Friday, October 13, 2017

MRC CX: Debacalypse Now

"I was victim of a series of accidents, as are we all" Kurt Vonnegut

I like the cyclocross race that the Minuteman Road Club puts on at the Bolton Fairgrounds. I like the course, I like the local race #NECX vibe, I like getting cider donuts at the Bolton Market. I've had some good results there in the past 4 years too. But this year was not to be a good race for yours truly. I made mistakes that I haven't made in years. It was a debacle born out of my errors. Last Sunday I was only capable of getting in my own way, in every possible way. Rather than a race report I present a list of lessons (re) learned.

one of my few good moments at MRC CX
photo by Katie Busick

#1) Come fully charged. Sleep as a critical element of performance has gotten much deserved attention lately. Elite racers are tracking their sleep, scheduling 9 hours a night, setting an early bed time, and taking mid day naps. For working masters racers with kids/families good sleep is more elusive. While my sleep the week before MRC CX wasn't bad for me, it wasn't enough. I over slept the alarm by 40 minutes. Which meant I got to the venue 30 minutes later than I planned. But the biggest little error was I forgot to charge my Garmin Forerunner watch. The watch start flashing low battery as I drove down I-495. Of course race data is not vital to race success, but I like having the data. So I kept my Garmin Edge on the handlebars, no biggy unless I had to switch bikes (foreshadowing)


the rain coming hard before the M40/50+ race
#2) Prepare for the Worst case scenario in the Weather forecast. All week the forecast called for sunny breezy conditions on Sunday. Then on Friday the forecast changed to a chance of rain, possibility of a downpour mid morning. Knowing how variable New England weather is, I chose to be optimistic, I left the mud tires at home. I chose wrong. I was half way into my preview ride when light rain started to fall. When I got back to my car to finish my warm up the rain became a down pour. I switched to alloy brake pads on my race bike & put on the best wheels I had for slick conditions, alloy rims with Dugast small birds. The ground was still somewhat dry & firm, but the rain was falling fast. Small birds have plenty of grip when the mud is slick over hard pack, but not when mud gets deep. (foreshadowing, again)


here goes nothing
photo by Katie Busick
#3) Show up for Staging with Everything you need to Race. The promoters of MRC CX make improvements every year, as every good NECX promoter does. This year they added chip timing for fast results & lap count. But chip timing is still a rarity in New England cyclocross. A few minutes after I rolled up to staging I realized I did not have my ankle tag chip on. I sprinted back to the car where it was resting on the dashboard. I returned to staging to see the last row line up. The guys in my field were kind enough to let me wedge in only a row or 2 behind my regular staging position. I had ground to make up before the race even started.

on my long trot to the pit
photo by Andy Copper

#4) Advance Position with Clean Passes. When the whistle blew I was anxious to make up ground as quickly as possible. I had a good start, quick clip in, and a clean line to the front 25 guys. By half way into the lap Eiric Marro caught me from behind. We jockeyed back & forth and gained more positions through the field. As we started up the hill we were gaining on 3 guys. We caught them at the top. Coming down the slick turns at the end of the lap Eiric made the pass. I followed through the outside of the turn but the guy just passed by Eiric moved into my front wheel. I went down fast & hard. Upon getting up my stem had shifted so the handlebars were turned 45 degrees. I had a long jog to the pits ahead of me. Plenty of time for every single racer on course to pass me, and for Richard Fries to call out my misfortune on the PA several times.
just trying to make it to the finish without another fall


#5) Be Focused & Efficient in the Pit. In the substantial amount of time it took to run half the course I decided to keep racing. I had a pit bike after all, and at least I could get a hard training effort done. But I would need to switch my Garmin head unit to have the data. I grabbed the pit bike with the Garmin in my left hand. Then fumbled & slipped as I twisted it into the bracket. Unsure of whether it was secure I ran into a course stake exiting the pit. I was on my ass again, wishing I had charged up my GPS watch (see above).
looking for the rut, must commit to the rut
photo by Cathy Rowell

#6) Lines Change on Muddy Courses after Several Laps. For the next 2 laps I ripped around the course catching the back markers of the 50+ race. One advantage of being DFL was getting to choose the best lines. But with 90 guys on course and rain still falling those lines were getting deeper, sloppier. On the 4th lap around the course I was going fast at a sweeping turn on the far end that was now mud across the entire track. As I set up for the outside line my rear wheel slipped out from under me. I slid 20 feet down the course toward John Mosher spectating on the other side of the tape. But did I learn my lesson? Of course not, the next lap I set up for the outside line on that corner again, and slid out again, but with an outrigger to save a little dignity. Soft courses change quickly when the rain falls fast, even lap to lap.
trying to hang on with the leaders on the last lap

#7) Ride your Own Race. By the 2 to go lap I could see the leaders gaining on me. I had a vain hope of not getting lapped when I got my pit bike. That hope was now gone. But when Brant Hornberger came past me chasing the lone leader, I figured I would try to ride his pace for a the final lap. But I was not able to shift from tempo pace to full on race pace quickly enough. Then Mike Rowell came past leading the 50+ group. I pulled aside to let him have a clean line and tried to get back up to his pace. Pushing my speed to the pace I thought I "should" be riding lead to making mistakes in the loose corners. The woodchips in the barns & the gravel exiting the shed were deep enough to make a rut. Getting out of the rut meant sliding out, which of course is what I did on the last lap.

So I drove home with plenty of lessons to turn over in my mind. But there are always lessons to learn, even from successful races. When we stop learning we stop growing, just like life as a whole. When we stop growing we stop living fully. I hope to remember these lessons next weekend, and for every race after.



Friday, October 6, 2017

Getting Back to my Grass Roots

New England cyclocross has become a really big show almost every weekend. A few years ago there were 14 UCI races in the region, more than any where outside of Belgium. Then the UCI commission began requiring more of UCI listed events, so now we have "only" 8 (not counting the Supercross races in NY). But each UCI event has a bigger budget, larger venues, and more polished production to meet those requirements. That fact has pushed "local" races to step up their production too. The best non UCI races in NECX still have great announcers, food trucks, well laid out wide courses, and full fields. Even these races draw a larger crowd than the UCI races did 15 years ago. it is wonderful but also expensive & exhausting to make all the "big" races. For some, it is too much of a good thing.


This past weekend we had 2 options in NECX, the UCI races in Thompson CT (where most the top national pros would be racing) or a pair of new little local cross races in western Maine & the eastern edge of New Hampshire. Since Thompson CT is almost 3 hours away and I would've needed to take Friday afternoon off to watch the pro's race, I decided to stay closer to home. I chose to get back to grass roots cross.
Both the Deer Farm CX in Newfield Maine & the King Pine CX the following day were put on by Greg Dolbec. He is new to me, but as a first time promoter he did a fine job. The laps were a touch short, yet very spectator friendly. Both venues had food/beverage on site (including free beer at Deer Park) The courses had some similar elements, a rock wall hop up, a run up that was tempting to ride, and a steep switch back descent on loose dirt. But the venues, weather, & terrain were almost polar opposites.


