Last year, I completed my first Leadville 100 mountain bike race. It’s fair to say that I was obsessed with it, and I spent a lot of time worrying and completely stressed out about whether I could finish it. It was a huge relief to finish it successfully and get my belt buckle, even if my time turned out slower than I might have wished for. I felt like I raced Leadville to the best of my abilities and fitness at the time.
This year, I signed up for the Dirty Kanza 200 in January. I decided right then that it was not going to be like Leadville. Either I would finish it, or I wouldn’t. If I didn’t finish, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. I was not going to take all the fun out of it by making it completely stressful again with worrying for months on end.
I couldn’t find anyone to sign up and ride it with me, and it didn’t look like I was going to have any support. But this year, for the first year, you could pay $75 extra and get support that way, so it wouldn’t be a big deal to drive up to Kansas and do the race by myself.
In the end, my brother decided to come with me to Emporia, so I wasn’t up in Kansas alone. But since I had paid support, he was able to do the 50 mile fun ride in the morning and didn’t have to drive from support location to support location, waiting for me. I had a room reserved at the Super 8, which was not far from downtown and only a couple of miles from the start, so I could ride there instead of worrying about parking. I had stayed at the Super 8 in Leadville last summer, so it seemed like a good choice for the Dirty Kanza. And indeed, the room was great and the people running it were too.
Arriving in Emporia
One of the first things I noticed when I arrived on Friday in Emporia to check in is that I didn’t feel like the fattest, least fit guy at the event like I did at Leadville. I am 5’ 8”, and weigh about 150 pounds. At the Leadville check in last year, most of the riders had that gaunt, 6 percent body fat pro cyclist look. At the Dirty Kanza check in, there were quite a few fit looking people. But there were also a large number of people who looked more like they were there to do a typical century rally.
The feel of the event was much more casual too. During the rider’s meeting the night before, the event organizer said that even if you decided to quit after 100 or 150 miles, you were still a winner. I turned to my brother and said that Ken Chlouber, the founder of the Leadville 100 who still gives a motivational speech before each event, would never, ever say that.
In fact, my favorite part of the required rider’s meeting before Leadville was Ken’s motivational speech, where he said something like, “When you get back home, people are going to ask you if you finished Leadville and got your buckle. You can either say ‘Yes,’ or you can spend the next 15 minutes on a crybaby, well-rehearsed excuse as to why you didn’t make it.”
As you can see, Ken will not tell you that you’re still a winner if you quit.
Coming in to the Dirty Kanza for the first time, I wondered if it would be harder or easier than Leadville. It was twice as long as Leadville, but there were no mountain climbs, and it wasn’t taking place at 11,000 feet of elevation, almost two miles in the sky.
Still, a 200 mile race on gravel roads in a very hilly area sounded very difficult. I had never ridden any further than 102 or 103 miles.
The Dirty Kanza 200 starts at 6 a.m. in front of the Granada theater, in the middle of downtown on Commerce Street.
Leadville had something like 1,600 starters in 2012, all carefully organized into color coded gates. You had to qualify for your gate with your time in one of the qualifying races or a previous race time at Leadville. First time riders had to start at the very back gate, which is where I started. It took almost three minutes after the shotgun went off before I made it over the start line!
With only 600 starters, Dirty Kanza organizers let you self select how you line up. A girl on roller skates held up a big posterboard sign that said “12 hours” at the front, and other people held up signs for 14, 16 and 18 hours.
You just decided how long you thought it would take you, and you lined up. I started with the leaders in the 12 hour section. I saw a bunch of Carmichael Training guys, including Chris Carmichael himself. I saw Rebecca Rusch, and some other woman pro, a guy I recognized from the CTS Leadville camp I attended last summer, and another guy from Dallas I had ridden the Red River Riot gravel grinder with. He was riding the Dirty Kanza 200 on a fixed gear single speed. (He finished, too!)
The atmosphere at the start felt much more like a rally than a race. Which was terrific, because it took away all the nervousness I thought I’d feel at the start.
