taking care of essential business at Checkpoint 2. Photo by Stephen Mickey Boianoff
I reached the second checkpoint at 7:28 pm, almost 160 miles into the day. With 40 miles left, and just over an hour until the official sunset of 8:42, it had become obvious I wouldn't be making the finish before dark this year. I found Collin waiting for me at the checkpoint and Dennis Rathke showed up shortly after me. The three of us would end up leaving for the finish together. The hardest part left was the 10 mile ride north directly into the headwind that had been wearing away at us since just before the halfway point. I sat at the front of our group and pulled the entire section northbound. Collin, Dennis, and a new friend we picked up along the way, Carlie Mock, were all happy to let me break the wind for us. It would come at a price, though, and they would have to wait for me to recover once we finally turned out of the wind toward the finish line with only about 25 miles left to go. Without a hill or headwind to slow the geared riders down, it becomes hard to keep the single speed with everyone as I spin out just over 20 mph.

I played leap frog all day with the tandem crew of Mike and Caesie Reynolds. In the morning Mike had said something like, "Didn't I meet you near death on the side of the road in 2012?" That was me! More than once it has been me. Mike and Caesie had been plagued with flat tires all day. They would fly by me and then sure enough I would find them on the side of the road a few miles later fixing another flat. They were a strong team and seemed to be working well together. I passed them with their last flat around mile 170 and they still managed to catch and pass me to finish 2 minutes ahead.

The final bit of racing for single speed placement would be done within the last 2 miles. We had finally finished with the gravel and were riding over the highway back into town. After not being passed by another single speed rider for many miles, I had been checking anyone who went by, a solo single speeder came blowing by our group in a hurry. I told Collin and Dennis we had to catch that dude! We fell into a pace line led by Dennis with me at the very back. We pushed up the hill towards the campus of Emporia State University signaling the end of the suffering being near. 

Despite our groups combined effort, the single speeder was still pulling away and I lost sight of him as he turned a corner. I told Dennis and Collin to just relax and let him go. His heroic last minute push had earned him a step above me on the finisher's list and fatigue left me content to let him have it. Then we turned the corner and there he was! Dismounted from his bike and fiddling with his chain that he must have dropped at the worst of possible times. Half a mile from the end of our 200 mile excursion I wasn't too proud to pass in his weakened state and reclaim my position in front of him. Bye Bye Sucka! I saw him later at the finish and confessed my excitement when I had benefited from his misfortune.
Rock Star Finish Line - Photo by Eric Benjamin
Through the finish chute I rode together with Collin and Dennis. Carlie had dropped us when 10 miles out I had stopped to take a nature break. We weren't in contention for the podium so why press on in pain. I tried to slap as many high fives with kids hanging over the barriers as I could. In the last 16 hours and 46 minutes we had covered 197.3 miles of challenging sloppy roads. They handed me my finisher's glass and for a brief second I thought about spiking it into the ground right there to end the suspense of when I would break this one. But then I realized it would probably be frowned upon to cover the finish line with broken glass. Surprisingly, I made it all the way home without breaking it.

882 people had started the 200 mile ride and only 427 were able to make it to the finish, just under 50%. I was 162nd overall and 13th out of 50 single speed riders. I feel pretty good about just finishing what is being described as the toughest Dirty Kanza in its 10 year history, and on a single speed to boot.  But a week later the luster of the finish has already started to fade and I find myself wondering if I could have gone harder and finished faster. Maybe I'll go back again next year.


  1. I really admire the way you take problems you've had in previous races and then take steps to eliminate them. I'm not good about learning from my own mistakes, but I've learned a lot from imitating smarter people's fixes.

    Of course, my theory remains that you finished the race because I got to wish you good luck before you started. :-) Enjoyed getting to spend the roll-out with you and, of course, the bike carry tutoring.

  2. Great job Jim! I always look forward to reading your account of the DK200, and other races.

  3. Awesome read Jim! Thanks for sharing.