I’ve raved and flexed about my finishes the past two years at the Dirty Kanza (or DK) 200/100 mile gravel road race in the Flint Hills of Kansas. So a cosmic reckoning was due this year.
The reckoning started at the riders’ meeting on Friday, the day before the race, when the jinx was made.
My teammate, Collin, and I had both signed up for the DK “Half Pint” 100 mile and arrived the night before in Emporia, Kansas, HQ of the event. We’d dined on excellent Kansas-style BBQ beef rib tips at the local joint, Bobby D’s. The weather was a balmy 80 degrees as we strolled back to our dorm rooms at Emporia State University. The leafy campus for this mid-sized Division II college was tidy and nice, — just ½ mile north of the DK Start/Finish line. I slept like a baby – with the window of my 6th floor room open. I enjoyed the sound of trains coming through town about every 30 minutes.
Early Friday, we pre-rode the last ten miles of the course to ensure that all systems were go. It was pleasant. The roads were scenic and a bit dusty. Despite the heavy May rains, the week had been dry and warm, and the road surface was tamped down nicely, hard-packed, and fast. (I’ve become geeky about analyzing the ever-changing conditions of gravel roads – I consider my skills here a cross between a wine connoisseur and a county road superintendent.)
The afternoon riders’ meeting started well enough. It was like one thousand excited kids on the first day of school. The guest speaker I found fascinating. Introduced as Tom Ritchey, we all gasped – not THE Tom Ritchey, inventor of the mountain bike and industry legend? But this Tom Ritchey wore a cowboy hat. In fact, this Tom Ritchey was a clean-shaven rancher — he was about 40 years old and well-spoken – and had a geology degree. He and his family owned of a large ranch in the Flint Hills through which we would ride. He gave a great geology and history précis on the Flint Hills — the Flint Hills being one the last large land tract in America left unbusted (i.e. no sod turned or busted for plant cultivation). We would be riding in the midst of historic open-range, native tall-grass prairie. Curiously, he then cautioned us not to panic if we came across moving herds of cattle. “Just stop and wait a few minutes.” Otherwise, according to Tom, the herd would feed off our panic, stampede, and possibly trample us. This would result in the DK organizers and the local ranchers having to saddle up, round up the wayward cattle, and then scrape from the mud our trampled carcasses.
Maybe the karma was already changing. Immediately after, the big jinx came. Taking back the stage, event co-founder and Executive Director, Jim Cummins, was reviewing the course, and concluded by saying, “The forecast and road conditions will make this year’s DK the fastest ever.” Arghhh!
Later, I checked the weather forecast for Saturday: clear (good), low 80’s (OK but not great), and increasing north/northwest winds peaking at 16-18 mph. This last bit was not good. The last 25 miles of the race was straight north back into Emporia. Hmmm… I warned Collin about this stretch and the wind, and we both pledged to save something for these final miles.
Just before bed, I also noted on my phone’s weather app a slight chance of an isolated thunderstorm overnight. And, about 3 am I heard thunder and perceived some flashes of lightning. I was still optimistic. OK – the dust won’t be so bad.
Fast forward to the start at 6 am – the sun rising, and 2000 riders for both the 200 and the 100 mile races are staged for the start. We roll. No wind. It’s a cool 62 degrees. Nice.
I ride awesomely, if I don’t say so myself, to the sole sag stop at Mile 50. It is a blast; it is scenic and hilly; I am having fun. But the signs are there. Early on we go through a couple of miles of road which is under water, presumably because of an isolated thunderstorm the night before. There are lots of riders strewn by the side of the road having bike problems and flat tires. But Collin and I ride cautiously through without incident. (I am admittedly a masochist. I take sick pleasure in passing so many and ride even harder as a result.) I roll into the 50 mile stop among the top 30 or 40; I eat, drink, fill up bottles, and apply some lube to my squeaky chain.
But then the reckoning begins and I gradually fall apart over the next 20 miles. Soon, I’m forced by muddy roads to walk two or three quarter-mile sections of road left unrideable by the previous evening’s storm. I struggle on a couple of north stretches of road pedaling into the increasingly vicious wind. The heat kicks in and heads into the high 80’s. There are more hills than I remember seeing on the course profile. I’m getting consistently passed. . . . I . . . am . . . melting. (Do you remember those famous words uttered by the famous Kansas resident – the Wicked Witch of the West – when her gig was up?)
After a long stop at a lonely farmhouse with a cooler full of water and Cokes out by the road, I find myself at mile 70 riding west along a five mile straight stretch of gravel road. My heart rate is stuck at an unnervingly low rate of 120. I just can’t go harder. Soon I will turn north onto a 20 mile straight stretch into the wind – now whistling steadily at 18-20 mph. I had seen this coming. I should have seen this coming.
Five slow miles later — at the turn north, I stop and get off my bike to take stock. I sit down and slowly scrape mud from my shoes, pedals, and bike. It’s “only” 25 miles to go. I look again at my Garmin and map. If I can’t make it, there is a two-lane highway two miles to my west where I can hitch a ride back to town. Riders pass –invariably asking if I’m OK. Then a pick-up truck drives up slowly from the west, in a cloud of dust, and stops. A middle-aged couple slowly gets out of the truck. They quietly watch the riders coming by. They ask if I’m OK. I nod.
They introduce themselves: Roger and Cherylin. From Emporia, they have been out at various points on the course watching the action and carnage. After a while of observing me scrape mud, they ask if I’m continuing. I sigh and remark on the wind. They nod. Then they ask the vital question – do I want a ride back to town? I sigh again. I nod. “Yup.” My riding day is done.
Right then my teammate Collin rides up. He is battling cramps – he even fell off his bike on one steep hill when his quad and hamstring both cramped – but he is determined to continue. I give him my remaining water and some Hammer Enduralyte capsules I have. He is tough. He rides on.
My trip back to Emporia in the air-conditioned club cab is very comfortable. Roger and Cherylin are great — long-time Emporia residents who know everyone – from the rancher Tom Ritchey to the event directors’ wife. They are amazed at this phenomenon of thousands coming to out-of-the-way Emporia. They tell me more about the railroads, “moving” cattle, and the Flint Hills like it’s a day at the office. I give them an earful of how different, unique and beautiful the Flint Hills are. They secretly like this (and it’s all true). They take me all the way to my dormitory at Emporia State – which they know well since Cherylin had graduated from ESU with an IT degree. They get out to help me unload my very dirty bike. I thank them for the ride and help and company. I shake Roger’s hand. Being a slimy dirtball, I sort of give Cherylin a half-hug. She laughs. As they get back in their truck, I tell them good-bye and that I will see them at the evening’s street party at the finish line.
My teammate Collin finishes the DK 100. He is about 130th of 450 finishers (150 of the 600 drop out). We both enjoy the street party that evening.
In the DK 200, almost half of the 1000 starters drop out. My teammates Joel B., John B., and Steven W. all ride strong and consistently, overcoming heat and flat tires and mechanical issues, and finish in the dark close to one another between 9 and 10 pm. They finish in the top 150. Two of my other teammates drop out at miles 100 and 150, respectively, one with a bad back, and the other with heat exhaustion.