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.