Set in the Flint Hills of Southeastern Kansas, Dirty Kanza is considered the granddaddy of ultra-endurance gravel racing, having started in 2006, with some 30-odd racers looking for a challenge and a beer or two at the end of riding a bicycle over notorious flint gravel, up and down a whole lot of hills, through creek crossings, over cattle guards and through some open pasture land. The flint is notorious for wrecking bikes and riders; imagine riding on a pile of arrowheads some 200 plus miles. Driving one's car on some of the roads is a bad or impossible idea; a full suspension mountain bike would be a good idea for some of the course. And should it rain, like it did in 2015, the course becomes a hike-a-bike for miles and a finish time of 18 hours is considered super human.
Dirty Kanza, also known as DK, got on my radar about two years ago after my friend, Chuck, finished it on that 2015 muddy course. We had met earlier that year at the Tour of Hermann (MO) Gravel Challenge, a 200 mile, two-day epic of a gravel race with a little over 12,000 feet of climbing. He came back from DK with some adventure stories that peaked my interest: carried your bike eight miles through ankle deep mud, then rode another 192 miles? Less than half the field usually finishes? There are professional cyclists in the race and I can toe the line with them?
June 4, 2016 - Dirty Kanza 2016 – One Year Earlier
4:00 a.m.: I'm eating my second egg sandwich and listening to thunder crack in the distance. Butterflies in my stomach abound and I put on my kit, make a mental note of my race number and go through my long checklist before I head out into the darkness and find the start line overlooking the Granada Theater in Emporia, Kansas.
6:00 a.m.: The whistle blows for 1000 racers and I'm off, having self-seeded in the 16 hour group. The neutral 2 mile start is smooth down the main street of Emporia. We are lead out by police, lights flashing and sirens blaring. Adults and children are lined up giving us high fives. I’m feeling pretty good.
6:10 a.m.: We hit our first gravel section, which I cannot see because of the six inches of water covering the road surface. There is a funneling effect by going from four lanes to two lanes and now to a single lane of gravel. Riders stop. Some fall over into the water while clipped in. Others pass on the far left and far right, only to find the hidden ditch and they too fall into the water. I stay up, but we are just creeping along, nearly track standing, in water deep enough to submerge my shoes on every down stroke.
6:30 a.m.: Leaving the water and now into mud, I hear breaking derailleur hangers and chains and other parts. There are riders lined on both sides of the road carrying bikes with drivetrains hanging out in disrepair. Some are asking for help, but most just looked shell shocked and stare blankly as I pass, like something out of a war movie.
6:45 a.m.: Dryness. Just some nice gravel and I feel relieved that I had no mechanicals. I sprayed my water bottle on my chain as I was exiting the mire and remembered not to shift, as I was told earlier that technique helps reduce the chance of drivetrain failure while riding through thick mud. A guy rides next to me on a fat bike and I think what an odd sound his tires make against the gravel. Then I realize that’s my tire quickly losing air.
6:46 a.m.: Replacing a tube is really no big deal. I find annoyance, though, as an infinite line of cyclists pass me, seemingly each one asking if I had everything I needed. I make a mental note to try tubeless tires in the future.
6:52 a.m.: I’m back on the road, trying to make up time. I’m seeing a lot of young, skinny riders hammering past me, then realize the lead 100 mile racers have caught up with me; their start was 20 minutes after the 200 mile race start. There is congestion and we are now in a rough, double track, nearly mountain bike section, traveling in a tight pack. Someone touches a wheel and a guy goes over his handlebars next to me. People stop behind him to give aide and I decide there are enough helpers and I continue on.
8:01 a.m.: Flat number two, the same wheel, the back wheel, of course. After crossing some crazy cattle guards, I’m in the middle of open range pasture and cattle are near. A long horn steer is eyeing me. So I change the tube and find a slice in the center of my tire, as if someone had taken a knife and cut a slit about two inches long, lengthwise, into the tread. I boot the tire, one eye on the steer who is getting way too close, and finish the repair. It seems to be getting hot for so early in the day. I’m two hours into the race.
