Thursday, June 4, 2015

the Truest Grit: Dirty Kanza 200 decade of dirt edition

“You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free except the Grace of God. You cannot earn that or deserve it.”  Charles Portis - True Grit

I wasn't planning to enter the Dirty Kanza 200 this year. I told my wife that I would not enter for a third year in a row. After all I had accomplished my goal of beating the sun in 2014, despite 2 flat tires & hamstring cramps for 75 miles. No sir, this was going to be a year off from the requisite long & lonely training. But as entry day approached, circumstances conspired against my best intentions.

My friend John Bayley told me he was going to take another run at the Dirty Kanza. He had finished on the podium in 2013. His resourceful & ultra cycling experienced wife Pamela would crew for him & me should I make the trip. Moreover the king of the Kanza, Dan Hughes, offered up a new prize: an engraved chalice (deemed the Gravel Grail) to anyone who finishes the race 5 times. If I could finish this year I would "only" have two more to go. It looked to be a very fancy trinket, and like most men I'm a sucker for fancy trinkets, especially if they are hard won.

So enter I did, despite my promise. My darling wife said "I knew you would". How she can know my mind with greater clarity than sometimes I do myself is a mystery.

Since this was the tenth Dirty Kanza 200 Jim Cummins (the founder & promoter) announced that it would be a special celebratory edition with a new route. He deemed it the "Decade of Dirty". Sponsors chipped in with extra prizes. The weather a week before was as if Mother Nature heard about Jim's plans and said "if you want something special, Jim, I can give you special. Heck, I'll give you extra special"

Getting Ready
“If you want anything done right you will have to see to it yourself every time.” 
Charles Portis - True Grit

Last year I had arrived fit enough to compete, so I would use the same self designed training plan again. Yet another long cold winter in New England meant I did more skiing than cycling to get into shape. Even the spring weather was frequently more like winter. I trained through the Rasputitisa dirt road race in April. That event included a 3 mile long hike on a  snow packed trail. It would prove to be better preparation than I could foresee at the time.

My chief concern was not physical fitness. My concern was mental toughness. I know well that I have lost more races by quitting in my head than from my legs failing me. Rebecca Rusch's book, Rusch to Glory, was published at a useful time. I had not known that she was an accomplished adventure racer before becoming a 24 hour mountain bike champion. She is very candid in the book about her frustrations & self doubts, especially in races where the finish line was not hours away but days away. The remarkable talent she has is to quickly acknowledge then put aside self defeating thoughts so that they don't stop her, indeed they hardly seem to slow her down. Her epigraph might well read "Rebecca Rusch: mentally tougher than you"
Rebecca & me

In early April my plans got overturned. Pamela was diagnosed with cancer & would start chemotherapy immediately. Understandably she & John would not be making the trip to Emporia. I am confident however that if anyone has the resilience to beat cancer, it is Pamela. I decided upon the recommendation of Alby King to use the Never Let Go "crew for hire" service rather than try to recruit some long lost friend from Lawrence to support me. But this meant a substantial change in my preparation. My tendency is to go to bike races over equipped. I'd rather have a few things too many than one critical item too few. Yet the "crew for hire" program limited me to a 14"x14" drop bag for each check point. I would not enjoy the comforts of spare wheels, a suitcase of clothing choices, or a cooler stocked with whatever I might particularly like to eat & drink. But as Mattie Ross says in True Grit: "You know what they say, "Enough is as good as a feast.”" 

My drop bags packed with all I could fit & all I hoped I would need

The greater turn for everyone's plans was the rain. Thunder storms soaked Kansas in the week prior to the race. Emporia received over 4.5 inches of rain in the 10 days leading up to the Dirty Kanza. Some parts of Chase County received more, flooding river crossings & washing out roads. Yuri Hauswald posted on Twitter how muddy the 1st part of the course was on Thursday. I replied that this looked like just another cyclocross race at Gloucester, but one that would last 100 laps. Would that I had not been so accurate in my estimation.

