Last year I wrote about the Dirty Kanza 200/100 gravel road race – the country’s premier gravel road event – and I included some photos of the event in the Flint Hills of SE Kansas. It was a highlight of my season, and this year I was eager to bag one of the 1500 entries for this year’s race. I was again signing up for the “Half Pint” 100 mile version – just not confident enough in my training program to be able to bite off all 200 miles. The race sold out in less than 48 hours after registration opened in early January, but I bagged an entry and was now committed. Commence training.
You probably read recently about the devastating floods in Texas and Oklahoma at the end of May. Well, the Flint Hills are in southeast Kansas, just north of Tulsa. Leading up to the May 30 race date, it was wet and flooding in the Flint Hills, and many roads around the host town of Emporia were closed – especially the gravel, backcountry roads. But the organizers kept peppering us the week before with communications telling us to quit worrying. Floodwaters were receding, and, in any event, they had contingency plans.
OK – there were a couple of rainless days the week before the race. The forecast was only a little dicey: high 60’s, chance of rain, windy. Good enough. We were off to Kansas.
I arrived on Thursday night to see some friends from the Wabash River Cycling Club and to soak up the atmosphere of the event. I had the chance to rub shoulders with some industry colleagues, a few rock star pro riders like Rebecca Rusch and Barry Wick, and experience the most friendly towns folks I have ever met. (“Thank you for visiting Emporia. We want to share our beautiful country with you. We appreciate your purchase of chapstick/candy bar/dorm towel. We wish you the best of luck in the race. We will be cheering for you every mile.” Etc.)
Friday, the day before the race, it rained lightly all day. But the afternoon riders’ meeting was upbeat. Great organizers, inspiring slide show, great volunteers, great community outreach, and, “Yes, you will have an adventure because the race will go on. Maybe we’ll reroute certain sections, but we’ll tell you at 5:30 am tomorrow before the 6:00 am start.” My two teammates taking on the 200 miler are there and stoked.
I slept like a baby before waking up at 5 a.m. in my spartan dorm room at Emporia State University. It’s race day. A quick “bar” breakfast, and I roll the ¾ mile to the start line. There volunteers ply me with coffee. Perfect. And the organizers announce that the course will be unchanged from that announced the week before. Maps, Garmin GPS files, food, water, rain jersey, bike. I am ready.
Then five minutes before the start, I see my superstar teammate and 3-time finisher, Matt, lined up near the front for the 200 miler. I had mysteriously been unable to reach him the night before (I thought it was due to no cell signal in my dorm). With big eyes, Matt says, “I drove the first 15 miles of the course last night. Beginning at mile 12, there’s mud. Lots of mud. So much mud, I spent 2 hours and $25 in quarters at the self-serve car wash trying to spray the gluey crap off my 4WD SUV last night. I barely made it out.”
Bang – and sirens – Matt, my other teammate John, the pros, and 1000 others racing the 200 were off — escorted out of town by the entire Emporia police force. Fifteen minutes later – after being totally cracked up by one of the funniest PA announcers on earth – the 500 of us racing the “cream puff” 100 miler are off following the fire department south out of town.
About then it starts drizzling. We do not notice that the sun has come up minutes ago. Did I mention that the temperature is below forecast? It is 49 degrees, and will never get above 60 degrees this day. At least the wind is as forecast — already 15 mph (where it would hold out of the north all day).
But I am pretty comfortable. I have knee and arm warmers, my Gabba rain jersey is a good choice. My bike is working and feeling great. I am feeling good. After two miles, we turn onto gravel. It is wet and sloppy here and there, and you have one or two grooves to choose to ride, but it is solid enough. I’m riding with a group of 10 or 15 riders. Before long we catch up with and are well into the back part of the pack of 200 mile racers.
But as forewarned, suddenly at mile 12 the road turns into a muddy trench. I immediately dismount and pick up my bike to carry it through the gluey slop. Riding is out of the question. Even those who push their bike find themselves after ten feet with gunked up wheels which will not turn – packed up with the stickiest mud I’ve ever encountered. Someone on the side of the road says, “It gets better after 3 miles.”
