In 2006, Jim Cummins and his late friend Joel Dyke wanted to torture ... err, challenge racers to a self supported gravel race of epic proportions. They mapped out one big loop of 200 miles. 34 showed up that year ... and Dirty Kanza was born. Since then, the race has evolved into 4 distances: 25, 50, 100, and the premier 200 miles. And it has gone from 34 entrants to 2300+! Although Jim and his volunteer army of 150 work tirelessly to ensure an amazing experience, YOU ARE ON YOUR OWN. No race organization support is provided. There are three checkpoints, each roughly 50 miles apart, in a town. It is up to you to either have a support team to meet you at the CP's and provide the necessary assistance and refueling or sign up for the crew-for-hire services from the Never Let Go Fund. They provide support crew services to you and the proceeds go to support their mission of helping families battling childhood cancer.
Pre Race Festivities
The town of Emporia rolled out the red carpet for the racers. There were tons of activities in the 3 days leading up to the race. Group rides, a concert, an outdoor expo, Q & A sessions, and new this year was the #200women200miles initiative. After a lackluster number of women participants in the past, this year, even though the race sold out in less than 2 minutes, 200 spots were held for women for the 200 mile distance. Those spots sold out in 24 hours. Throughout the months leading up to the event, the organization helped women prepare by having clinics and training camps. The day before the race, there was a round table event for the women held in the Granada theater and was also on FB live. Now this is how to empower women to race their bikes without feeling out of place or intimidated!
Also unique to this year, the premier of Blood Road was shown at the theater on Friday afternoon. This documentary was about Rebecca Rusch's quest to ride her bike along the Ho Chi Minh trail and find where her father went down in his A4 during a bombing mission in the Vietnam War. I watched it and tears were shed. I highly recommend this, not just because it involves cycling, but gives a different perspective of that war.
|Got caught taking a selfie!|
My lead up to race day
I was a bundle of nerves. My competition was not the other women, but the course and Mother Nature. My goals were 1) to finish, and 2) to "beat the sun." I was jonesing for the Race to the Sun Patch, which, in order to receive, one must finish by 8:45 pm. The start was at 6 am, so that gave me almost 15 hours. I knew I could do the distance, but was worried about the time. I checked my weather app no less than 100 times. I've heard horror stories about the course, especially if it rained. Peanut butter mud that would gom up wheels and rip derailleurs off. And the weather forecast was not looking good ... initially. Heck, even as close as 48 hours prior, there was a 50% chance of storms. And I had heard the winds could be steady at 15-20mph.
If you know me, I was very much prepared. In my resupply bags, I had ample nutrition, a change of clothes and shoes, rain gear, extra lights, and a spare "everything" for my bike. On the bike, I carried all the necessary supplies and tools to fix any problem that I was mechanically capable of. Registration was fun! From the local girl scout troop giving us free boxes of cookies to efficient lines to the overwhelming amount of schwag, I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.
Zeke and I stayed at the Emporia State University dorms. The University was kind enough to house and feed us for $135/person for 3 nights. We were only a 2 minute pedal from the start. There was a microwave in the lobby so that I could brew my Christopher Bean coffee and reheat the meals I had prepared. I would definitely stay there again.
Race day I woke up at 4am. After fueling up on CBC Caramel Macchiato with honey, a banana, and a Honey Stinger waffle, I checked my bike over one more time and pedaled over to Commercial Street. The butterflies were swarming and with a few minutes to spare, I meandered over to the Porta-John where there was amazingly no line to make race weight.
To mentally get through the day (and possibly night), I broke the 200 up into 4 50 mile races. It is much easier to focus on a 50, which I do all the time. I just had to do 4 in a row!
Race #1: Emporia to Madison, 48 miles, 2400 feet gain (Free Speed!)
I positioned myself on the start line around the 10th row. I knew I needed to stay up front to increase my chances of avoiding any crazy stupid situations that almost always arise as the race goes from a controlled start to letting loose the hounds of hell. The first few miles were quite pleasant as 1150 racers made their way out of town under police escort. With no yellow line rule in effect, I did not have to battle for position with elbows extended. The pace was perfect, allowing the engine to slowly come to life. I felt there was no need for a pre race warm up. Once we hit gravel, the race began. It was fast! The dust was thick and tiny rocks were getting kicked up in my face. Not wanting to have to see the dentist upon my return home, I kept my mouth shut and teeth covered.
Knowing that I could most likely sustain this effort for 50 or even 100 miles, but definitely not 200, I fell back into the 3rd, or 4th group. There was a quote from Rebecca Rusch that stuck in my mind. She was once asked by a racer why she started so slow ... to which she responded, "Why do you finish so slow?" In my new contingent of racers, I was comfortably able to manage a pace that would last.