I always *try* to arrive at a new to me cyclocross venue 3 hours before I race. Saturday I almost failed spectacularly. I was thankfully saved by a parking spot close to the start, registration was quick, and the course was open. Light rain was falling most of the drive to Newfield Maine, but was tapering off as I started to ride the course. The venue was actually a working venison farm so one needed to be aware of deer manure in the pasture sections. That added to the Flemish feel of the course.
at an actual working farm for the real feel of Flanders
The course started on a tractor path heading up into the pastures. After a few swooping turns the course double back to a sand pit with a little run/ride up then back through the pit to another hop up a stone lined lip. Then the course headed into the woods for a lumpy off camber trail section. The toughest feature was a steep short run up with a log at the bottom, a short traverse, then the switch back down hill on loose dirt & tall grass. Alan Starret & I made several passes figuring out how to hop the log to ride the hill. During the race however this was not an advantage over running it. Some swooping turns through sticky mud, then a high speed set of barriers, and a narrow sandy trail section finished the lap. The course reminded me a little of the Pinelands and a little of White Park, both on the more technical side of NECX courses.
I finished my preview ride just in time to watch the women's race start. I had a good vantage point from the car to cheer on my team mate Ryanne. She had a very strong ride to finish 2nd behind Roni Vetter. After quick warm up on the road I squeezed into my skinsuit & brought my b bike to the pit. I make no secret of how poor my condition was coming into cyclocross season. For that reason alone I registered for the Cat 3/4 race. I rolled over to the start uncertain as to my form or the group I'd be racing with, but it was just another bike race, right.
One advantage of the new local grass roots race is small fields. The 1/2/3 field had 12 guys lined up, including a few old friends like Don Seib & Mike Rowell. They started 3 minutes ahead of the 3/4 field. I lined up with a couple dozen racers hoping not to get lapped. The whistle blew, I got a mediocre start, but quickly moved up through the first few turns to 3rd wheel. A slight gap opened to the front 2 but no one was coming around me to take up the chase. I closed the gap through the first lap and moved up to 2nd wheel. Then I started making mistakes. First I babbled on the stone step ride up. Then coming down the steep switch backs I lost my front wheel and hit the turf. Both cost me a couple of spots. The problem with limited fitness is that I can not make up gaps after a mistake without blowing up. So in trying to overcome a mistake, I made more mistakes. I didn't make any spectacular stumbles, but just enough to put me in a battle for 7th place with Tim Young instead of fighting for a podium spot. That was a battle Tim won due to being cut short a lap, and my poor concentration in the corners.
the ball field front half the course
the ski hill back half of King Pine CX
Sunday was another and very different day. The sun was out, the air was warm, and breeze was up. The course at King Pine CX was also very different. It was in truth like 2 separate courses. The front half was a typical playground course was flat sections of thick grass interrupted by a couple of short park side climbs. The second half of the course was all ski hill alpine cross. A long access road climb lead us up to the top of the bunny slope, then down around the chair lift drop off, a traverse to the next ski slope, and a winding 4 turn off camber slalom run to the finish. This track looked very demanding based on the size of the hill.

Again the fields were small, but competitive. The 1/2/3 field was give a 4 minute lead this time, assuring that the 3/4 field would be lapped. Considering how the ski hill climb hung over my head, I did not mind that. The whistle blew, again I had a mediocre clip in, but sprinted through the 1st few turns to 2nd wheel. I charged up the slope the first lap to maintain my spot. Coming down the slope at the end of the lap I was conservative and let a gap open to the front 2. In closing the gap through the ball field I lost focus and slid out on a 180 corner. Mistake number 1. Again I got up to chase for the front group. For the next lap I held them at about 10 seconds. But then I started tumbling down the ski slope descent. First on my left hip then on my knee. Free speed isn't always free. A younger Sunapee came past me as I was falling down the hill. I chased him for 2 laps, gaining on the hills, loosing ground on the descent. I realized my chance to take him was on the final ascent of the ski hill. I caught his wheel a third of the way into the final lap. Then came around him at the start of the access road. The advantage of being an old man bike racer is knowing how to go all in on an attack. I went to the limit up the climb. But around the ski lift he was still only a few meters behind me. I dropped into the final slalom praying for one clean run to the finish. I saved myself with an out rigger through the next to last corner and a quick clip in to sprint out of the last one.



And just like that another race weekend done. I missed seeing the pros mix it up, sure. But the racing at both Deer Farm and King Pine was good, the venues everything we've become spoiled with in NECX. So next year, I just may be back for more good old grass roots cross

Friday, September 29, 2017

Too Hot for 'Cross! Cyclocross at White Park

The cyclocross season has to start some time, ready or not, and this year I'm certainly on the not side of that continuum. The Dirty Kanza took absolutely everything out of me this year. I raced exactly twice since the beginning of June. I have not actually felt like doing intervals until a week ago. But having skipped Quad Cross and not eager to wait longer I decided to stuff myself into my skinsuit for Cyclocross at White Park.



White Park was a cozy little local race when I first line up at it 5 years ago. No more. The Masters 45+ had 47 starters, including some of the better New England competitors. The M55+ lined up another 32 guys right behind us. Truth is every good "local" cyclocross race in New England gathers a following after a year or two, Orchard Cross, MRC CX, Shedd Park, all get 300-500+ racers out.
We are very blessed with the abundance of great events in NECX.



The weather on Saturday felt nothing like cyclocross season. Heavy warm air smothered the park. By the time a thin morning mist lifted the temperature was already warmer than comfortable. I hoped that a 9:30 a.m. race start would save me from the heat. While it did help, I was still in for a steamy race. I decided to race in a short sleeve jersey & bibs rather than the skin suit. I was very glad to unzip the jersey down to my sternum during the race. By the 2nd lap I was dripping sweat from my helmet. It was definitely too hot for cross by the afternoon.

But Cyclocross doesn't wait. All of NECX was eager to start the season not matter how hot the weather. I raced a good first 2 laps. I was chasing the top 10 & riding well with the guys I want to compete against. But then I made a couple of small mistakes and had no snap to recover. I made my only big mistake washing out on the gravel transition into the off camber by the soccer field. 3 guys squirted past as I got up. Those were 3 places that I could not gain back in the final 2 laps of the race.

And that was OK for my first race of the season. It was if nothing else a reminder of how much fitness I need to race the way I'd like, and therefore how much work I have to do. I also was reminded that cyclocross in New England is a family affair. My wife & son came down to watch my race. I rode with him a little bit of the course before his. Dozens of other families were doing the same. I cheered on the cub juniors with Kate Northcot who is nursing a knee injury. My wife and I got to cuddle the new babies of our old friends & team mates.

me & the Mrs after the race
photo by Russ Campbell
Cyclocross is NECX is something special because it is a big extended misfit family. Every weekend is like Thanksgiving until Thanksgiving and beyond.
 
 

Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Dirty Kanza Collective: disciples of gravel city

Emporia rolls out the red carpet for Kanza racers
photo by Jim Jewell
The Dirty Kanza is a magnificent beast of a race. Jim Cummins make no promises except to organize the "world's premier gravel grinder". There are no guarantees except that the race will test the limits of your physical, mental, & emotional endurance. Each year the race grows more popular. Twice as many people tried to register the minute it opened in January than slots were available for the 200. The most special part of the Kanza is how the community has embraced the event. The town of Emporia has become Gravel City, the Mecca of gravel grinding each Kanza week. Thousands of disciples of dirt road bike racing converge & are warmly welcomed by all of Emporia. It is the one bike race that I'm certain to enter again, not next year, but someday.


But let's begin at the beginning, dear reader. I made my 5th consecutive trip to race the Kanza this year. I have learned an enormous amount about the event and about myself in each prior DK200. I hoped for a chance to improve on my high placing from 2016. Indeed my training this spring was better than any of the past 4 years. I had no significant injuries, no illnesses to interrupt my preparation. But there was another goal, to join the 1000 mile club. A few years ago Dan Hughes offered an engraved chalice to every racer who finishes 5 DK200's. With that my quest was clear, to seek the Gravel Grail.

