Thursday, April 28, 2016

Miles and Miles to Go: training for the Dirty Kanza

10 miles into the Dirty Kanza, photo by Eric Benjamin
This year I will start my 4th Dirty Kanza 200 in a row. The race for me is something of an oddity. I do not race any other Mid-West gravel grinders since I live in New England. I do not race other ultra endurance mountain bike or brevet events, though I am tempted. The Kanza has a special place in my heart because of it's location and the spectacular organization. If I could only enter one race a year the Dirty Kanza would be my choice.

It is no small thing to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. My dedicated Kanza training plan starts 13 weeks before the race and averages 13 hours of saddle time a week.  I ride 300 miles in my high volume weeks. I'd love to ride more, but family & business obligations precludes it. Everyone lining up has different strengths to rely on during the course. Everyone also has different weaknesses to overcome. Your challenges will likely be different than my own. This is an outline of the types of training I've found important to a successful Kanza.

My base training starts in January. I use skiing and hiking in the winter for base endurance work. This year warm dry winter weather allowed me a few 3 hour bike rides too. Most years I have under 1000 miles cycling before March, but plenty of training volume in other aerobic sports. While miles/volume is necessary it will not get me through the Kanza alone. Each year I've looked to improve my training by incorporating means of overcoming my setbacks from the prior race.

rolling out on Commercial Street, Emporia

Speed & Tempo Work: The start of the Dirty Kanza is fast. The last two years the front group was doing 25 mph+ on gravel in the first 20 miles. Staying up with the leaders early on has risks, but it also saves energy to ride in the shelter of the bunch. The longer I can comfortably follow a wheel in the lead group, the closer I am to the finish. Sticking with the leaders requires both comfort with pack racing and the speed to stay in the group. Since I don't get many race starts ahead of the Kanza, I practice on group rides. Following close to a lead rider's wheel at a quick pace approximates road racing. Tempo work is important for the long stretches of the race when I will be alone or with only a few others. I must be able to go hard deep into the race to be able to finish fast. Even on 8+ hour endurance rides I try to do 30 minute tempo blocks in the last 2 hours.

Headwind Riding: Kanza means "people of the south wind". While the wind may come from any direction on race day, it is a consistent force. Riding for hours into a steady 15 mph headwind must be expected. The only way to get familiar with pushing hard into a strong headwind is to seek it out. In New England it is easy to find sheltered roads or forest single track on high wind days. But when I'm training for the Kanza, I do tempo blocks charging straight into stiff headwinds. I practice changing gears to maximize my power when the breeze goes slack. I adjust my body position to reduce my wind sheer. Frankly climbing hills is easier to learn, but strong winds are bigger factor at the Kanza.

Descending one of the many hills at DK200
photo by the Emporia Gazette

Climbs: That is not to say that the Kanza course lacks hills. With a total of 10,000+ feet elevation gain there are plenty. But the inclines in Chase & Lyon Co. Kansas are not long by New England standards. All but a few are less than a mile. The longest is barely 4 miles consistent grade. Yet some of the hills have spot grades at 15% or more. When you tackle one of those with 170 miles already in your legs it does not mater much that the climb is only a half mile long. Training for these grades requires doing short steep hill intervals after I am already fatigued. I try to include some climbing in the last hour of my endurance rides and after I have finished a fast group ride. I also practice climbing on loose gravel when I have a chance.

Descents: What goes up must come down. The descents on the back of these short steep climbs are regularly rocky & loose. Pick the wrong line and your tires are toast. Dive deep into the thick gravel and you'll likely kiss the ground. Either result can be a quick way to end your day. On the other hand if I can descend assuredly then I earn "free speed". Actually it is the speed earned from hard gained experience. I use stretches of rocky steep jeep trails to practice my descending skills each week in the months before the Kanza.

Eating on the Bike: Consuming enough calories during a 12-15 hour bike race is not easy. Practicing it correctly is not easy either. The first factor is what to eat? Everyone has different preferences. I can not live on sport drinks & gels alone. But solid foods can be difficult to chew & swallow while pushing tempo too. I find that soft bars, dried fruit, & yogurt in squeeze tubes are the best alternatives to gels. How much & how often to eat are also critical decisions. Personally I try to eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, typically one gel & one alternative food an hour. I top off at the 2nd & 3rd checkpoints with some whole foods. But I learned the hard way a couple of years ago that stuffing yourself at a checkpoint only leads to belly cramps & dead legs.

eating on the bike old school style

As important as what to eat & how often, is HOW to eat. I never want to come to a stop while on course. Indeed I don't want to even slow down to eat. But it does take some focus off pedaling hard to get any food into my mouth. So I practice eating gels & bars while in the middle of  group rides. I concentrate on maintaining a steady position in the bunch while taking in needed food. Yuri Hauswald is of course the GUru of eating a gel on the bike.

Mental Toughness It's not a matter of if you'll want to quit the Kanza it's only a question of when & how you'll deal with it. Even the fastest & most accomplished racers have moments when they want to tap out. But as Rebecca Rusch says about racing ultra events "there will be good times, there will be bad times, neither will last". Racing the Kanza has required me to build mentally toughness like no other event I've done. I think there are 3 parts of that mental toughness: confidence, resilience, & adaptability.

I take confidence in my training & organizing for the race. I know that I have a plan to show up in Emporia prepared. My mantra in the days leading up to the start is the Little Engine that Could "I think I can, I think I can". Resilience means regaining that confidence when assaulted by doubt during the race. The Kanza is hard. I have faced dehydration, leg cramps, belly cramps, darkness, fatigue, & frustrations too numerous to list. Any of them will cause serious self doubt while on the course. Resilience is the mental process that brings me to where I can keep going & believe it can get better, regardless of how slowly I'm pedaling. My mantra when in doubt is a variation on Dory in Finding Nemo "Just keep Spinning". Adaptability is a little different. Physical issues stop many on the Kanza route, but mechanical or weather issues stop as many. I must be prepared to fix anything that breaks on my bike to keep pedaling. I must be able to adapt to whatever the weather brings and ride through it. Finishing the Kanza can be as much about problem solving these challenges as riding a bike. Positive mental attitude facing either physical, mechanical or environmental challenges is key to enjoying the ride.

Finishing the Kanza in the dark is always a possibility

Rest: While training hard is important to prepare for the Kanza, so is the opposite, rest. Enough rest is critical to complete a training plan, both for volume & intensity. In short, I must start my recovery from a hard training session as soon as it ends so that I will be fresh enough to complete the next workout. As important as daily recovery, so are the rest weeks in the training plan. After 3 weeks of  hard training in a row, I need a week of easy riding to consolidate my fitness gains. Adequate rest includes enough sleep, full hydration, good nutrition, and stretching. My rest weeks include 4 days of easy miles and 2 days of short high intensity efforts to keep my aerobic capacity. After a proper rest week I'm ready to attack the next training block. My week going into race day is similar to my rest week: emphasize sleep, hydration, good nutrition & stretching or massage. I ride every day, but limit the intensity to enough effort to open up the lungs/legs.

As I noted earlier, these 5 areas address my training challenges, yours may be different. I hope these serve as good reminders or helpful tips to prepare for the Dirty Kanza. I trust we will have a great ride to Emporia


  1. Carl, thank you for your kind words! We are hard at work to provide you another world class experience here in the Heartland. Looking forward to seeing you back in Emporia for #4!

  2. Outstanding guidance! I'll be sure to incorporate this into my plan for my first Kanza this year!