10:23 a.m.: Checkpoint one. I clear the time cut of five hours without a problem, though I am quite far back in the standings. It seems the two flats were time burners, especially having to boot the tire for the second flat. I am swarmed by incredibly helpful and nice volunteers who grab my water bottles and fill them; they hand me my drop bag and I rummage around for more tubes, food, and drink mix. I lube my very dirty chain. Bottles filled, I leave the first checkpoint in about 12 minutes feeling better about the time and hopeful I can begin reeling some riders in; I think back to my son's analogy of unrolling the carpet on an endurance event or even a time trial – slow then steadily faster toward the finish. Greatly distracted by all the attention at the checkpoint, I leave civilization unaware I have not filled my hydration pack.
11:20 a.m.: Flat number three. My boot has failed. The tire is unrideable. I unpack my backup tire – yes, I carried a spare tire – and now replace the tube and tire. The flat occurs in the middle of a range without a tree in sight. The Garmin says 90 degrees. As I'm doing the repair I sip on the bite valve of the pack and hear a ssssssssssss sound – I'm out of mix. One of my three water bottles has been used to spray the drivetrain after more mud during a creek crossing and it is now empty. I have two bottles left.
1:02 p.m.: Whoop, whoop, whoop – an air ambulance helicopter flies overhead and lands on the ridge ahead of me, dust flying. A rider is lifted into the chopper and whisked away. The crash was at the bottom of a long, rocky series of stair steps with a run-out that ended in a ditch. I have one water bottle left.
1:22 p.m.: Relief from the openness is gifted to me as I cruse down into a small valley full of trees and cross a wooden bridge. I double take a look into the creek seeing three riders wading up to their waists. The middle rider appears unconscious and is being held up by the other two. I hear a man on a four wheeler coming toward me, talking on his radio and indicating he knows the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke and will radio back about the effectiveness of the creek dunking.
1:55 p.m.: I am walking up “The Bitch” as the hill is named. I feel demoralized walking. My mouth feels like it is stuffed with cotton.
2:17 p.m.: Trying my best to ration, I have run out of water.
2:24 p.m.: I feel chilled. My arms have goosebumps.
2:45 p.m.: I notice I am not sweating.
3:01 p.m.: When was the last time I peed? I can't pee.
3:14 p.m.: Headache, dizzy. The Garmin says 94 degrees in the shade.
3:37 p.m.: Checkpoint two. I make the time cut. I see about thirty riders laying in the grass near aide tents. All are done. I abandon. In retrospect, I decided to abandon about two hours earlier. I was a bit scared with the symptoms of heat exhaustion and seeing the rider in the creek. It was time to pull the plug at mile 104.
5:47 p.m.: I arrived back in Emporia due to the kindness of a Lyon County Sheriff. She said she was going back to Emporia anyway and was happy to help out. I felt dejected and I still had not peed. I considered asking her if I could flip on the lights and sirens, but withdrew that thought, trying to respect my better judgment.
Emporia was a full on street festival. Ted King just crossed the finish line for the win at total time 11:50:13. For those unfamiliar with total time, it refers to one’s ride time combined with any stoppage for any reason including crashing, fixing one’s broken bicycle, passing out, eating, sleeping, crying, etc. From here on in this article, I refer to total time just by listing the numeric time since the start whistle in hours, minutes and seconds.
I clapped a bit after seeing Ted cross the line, then hobbled back to the hotel and took a shower. I returned to the finish line to watch a few riders “racing the sun” by finishing before sunset – only 80 or so did that. I got a massively large burrito from a food truck and sat on the curb near the finish.
As I was sitting on the curb in a puddle of dejection, I sensed someone standing over and a bit too close to me.
As I glanced up, I hear, “Hello, Dad!”
There was my middle child, Frannie. What? She had driven 8 ½ hours from her home in Boulder, Colorado to meet me at the finish?
Then a minute later, I hear, “Hello, Dad!”
There was my youngest child, Cate, along with her 60-pound puppy, Desi, the Bernese Mountain Dog. She had driven 5 hours from her home in Columbia, Missouri to meet me at the finish.
And then a moment later, “Hi, Keith!”
There was my wife, Lucinda. She had come from Springfield, Illinois, our home.