The event started exactly on time at 6 a.m., and a vehicle led us out of town. I was somewhere in the top 50 to 80 riders when we left pavement about a mile out of town and hit the first gravel road. The peloton turned into two long lines, where riders settled into the two spots on the road where car tires had made the gravel thinner and safer.
I was worried that the pace would immediately surge at the beginning, and that I would have to choose between redlining it to stay with the leaders or just letting them ride away. But the pace stayed within reason and I was able to stay with the main field for the first 23 miles or so.
I was somewhere in the top 50 or so riders, and the peloton formed two long lines along the two tire tracks on the gravel road. I was getting yoyoed in the turns and having to push it a little bit to stay with the group, but it wasn’t a big deal.
We settled into a good pace between 20 and 23 mph, on gravel, and the course was still relatively flat. I was excited that the first 50 miles seemed like they were going to go pretty quickly and easily.
At mile 23 or so, we took a turn, went a few hundred yards, and ran into a giant mud bog that covered the entire road. I couldn’t see exactly what was happening at first, but everyone was stopping and jumping off their bikes. Then they ran through on the left side of the road through the grass, past the bog, and jumped back on and remounted.
I did the same thing, and was checking out my bike and shoes and pedals and jumping back on my bike when I noticed Chris Carmichael next to me, with his bike wheels completely covered in thick, black mud. He had evidently attempted to ride through the mud. He didn’t look thrilled about it.
One of his CTS buddies called out for him to hurry up. I jumped back on my bike and didn’t see Chris again for a very long time, until around mile 60 or 65 when he and another rider passed me at a pace that I couldn’t match.
Almost immediately after the mud bog, we turned onto really small roads that were so unused that grass was growing up through some of the tire track areas. The race leaders were quite a ways away at this point, and there was no more large peloton. There were just a bunch of individual riders and a few small groups riding together.
I was riding mostly alone at this point, until a woman who I had seen on the side of the road looking at her wheel came up from behind me and passed. I jumped on her wheel for a while, along with another guy, until she kept surging the hills and I let her go on. I saw her again 20 minutes later pulled over on the side of the road again, with some kind of rear derailleur problem. I can’t remember if she passed me again after that.
We had gotten into the hills at this point, and the course was constantly going up and down.
I found a good pace and stuck with it. A few people were passing me, but it was mostly faster people who had flatted, fixed a flat, and were racing past at their former faster pace.
We rode through several water crossings, and I watched the lines that other riders would take ahead of me and took the same lines to be safe.
I slowed down through the water, worried about hidden potholes that might give me a flat or crash me. Even so, my feet got wet and were kind of cold. It was 58 degrees at the start, and closer to 55 out in the country for the first couple of hours. The whole day stayed cool, and never got about 72 degrees that I noticed on my Garmin.
Speaking of my Garmin, I had purchased a special external battery extender on Amazon before the race. It was a little bit heavy, because it used four AA batteries and a mini USB cable that hooked up to the Garmin unit. But the 800 would only run on internal batteries for up to 12 hours, and the course record for the Dirty Kanza 200 was 11:56. There was no way that I was going to ride 200 miles on gravel in the middle of nowhere and not post it on Strava to prove that I really did it.
A couple on a tandem passed me, and it was unnatural to match their pace on the uphills and downhills, so I let them go. I ended up riding on and off with a couple of guys who knew each other and were both riding single speeds.
I didn’t know if that was bad or good that I was keeping pace with them, but I figured that with a ride this long, I wanted to avoid going into the red early, because I would probably pay for it later.
I noticed one of those two guys on a single speed coasting downhill at over 20 mph on the gravel, upper body turned to one side. As I came up on him, I realized that he was successfully pissing off the side of his bike on a gravel downhill. That was some serious cycling skill.