As I had heard stories of, soon racers began having flats. In my best estimate, I would say 1 flat per mile. That made me nervous. And for the most part, it was like I had read about: just after a descent, riding through a wet or dry creek bed where the sharp rocks were more exposed. I took no chances and eased my way through these crossings, often times scrubbing some speed and watching those ahead to see which lines were best. And saying one of my mantras: float like a butterfly.
Midway through, I caught up to Jill Martindale. She was her usual bundle of joy. I filled up on her bubbliness while we made our way to CP1 in Madison. I had set my GPS timer to go off every 15 minutes in order to remind myself to drink each time and eat something every other time. This worked wonderfully for me throughout the race. The first segment flew by quickly as the peloton worked like a well oiled machine. As we approached town, the pace quickened, racers eager to get to their crew, re supply, and begin the next 50. There was a nice little kicker leading up to the checkpoint at the local high school that blew the peloton apart.
Once at the checkpoint, madness ensued. Imagine trying to find your support crew among 700! They had broken up the area into 5 colors to try to make it a bit easier. I was looking for yellow. Luckily, I had full support from the Chamois Butt'r team and finding them was fairly easy. As I pulled into my area, I was immediately assisted by Mitzi, Steve's wife (CEO of Chamois Butt'r) and her son. While I wiped down my chain and applied lube, they refilled my 2 bottles (I had ridden with 3, but only drank 2). I was feeling great and had no issues. As a final act, I also "re lubed" my taint with, but, of course, Chamois Butt'r!
Race #2 Madison to Eureka, 56 miles, 3200 feet gain (The Road to Nowhere)
Headed out, the pack had thinned and I found myself alone. That was fine, as I was blessed to not have to fight against the typical Kansas headwinds. At the most it was only 10mph. The temps were still cool and the legs were still in great shape. I had managed to keep my heart rate in the high 140's in the first 50 miles, which for me is in the aerobic range. I still had plenty of gas in the tank and my nutrition was spot on. As I pedaled, I took the time to look around and gaze at the beauty of the Flint Hills and the boundless prairie. With the abundance of rain, the grasses were green and wildflowers were everywhere! The terrain became hillier and evidence of man's existence became less.
After awhile I came upon a rider with a Lauf kit utilizing a Lauf fork. We traded pulls and eventually got collected up in a small group. It turned out that he was the owner of the company. Needless to say, he was faster on the descents, but I always caught him on the climbs. Eventually the rubber band broke and he fell back.
There were just as many racers off their bikes on the edge of the road as in the first segment, but this time they were not changing flats, but taking nature breaks. Fortunately for me, my urinary tract is able to "shut down" during a race of even this magnitude. Otherwise, I might have caused a crash or two, as there were no trees to hide behind.
As I made my way to Eureka, the group's dynamics would change as some decided to surge ahead, new riders would join, and some would pop off the back. I did my fair share of pulling, to which I believe most appreciated. Of course, I did not provide much draft, so at times, the second in line would come around and that was o.k. by me. But there was one dude that I felt did not like the idea of being helped by a woman, because I tried twice to pull him, to which he responded by quickly whipping back around me and then trying to break away. What ... ever! I just laughed under my breath and went along my merry way. After a couple hours, he was reeled back into the group, shuttled to the back, and then promptly popped off, never to be seen again. Karma!
Around mile 90, I was fortunate to become part of a large group that hammered the last 10 into Eureka. I met another female Chamois Butt'r rider, Jamie, who was looking strong. We chatted for a bit, but our conversation ended when the front half decided to ramp it up even more. I let them go, as those speeds were too much for me. Knowing from experience, I needed happy legs for the next leg, which is around the time that I usually hit my low spot in a race of this distance. I still had a nice little group for the final 5 miles into the checkpoint.
Entering the Eureka High School, I heard my crew yelling at me before I saw them. This time, none other than Mr. Chamois Butt'r himself, Steve Matthews, was there. He and Zeke took over my Niner RLT RDO and busied themselves getting my chain all cleaned and lubed up as I had my 3 bottles refilled by Mitzi. Once again, I applied more Chamois Butt'r.
Race #3 Eureka to Madison, 58 miles, 3200 feet gain (Chamois Butt'r Pain Train)
With another quick transition, I was back on the bike and back to grinding. I've been told that this is the hardest, so I mentally prepared myself to enjoy the pain that was about to ensue.
As I pedaled up the road, I saw two Chamois Butt'r riders. I pushed hard for a few minutes and made it up to them: Elliot and Jad. Little did I know at the time, but these guys would make the last half of my race a memorable one. Others joined over the next few miles and pretty soon we had a decent pack. Talking with them, I learned that this leg was the longest and most demanding. It was also going to be in the hottest part of the day. I was glad that I had added a fourth bottle at the last check point.