And then about ten minutes later I see my son, a tall, red-headed roadie with a big grin, holding hands with his fiance, and both say hello and give me hugs. Jake and Megan had driven in from Kansas City via Chicago, where Jake was racing in the Tour of Kansas City.
I had no idea any of this had been planned.
And I abandoned the race. They put out all this effort to see me ABANDON.
Isn't is interesting in the sport of cycling that the word quit or fail is forbidden? I abandoned the race. He was valiant, but he ultimately abandoned. She rode with abandon.
My friend, Chuck, crosses the line at 16:40:32. He receives big hugs from my family members he had not met before. He seems surprised to see me and I told him he'd get the whole story on the drive back home. He had a few stories for me also.
January 14, 2017 – Five and One-Half Months Before Dirty Kanza 2017
I am sitting in a nearly abandoned condo in Colorado. All the winter sports gear is packed and everyone is sitting in the SUV, waiting to leave for the midwest, except me. I am staring at my laptop, anxiously awaiting 7:00 a.m. Mountain Time for BikeReg.com to open registration for Dirty Kanza 2017. Registration fills for the 200 mile race in about 10 minutes. I get in. My buddies Chuck and Jeff get in. Time to start training.
The spring training consisted of a lot of local gravel riding, intervals on the rollers, group road rides, and even some mountain biking. I read charts on the proper mix of food and hydration dependent upon ambient temperature, humidity and power output. I made a checklist to be placed on my top tube so I would not forget things at the checkpoints, especially hydration. I was riding gravel and road centuries trying to stop only for a pee and to swap out bottles. I looked for preparatory endurance gravel races on-line and found names of races that embody a certain irreverence of the gravel racing scene: The Texas Chainring Massacre, The Heroic, and, my favorite, The Taint Hammer.
I ended up racing in the Tour of Hermann and Hairy Hundred – both endurance gravel races – and felt good and finished these events with fuel still in the tank. My power numbers were looking good.
I was even becoming a bit competitive during the ramp up to DK. Two weeks before DK, the Hairy Hundred in Columbia, Missouri, finished in an outdoor gravel velodrome. After a flat tire at mile 56, I had been chasing a small group for about three hours and caught on with three miles to go and came into the velodrome with four other riders. We took a lap and then with the bell lap I was able to accelerate and drop my competitors. Woo hoo. It was good for 8th place in my age category, 55 plus. Admittedly, there were only 14 in my age group, but I like to think everyone at this age doing this type of effort has to be really serious or crazy. At least that is my rationalization for not placing higher.
June 3, 2017 – Dirty Kanza 2017, Race Day
I am up at 4:00 a.m. eating egg sandwiches again. It is dry outside with little wind. By 5:40 a.m. we are self-seeded in the middle of the 14 hour group. Most riders around me look half my age. No worries, I think, this will be a long day: pace. Our strategy is to avoid the bottle neck at the start of the gravel by seeding ourselves a bit more toward the front. At 6:00 a.m. the whistle blows and we are off. It's a double pace line as far as the eye can see and the road is smooth, dry gravel and packed dirt. We are churning up dust at the rate of a large truck; some riders are wearing bandannas over their faces to minimize inhaling dust. I just cough a lot. My power meter is malfunctioning, but I'm eyeing my heart rate, which is in the high end of my endurance pace. I can do this all day.
About an hour later, I'm riding through an open range, the pack of racers has thinned out considerably, and I see two groups of cattle, one to my right, one to my left, running full speed toward each other. I am in the middle. For reasons unknown, each group stops suddenly about 20 feet before the gravel, they turn around quickly and run back and away from me. My heart rate spikes about 30 beats. Ah, a cattle guard is in view and I cross it, unscathed. I rarely eat beef. Maybe I was spared because of some cosmic communication with the herd.
I cruise into the first checkpoint at a 3:09:58, easily an hour sooner than last year. No flats or crashes. The temperature is in the mid-70s. I replenish my food and remember to fill all my bottles and my hydration pack.
At 7:37:08 I hit the second checkpoint still without hardly an issue – my left brake/shifter lever had become loose due to the constant jarring and was beginning to rotate in my hand. I fixed that with a few turns of a hex wrench on the clamping bolt found under the hood and was quickly off again.