Jim & I after awards, still smiling somehow




Another year meant another new crew. Somehow I end up needing to assemble a new support crew each time. This year that would be Jim Jewell. Jim was very qualified to the role, he had crewed at Leadville, traveled a large amount of Lyon & Chase counties, and is an Eagle Scout. His attention to my long emails of preparation notes gave me high confidence. He asked me early on what my goals for the race were. I told him that the first goal is always to finish, that most years only half of racers make it to the finish line at all. I had other goals too. The second goal is always to beat the sun, to finish by sunset. But I also wanted to crack the top 10 in my age group. I was 11th in 2016 despite 4 flat tires & 2 additional slow leaks. To make a perfect run at the Kanza one needs few/no mechanicals, fast crew support, & great legs. I hoped for all three, but the Kanza has a way of dashing the highest hopes.

Saddling Up


Part of my Kanza pilgrimage is a stop in Lawrence, my true hometown. Yes, dear reader, I am a born & raised Jayhawk. It was the hours I spent in Sunflower Outdoor Shop as a boy that sparked my interest in hiking, climbing, & skiing. By the time I graduated from KU I was so fixated on adventure sports I decided to live in the mountains, New Hampshire's White Mountains specifically.

Sunflower Shakedown Ride heading out
photo by Linda Guerette
Dan Hughes, the Sunflower Outdoor boss & Gravel King, organizes a Thursday afternoon shakedown ride. This is not to be missed by yours truly. Besides a test to ensure I've put my bike together correctly, & a chance to harass Dan, it's also a ride with friends I only see at the Kanza. I rode some easy miles with Kris & Amber Auer, Janeen McCrae, Colin Earhardt, & Ted King. I teased Ted that I have to fly half way across country now to ride with him, unlike when he was a new pro and would go for training rides right past my office in New Hampshire. I also had the pleasure of meeting Ted's very special guest from California, Laura Spencer. As always the pace was LFK casual until we got to the one climb, the Wells Overlook access road. A quick stop for the view, a group photo, & we cruised back to Lawrence proper. A nervous energy filled Sunflower Bike Shop when we returned. All were anxious to dial in every equipment detail for the Kanza adventure ahead.

Ted King & I descend from Wells Overlook
photo by Linda Guerete
After meeting up with Jim Jewell & packing his car we drove down to Emporia. Friday morning meant an early start to preview the course conditions on my tune up ride. I spun down Commercial Street just as the barricades were being delivered for the finish chute. As I made the first turn onto the course several other racers were snapping photo's before starting their preview rides. The disciples of the Kanza had converged on Gravel City. The track was dry & firm. If the weather forecast held true the race would be blazing fast.
welcome to Gravel City aka Emporia Kansas

I turned off course at Mile 10 to ride a straight line back to Emporia. I had hope to catch Yuri Hauswald for his Stroop Waffle/Coffee ride. But alas I was 5 minutes late & they started 5 minutes early. So I headed north of town to preview the final 5 miles of the course. By now dozens of other Kanza racers were following the route. I passed numerous groups riding those same finishing miles. I have never seen as many racers taking their Kanza preview so seriously. My fellow devotees prepared very very well.

meeting up with Rebecca Rusch on Commercial St. Emporia KS
Jim and I spent the afternoon with the final preparation chores. I kept interrupting our efforts with greeting Kanza friends as we crossed paths in Emporia. I stopped to talk tires with Jayson O'Mahoney aka Gravel Cyclist. I crossed paths again with the Auers. I also got a warm welcome from the man himself, Jim Cummins. We just got everything done in time to see the 4 p.m. screening of "Blood Road", the movie about Rebecca Rusch's mountain bike journey down the Ho Chi Mihn Trail & to her father's burial site. It is a moving & remarkable film. See it if you can, or better, donate to Rebecca's fund to help the effort to remove the hundreds of thousands remaining unexploded bombs from Laos, Cambodia & Vietnam.

All that lay ahead after a quick dinner was a nervous night of sleep, a 4:15 a.m. wake up, and the Dirty Kanza 200 would be a go.

Race Day, The Good

I cruised down to Commercial Street at 5:30 a.m., anxious to get rolling & warm up my legs. Since few people had already lined up I slotted into the front row behind the barriers. Jim found me easily for last instructions & well wishes. As he snapped a photo, my dear Kanza friend April Morgan popped over for a quick hug. Her thousand watt smile was all the encouragement I needed before the start. The featured racers were called up to the front, the start line tape removed, we were ready to rollout, over a thousand Dirty Kanza pilgrims eager for the 206 mile journey.
April Morgan wishing me well at the start

I stayed in the front group as we turned off Commercial Street and onto gravel. As expected the pace was fast. The group averaged 22 mph for the first 10 miles, with 27-29 mph surges. Quickly gaps opened in the double pace line. I kept moving up to stay in contact with the lead group. I noticed familiar jerseys as I surfed the good lines forward. I shared a word with Garth Prosser before he pushed  ahead. At the I-35 underpass I caught Kerry Duggan (K-Dog) last years 60+ winner. I spotted Amanda Nauman, the defending Queen of the Kanza, two bike lengths ahead of me. I kept her in sight comfortable that her wheel was a good one to follow.


Then at mile 11 I realized that I could feel my rear rim. I must have burped the tire somewhere in the pace line. Nervous that I would shred the tire in chunkier gravel ahead I stopped to air it up. Because it was so early in the race dozens & dozens of riders passed me in the 2 minutes I took to fill the tire. I felt woefully behind.


Knowing that 194 miles is a long way to go, I rode a high tempo pace to recover lost ground. I would catch a group, ride with them for a minute, then move ahead on the next hill. I came into Madison with a group of a 15 or so. We were stunned to see that the course climbed the steep brick paved 3rd St. hill before the 1st check point, it is the Muur of Madison. I rolled through the check point, Jim had my bottles, food, & thoughtfully set out the floor pump. A quick check of my rear tire pressure & I was going again in under 2 minutes.


As I was leaving Check Point #1 I caught Garth Prosser. He had been delayed by a flat tire in the first section. We shared a joke as we rode together. He reminded me that we should ride tempo rather than blow up trying to catch the flying front group. As he set pace we caught & gathered almost 20 other racers. I spotted Amber Auer in the group. Last year Garth & I lead a smaller bunch over Texaco Hill. I figured we would do so again. But as we started the climb my legs would not respond. I drifted to the back of the group. My Dirty Kanza was about to get very very hard.


Race Day: The Bad

As I descended Texaco hill I caught some stragglers from the group, but never the front of it. I calmed myself thinking "you just need a few easy miles to open your legs back up". But the start of Teeter Hill 3 miles latter was no better. Then they struck, hamstring cramps. After Teeter Hill we climbed a no name quarter mile grinder with a steep pitch in the middle. There both of my hamstrings cramped hard. No warning flutters, just full seizure in both legs. The cramps were bad enough that I unclipped from my pedals to shake my legs out. I took my first swig of pickle juice for the day. I had fought through persistent hamstring cramps 3 years ago, but since then I had them beat. All the training, stretching, hydration & nutrition plan I learned had kept them away for the past 2 Kanza's. They were back now with a vengeance.
hiking up the BeYotch
photo by Jason O'Mahoney
I hoped for a moment that the cramps would subside. Yet in my heart I knew better. I took another swig of pickle juice and rode an easy pace toward Eureka. I tried to save my legs for the dozens of hills yet to come. At the bottom of the BeYotch I got off to walk the hill in shame. Last year I pounded up this 8% steep pitch with authority. This year my legs would not even attempt it. Jayson O'Mahoney was on the Kanza ride of his life. He caught and passed me as I hiked the hill. Frustration had set in and was taking a toll on my psyche.