Jad was a powerhouse and perfectly built for these endless miles of mild grade rollers. He looked like a defensive end. He could motor on the flats for miles, bomb the descents and drop everyone, and was surprisingly strong on the climbs. And he did a fine job of blocking the wind! Elliot was tall and lanky and rode a consistent pace like I. For the most part, I stayed with them on this leg. There were a couple times when I ended up by myself; once when the guys had to take a nature break and once when I just broke free on a climb. I enjoyed the "alone" time, as the winds were not too bad and it gave me some time to think about the ride, the beauty of Kansas, and just how blessed I was to be happy, healthy, and able to conquer a feat of this magnitude.
|Not like the "hills" of Tennessee, but still hurt the same, especially around mile 120.|
The alone time would end when I would be swallowed up by the group, being led by the Jad The Destroyer. 2-4 pm was the hottest, but I could see rain off in the distance, which helped with cloud cover, and kept it cooler than what was predicted for the day: mid to upper 70's as opposed to the mid 80's. The humidity was also low as I noticed that I was not sopping in sweat. However, there was one 1 mile section near some houses where ground up asphalt had been laid down for dust control. This black gravel radiated the heat and it was sweltering! And deep! My tires sunk and instantly I had to turn up the wattage. That was an SOB, for sure!
Along the way, I caught up to Tiffany. She was motoring along on her Specialized Epic with skinnies. I was most impressed with her position for not only her bike choice but what little preparation she was able to do, you know, because of ... life. I then caught up to Desiree, the one who I battled for the Single Speed Marathon National Championship. She called me out, as she was single speeding and I was "cheating." I laughed, but gravel and single speeding are like oil and vinegar, for me, at least.
Along this leg, the course had been re routed due to an impassable river. Members of the local jeep club were along this section, to ensure we stayed on course. Even given this, I was still a bit unnerved as my GPS would scream at me every few minutes that I was "off course." After 8 hours of racing, your mind can begin to play tricks on you and staying focused can be difficult. The self doubting left me, however, once I got back on the original course.
About this same time, I developed a case of sour stomach. This is when your GI tract begins to rebel at processing and your food just sits there and nothing happens. And which is why I carry along a plain bottle of water. When I get a case of this, diluting it out with water is the trick for getting back on track. I also have to slow the pace little as well, which can be frustrating. But, I know, this must be done, in order not to completely shut down. After 90 minutes, I was feeling much better.
But then my feet began to develop hot spots. My left big toe and the outside of my left foot felt like they were on fire, a searing pain. I actually looked down at my foot expecting smoke. It lasted for 20 minutes and then ... just ... left. I dunno!
I began to notice fatigue setting in at mile 150. The legs began to get a little achy, and a fog began to develop in my mind. I felt myself looking less at the landscape and more at the ground in front of me, or if I was lucky enough to find another racer, at their rear wheel. I became less talkative and just more concentrated at turning the pedals over. Checking my nutrition and my fluids, I had more on the bike than in the body. So I focused on eating/drinking a little more, hoping to shake off this feeling of emptiness.
Those 12 miles to the third checkpoint seemed to last forever. Finally, my tires hit pavement. Rolling into downtown Madison (CP 3 was at a different location than CP1), I began to look for the yellow flag. Two riders just ahead of me stopped dead in front of me. I had to lock up the brakes to avoid a collision. What were they thinking?!? I suppose they were in the same fatigue induced stupor that I was.
I rode onwards and at the end of the town still did not see my support vehicle. Slightly panicked, I saw some Chamois Butt'r people and asked where Zeke was. I was told to backtrack a couple hundred yards to yellow (they had been mistakenly put in orange). Turning around and pedaling back, I saw Zeke jumping up and down and waving his arms. My spirits instantly lifted when I saw my "gravel trail angel"!
While I grabbed more food and refilled just 3 bottles for the final segment, Zeke worked on the chain again, cleaning and applying more lube. My bike was in great shape, but with the few muddy creek crossings and all the dust, I wanted to make sure that my drive train was as quiet and efficient as possible. Once again, a healthy dose of Chamois Butt'r applied to the appropriate region!
Race #4 Madison to Emporia, 45 miles, 2100 feet gain (Shut Up Legs!)
"Only 45 to go, you got this!" I told myself. And I noticed that for the most part, it would be a tailwind all the way. I managed to hook back up with Jad and another racer that I had seen off and on the entire race. His name was Paul and he was riding a Why gravel bike. I asked him if he was the owner as a good friend of mine, Kim, also rode a Why bike and absolutely loves it.
