Friday, June 28, 2013

A Chasing After the Wind: learning the Dirty Kanza 200

At the Start photo by Celeste Hanson-Weller

...that which does not kill me, makes me stronger
F. Nietzsche - Twilight of the Idols

Old "uber-man" Friedrich was sort of wrong about this one: that which does not kill you can still hurt you very very badly, scar you, or cripple you. But sometimes he was right, you do get stronger, sometimes.

I did not plan on racing the Dirty Kanza 200 this year. I had never ridden a bike, much less raced, 200 miles in a day. When I started thinking last year about attempting the DK200 I figured I should do some ultra endurance events in 2013. Perhaps I would race a 12 hour mtb event, do the 114 mile D2R2 route, and ride a double century on the road. All this would be build up to entering the Dirty Kanza in 2014 or '15

Then this winter, the organizer added a 100 mile option, which was intriguing. I've ridden over that distance on a cyclocross bike before, so I knew could make a go of the DK Lite. But when I emailed the race director, Jim Cummings, he politely replied that the DK Lite 100 miler was not for experienced racers, hence no prizes, no glory. Basically he goaded me to go for it, do the whole thing, in a for a penny....

My ambitions stoked, I formed a training plan. I put aside all other spring race objectives to focus on becoming an ultra endurance dirt racer. I also became obsessed about the gear & the logistics for success at the Dirty Kanza.  My training plan got radically altered by a broken foot in March. Yet I still managed to put in enough endurance work to feel capable of taking the start.

Moreover, I had secured a crew in February. A childhood friend Celeste has agreed to drive out from Colorado to support me. She is an ER nurse by night and a ultra trail runner by day. I couldn't let her down. So I reworked my training, got all my gear together, and bought the tickets to make it a go. I arrived in Kansas a day & a half before the start. I was as ready as I could be this year. At the racer meeting I got acquainted with Mark Lowe, my Seven Cycles team mate & accomplished ultra cyclist. He and I shared crew support, since his friend Phil is an expert mechanic that would be most valuable. I also ran into the Wilcox & John Bayley on their brand new Seven Cycles bikes on Friday. They both looked fit & ready to race. Celeste & I prepped plenty of food, gallons of fluids, & all the gear by Friday night. Just one nervous night of sleep before the race. The following is an account of my comedy of errors in four parts.

Section One: the beginning of the end

The secret of the greatest fruitfulness and the greatest enjoyment of existence is: to live dangerously!
F. Nietzsche - The Joyful Wisdom

In truth I had high hopes of a good placing at the Dirty Kanza 200. Yes it was my first 200 mile race, yes it was my first gravel grinder. But I had been putting up solid numbers in long endurance training rides. I was rested, I felt ready. So I slotted into the self seeded front group at the start, the 12 hour racers. I was just behind last year's winners Dan Hughes & Rebecca Rusch. I thought that if I could just hold close to this group for the first half I might have a good race, maybe even a great one.

Rolling Out of Emporia - photo by Corey Godfred

And the start confirmed my strengths. After we negotiated the first 90 degree turn onto the gravel road, the fun began. The front group was about 50 strong in a double pace line at 20+ mph. Stones were pinging off bike frames. A few sketchy passes and moves were made to gain position. Rather than get caught behind a fall, I moved up to the front dozen. I felt good, so good that I joked with the Bayley & Alby King. All was going by plan until we hit the one section of mud on the course. I rode into it a little too deep. The front runners ran through the grass beside the road while I was picking mud out of my brakes. Still once I remounted I was in the first chase group with Rebecca and a dozen other quick riders. The race was breaking into to smaller groups quickly.

Soon I was surfing between groups of 3-4 riders. I found that I was descending the loose gravel track faster than the folks I was riding with. Dan Hughes suggested that being cautious on the fast descents can prevent flats. Of course I did not hear his advice until after the race. I was racing my strengths & bombing down the backside of every hill. At mile 40 while I was still only a few minutes behind the lead group. Then I met my doom. On a 30 mph descent I hit a gravel filled hole at the end of bridge. My front tire immediately pinch flatted. After I changed the tube I also found that the front rim had a dent. The wheel would spin between the brake pads, but rubbed a little. I was concerned about wheel failure, so I rode at a cautious pace the final 10 mile of section one. I had enjoyed diving down those hills, living dangerously, but I paid a price.