I hit the first support stop in Madison at around 2:56 or so, which meant that I was making good time. Other than the support crews and some spectators, there were hardly any riders. I checked in at the checkpoint, and then rolled over to the Pablove paid support area, where they would have my next set of bottles to replace the two bottles of Spiz I had already gone through. My nutrition plan was on schedule, and working.
The first 50 miles of the event had gone very quickly and easily, which was encouraging.
My nutrition plan for the event consisted of using Spiz as my liquid nutrition. I had five scoops in each bottle, which added up to about 700 calories. I would drink half a bottle every hour or so, going through two bottles between each 50 mile segment and then replacing the bottles at each stop.
I had successfully tested Spiz as my primary nutrition at the Austin Rattler 100k Leadville qualifier mountain bike race, and at the Shiner century rally, and felt better at the end of those two events than I had felt at the end of any race in recent memory. It might partially be that I am simply fitter this year and getting better at longer events, but I really think this product makes a gigantic difference for me.
One problem I ran into in the first section with my bike was that my temporary bottle cage had started shifting around and was rubbing my leg. So I had to take the bottle out of it and put it in my back pocket. That left me a little bit top heavy, because I was also wearing a small Camelbak 2 liter pack. My cx bike only has one bottle cage, because it is designed to be shouldered during cyclocross races. So I had added a temporary cage that velcros onto the seat tube.
My bottles at all of the support stops were filled with Spiz powder and no water, because I had to drop off the bags the night before. So I gave the crew my used up bottles, and they added cold water from their water cooler to my new bottles and gave them to me so that I could continue on the ride.
I rode off about 100 yards and remembered that I didn’t fill up my Camelbak, so I circled back, remembering how unpleasant it was climbing Columbine last summer at Leadville with no water, and only a really thick HEED Perpetuem bottle to drink from. (I forgot to fill up my Camelbak at the bottom of Columbine and didn’t even notice the error until I ran out of water 20 minutes after the stop was long behind me.)
There was some poor guy who was wearing one of those Camelbak vests designed for road racers and time trialists that goes under your jersey. He had to sit on the ground under the water cooler so that they could pour water into his Camelbak. I’m guessing that would become more and more uncomfortable to sit on the ground to get water fill-ups as the day went on.
As long as we’re on the subject, let’s talk about my equipment for the Dirty Kanza 200. There’s a huge range of different bikes at the start of big gravel grinders like this. Everything from gravel specific bikes like the Salsa Warbird to dual suspension 29er mountain bikes to weird options that people cobble together out of their own crazy ideas of what seems the best or the coolest to them. I lined up next to a guy riding a single speed fixed gear, for example. And he finished!
I went with my cyclocross bike, and Orbea Terra TLT with Ultegra 10 speed. For the wheels, I went with the new 2013 C24 Dura Ace road tubeless wheels. And I set up my tires tubeless, with Caffelatex sealant. I rode a Clement 40mm gravel specific tire in the front, and a Stan’s Raven 700 x 35mm cyclocross tire in the back.
The Clement tire is not designed as a tubeless tire, but it sealed up very easily and worked great that way. I had a hard time getting the Raven to seal up on the back wheel, even with my compressor. I had to make a bike shop run to get help the week before the event. Maybe that’s because of the extra wide profile of the Dura Ace back wheel, or maybe it’s just because I suck at dealing with tubeless tires.
I swapped out the seatpost for the Dirty Kanza 200 and used a Cane Creek Thudbuster ST, which is a suspension seatpost that works on a parallelogram. That means that your seat height stays about the same when the seatpost works. You don’t really feel the Thudbuster working when you are riding it. You just notice that the bumps don’t hurt as much. For a 200 gram weight penalty compared to a regular seatpost, I thought it was completely worth it.
I carried a really big Koki TukTuk seat bag so that I had room for two new cyclocross tubes, in case I ended up flatting so badly the the sealant in my tires didn’t work. I also carried a master chain link, and a Topeak tool, and a Park kit for making sidewall repairs. I also had a little tool that plugs holes in tubeless tires so that I could potentially repair a flat that was too big for the sealant to fill up and not need to take off my tire and put in a tube in the middle of the race. Depending on how tired I was, I figured that a flat would cost me anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes to change.