Yuri's preview did give me an important chance to prepare. I remembered the mud we had to run through in 2013. I imagined that instead of 100 meters like then this hike could go on for much longer. I practiced shouldering my bike with the frame bag on. I also strapped a cleaning brush to my seat pack. Then I fashioned a small fender onto the handle from a soda bottle & duct tape. 190 miles in bike shorts soaked with mud & peppered with sand is a ride I would not wish on an enemy.
cleaning brush & chamois saver all in one

Friday I woke up in Emporia to the sight of more rain. I tried to wait it out but as morning was quickly slipping past I geared up for a wet preview ride. I only went 7 miles into the course but that was enough to confirm Yuri's warning. Early in the route we would hit a bog of thick mud. As the old proverb says: forewarned is forearmed.

Volunteers marked the course on Friday, yup, it was muddy

To my delight when I went to register a friend from New Hampshire was at the CTS tent. Thom Coupe who I've known since he was a junior racer is now working for Carmichael Training Systems. He was there as crew support for the CTS clients & Chris himself. We had a chance to chat & he wished me luck in the race. Sometimes a friendly face from home is all the encouragement one needs.
Thom Coupe, the other New Hampshire cyclist at the Kanza 
Before leaving for Kansas I put a few books in my bag for the flight. Without deliberation I included the latest Thich Naht Hanh book, "No Mud, No Lotus". In it Master Hanh writes that suffering and happiness are not separate, that "If we can learn to see and skillfully engage with both the presence of happiness and the presence of suffering, we will go in the direction of enjoying life more." I knew that in the day ahead I would find mud & suffering, but could I actually find happiness on this terrible route?

Section 1: the muddy way to Madison
“You go for a man hard and fast enough and he don't have time to think about how many is with him, he thinks about himself and how he may get clear out of the wrath that is about to set down on him.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

With almost 900 racers lined up for the long route, 300 more than the year before, I expected the first few miles to be furious. In slippery conditions it would be like pouring 20 lbs. of grease into a 5 lb. can. I made the acquaintance of Kris Auer on Thursday at the Sunflower Bike shakedown ride in Lawrence. Kris was known to me as a long time east coast cyclocross racer & promoter. An experienced wheel is always good to follow in a hectic race start. I had no shame in slotting behind him until we were a few miles onto the dirt roads.
The front group at mile 3, photo by Coverage Photography
Indeed once we turned onto the first dirt road outside of Emporia the pace became frantic. I pushed hard to stay in the lead group of 60 some racers. At mile 4 a slide out took down 7-8 guys. I narrowly avoided riding into the pile. Barry Wicks, hearing the incident behind him, hammered at the front to increase the split. He was pulling at 28+ mph, whittling down the lead group. I was satisfied to have made the split but knew we were only a mile from the bog. I deliberately backed out of the front group so as to avoid riding into the mud too deep. I followed 5 seconds back with a few others. Sure enough when the leaders hit that mud bog bodies & bikes were thrown in every direction. It was as as if they had charged into a mine field. Before getting into the worst of it, I dismounted & shouldered my bike. I figured we would be hiking for a while. We hiked much longer than I figured.
In the trench, photo by Chad Ament

carrying & pushing. Photos by Chad Ament

Even anticipating the mud, I was surprised at the desolation around me. Guys were desperately picking away thick chunks with their fingers, carrying broken parts in their hands, or staring in disbelief at their destroyed bikes. I kept marching ahead passing stopped others. The mud was so thick it clung to my shoes making them look like Mickey Mouse boots. Some racers were pushing their bikes on the muddy track, or worse, through the tall grass beside the road. Both options risked that they would shred their drive trains. The mud grew thin enough to ride for a few meters, then it became thick again and we would have to hike. This continued for nearly 5 miles. Yet I came out of it with an intact bike and 185 miles to go. 

Once I was riding more than hiking I saw that the race was shattered. Ahead of me I could see very few racers, behind me hundreds were still slowly working their way through the bog. In years past there were still large groups riding together at mile 20, but not now. I expected a lonely day ahead. This was not the only of my expectations that turned out to be wrong.