 Section Two: the big mistake:
Only where there are graves are there resurrections 
F. Nietzsche - Thus Spoke Zarathustra

I rolled into the first check point still ready to race. I quickly changed the front wheel, got new food & fluids, and told Phil of the wheel failure. I took about 5 minutes, longer than I'd wanted, but quick enough. More importantly, my crew said I was still only 15 minutes behind the leaders. I figured I could pull some of that back in the next 50 miles.  So I chased, into a 15 mph headwind, for the next two hours, without drinking enough.

Mark had a sidewall cut at about mile 70. He was in the middle of a fast downhill, so I could not stop to help. He caught up to me a few miles later. At that point I started to feel dry. When I got off for my first nature stop I saw that my urine was safety orange; not clear, not mustard yellow, orange. This was bad. Immediately I drank as much as I could stomach. I got on the bike and started pedaling easy, but trying to keep pace. I was too late at hydrating. 5 miles later both of my hamstrings locked up with cramps. I was unable to pedal a single stroke. I hobbled off, stretched, I drank some more, I got back on again.

The next 20 miles were one of the most physically painful rides of my life. It was definitely my most mentally painful ride. I watched Mark grow more & more distant across the open terrain. I struggled to keep a steady but reasonable pace. I had to get off the bike again to stretch out cramps a few miles later. The headwind continued to batter us at 12-15 mph. At mile 90 a group of 7 caught me from behind. They were riding in a well formed echelon. I slotted into the tail end, happy for some relief from the wind. I did my turn at the front & struggled onto the back end. We rotated through a few more times. Then suddenly I could not hold their pace. I felt utterly dejected as I was spit out the back. Riding alone now I wanted nothing more than to get off the bike, fling it into the prairie, and be done.

Yet I was a mere 5 miles from lunch. The promise of a cold drink, chips, coconut water, cookies, and most of all pickles kept me on the bike, still pedaling, still in it somehow. I was near dead, but I hoped I could rise.

I arrived at Cassoday completely cracked. The bike was shifting poorly. I was wrung out physically & emotionally. Yet somehow, I knew I could regroup with some help from Celeste & Phil.

Section Three: Turned Around
Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies
F. Nietzsche - Human, All Too Human

Immediately Celeste went to work on getting fluids into me as Phil went to work on getting my bike working properly. I sat on the cool grass drank, stretched, ate, & drank some more. At some point a reporter from the NY Times started to ask me questions about the race. I told him I was having a hard time with a mechanical, cramps, & the headwind, but not much more than what I expected. I spent an inordinate amount of time in Madison. I changed both my shorts & jersey. I drank some more. I needed the recovery time or else I would have quit. After over 45 minutes, a ginger ale, a few coconut waters, & a Red Bull in me, I saddled up. I left with the hope that I could still finish before sundown, then 7 hours & 101 miles away.

photo by Celeste Hanson Weller

The first 5 miles out of Cassoday the wind was at my back and the road flat. I flew down that stretch before turning north, into the wind again, & up a climb. Another 8 miles through rolling prairie pastures I was chasing a rider a mile or so ahead. I followed him past an unmarked turn, certain he was on course. I had the map clipped to my bars, but failed to notice that turn until the road seemed to be heading the wrong direction. Eventually I caught him. We rode together to the next corner. Now clearly we were off the map. We rode back to the previous corner certain that this must be the correct direction since it had arrow markers pointing down the road. But it was not. It was part of an earlier section. I was certain the map must be miss marked, it was not. My conviction that we should just go a little farther got us only more lost. Eventually we hailed a car of guys who had just abandoned. With their prior section map in hand we found our error. Yet we still had 4 miles uphill to retrace in order to get on course. 

I learned in that moment  the Dirty Kanza is an orienteering challenge wrapped around an eating contest within a bike race. Lesson: follow the map, not your convictions or assumptions.

As we crested the ridge back on course, I saw a dozen riders inching their way across the hills. They looked like ants marching onto a tree limb. All I could do was join the slow parade for the next 30 miles to Cottonwood Falls. My hope, the chance of finishing in the daylight, was growing dim.