I used a SRAM Garmin mount to keep my Garmin 800 further out in front of the handlebars so that it was both easier to see and not in my way on the stem. And I used two Revelate handlebar bags. One of them contained my Garmin battery extender and a Big Air cannister to inflate my tires. It also contained a plastic tube with a bunch of Sports Legs tablets inside, which do an amazing job of preventing cramping. And just in case, I also had a different tube with Saltstick capsules. I didn’t end up using any of those.
The other handlebar bag contained several packets of Vanilla Bean GU, and a Powerbar. My plan was to almost exclusively use Spiz as my nutrition for the ride, but I wanted to have other food options in case I developed taste aversion to the Spiz, or didn’t feel like it was working for me.
Mile 50 to 100
As I rode out of the town of Madison after the first support stop, the road headed up a long, steep, brick hill. Not long afterward, it was back on gravel and back into the empty green pasture of the Kansas countryside in the flint hills.
I’ve already forgotten if the biggest creek crossing was during the first 50 mile section, or the second 50 mile section. I think it was in the second 50 mile section. We rode down a long gravel downhill into a big area of trees. And at the bottom, riders were once again jumping off their bikes, holding them up, and walking through a wide, rapidly running creek.
The water was cold, and at least up to my knees. One guy actually rode across through the deep water and made it all the way. Impressive, but I would have been worried that I would end up ruining my bottom bracket or chain or derailleur. I held my bike completely out of the water, keeping it dry.
A small crowd of spectators had gathered at the creek crossing, mostly on the other side where riders were re-mounting and riding up the fairly steep gravel road back away from the creek. They cheered for us all.
I don’t remember very much about the second section except for the hellish headwind that lasted most of it. I’d estimate that it was a 20 mph wind, with 30 mph gusts. In the crosswind sections, the gusts would literally start to blow you out of the car tracks on the gravel road, forcing you to lean and steer against it to stay out of the deeper gravel in the middle of the road or on the shoulder.
In spite of the tough wind, I ended up still riding most of the section alone. The few riders who passed me were going too fast to keep up with. It was hard to get a decent draft on the gravel, so it just seemed more miserable to try and stay on some guy’s wheel and ride at a harder pace than I was doing alone.
Eventually though, on a really long hill that had a photographer on it, a guy came up beside me and passed me, mumbling and cursing and griping about the wind. I was not really in the mood to complain about it, because talking about just made it feel worse to me.
This rider was going at a pace that I could sustain, and for the next 10 miles or so, we took turns blocking the wind at the front while the other one rested and drafted at the back. We passed a lot of riders, always hoping that some of them would jump on and make it a larger group. One guy sat on the back for a few minutes before he dropped off, but no one else even tried to join us. Depressing.
At this point in the race, I was thinking to myself that I wasn’t sure if I would really be able to complete the whole thing if it was going to be this windy and miserable.
Where the first 50 miles had taken just under 3 hours, the second 50 miles took about 4 hours. Where the first 50 miles had been fun, the second 50 miles were mostly hellish.
Mile 100 to 150
At the second support stop, I hung around three or four minutes longer. They had plenty of food and drinks, including Subway sandwiches. But solid food still did not seem appealing and I was not hungry. I ate one small cookie from the table, and that was it. I hoped that my lack of hunger meant that the Spiz energy drink was giving me plenty of calories.
I headed out on the next leg, stopping briefly outside of town to add some Chamois Butt’r to my shorts from a small packet that came with my entry packet.
I was already experiencing some butt discomfort, and I thought maybe a re-application would help. I quickly discovered that it stung instead of soothed, and wondered if maybe my butt was already blistered or maybe even slightly bleeding. But I didn’t check too closely, because I didn’t really want to know. There was nothing I’d be able to do about it anyway. The stinging finally stopped after 5 or 10 minutes and I went back to the previous tolerable level of discomfort.