I was feeling strong around mile 30 when none other than Dan Hughes caught up to me. I was surprised that he was behind me at that point so I called out to him. He said that he had been taken down in the crash at mile 4. His jersey looked like he had wrestled a pig & lost. Spotting his damaged shifter I asked if he was alright. He replied that he was good enough & his bike still shifted. After a few miles he increased the pace to one unreasonable for me to match. He pressed on in pursuit of the leaders. Dan finished 6th overall & won his age group. There's a reason he's King of the Kanza.
Dan Hughes pushing on in a mud stained jersey. Photo by TBL Photography

The remainder of the first section was uneventful. I had one flat tire, but changed it quickly. I passed a few people & was passed by a few more. My goal was to survive the first section with enough energy to race harder in the second. I arrived in Madison still in the top 30-40 racers. I quickly reloaded my food & water. The crew for hire folks were superb. I ate a few chips & pickles. I saw Rebecca leave the check point a minute before I did. I had achieved my goal of finishing the first section in a high position. I thought now I could catch Rebecca and race for an impressive result. But fate, as if responding to my lofty expectations, was about to knock me down a peg or three. 

Section 2: a long ride to Cottonwood Falls
“We must each of us bear our own misfortunes.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

Upon leaving Madison I spotted the familiar jersey of Essex County Velo, one of the larger New England clubs. I caught up to the racer and asked his name, Tom Catalano he replied. "Are you Cosmo's dad?" I asked. "No relation, but I know who you mean" he said. After a few more words I left Tom to continue my pursuit of Rebecca.

Tom was not the only racer I would get to know this day. Earlier in the slick mud I was riding with a guy on a full adventure race equipped Borealis fat bike. He was floating over the flatter mud sections but predictably slower going up hills. Each time I passed him I called out "Fat Bike Dude!" Eventually I learned his name was Joe, from South Dakota. I did not expect to see him again after Madison. I would end up crossing paths with him all day until mile 160. He was always a welcome sight. 

Joe Stiller aka Fat Bike Dude. Photo by Jason Ebberts/ TBL Photography

Only a few more miles on I had another front flat tire. I cursed myself by forgetting to use the floor pump in Madison to ensure my earlier tire change had enough pressure. Tom "not Cosmo's dad" went past me while I fixed it. I hurried to put the front wheel back in place & get back to racing. I hurried too much. Another few miles on I realized that my front brake was rubbing the rim. Again I stopped to adjust my brakes. A few miles after that I noticed my front skewer had come loose. I stopped to fix that too. All of these misfortunes were my own doing; there is no defeat like self-defeat.

When we left Madison I expected that we were through with muddy hiking for the day. I was wrong. At mile 90 or so we hit a section of farm track too thick to ride. It felt like a kick in the teeth. With no other option I shouldered the bike again to trot for half a mile. At the end of the mud there were some large puddles across the road. I stopped to clean my bike as did several others. It was the 3rd & mercifully final time I would unstrap my brush/fender. Dry roads were ahead and about 100 more miles.

More mud. Photo by Linda Guerette

The mud had not ended my race, but it did take a toll. My shifting had become as indifferent & unresponsive as a French waiter. I would down shift three clicks & the chain would move one cog, as if to say "I'm sorry monsieur, but zat is not ze gear for you, better to spin ze higher cadence, no?" When I tried to up shift it replied "Impossible! Can you not see I am fatiged, monsieur? You must wait" Eventually I discovered that if I tugged the housing after I shifted, the cable would move better. My bike wasn't running well, but it was running well enough.

A greater toll was paid by my knees. Miles of hiking and heavy pedaling with mud caked shoes made my bad left knee ache. I could not push as hard as I wanted to anymore. My pace slowed substantially. After an hour or so I remembered that I put 4 ibuprofen tablets in my bento box. I fished two out & eagerly swallowed them. I hoped these would be enough for a second wind.

Fate was not done with me yet though. I feared that my front tire was too soft from the earlier flat. Rather than use my last CO2 cartridge I put my mini pump on the valve. No additional air seemed to be getting into the tube. I threaded the pump hose onto the valve tighter, no difference again. In taking the pump hose off I unscrewed the valve core letting all the air out of the tire. I discovered that the pump's air chamber hole was clogged with mud. I used my last cartridge & prayed for no more flats before Cottonwood Falls.