I had passed all the horror spots from last year, remembering them vividly, but find relief that there is no repeat of last year's trauma. I keep pushing thoughts about not having a flat out of my mind in order to avoid the jinx. What superstitious behavior, eh?
Between the second and third checkpoints, starting about mile 135, things begin to go a little south. Fearing the bonk, I may have overeaten. Nausea hits and I'm focusing on my breathing while at the same time rattling down some rocky descents. About this same time, dark clouds begin building behind me. I cross a blacktop road, one of the few all day, and law enforcement is stopping traffic. As I'm riding by one officer, he asks how fast I am going.
“About 14 miles and hour, sir? My license is back in Emporia.”
He smiles and says that's good because this big storm is moving at 11 miles an hour. Keep going faster than the storm and you'll probably stay dry, he says. Lightning flashes and thunder cracks near us.
An hour later, my nausea lingers, but is diminishing, and I'm tired of pushing through rough gravel rollers on the verge of throwing up. It is sprinkling, but it appears I am beating the storm. The rain feels good and refreshing. Checkpoint 3 is at mile 162 which seems like eternity.
I roll into checkpoint 3 at total time of 12:56:24. I have made all the time cuts easily and my worries start to diminish a bit. I eat half a veggie sub and down a soda. Ah, real food. My homemade batch of energy foods is great, but after nearly 13 hours out on the gravel, normal food is a welcome relief. My nausea is gone. I pull out my headlamp and bar mounted headlight and move on. I still have about two hours of sunlight left, but shadows are starting to get long.
Near dusk, I pass a farmhouse where two teenagers are handing up water. I take a bottle and douse myself to stay awake. The boys laugh and I thank them for their assistance. I turn off a gravel road and onto a dirt and mud road and flip on my lights. Shadows from my lights cast on rocks and fence posts give eerie shapes and I feel a little uneasy. I continue to encounter riders, but the field has so thinned out by now that there are times I am alone in the hills and valleys. The temperature begins to drop. I bomb down a long hill and cross a low water bridge only to be surprised by an encounter with a gentleman sitting on an upturned trashcan fishing near the road's creek crossing. I shiver a bit. At the next creek crossing I come upon two Jeeps, one on each side of the bridge, with their headlights on full beam lighting up the steel and wood structure. I figure I'll hear the shotgun blast next and I'm surely a goner. As I pass the first Jeep, I spy a looming figure and he says, “Be safe crossing here. Good luck to the finish!” It's a member of the Kansas City Jeep Club making the course safe for us.
The final 20 miles are, in a way, magical. The gravel flattens out. There is a slight tailwind. Riders pass me; I pass riders. We are in our own tunnel of light. No words are said. I hear the distant sound of a train horn and the constant din of gravel passing under my tires. As we travel through the prairie, I follow seemingly miles of red tail lights, some flashing, some constant. I look behind me and I see miles of headlights and headlamps coming toward me. Fire pits mark each side of the road as we pass numerous farm houses. People are sitting in camp chairs near the road's edge, clapping and encouraging us. “You're almost there!” I round a few corners and see search lights circling and ablaze in the sky to mark the finish in Emporia.
The final run in to Emporia begins at Emporia State University where some sadist decided to put one last kicker of a hill just before the final one kilometer. There are five riders in front of me and no one puts up a fight and we all cue up single file when we hit the finish chute on Commercial Street towards the Granada Theater finish line. The street festival is in full stride and I hear my name and race number over the loudspeakers. At the finish line I receive hugs and handshakes from the race directors and get a pint glass, a pre-midnight finisher patch and a token good for a beer or soda, you choose.
My friend, Chuck, greets me at the finish. He missed racing the sun by only 45 minutes (so close, but yet so far, and darn that flat tire), and seems happy with his 15:31:01, his best time in three finishes in a row. Finish five times and you get a crystal goblet – that's how significant it is to bag five finishes – and only 32 people have done this in the history of DK. Two more finishes, Chuck, and you’ll get that elusive goblet.