Really? Ridiculous. I feel road rage coming on. Why couldn’t they reroute? But – wow – look at the guy next to me trying to carry the fat tire bike. How can he carry that thing, loaded with an extra 10 pounds of mud? Or what about that poor couple trying to push that tandem? Or the kid who can’t figure out how to carry his 30 pounds of bike and gear? I no longer feel so bad about myself since misery loves company, and I am now in the middle of the world’s biggest pity party. Anyway, what can I do? I am a wet mudball, and there is no warm, dry place within 15 miles. And you know what? No one else is dropping out. Everyone joins in the march. Crazy…awesome.
So we trudge. Hundreds of us. Small human mud-ants inching along as far in front of me and behind me as I can see. Mud up to the ankles. We carry each other along. For the first mile no one speaks (other than at one point, someone warns me about a snake). Later some dark humor and jokes about trench foot sweeps through the lines. Finally, after about an hour, over a stretch of 300-400 yards, hundreds of people are scattered along the road scraping mud off their bikes, shoes, pedals, glasses, eyeballs. But we can ride again. And the wind is at our back for the next 15 miles.
Everyone is more relaxed now. We can spin those pedals and we gladly ride. We marvel at the scenery of the open range. There are other shorter muddy sections, a couple of very swollen creek crossings, and later an unrelenting wind as we turn north into the wind during the middle 30 miles of the race. But first I have to stop at a water stop at the 31 mile mark to fill up nearly empty bottles. Here the 100 milers split from the 200 milers. It will now be a little more lonely. But at this point, I’ll take 70 more miles over 170 any day. I’m actually very happy about this.
After mile 40, I am soon riding north into the wind on a very pretty road, Sharps Creek Road. I’ve used a panorama photo shot of Sharps Creek Road taken during last year’s race as the banner on this newsletter for the past few months. (Thank you Eric Benjamin and Adventure Monkey!) The blue sky, white clouds, and shadows from 2014 were spectacular. For now, though, there is no hot sun or blue or white as the north wind and gray are unrelenting. But I can look around at the scene, and, recognizing this cinema-quality panarama which I love, I imagine that I am riding through the photograph.
Just before noon, I roll with two others into Cottonwood Falls, the 56 mile point on the course and sole official sag stop. Again, the crowd and local sag crew are so damned nice and encouraging. . . .
Off the lawn chair, back on the bike, and onward. By mile 75, after a ten mile dead-straight northward stretch — grinding away at 8-10 mph into the wind — I am now sailing east and then south utterly alone in what seems like the middle of nowhere. Unlike earlier with hundreds slogging in the trenches, there is no one I can see in front of me or behind me. What a contrast. But I now have the wind mostly at my back all the way in. I have my Garmin computer giving me turn-by-turn directions. I have my trusty Salsa Warbird bike which has performed miracles all day long. I put my “motor” into a gear which keeps my heart humming at 135 bpm, and I speed towards Emporia.
I don’t see a soul until the final two miles coming into town. The street party on Main Street has started and the crowd cheers and cowbells ring me home down the final finishing stretch and chute. It is a great feeling and I’m feeling the love. I finish in just over 8.5 hrs. – 30 minutes faster than 2014 when conditions were much nicer. I am one happy guy.
I recover, wash my bike, shower, nap, and still catch the best of the street party that evening as most of the top 200-milers finish. I check in with teammates and friends. I breathe deep and take it all in – certainly enjoying a day well spent (and the beer and the endorphins).
Of the 1000 registrants in the 200 mile race, only about 400 finish before the 3 am cut-off. The first 200 miler finisher is Yuri Hauswald, pictured below, who finishes in just over 12 hours. Only 330 of the 500 100-miler entrants finish. One of my two teammates doing the 200-miler breaks his rear derailleur in the mud trench at mile 13; the other suffers severe hypothermia and drops out at mile 76. They both vow to return. (Both had finished very high in the placings in 2014.) It is a trail of tears for many juxtaposed against the raucous but warm finish line scene.
The photos included in this report were taken by Emporia resident Eric Benjamin of Adventure Monkey – www.adventuremonkey.com. I think he is a stupendous photographer. Thank you, again, Eric.