I pedaled a controlled pace for the remaining 15 miles to Eureka, watching my average speed dip lower. I wished that a some time off the bike, a few pickles, & some deep stretching would be enough to bring my cramps under control. "My legs are trash" I confessed to Jim as I rolled in. I quickly apprised him of my dire state. He got my drinks & food in order, lubed my chain & checked the air in the tires just as the check list required. I drank an extra ginger ale, ate half the jar of pickles, & refilled my empty pickle juice flask. Jim took in upon himself to help massage my calves while I stretched. He did all he could to help me get going. As I was rolling out Tom Morgan ran over to give me a high five, which made me smile. I called back "I need your legs Tom"

Last year the first 25 miles of the third section was one of the best of my race. With good legs & a little tail wind I flew through that stretch. This year I was crawling through it while other racers streamed past me. I was aware that several more steep hills lay just ahead. My frustration had reached a breaking point. I feared my legs would completely seize on some slope in the remaining 80 miles. That I would flop over like a crushed turtle on the road. I was in as much anguish mentally as physically. I wanted to quit the Kanza more than I ever have. I reached back for my cell phone then forced my hand to return to the handlebars.

I was in the middle of my A race for the season, a race I had trained for the past four months. An event I had devoted myself to for four years. So what would you do, dear reader? What do you do when your legs quit on your most important race day of the year? I soon realized that all my angst, my enormous frustration at the continual cramps was only making the ride harder. I did not know if my legs would make the distance, but I did not need my head getting in the way. I started to talk to myself positively:

"When you find yourself going through Hell, keep going" Winston Churcill
"Just Keep Spinning, Just Keep Spinning"
"There will be good times & bad times, neither will last forever" Rebecca Rusch
"That hill was o.k., the next hill will be o.k. too"
"It's just a flesh wound, I've had worse" Monty Python The Holy Grail
"You must Race with the legs you have, not the legs you want, make the most of them"
"Every day above the ground is better than one below it" my Grandma Maud
"Only 25, 20, 15 more miles to Madison"
"Pedal when you can, spin when need to, get off & stretch if you have to, it's ok"
"Keep your Eyes on the Prize, the Quest for the Gravel Grail!"

All of these phrases helped some, none of them helped enough to end my misery. I've enjoyed meeting new friends in the 2nd half of the Kanza each of the past few years. But I was so deep in my pain cave that I could barely see daylight. Every hill hurt. Most forced me to shake my legs out, or get off to stretch, or walk. I did cross paths with a new friend I had met in the 1st hundred miles, Mike Tam from North Carolina. We had introduced ourselves while riding in Garth's big group before Texaco Hill. Now he was suffering as much as I was both physically & from multiple mechanicals. When he caught up to me around mile 140 we shared some words of encouragement. I was glad to have a partner in this struggle. But soon the cramps returned & I drifted off his wheel.

Just like last year, I was counting down every mile to the oasis of the last check point. I prayed that I would be able to rally for the final section after a short rest. I found Jim near the middle of Madison's Main Street. I told him that my legs were no better but that I would finish one way or another. I drank deeply from the pickle jar. I lay down on the pavement and put my legs up on the tailgate of his car to massage out the lactic acid. Jim meanwhile got my bike lubed for the final section & my bottles switched. He told me after the race that he questioned whether I could finish but he did not show it at the time. I rolled away from the car toward the exit. Spotting a pair of EMT's I called out "do you have any spare legs in the ambulance? These legs are broken! I need a new set!"

Despite my slow pace through the third section somehow I left Madison before 5:30 p.m. With some luck I could still beat the sun. That thought kept me focused for the first few miles of the last section. But those were not easy miles. I gritted my teeth on every rocky incline. I caught Mike Tam, he had suffered a mechanical again. This time he drifted off my wheel as we churned through the hills. I tried to ride in small groups to save some energy. I met a Sunflower Bike racer in one of them, Paul Heimbach. But as the leg cramps came back I dropped out of the rotation & watched his group continue up the road.

As the course approached Olpe the roads got smoother, I was feeling a little better, and my pace picked up. I knew I would beat the sun if I could just ride steady. My legs kept cramping but not as severely. Unfortunately my pickle juice swigs seemed to be less & less effective with each hour. I would have to rely on grit alone to finish the race
.
As Emporia grew closer, I started catching a few others. I could not pedal very hard, but I could keep pedaling. I tried a stronger effort on the rise before Camp Alexander. My legs screamed in pain. I backed down to steady pedaling for the rest of the run into the ESU campus. Exiting the tunnel I caught up to Paul Heimbach. I called out to him to push for the finish, but he was running on fumes. I pressed on to catch the wheel of a younger guy up Highland Hill. As we came down into campus I was on his tail. Somehow I came around him in the finish sprint to the line.

Finish Line: the Beautiful

I made it, despite all the physical & mental anguish of the past 120 miles. I won't deny that I buried my head on LeLan's shoulder and sobbed for a minute. I was completely spent from the struggle of the past 8 hours. But it was done. Slowly, very slowly, the elation of finishing the Dirt Kanza began to wash over me. The continual cheers of the crowd for every Kanza finisher are magical that way. I stumbled out of the finish chute to find Jim waiting for me. He took my bike to the car while I sat for a long stretch in the recovery tent. I saw Kris & Amber Auer who had both finished earlier with top results. As I told the story of my race, complaining of my bad legs, the guy setting up the compression leg sleeves admonished me. He said "stop complaining, you just finished one of the hardest races in the country, that is something to be proud of regardless of your placing" He was right. Hundreds of other DK racers were still trying to make it to the finish. Just as many would not be able to do so that day. Some how I managed to do it again, before sunset even. I had completed the quest.
completely wrung out in the finish chute
I hobbled over to the Free State Brewery tent for my first beer in over a month. Jim returned as I was sipping it. I spotted Dan Hughes on the other side of the alley. He congratulated me on finishing and we swapped stories of our misfortunes on this year's course. We were both crusty & tired, but happy to be at the finish line of another Kanza.
Dan Hughes after the finish
The awards ceremony the next morning was almost as electric as Commercial Street the night before. Both the men's & women's races came down to tight finishes. In fact the women's overall had never before been decided in a sprint. I gave Amanda Nauman a hug as she passed me & told her that she is a true champion. I was all smiles to join the other new 1000 mile club members on stage.

Garth Prosser & I meet again  at awards for the 1000 mile club
What did I gain from this year, besides a new cup too fancy to drink from? I learned that Greg Lemond was correct, it never gets easier. In fact sometimes it gets a whole lot harder. I know that I still need to find the perfect formula to prevent my leg cramps. Was it not enough magnesium or skipping an amino acid supplement on race day? Not enough race miles before the big event or enough deep stretching & massage? I will get this right before my next Kanza. Mostly I learned that I am mentally tougher than I ever knew. I managed to keep pedaling through severe pain to reach my primary goal, simply to finish. I can do harder things than I thought I could. The best part of the Kanza this year was the collective, the many friends old or new I shared smiles & struggles with.

I will be back to race the Dirty Kanza again. I made a promise to my wife to skip next year, but I will return. Honestly I think I need the break. That only means I have 102 weeks to plan, plot, and train for another chance to realize the dream: a perfect run at the Dirty Kanza. Long Live the Quest for the Gravel Grail & good luck in your next adventures, fellow DK disciples.







Wednesday, May 24, 2017

How hard is hard, how cold is cold? All weather cycling

I do not actually ride in all conditions. I like to take the winter off from regular cycling so that I can enjoy skiing & hiking. It is very hard to be a year round cyclist in northern New England, but I am a great admirer of the few who are, the Rowell's most notably.


That said, to ride enough to be ready to race once Spring comes takes a commitment to train through every type of weather. From April until the beginning of June in my corner of New Hampshire we will get rain, wind, snow, 40F days & 85F days. I hate to ride the rollers once the skis are put away, so I must gear up physically & mentally to ride in whatever conditions the day brings. Here is what I've learned about that in the past 12 years.