Section Four: Into the Darkness

One has attained mastery when one neither goes wrong nor hesitates in the performance.
F. Nietzche - Daybreak

I rolled into Cottonwood Falls with one eye on the clock and another on the map. My diversion off course had tacked 14 miles onto my total distance and taken over an hour. The turns into the check point were not marked well, but fortunately I only had to go around the block once to find the crew. Again I was going to need more time off the bike than planned. I need to get prepared to ride in the dark. It was now a little past 6 p.m. With the prospect of riding another 50 miles, half of it into a headwind meant that finishing before sundown was impossible.

Last Section ahead photo by Celeste Hanson-Weller

Phil again worked on my shifting and pedals to get the bike as ready as possible. I sat down to re-fuel, hydrate, and get mentally prepared for a longer day than I had planned. I got my few lights prepared for a couple of hours of night riding. I was nervous since I had not tested my light set up much. Lesson: never assume you will finish the DK200 in daylight, bring good lights & test them before hand.

The next couple of hours I rode into the dusk. I passed a few guys who were sitting at the side of the road, phone in hand. I called out to offer help to each one, every time I was waved off. Clearly these riders had enough, they were calling to get picked up.  The sun was setting over the hills to my left. It was peaceful but I was frustrated at the late hour. I started moping on the bike, & slowing down. Two riders who I had passed earlier caught back up to me. I realized I was in a dark place inside my head before night even began. So I started singing to myself, shifted down 2 gears, and increased my pace.

As it started to get truly dark I realized how poor my lights were. I could see the road enough, but reading signs required me to come to a stop. I kept going mindful to double check each turn & road. Unfortunately, I still missed a turn. I ended up another 3 miles off course. I stood a the corner looking at my map by head lamp trying desperately to figure it out. A couple of local riders walked their bikes my direction. They were dropping out due to a mechanical & arranged to get picked up at that corner. They offered me a ride back to town, which I refused. I wanted to finish one way or another. They offered to take me back to the spot I left the course. That seemed like a good idea to me. So I loaded my bike into their truck & took a ride back to the last corner.

The rest of the night I rolled slowly, carefully following the lights ahead of me. I made it back to Emporia past 11 p.m. A crowd was still assembled at the finish line. I hustled through the finish chute needing to find Celeste for some food, warm clothes, and to get off my feet. She was thrilled for me, but I felt deflated & defeated. I was glad I had pushed through, but humbled by the effort it took.

In retrospect I realize I disqualified myself by taking the ride in the truck. Reading back through the rules taking any car ride is a dq. Still, I rode well over 210 miles that day, and every section of the course. I had finished, but not in the way I had hoped or planned.

Aftermath: Lessons Learned

"round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns"
Ecclesiastes: 1:6 

While my ride was more challenging than I expected, I was not crushed by it, & so I learned much:

1) Be focused. A few moments of wavering attention is all that it took for a few mishaps to reshape my ride. In retrospect keeping closer to the leaders, slowing down a little on the descents, and keeping track of each corner would have improved my day substantially.

2) Be quick at refueling. I had planned on spending a combined 45 minutes at the check points. I ended up spending over 2 hours due to my mishaps & mistakes. But the leaders spent less than 20 minutes total. I learned that having a plan for quick pit stops is necessary for success.

3) Be resilliant: The challenge of an event this long is as much mental & emotional as it is physical. I thought I had prepared for that, but clearly not enough. When I got tired & frustrated I started making poor decisions. My poor decisions lead to more frustration. Shaking off that frustration quicker would have helped me go faster. Racing for 200 miles is far different than simply riding 200 miles.

I did accomplish some of what I had hoped. I was able to ride my bike for over 17 hours. I kept going through setbacks & self doubt. I had my equipment & nutrition well prepared. I will do a few things differently in the future to improve my race, both in training & on race day. I will attempt the Dirty Kanza 200 again, hopefully with more focuss and less wind. I would like to finish in the daylight, someday.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

The delightful eccentricity of bicycle history

I do not have anything like this man's collection. I'm much more interested in bicycles of today that I will ride tomorrow. In fact I have only one bicycle that could be called collectible. I ride that one too on sunny summer days.

But I knew much of the history he cites before watching the video. I know he is correct. He's eccentric indeed, but entirely correct. I hope to preach the gospel of cycling as well when I'm his age. Enjoy:

The Spokesman from dean saffron on Vimeo.