As racers slowly came together, our group grew. We were all tired, but were smelling the barn. The roads became a little flatter and smoother and the pace picked up. This is where I entered the pain cave. It was either work hard and go fast with the group or work hard and go slow alone.
It stayed this way for the first half. But then, some faster riders latched on and our group doubled in size. The speeds picked up even more. I ended up in the very back, the place not to be. For whenever there was a minor change of speed up front, by the time it got back to me, it became a huge power surge for me to not get gapped. I fought this battle for 5 miles before I popped. I was alone, but at least the tailwind was still present. I was still in a relative happy place because I knew I would accomplish my race day goals. My case of the "hot feet" flared up off and on during this final segment. The pain was almost unbearable, but I began to have other pains that distracted me from the awful foot pain. My left wrist and left shoulder helped me to take my mind off my miserable feet.
So I trudged along on my alone for quite some time. Then I began to see a couple riders on the horizon. As I continued to pedal, they got closer. I recognized them as part of the group that I had popped off of. Apparently their rubber bands had snapped as well. Soon we formed a trio: Paul, a NBA-tall dude (so tall he made his cross bike looked like a 26'r), and I. We worked together over the next 5 miles and then were joined by 2 more riders who had come upon us. They upped the pace a little and my legs were all like,"Go away, we don't want to play with you." But soldier on I did.
Closing in on the final few miles, we began scooping up solo riders. One was a woman whom I remember passing after the second checkpoint. When she saw me, her eyes widened and she got squirrely. Paul noticed this and motioned for me to hop on his tail. He pulled me back up to her and then pulled off to the side. I guess he wanted to see some racin'! I laughed and told him that I didn't want to race anymore, just finish. But ... I hopped on her wheel anyway. I didn't think she was in my class as she looked really young. What the hey! I decided to play with her, though. Don't judge me. After 204 miles and 13 + hours, I figured I earned a game of cat and mouse. No matter what, I was going to let her win. I just wanted to show her that she could muster up some power in the final few minutes. And perhaps help her to realize that the tank is never truly empty (something I learned at Marathon Nationals). So I chased her until we hit the hill up to the university. Once she opened the gap, I sat down and let her go.
Rolling down Commercial Street to the finish, thousands of people were present! The cheers were overwhelming. I hi-fived so many kids my right hand stung! Crossing the finish line, the announcer called my name out. Jim, the race director, shook my hand and gave me my Race The Sun patch and finisher's glass. I later heard that he personally greeted every ... single ... finisher. Another memorable moment was when Rebecca Rusch gave me a great big hug! She had raced the 100, finished 2nd overall, got cleaned up, and then proceeded to be a part of the big celebration by welcoming the 200's back. What an inspiring athlete and person! Steve Mathews was there as well to congratulate his tribe.
Once I dismounted, I guess my body realized that it was done working, and began to shut down. I hobbled over to the side walk and then sat down in pure exhaustion.
|That is the face of "I love racing my bike for 206 miles."|
I want to give a big shout out to Jad, Elliot, and Paul for giving me shelter from the wind for a good portion of the day. It definitely made this experience that much more enjoyable. I cannot fathom trying to go at this beast alone. And to the Chamois Butt'r team for taking me under their wing and making me feel #sopro.
It was not until an hour later I learned that I had finished 3rd in my age group (40-49) and 10th overall. Which got me thinking. What could I manage with a little more specific training? Future food for thought.
What an adventure! I had always thought of Kansas as flat farmland with nothing more than rows upon rows of corn and wheat. But the beauty of the Flint Hills was breathtaking. I did not even mind seeing gravel road upon gravel road rolling to the distant horizon. And the countryside was so clean! No dirty diapers, discarded mattresses or refrigerators. I did see an old tire or two, though.
|Icing on the cake!|
# of chasing dogs: 0
% of women finishing the 200: 80.4 (record)
% of men finishing the 200: 84.3 (record)
# of women in all distances: 410 (record)
# of riders beating the sun: 399 (record)
As best as I can remember, I would say that there were 5 types of road surfaces.
1. Asphalt. 5 % of the course
2. Hard packed gravel. 45% of the course. Smooth and close to "asphalt fast".
3. Loose and semi-deep gravel. 30% of the course. One lane wide with 2 distinct tracks to ride in. As long as you stayed in the track, all was good. Stray off the track and you could get squirrely.
4. Rocky base B road. 10% of the course. Large slabs of rock in areas. Lots of sharp flint. The most technically demanding.
5. Black dirt base B road. 10% of the course. Hard packed ruts from tractor traffic. And if it rains, turns to hellish mud.