1) There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing:


The first & key element to cycling in New England spring conditions is having lots of good clothing options. Jackets, tights, thermal jerseys, wind proof base layers, caps, booties, & all sorts of gloves are requisite. Multiples of each for different temperatures, rain conditions, & wind speed (yes there's a difference between riding into a 5 mph wind & a 15+ mph wind). Everyone has different levels of comfort in conditions, so you will have to experiment to find what works best in terms of clothing. I don't want to estimate how much I've invested in having enough clothes to meet the range the conditions. But I wouldn't be able to ride every day without my collection either.


While it is deadly to under dress, once can be overdressed on a cool spring ride too. When you are over heated you will get wet from the inside out. To avoid this adjust your layers when you can. Also, use your zipper, meaning un-zip your jacket or vest going up hill, zip up at the top to avoid getting chilled on the descent.


2) Keep the fire burning, fuel up.
Riding in the cold takes more out of you, literally. I am never more hungry than after several hours of riding in the cold. Fuel up ahead of the ride, i.e. a nice big breakfast. Stay fueled on the ride, make sure to eat something every 30-45 minutes of any ride longer than 3 hours. An old school tip is to take a baked potato right out of the oven for your center back pocket, keeps you warm on the outside & it will keep you warm from the inside if you eat it mid ride.


3) Attitude is everything. "It's a fine day to ride", "WWSKD?, What would Sean Kelly Do?", "Shut Up Legs". What ever phrase or incentive you need to get out & ride, use it. Sometimes I plan a cold hard ride to finish at a favorite bakery so that a good pastry & a double cappuccino is the incentive. Sometimes I promise myself a sauna. Sometimes I plan to make steak & frites for dinner. Any thing that gets you out to ride on the cold wet days is worthwhile.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Instagram Gratification: Cycling in the Social Media Age

Last Saturday I went on my longest training ride of the year, 132 miles solo, about 1/3 of it on dirt roads. Since I've been training for the Dirty Kanza the past few years this sort of ride is familiar. I knew the effort I had put in, it was a good day on the bike.


Yet when I plugged in my Garmin to the computer the device would not read. I tried my son's Chrome Book, no connection from there either. I went from satisfied with my ride to frustrated & dejected in minutes. It was as if my success had been wiped away, I needed social media validation for my ride to be meaningful.

Garmin Envy (get it)
And that is just poor. As I complained on Twitter about my inability to analyze my day's training, my friend Matt Kraus admonished me that I had still done the ride with or without internet feedback. That should be accomplishment enough. I am old enough to remember a time when it was. Before the internet & social media the only people who knew how far or hard your training rides went were the others on the ride. Often that was only you. Even that was sometimes an estimate since until recently bike computers could only save a small amount of data.

the sad truth for some cyclists
But we live in a Brave New World now. Strava has changed the face of competitive cycling. Some folks take achieving KOM's as (or more) seriously than entering actual races. And woe be to the serious cyclist who fails to record a significant ride on Strava so that appropriate Kudo's can be conferred.
But not only on Strava, we cyclists seek affirmation through all sorts of social media: Face Book, blog posts, user groups, Instagram, Ride with GPS, Garmin Connect, & Twitter to name a few. I joke with my wife that 90% of my Twitter activity is bike chat, but the percentage is probably not far off.

That is not all bad. Cycling can be a very lonely business, especially in America where bike racing is & has always been a niche sport. Most of us cyclists spend hours upon hours alone, or with very few others, achieving accomplishments seen by no one else. The recognition by our tribe on line gives a welcome ego boost. I can now quantify & analyze my training in ways unimaginable when I was new to the sport. In this connected age it is much easier than in the past to find information on routes, weather, races, parts, & all the minutia that is "important" to cycling. My life as a cyclist is better for Sheldon Brown's on-line encyclopedia of bike technology alone. (may he rest in peace)
Sheldon Brown, cyclist extraordinaire
But documenting one's life as a cyclist on the internet can become obsessive too. The data is useful, but the data is not the ride. Still, some cyclists have become so fixated on the feedback of their power meter that they watch their computer more than the road ahead. Let's just say that Chris Froome is not the only cyclist who regularly stares at his stem. When I am more concerned with uploading a ride than recovering from a hard training ride, I know we have a problem. Roadies are not alone in this sort of fixation, not when you consider the flood of photos from gravel grinders or the number of Go-Pro edits from the baggy shorts mtb set. We all have different favorite ways to quantify & publicize our rides.
Froome staring at his SRM again
There is one group of cyclists who do not care about putting their rides on the internet, kids. Every child I know under age 12 who loves to ride bikes just loves to ride bikes. None of them have any way to document their time in the saddle, except when Mom or Dad (usually Dad) does it for them. All they want to do is have fun on two wheels. I am an advocate for riding like a kid again, for riding digitally naked once in a while, no devices, no planned agenda, just ride. If that is a bridge too far, put the computer in your jersey pocket and/or wait to up load the ride for a day or three. I do not ride that way often enough. I still like to measure my annual total mileage, but the recording of it can wait until the happiness from my last good ride fades away.
Not a ride on Strava
Until then, look up from your stem, turn off the camera, and enjoy the ride.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Endless Cycles: a new bike season begins

This year bike season in northern New England is starting late. When winter decides to go long ,as it sometimes can in these parts, there is no thwarting it. We had a few exceptionally warm weeks in February that allowed the intrepid cyclist a ride or two outside. But March was a return to full on winter with several 12"+ snow storms. Even the first Saturday in April had sideways blowing snow. While I've enjoyed the longest ski season in my time living in New Hampshire, it's well past time to ride.


family ski vacation
But this week Spring has at last sprung. I've been able to ride outside every day, in shorts a few time no less. Our club's Tuesday night time trial series began. A new course and the first threshold effort of the year made for a beautifully painful ride.



Our local Wednesday group ride also began in earnest. We've enjoyed a couple of "pre-season" rides already, when the weather was fair. But this week is when all the usual folks showed up and the ancient schedule resumed. Unlike some other places, our Wednesday night ride does not follow the same course every week. In fact we only repeat a handful of routes during the year, and those only twice each. In our little corner of New England enough quiet back roads exist to make for a few dozen good bike routes to choose amongst. We are blessed. So the Wednesday Rhino Ride (which was the Greasy Gonzo Ride before) follows a schedule of routes that goes back 30 years or more, from shorter to longer and back by the time the leaves change colors.

the regular bunch last summer
I've been attempting this ride for 16+ years now. I say attempting because for the first 2-3 years I was horribly out of shape and some tremendously fast Cat 1 road racers would set the tempo every week. Over the past few years the pace has mellowed as the bulk of the bunch has gotten older. The youngsters still come out to make the ride "spirited", especially on the long hills. It's not a gentlemen's spin, but it isn't always a hammer fest anymore either.
same as it ever was
Still, I wouldn't it miss it. This is the ride that brought me back to cycling. Trying to hold on years ago inspired me to race again. More than that, there is a irreplaceable community in a regular group ride. Some faces come & go, but many are familiar week after week, year after year. The comfort of a good group ride is shared progress & effort on the bike. We contribute to each other's success & strength just we compete for town lines & hill tops. Too much of cycling, too much current American society, is a lonely endeavor. The good group ride is an antidote for that ill.

So here's to the new season, dear reader. Go out and ride. Alone if you must, but with a good group when ever & wherever you can.

 
 
 
 

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Hero's: remembering Steve Tilford & the important things

I have not written a blog post in a long time, almost 10 months to be exact. I've had several started, but they all seemed superfluous once I tried to finish them.

