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, 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 one's will 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 couple of boys handing up water. at a farm house. 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 regardless of our age groups that we were going to sprint. 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.

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.”