When I started the third leg of the event, I was thrilled to learn that the course was now headed in a new direction with a perfect tailwind. The gravel road this time was very large, wide and smooth, although still hilly.
My thoughts from just a few minutes before of how I wasn’t sure if I could finish changed to thinking that the hard part was all finished, and that the last 100 miles wouldn’t be bad at all. I was cruising along, alone, at over 20 mph on gravel. Life was good.
About six miles later, the course turned again. The tailwind disappeared, along with my short period of over-optimism. It was back to a combination of small roads, tough hills, and crosswind / headwind.
I was riding with a small group of guys at mile 138, and we all missed that turn. Shortly afterward, one of the guys in the group said that he was pretty sure we had missed a turn and went back.
I rode up to the other guys and told them what had just happened, and we all stopped and looked at the map and determined that the other guy was right. Fortunately, we only went about half a mile off course and lost two or three minutes looking at the map.
That was my first experience going off course, but it unfortunately wouldn’t be my last. The turn at mile 138 appeared to be entirely unmarked when we went back and turned, and I think a lot of other people went off course there. (According to the Dirty Kanza rules, they only tell you that the markings were there when they put them down, and say that you need to depend on your map and navigation skills and not on course markings. It is the rider’s responsibility to stay on course.)
I don’t remember much else about the third 50 mile segment except that it seemed to go on forever, and that most of it was slow because of the wind. It took about four hours and 15 minutes to get to the next stop. My ass was hurting worse, and I was very tired, plain and simple.
If I kept the same four hour pace, I’d probably be finished in 15 hours. But surely it would go faster than that, because there had to be an end to the strong headwind and crosswind.
The Final Segment
As I rolled up to the Pablove support station, I considered how tired I was and thought about quitting again. I told the woman who was helping me swap out my bottles that I didn’t know if I should keep going, or if I should just cry and quit. She told me that I was still pretty far toward the front, because only 15 other people had come through who paid for support. That gave me some encouragement.
I sat down in one of the chairs they had near the tent for a few minutes and drank a cold Coke, and then decided that there was no point in delaying the inevitable. So I climbed back on my bike and started riding again.
One fortunate part about the last 50 mile stretch is that the wind seemed to be dying down as the day went on.
My navigation strategy during the Dirty Kanza was to always make sure that I saw riders ahead of me, and to follow them. I found the map confusing. And there weren’t really any street signs to speak of, which made things even more complicated.
This navigation strategy failed me a few miles after the final support stop.
I followed a guy off course for several miles, until we ran into another guy ahead of us who had stopped to look at his map.
We had to backtrack an unknown distance of a few miles, and we ran into two or three other guys who had also gone off course. With a little bit of map study, they determined the best way to get back on course, and it worked. We saw riders up ahead of us again, as well as course markings.
The bad news was that we had lost quite a bit of time, and it wasn’t going to be possible anymore to get to the finish line before dark. That was disappointing, because they were giving away some limited edition Dirty Kanza print to the first 250 people who arrived before 8:42 p.m., which was the official sunset.
The last 50 miles seemed to go on forever. There were a few short periods where I seemed to get a second wind and felt okay for a while, but they didn’t last for long.
I rode with a group consisting of a couple of Chamois Butt’r team riders and another guy for half an hour or so. But one of those guys was so obviously tired that he was lagging on every hill and overlapping wheels with the guy in front of him trying to get a better draft. I was afraid that I was going to get caught in a crash, so I let them go ahead and just used them to pace myself, riding alone again.
It’s a strange feeling to see huge numbers on your Garmin bike computer like 185 miles. It’s such a big number. It seemed crazy that I could have ridden that far. And almost entirely solo, except for the first 23 miles, and maybe 20 or 30 other miles where I rode with others.
I told myself, “Just 15 miles to go! You can do it!”
But I knew that wasn’t even slightly true. The official course was 204 miles. And I had gone off course for who knew how many miles. Still, I felt better pretending it was 200 miles.