Yesterday I got a stunning reminder of how short life is. My first real hero in cycling died in a highway accident. Steve Tilford was killed while driving back from a training camp in California. It doesn't seem possible since Steve survived hundreds of falls & accidents that would have maimed most people. Steve was still recovering from a severe head injury from last November. In fact in this accident it took not one semi-trailer but two to send him to the next world. It is amazing how much he endured in life yet still kept racing. Bill Strickland described that well almost 20 years ago here.


I first met Steve briefly when I was 14 or 15. Then I was aspiring to be a bike racer. I would occasionally try to hang on with the University of Kansas Cycling Team rides. Steve would even less frequently show up to ride along. He would ride his bike from his home in Topeka, 30 miles away, do the 40-50 mile training ride, and ride home. While everyone else had their tongues on the top tube from effort, he would be chatting away not breaking a sweat. The mechanics at my local shop, all amateur racers, pointed out that Steve was a true pro & the only great cyclist among us. They shared countless stories of Steve tearing their legs off in training rides or races. While Greg Lemond was my first bike racing hero, Steve was his team mate, and Steve made the life of a cyclist real to me. By example he taught me what being a "bike racer" meant.

I became reacquainted with Steve after I started racing cyclocross. Once I started racing bikes again in my 30's I had moved to New England. I started racing cyclocross since my road racing team mates did. The 2007 Cyclocross National Championships were in Kansas City, an opportunity for me to both visit my parents & race. Of course Steve was there too, winning his masters age group & placing well in the elite race. I bumped into Steve the night after my race in Lawrence at the Free State Brewery. I went to say hello & tell him how much he inspired me 20+ years before. He greeted me like we were old friends. He shared lots of stories that night with me about those rides & races from years ago.


In the ten years since I've crossed paths with him a few times when I've been back home in Lawrence. Each time he greeted me with his big toothy smile & a new story of some bike adventure or long ago race, I've followed his blog regularly too. That alone is an education in the life of a cyclist much like trying to ride with him was as a teenager.


So what exactly did I learn from Steve? Bike racing is a hard sport, hard physically & hard mentally. You can develop the toughness necessary to be a good bike racer, but only by riding your bike, very far & very very hard, in all types of weather. The training miles of course make for strong legs but they also give you the confidence to ride hard in any conditions. Wind, cold, rain, if you've done intervals in that weather while training then racing in it is no mental challenge. There is no substitute for putting in the miles.


He taught me that the only way have the resources to ride that much & that hard is to be kind. If you waste your energy in bitterness there is not enough left to ride your best. Steve was generous in ways that still astound me. Out of his generosity he built a network of friends that sustained him. From Oregon to Florida, New England to So. California he had multiple friends willing to give him a place to stay. He gave himself away to both friends, competitors, & strangers who could never repay him. My favorite story is when he returned to his house in Topeka from a long trip to find a homeless women had camped in his shed. Rather than kick her out in anger or call the police, he gave her a stack of blankets, bought her food, then helped her get a bed at the local shelter.


He taught me that cycling is a sport of adventure & awareness. He never turned away from an opportunity at a new adventure on the bike. Part of his enthusiasm for cycling was his willingness to try new disciplines & events. If he ever got bored he found a new corner of the sport to dive into for a while. He learned most of what he knew about cycling from simply being completely aware while he was racing. To understand the nuances of cycling one must be both observant & remember the details of a ride. While he was as critical about bike racing as anyone I've ever known, he also understood that one can over think this sport. Knowledge is good, being observant is better, riding every chance you have is best.


In the movie "City Slickers" Jack Palance's character Curly says to Mitch "The secret of life is just one thing", Mitch asks in return "what is that one thing?" and he replies "That's what you have to figure out"
Steve figured out that one thing was cycling for him. His life was built around it. He inspired me to ride more, to race better, to be a more generous person. He was & is my Hero. He was to thousands more. We'll miss him in ten thousand different ways.


P.S. Hundreds of cyclists & friends are sharing their memories of Steve in the last few days. Here a couple of articles that struck a cord with me


https://www.outsideonline.com/2172381/steve-tilford-obituary


https://pvcycling.wordpress.com/2017/04/06/exit-stage-center/


Keith Walburg knew Steve as well as anyone. Here is a bio that he shared: https://vimeo.com/212184428

Saturday, June 11, 2016

The Dirty Kanza 2016: Pushing the Limits




DK200 would test everyone's limit this year
Several factors make the Dirty Kanza 200 tough: the length, the terrain, the harsh gravel, but most of all the weather. Kansas is notorious for violent weather. I grew up just 80 miles from Emporia. I've seen my share of sudden thunderstorms, knock you over gales, and heat waves. In my three prior Kanza's I was fortunate. The weather had been either temperate or cool & damp. I had yet to race a Kanza in classic Kansas summer conditions: hot, bright, & windy

On Friday the weather forecast for race day was fair: 83F and 11-14 mph winds. A steady headwind would be a factor in the second half, but not like a 20+ mph wind day. I went to sleep comfortable with the idea of racing in these conditions. The theme of the Kanza this year was "Find Your Limit". Turns out the Kanza likes to surprise racers to make sure we do.


Section #1: A Muddy Reprise

"with a hammer & nails & a fear of failure we are building a shed..."

When John & I rolled out of the motel the streets of Emporia were wet. A thunderstorm had dumped an inch of rain at 3 a.m. Instead of the dry dusty & fast track we had previewed on Friday the initial dirt roads would be different, oh so different.

John & I lined up in the 12 hour group, about 3 rows back from the front. Neither of us felt confident in starting at the blistering pace of the leaders. But I would at least be in a position to try if my legs were good. 5:59 a.m. the call ups were done & the neutral start down Commercial Street began. 200 riders in the front group made for the typical start/stop anxious roll out. Once we got to a mile from the first turn onto gravel the pace picked up. My road racing instincts kicked in as I threaded my way further up in the group. I spotted April Morgan on the right side and worked up to her to say hello. I passed April just as we made the hard right turn onto the first dirt road, expecting that the front group would hit warp speed. But no, the bunch came almost to a standstill in an inch of standing water on the road. Surprise of the day #1, many more to come.


Plowing through standing water at Mile 3
photo by Jayson O'Mahoney aka Gravel Cyclist
As soon as we cleared the standing water, a mile long section of peanut butter thick mud lay ahead. I saw racers suddenly either dismounting or scattering to the side. It was a frightful reminder of the prior year, complete with mud clods clogging drive trains. I witnessed 2 different men toss their broken bikes into the weeds. Several other racers stood over their bikes fumbling with broken chains or twisted derailleurs. I trotted for several meters then plowed through the remaining glop. My cassette collected enough mud to skip like a 3rd grader with a new jump rope. At mile 7 John Bayley caught up to me. He complained that his chain was skipping too. I followed his wheel for a mile until he upped the tempo beyond my all day pace.

After John sped away, I sat up to clean my glasses from the film of mud coating them. My legs did not feel opened up yet. I resolved to ride an all day pace rather than force my effort this early on. At mile 10 I put my earbuds in & started my DK200 playlist. If I was going to ride solo tempo I may as well take Yuri Hauswald's advice & motivate myself with music. The rest of the section passed quickly. I climbed up Twin Towers at a steady rate. I rode through the cattle pens & descended the back side with confidence. A front flat stopped me, but it was only for a minute or two.

mile 30, still riding high tempo
photo by Matt Fowler Gravel Guru
The new wrinkle in the course was a short out & back into the 1st Madison check point. I hesitated for a moment thinking I had made a wrong turn with a mile to go. I called out to one of the lead group who confirmed I was going the right way. Then I passed John a 1/2 mile out of the check point. He had a 4 minute lead on me. Not so bad for 50 miles in with one flat tire. Pamela was waiting just past the turn around. I swapped Camelbak's, took water bottles & restocked food in seconds. It was the fastest check point stop I've ever done thanks to Pamela's efficiency. On my way out I passed April Morgan about 4-5 minutes behind me. I felt good, this was going to be a strong ride, or so I thought.