In between my mechanical misfortunes and the groaning from my knees, there were moments of immense beauty. The misty weather gave a sheen to the landscape. Instead of the usual sapphire blue under an intense Kansas sun, the overcast sky allowed the tall grass to radiate vibrant emerald green. Few people ever get to see how pretty the prairie is away from the highways & towns.

the prairie was beautiful when I could notice. Photo by Eric Benjamin

I passed Fat Bike Dude again about 30 miles outside Cottonwood Falls. For much of this stretch I was riding with someone in a black kit & using triathlon seat mount bottle cages, aka Tri Seat Guy. He looked to be struggling as much as I was. We had been riding into a steady 14mph headwind for 50 miles. As the saying goes; misery loves company. We chatted for a bit. The roads began to be familiar to me from the past course. I told him we were getting close to the end of this section as we neared Bazaar. He seemed encouraged by that. I believe he said his name was Scott, but I did not find out where he was from, nor can I confirm it. That is a shame since he was good company.

As the ibuprofen began to work I was able to increase my pace. I rolled into Cottonwood Falls knowing that I would not finish before sundown. I had hoped at Madison to ride the 2nd section in 5 hours, it had taken me 7. Yet the thought of 43 familiar miles to go lifted my spirits. I only had to push hard for 3 more hours.

Section 3: charging to Emporia
“Lookin' back is a bad habit.” 
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

The "crew for hire" volunteers were even better in Cottonwood Falls than in Madison. Immediately they retrieved my bag, offered food & cold drinks. I was pleased to find a Red Bull in the cooler. The kind folks kept asking if I needed more. As I was attaching my lights, I told a volunteer in overalls about my clogged mini-pump. Without hesitation he said "I have a pocket knife, I might be able to clean it out". He did so in no time. I was so grateful I could have cried.

I took my last two ibuprofen and headed out. My plan was to steadily increase my effort until I could see Emporia. I knew that the final head wind section would be tough, 8 miles of rolling road with no shelter. I passed Fat Bike Dude a final time. He must have gone through Cottonwood Falls without stopping. But I no longer had time to chat, it was time to race.

I turned north into the long last stretch of headwind. A mile or so into it a pair of riders caught me, one wearing a CTS jersey. Recognizing a good situation I latched on to their pace line. After my turn at the front I asked "Are you Chris Carmichael?" Yes he was. I shared that I was a home town friend of his newest assistant, Thom Coupe. He said "Thom is a good kid". We continued to take steady pulls into the wind for the next 6 miles. Knowing Carmichael's strength & experience I feared that he would drop me. Still, if anyone could work a pace line it was him.

About 4 miles on a women bridged up to our group. She was churning the pedals at low cadence but had a mile wide grin. Her long blonde ponytail and strong pulls reminded me of my Swedish cousins, so I nicknamed her "Viking Girl". Just before the right turn toward Kahola our group caught 4 guys meandering up the track. One them recognized "Viking Girl" and said "her again! she's been wearing us out all day!" I replied "That's not what she said, I bet she's about to drop you". That was all the spark she needed, because as we turned onto a steep grade, she attacked. I came around for a dig of my own. As we crested the hill I saw that we had a gap on the others.
April Morgan (viking girl) & me at the finishers tent
The next few miles were a series of short steep hills with rocky descents. I wanted to be at the front to pick my own lines. Only Viking Girl was on my wheel on the climbs, though she backed off on the descents. We had dropped Carmichael and all the other guys. It was no time to slow down so I called back "keep the speed up Viking girl!". We passed a few more guys as we raced up & down the rollers.

She was off my wheel but in sight when we started around Kahola Lake. A family had set up a tent beside the road &amp offered up drinks to us racers. A young boy called out "Do you want a Coke?" "Sure I'll take that" I said. He seemed surprised as I snatched it from his hand without slowing. With under 20 miles to go there was no time for pleasantries.

About 4 miles outside of Americus I caught up to Tom "not Cosmo's Dad" Catalano and another fellow. As I came past them I told him to hop on my wheel. He jumped to it and replied "I'll try, but I don't have much left" I worked to keep the pace above 20 mph when the road was straight. I would pull for 3-4 minutes then follow him for a few. Just before town he drifted off my draft. I was stopped by a red at the lone traffic light in Americus. Tom caught back on there. We continued to trade pulls for another few miles out of town, but at some point he faded back. I did what I could to help him finish. I'm sure he'd have done the same for me.