As I got to 195 or so on the Garmin, the course finally started to flatten out a little bit, and the wind didn’t seem bad anymore.
A few people passed me. One man and woman rode past me quickly, and looked so fresh that it didn’t seem possible that they were riding the same 200 mile event that I was riding. How were they ever behind me if they looked that good and were riding that fast now? It was a mystery to me.
Eventually, a group passed me at a speed that I could keep up with. It had already started to get dark enough that I had turned on my rear blinker and my front light.
My Serfas 500 lumen front light seemed plenty bright riding around White Rock Lake every morning, but it didn’t quite light up the dark gravel roads as much as I would have liked. It was good enough that I felt safe though, and didn’t need to slow down.
Our small group kept speeding up as we approached the lights of Emporia, and we were riding at over 20 mph. I was starting to feel like the end was in sight.
And that was about the time that we went over a grated bridge on the outskirts of town and a woman in our group crashed, really hard.
I was right behind her, but I had fallen way back when I saw the bridge, because the grating looked dangerous to me. The others had charged right across, and the woman got her tire stuck in one of the grooves, which threw her to the ground.
Her friend or boyfriend told her to lie down, but she said that she couldn’t because it hurt worse that way. I asked if she wanted us to go get help, and she said something like, “Hell no. I’m going to finish.” Her friend grabbed her under her armpits and helped her up and said that we could ride on ahead, so we did.
Only a mile or two from the finish, our group of three still managed to miss a turn in the dark. We went straight across the highway and back onto gravel. Which turned out to be a driveway that went directly to someone’s house. We stood around confused for a second, and then rode back out, got onto the highway and rode into town and turned to ride through the campus of Emporia State University, and finally back onto Commerce street where we started the whole thing more than 15 hours ago.
A surprisingly large number of spectators lined the last three blocks of Commerce Street, and they cheered like crazy as we rode in toward the finish. The last block was lined with metal barriers, and the spectators leaned over the barriers to stick their hands out to give us high fives as we rode past.
There was no sprint for the finish, because the barriers narrowed down to single file, where you checked in and gave your number, and they handed you your official Dirty Kanza finisher’s pint glass and congratulated you.
It was really impressive that so many people were there at 9:30 p.m., about three hours after the winners had come through. The finish was scheduled to remain open until 2 a.m., which was the 20 hour cutoff.
Out of 630 people who started the DK 200, only 331 finished the race. I was 111th out of those, which put me at the last of the top third of racers who finished.
For my longest ride ever and my first attempt at the Dirty Kanza, and after adding 6 additional miles to my race from wrong turns, and after also stopping for a crash, I was happy with that. I probably would have done about an hour better without the mistakes, but I felt that I rode the event as well as I could.
My brother was waiting for me at the finish, and he brought me a large, delicious, ice cold Coke from a nearby restaurant.
Drinking my Coke, I saw that the woman who crashed near the finish had made it to the end. She was sitting on a stretcher at one of the ambulances at the finish, and the paramedics were cleaning up her road rash.
We went straight to the car, loaded up the bike, and headed directly back to the Super 8 hotel. After a 2 minute shower, I climbed directly into bed. I ate a banana that already in the room, and then a couple of pieces of cold Papa John’s pizza left over from my brother’s dinner, and went immediately to sleep.
The next morning I was surprised to discover that I was a little bit sore and tired, but in otherwise good shape, and incredibly hungry too. Unlike the drive home from Leadville last summer where I felt feverish and ill, the drive home from Kansas was shorter (although still 7 hours), and much, much more pleasant.
Maybe I’m just fitter this year than last year. Maybe I’m getting better at ultra endurance events. Or maybe I just have a more effective nutrition plan.
But I feel that the Dirty Kanza 200, although twice as long in distance, was not as physically challenging as Leadville. It was a big mental challenge to ride for that many hours, but I physically felt a lot better at the end of the race, as well as the day afterward.