Section #2 Gravel Paradise

"...I want to take you through, a wasteland I like to call my home, welcome to paradise..."
Welcome to Paradise - Greenday


Midway in the first section I saw Amanda Nauman, the reigning women's champion, stopped with a flat tire. She had 2 guys with her, presumably to help pace her through the first 100 miles. I was still clipping along at my all day pace when Amanda & the Panda Train, as I nicknamed them, caught me at mile 65. In addition to her team mates Garth Prosser & none other than Dan Hughes were in the pace line. Immediately I jumped in. I had never ridden with Dan so deep into the race. This was getting very good.

We rode together for several miles. The pace line was tight for a gravel race, everyone taking short pulls at steady tempo. A few other guys joined the pace line adding their efforts as they could. At the start of Texaco Hill Dan called out "Alright, tall skinny guys to the front!" I replied "that leaves some of us out." In mock anger he said "Are you calling me fat, Carl!" I said "I respect you too much to say that Dan, but it won't keep me from out sprinting you at the next town line". We both laughed. Garth & I lead over the top of Texaco Hill. We gained a gap by speeding down the backside. To my surprise I was descending a bit faster than the bunch on several long declines. I decided to make the most of this, which turned out to be a mistake.
Dan Hughes riding steady & commanding the pace line
photo by Matt Fowler Gravel Guru

I used  my descending skill to earn free speed ahead of the pace line then soft pedal for a minute while they overtook me. At mile 80 I found that limit as I flatted the rear tire at the bottom of a steep hill. I pulled over to fix it. I waved farewell to Dan, Garth, & the Panda Train, it was nice riding with you. I changed the tube, used a C02 cartridge, and took advantage of the stop for a nature break. I have always had good luck with tires at the Kanza, but my luck was running out. A few miles outside of Eureka I noticed that my front tire was going soft. I filled it with CO2 and trusted it would hold to the checkpoint.

At Eureka Pamela again had everything organized in perfect arrangement. Better yet, a guy with mechanic skills volunteered to help us. He lubed my chain which had been squeaking like a rusty door hinge. As he swapped the front wheel for my spare I reloaded my seat pack with tubes. I ate a few pickles then drank a Red Bull. Pamela handed me new bottles & a full Camelbak. I was ready to tackle what is typically the hardest part of the Kanza: the third section.
feeling strong coming out of Eureka
photo by Roger Harrison

Section #3: Loneliness & Despair

"In the afterlife, you could be headed for the serious strife,
now you make the scene all day, but tomorrow there'll be Hell to pay.."

I left Eureka knowing that John Bayley was about 15 minutes ahead of me, Dan Hughes a little less. I hoped I could close that gap by riding hard for the first half of this section. I wanted to be in a pace line again when the course turned north into a headwind. I spent the next hour riding entirely alone. I saw no one either ahead of me or behind me until after mile 120. My legs felt very good so I figured I would catch someone eventually. I switched screens on my Garmin to see the temperature read 90F. It didn't feel that hot, the north cross wind helped me feel cool.

As the course hit some punchy rolling hills a younger racer (Matt Rossi) caught me. He was tall, skinny, & climbing at a good clip. I tried to match his pace but immediately felt a flutter of cramps in my legs. I took a swig from my pickle juice flask. As we crested a longer hill I felt my rear tire go flat again. I was getting tired & frustrated. I concentrated on changing the tube carefully to avoid mistakes in my depleted state. I decided to use my pump instead of the CO2. I realized that the latex tubes were likely leaking CO2 at a fast rate. It was a slow tire change so I took another nature break.
Struggling past the Dr. Pepper Ranch
photo by Linda Guerrette

When I got back on the bike I checked the temperature again. 93F, 10 degrees hotter than the forecast. No wonder I was beginning to feel empty. I tried to stay positive, I told myself to just keep pedaling, that it would get better. But my body was beginning to shutdown. I had a hard time swallowing food, even gels. I told myself to just keep drinking, to eat what I could, even though that meant breaking my 30 minute feed schedule. I was falling into a very dark place physically and mentally.

I had another flat, this time the front, only 4 miles further up the road. Again I focused to avoid any time wasting mistakes. Again it was a slow change. Several racers passed me while I fixed the flat. Shortly after this my friend April Morgan caught up to me. She was riding steady with a couple of guys. She called out "Hey Carl, jump on!" I pulled out my earbuds & replied, "I'm cracked, ...in a dark place, I didn't think it could be harder than last year..." She gave me a stunned look & said "It will get better. You can do this". I tried to hold her wheel, but as I pushed my body rebelled. My legs were empty, my energy level at bottom. She quickly pulled away with the other guys. I fell into despair.
April cruising past the ranch, close to her limit
photo by Linda Guerrette

As I slowly pedaled the Demon called DNF began to pursue me. "You could end all your suffering with a DNF" it whispered. I could hear the demon's leathery wings flap behind me. "Just pull out your cell phone, call Pamela" No, she won't come get me unless either my bike or my body is broken beyond repair. "Then quit at the check point, 160 miles is enough. Sit down there & have a beer" it hissed. I began to get angry. I did not ride 3,000 miles in training, give up beer for the last 3 weeks, just to Quit! Be Gone Demon, Shoo!

Last year I read Thich Nhat Hanh's lastest book "No Mud, No Lotus" before the Kanza. I found plenty of mud & my lotus at the finish during the 2015 race. This winter I revisited Master Hanh's earlier work "Peace is Every Step" about achieving mindfulness in daily life. I revised this at mile 145 to "Peace is Every Pedal Stroke". This thought helped me stay calm & pedal on for a while.

I won't deceive you, dear reader. I did not complete the 3rd section in a state of enlightened bliss. Soon my legs threatened to cramp again. I finished my pickle juice flask. The heat & stiff headwind continued to make me miserable. My shoulders ached, my feet were sore. Even the music that had propelled me for the past 140 miles began to annoy me instead. I pulled the earbuds out with 6 miles to go to Madison. All I could do was grit my teeth & grind away to the oasis ahead.

before a sip of Red Bull, completely cracked
photo by Pamela Blalock
I coasted slowly into the check point. Pamela immediately said "sit down, here is a bottle of seltzer, can you eat anything?" Having seen John's ragged condition an hour before, she anticipated how worn out I would be. "I'm so cracked" I feebly replied. I stumbled to the chair in the shade of the van. She put an ice sock around my neck and gave me more drinks. Pamela looked me in the eyes and said resolutely "You're not getting in the van, you can & will finish this race." I downed a can of V8 & ate a banana. "I could use a Red Bull" I bleated. It did indeed give me much needed wings. We turned our attention to my bike. We talked about putting my lights on the handlebar. I aired up the tires to 5 psi more pressure than I had at the start. I did not want a 5th pinch flat. My down tube bottle cage was loose so we tightened the bolts. I refilled my pickle juice flask & grabbed a few gels. Pamela put fresh tubes in my saddle bag then sent me off. She was magical in her response to my shattered state. All I had to do was keep pedaling. Only 45 miles to go.

After a Red Bull, ready to go
Photo by Pamela Blalock
Section #4: Chasing Away the Darkness

"Sunset lights the sky, and there's a shadow over me,
black clouds in the east, and there's a twister underneath..."

I left the last check point at a little past 6 p.m. I had hoped to have done so 2 hours earlier at the start of the day. But now I just wanted to finish at all. I gave myself little chance of beating the sun considering I had been riding a 12 mph average the prior 30 miles. But I hoped with the wind calming down and the temperature dropping I might pick up my pace. I still felt dehydrated so I sucked at my Camelbak confident that I would have enough water in this short section.