At this point I could see the lights of Emporia in the distance. I pushed to keep my pace up while checking my Garmin for every turn. As I reached the ESU campus I stood out of the saddle for a final surge, but my legs were empty. Crossing onto Commercial Street the cheers from the crowd gave me a boost to pedal for the finish line. I slapped as many high fives with the kids lining the barricades as I could manage. I crossed the line & hoisted my bike above my head. I've never been so elated to simply finish a race.
In the finish tent, done & dusted. Photo by Eric Benjamin
Tom Catalano came in a little over a minute behind me for 5th place in 55+ men. April Morgan (Viking Girl) finished another 3 minutes back for 4th place in the under 39 women. In the finishing tent I learned April's name and that she's from Minnesota. Viking Girl may be the most fitting nickname I've ever accidentally coined. I hugged the race directors. I hugged Eric Benjamin. My 15h 48min. result was 92nd out of 427 official finishers, 19th in my age group. A little over half the DK200 starters dropped out this year. I was in disbelief that I had finished that grueling course. To a degree I still am.

"Was this what they call grit in Fort Smith? We call it something else in Yell County!"
― Charles PortisTrue Grit

I was ushered over to the finisher's banner where I signed my name & wrote "No Mud, No Lotus". I met Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey there. He won the DK200 once and has finished a record 9 times. I was happy to meet him this year simply as a fellow racer.

As my heart rate dropped I was quickly getting cold. I spotted Kris Auer & his new bride Amber in the crowd. Kris told me that he had held in the front group early on but destroyed his rear derailleur around mile 20. Amber had finished the 100 mile half pint. I begged them for a ride back to my motel. Although it was under 3 miles away I was so depleted it may as well have been 50. Kindly they obliged. 

Until now I have avoided any direct allusion to the book & films to which the title of this post refers. While I like the Charles Portis book & the Coen brothers film version as well, I have no love for Rooster Cogburn. Any man who claims to have "ridden with Quantrill" elicits  an immediate enmity from a lifelong Jayhawk such as myself.  In all honesty there is little in common between a story of two lawmen & a teenage girl seeking vengeance for her father's murder and an arduous bike race. But there is this: True Grit is not just a good western, nor merely a character sketch of the irascible Rooster Cogburn & the precocious Mattie Ross. The truth of the story is that only when Cogburn, La Beouf, & Mattie sacrifice the best of themselves to save each other do they find their true grit. I realized this year that no one finishes the Dirty Kanza by themselves. In the past I viewed this race as a solitary endeavor, strong legs & a stronger will was all that was needed to finish. But this year I was compelled to make new friends on route & in the end offer what little I had left to help others succeed. I was happy that Tom & April made the podium in their categories and proud that I had helped them in a small way. At the same time I could not have endured the challenges of this course without the aid of my fellow travelers. The truest grit is giving the best of yourself when it hurts the most without regard for repayment or reward.

The following day I was glad to meet my new friends at the awards breakfast. Both "Fat Bike Dude" Joe Stiller & "Viking Girl" April Morgan were seated near me. I congratulated the women's winner Amanda Nauman & encouraged her to come to New England during cyclocross season. That afternoon I stopped in Lawrence for lunch with my parents and to buy souvenirs at Sunflower Bikeshop. I was surprised to see Colin "Mechanic of Kanza Champions" Earhart already back at work. He spotted me and said "You were flying coming into the first check point, what happened after that?" I told him of the mechanicals & knee issues that unraveled my race in the next 60 miles. "Still you finished, and this year that's something" he replied. It took that as a high compliment.
Collin Earhart & me before the race 
I will race the Dirty Kanza again someday. The event is too tremendous to ignore or long avoid. I'd like to race for a better result, yet I know that it is only by the grace of God that I finished at all this year. The price of finishing the Kanza is not only sweat & tears, but fortitude, humility, & faith. At some point it requires grit.

I will likely not attempt it next year. But then again, I said that last year too.

P.S. I could not tell this tale as I would want without use of the photo's above, The professionals that shot them were very generous. Please take a look at their other work at the links below:


  1. that was outstanding.
    Aure is a good friend,it's cool you could connect with him.
    great read...


    1. thanks Marc, I owe Kris & Amber one

  2. Awesome race, awesome telling.
    Makes my heart race just thinking about it.
    Bucket list top 2. First was L'Eroica.