My 16:51:11 is obviously way better than last year's DNF and a ride in a patrol car. My goal was to finish before midnight, which I did by over an hour. My Garmin says 206.8 miles total. I place 52nd in my 55-59 year old age group out of 100 starters; 73 finished. I experience mixed emotions of relief that the race is over and fantasy that maybe I could go farther or faster. There is an addictive quality to this thing – the common suffering and jubilation, the great unknown and multiple variables that may at any instant cause failure, the long training build-up, the isolation, the connection with nature and her forces, and the battle with self-doubt of mind and body.
My friend, Jeff, finishes in 18:27:37, successfully finishing on his first attempt. He was caught in the thunderstorm that I had barely gotten ahead of which forced him to ride in a downpour for an hour, causing considerable loss of time and heightened misery. He appears happy, though, and I get him a couple of tacos from the food truck – real food tastes so good now.
We wander back to the hotel by 1:30 a.m. and I nurture the results of my day's effort: a bee sting on my quad, two hand blisters and some ulnar nerve compression on my left hand resulting in numbness in two fingers, which I hope goes away soon. I fall asleep quickly, only to get up at 7:00 a.m. to attend the 8:00 a.m. podium and awards ceremony at the Granada Theater.
Matt Stephens (retired British pro and Global Cycling Network personality) wins the men’s division in 10:49:08 and Alison Tetrick (Optum Pro Cycling p/b Kelly Benefit Strategies) wins the women’s division – by 5 seconds – in 11:41:40. Last year’s winner, Ted King, gets 7th overall, and I would highly recommend his web article entitled “I’m back baby” detailing the spectacle and agony of DK.
There are moments during the podium presentations that are memorable. Nearly everyone getting up on stage and the podium shuffles and grimaces when stepping up. Alison nearly falls over and mimics needing help down off the stage. The winners of the tandem division are Michael Reynolds and Timothy Hornik. Riding a gravel tandem over 200 miles is reason enough to be amazed and in awe. The stoker, Hornik, however, is blind, and their podium win brings the entire audience to their feet for a very long standing ovation. Most of us choke back tears and whistle and cheer for their truly amazing feat of human accomplishment.
Chuck introduces me to Gillian Forsyth, who coincidentally is sitting next to us. From Chicago, she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 30 and has since gone on to compete in numerous endurance events including four Boston Marathons, the Leadville 100, five Ironman Triathlons, and DK, among others. Gillian's website, endurancediabetic.com, is an inspirational and educational blog for athletes with or without diabetes.
Gillian, in turn, reminds me of my friend, Gene, in a way, who will ride in his 30th across-Iowa bike ride, RAGBRAI, next month. Gene soldiers on after two years of vision impairment due to a chronic eye condition and has learned to keep the rubber side down while only seeing a fraction of the road.
Chuck shares a common bond with Gillian, having the rare experience of being diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes at age 37, where most are diagnosed in childhood. How Chuck manages an insulin pump and his blood glucose levels while competing in remote endurance events is beyond me. I have trouble remembering when I had my last rice cake and, of course, to fill my hydration pack...
I win a half gallon of Chamois Butt’r in the ceremony-ending raffle, which just caps off the whole experience.
Much later that day, I return home, and as I’m pulling into Springfield, my son, Jake, calls.
“Dad, I won the Illinois State Criterium Championship today! I got a State Champion jersey!”
THAT capped off the whole experience.
Frenchman Robert Marchand set a new world record on January 4, 2017, at the Velodrome National, near Paris. He rode his bicycle 22.547 kilometers in an hour – at the age of 105. He said he is now waiting for a rival.
I have two years to go until I am in the last age category at Dirty Kanza. I am in the last USA Cycling age category for cyclocross and mountain bike racing, two disciplines in which I also participate. I figure, maybe, just maybe, I have 40-50 years to go in that last age category. Watch out, Robert, with some luck I may someday be your rival!
At the completion of this race report, I was browsing some photos of DK 2017 and ran across another xXx racer. As a “remote” member, living in Springfield, I do not get to know many of you, except my son's immediate xXx team mates. The other racer I spied was Gaylord Otte, of Evanston. Gaylord, you crushed it! 14:52:22 and 6th in your Men's 60+ category. CHAPEAU!!! I need to take some lessons from you. Congrats!