Only 15 minutes out of Madison I had a terrible realization. I forgot to attach my lights. I would need to finish before dark or I would be sunk. I figured that sunset at 8:45 gave me an absolute curfew to be in Emporia by 9:00 p.m. Suddenly I was engulfed in what Chris Case named the algebra of the Kanza. A 12 mph pace would not do. I needed to maintain a 15+ mph average to finish at all now. I contemplated going back for my lights but understood that Pamela was likely gone.  Nothing sharpens the mind to a task like a desperate situation.

Dexter Pham earlier in the race
photo by Matt Fowler - Gravel Guru
I took a swig of pickle juice & upped my tempo. I hung my arms narrow over the bars any time the road was smooth enough to allow it. I put my earbuds back in. I caught & passed a few other racers. I was playing leap frog with a pair of guys for several miles. One was a stocky sprinter in a plain black kit, the other one of the many Chamois Butt'r riders. I would learn at the finish that the sprinter is Dexter Pham & the Chamois Butt'r rider Elliot Rodda. I would pass them at my tempo pace then fall back when my legs started to fade.

South of Olpe I passed a farm house with a couple of boys handing up water. I took a bottle. I poured half of it on my aching feet & down my neck. I drank the rest. I was able to eat regularly again. I took a gel & a few dried apricots. Soon I spotted a familiar black & blue jersey up the road. I bridged up. It was Amber Auer. I did not know when she had passed me but it did not matter. I tapped her on the shoulder as I passed. Then I slowed and gestured that we should work together. A half mile later Dexter & Elliot caught up to us. I pulled out my earbuds & said "Let's start a rotation". Dexter was taking long strong pulls at the front. I matched him as best I could. We picked up a couple more guys who did their share too.
Amber Auer
photo by Linda Guerrette
About a mile before the Murder Ordained bridge my legs started to cramp again. I pulled out of the pace line & said to Amber "I'm hurting, go on ahead". I soft pedaled for a moment then drained my pickle juice. I wanted to approach the bridge alone anyway. The descent to it was loose, the bridge crossing risky. I could see the group 20 seconds ahead of me. We were all stopped at the mile 199 rail crossing by a freight train. A few more joined us before we could cross the tracks. Once we did the bunch had swelled to a dozen.

After passing the highway and turning west to Emporia I moved up next to Amber. I asked her when she was going to attack the group. She replied with a chuckle that she didn't have any strength for an attack. I was glad I had previewed this part of the course. I punched over a little rise before the s-curve descent past Camp Alexander. At the bottom I saw Dexter & Elliot closing on my wheel. We turned onto Rd 175 together to pace line into Emporia. I turned on my sole light, my helmet blinky. I realized that Dexter was both without lights and that Elliot was providing his navigation. This is likely why they had stuck together for the last 30 some miles. 

We picked up another racer as we approached the outskirts of ESU's campus. After coming through the tunnel at 2 miles to go I asked everyone's age. Dexter, Elliot, & I were in different age groups. The new racer tagging along was in Dexter's. He quickly volunteered "I'm not sprinting, I have nothing left" Elliot echoed his sentiment. Dexter stayed silent. We started up the final hill past Wilson Park. Dexter surged forward and I followed. The others were immediately gaped. A course volunteer directed us to the right hand turn at the top of the hill. Dexter looked around not knowing where the next turn was. I told him to look for the white signs with black arrows. I sped down the hill into campus. Dexter came around me and made a small attack. I was able to follow again.

Approaching Commercial Street it was clear we were going to sprint, regardless of our age groups. Dexter led across the intersection. He hesitated for a moment entering the finish straight. I started to come around him. Immediately we both downshifted 3 then 4 cogs. He kicked into his sprint. I stood up to match him but couldn't squeeze anything more out of my legs. I sat up and slapped high fives with some kids at the barriers. As I crossed the line I applauded for Dexter, and the crowd, and the Kanza. I had finished. It was 8:58 p.m.

Kristi Mohn telling me congratulations, you finished
photo by TBL Photography


Afterwards: My Limits Extended

"All of us lonely, it ain't a sin,
to want something better than the shape you're in,
the rain came at the break of day...
...It's a hard earned victory
the life that came from you to me, can never be wrong"

Kristi Mohn gave me a hug as I hung over my handlebars. I was elated and exhausted at the same time. I gave everything I had to make the finish before dark. I mumbled incoherently to Jim Cummins & LeLan Dains about spotting me 10 minutes as I passed through the exit chute. I was done with Kanza math for the year. I gave Dexter a fist bump. He said "dude, you were pulling us so steady, that was great." Immediately I saw April & Tom Morgan sitting with an open box of pizza. April beamed her million watt smile at me. "You made it!" she cried. I staggered forward and lay down on the pavement next to her. "That hurt so very very much" I replied. "I knew you would finish somehow" she said. Shortly after that Pamela came up to me. She told me that I had finished 90th. I was stunned. I couldn't believe that with all the time I had lost in the 3rd section I had such a high placing. I was stunned again to learn I was 11th in my age group. My stretch goal for the race was top 10 in the 45-49 group. I was more than happy with that result.

Done
photo by Tom Morgan
John had finished almost an hour ahead of me. He was equally surprised to learn he had finished 5th in our age group, good enough for a place on the podium. I was happy to learn that Amber Auer had finished 5th overall and 2nd in her age group. For the second year in a row I had helped a friend earn a podium spot. I was proud to play a small part in her result.

John, Pamela & I went back to the motel. After we cleaned up we went next door for a late dinner. Both John and I had trouble eating. Our bodies were still queasy from the heat and the effort. But somehow we had little trouble sharing a bottle of Boulevard Brewing's finest Quad for dessert.

Boulevard Bourbon Barrel Quad in a finishers glass for my 4th Kanza
Ever since I first planned to race the Kanza I wondered how I would fare in hot windy Kansas summer weather. I suffered heat stroke more than once as a boy just from playing outside on July afternoons. This year the heat & the wind caught us by surprise. The wind was 5 mph stronger and the temperature 7-10 degrees hotter than the weather forecast. Yet I found a way to push through it. Each racer I spoke to, including those who made the podium, fought through the same darkness that I fell into. Last year I wrote that the price of finishing the Kanza is humility, fortitude, & faith. This year the race required a double share of each to complete the course. But now I know that I can. So what does the Kanza have in store for me, for all of us, next? Well, there's only one way to find out.

*I could not tell this story as well without the excellent photos taken by the professionals on course. Please visit their other work at the links below:

Linda Guerette

Jason Ebberts TBL Photography

Matt Fowler Gravel Guru

Jayson O'Mahoney Gravel Cyclist

notes: all the lyrics/songs in italics were part of my DK200 playlist. Turns out that an 8.5 hour playlist was a couple hours too short. 

I rode the Kanza with a Camelbak and with music for the first time based on Yuri Hauswald's advice. Both saved me. 

I owe thanks to my parents for operating as service course for John & I. Pamela Blalock for providing outstanding crew support. The staff of Dirty Kanza Promotions: Jim Cummins, LeLan Dains, & Kristi Mohn for putting on this spectacular event. Most of all to my ever patient wife Suzanne who endures my hours of training each spring with understanding & encouragement.

Saturday we learned that Muhammad had died. Six years ago I would have said that finishing the Dirty Kanza 200 was impossible for me. Although this quote is mis-attributed to Ali, I will always hear his voice saying it in my mind:

“Impossible is just a big word thrown around by small men who find it easier to live in the world they've been given than to explore the power they have to change it. Impossible is not a fact. It's an opinion. Impossible is not a declaration. It's a dare. Impossible is potential. Impossible is temporary. Impossible is nothing.”