Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Dirty Kanza 200

Dirty Kanza 200 is based out of Emporia, in the middle of the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. 200 miles of gravel road through open range cattle country, wheat fields, and the last intact remnants of original tallgrass prairies. Far enough away that getting there was a real project. I drove to Nashville on Thursday and met up with the Moots-Swiftwick-Yazoo Crew and assorted other Nashvillains at Thad's place.

Eight people, seven bikes, one van and one car.

We got outta town, drove halfway and stopped for the night, then finished the drive the next day. As usual I was surprised by how long it takes to drive across Missouri. Time passed pretty fast though and next thing you know we were rolling into Emporia.

Hilary is admiring Missouri. Molly is finished admiring Missouri.

Align Center
Grant takes a call. Scott does some pre-race visualization (or something). Jeff and Steven hot on our tail in the Element.

A really great pre-race meeting got me psyched for the next day. A mellow tone to the whole thing, very low key and friendly with a pasta dinner and laid back raffle of sponsors' schwag. It was going to be windy and in the upper 90s for race day. The race promoters were definitely spelling out how hard the next day was going to be but at the same time the focus was on the positive. Everyone was looking forward to racing all day through some beautiful scenery.

The race started at 6AM which meant waking up at 4. The bike was loaded down pretty good. There was a lot involved in the prep for this race, since the course is so remote and self-supported. There were three checkpoints in towns that had convenience stores, so we could refill liquids and food there if needed. I had a partial frame bag and a seat bag, and a borrowed Epic Revelated Designs gas tank too. I know my hydration needs pretty well and during the hottest midday leg of the race I wanted to be able to have 5 bottles of water with me, though on other legs just left a couple of those bottles empty to save weight. We also had to carry raingear, food, lights, tubes, tools etc.

The race started with a neutral motorpace out of town, which kept the pace moderate for the first few miles. We hit the gravel and I kept with the Moots crew and a number of other folks in a good pack riding at about 16mph. After 12 miles or so, someone hit the front who ramped it up to 20 and I let myself fall off the back. My plan was to pace myself all day by heartrate so I didn't blow up early on. There were still plenty of people around to ride with, which was good because the wind was pretty brutal for the next 30 or 40 miles. There was a good wind blowing but with gusts from a variety of directions, pretty tough to even stay in someone's draft when you had the chance.

about 30 miles in, windy but not too hot
Folks were starting to settle into their all-day pace. We were pretty far from any town now and passed through some open range areas with cows running around near the gravel. I'd heard Thad's story (which still sounds made up) about getting bashed into by a cow in a previous Dirty Kanza so I was a little worried. Being from Wisconsin I've had plenty of exposure to docile dairy cows but I'm convinced that the ones who are destined to be eaten are meaner and more resentful than the ones who are just going to get milked.

At the bottom of a rocky descent I flatted. Nursed the flat over to a shred of shade, and laid the bike down. After pulling off the rear wheel and getting out a tube and cartridge I looked up. In those few seconds about 30 cattle had snuck up and were staring silently at me in a semicircle about 4 feet away. The look on their faces was more "whatcha doin?" than "I will trample your bike" but it was still kind of freaking me out to be watched so closely. I thought maybe they were scared of dogs so I tried to bark at them some but they didn't even blink. When I lifted up the wheel they moved around some in reaction, but I decided I better just try to fix the flat and ignore them. I looked up the road wondering where all those racers I'd just passed were, eventually a couple came down the road and the cows ran out INTO their path. After those racers got around them the cows just kept running the other way so that was that. I wish I'd gotten a photo of those cows, it was a memorable Kanza moment for sure.

Got to ride with some good people out there.

Grant rolled up on me while I was finishing the flat and we rode together for a while. We rolled into the first checkpoint where they told me I was in first place of the women. We'd ridden about 60 miles but there was a lot of race still left to go. Rode over to the convenience store where Thad was already in line. Molly rolled up soon after in second place of the women. I was really psyched to hear she was having a good race. The three of them decided to take a bit of a break but I didn't feel like stopping. I re-filled my bottles and headed out for the second leg.

Sometimes it was smooth enough to ride no-hands. Not very often though...

This second part of the course was flatter and the wind had died down significantly. The riding was easier with smoother gravel and even a couple miles of pavement thrown in, but the temperature was really starting to rise. Eventually I rolled into the 100 mile checkpoint, still not feeling too bad. I found Hilary and Jeff there and found out that Thad had dropped out of the race, as had Molly. It sounded like they were ok, just pulling the plug, so I was sad to hear it but not worried. I headed to the convenience store and grabbed some pepsi, water, and ice to fill my bottles. The next section was the shortest in mileage but everyone said it would be the hardest. It had the least maintained rocky gravel roads as well as the hottest part of the day.

Beautiful Kanza gravel.
It was 100 degrees when I took this photo.
This really was the hardest section, everyone was right. I even made a wrong turn and got a mile down an extremely rocky unmaintained road before I found it gated and realized my mistake. I told myself that, like the cattle and the flat tire, riding a couple bonus miles was an important part of the Dirty Kanza experience.

Not many cars, but the few there were really kicked up the dust

The course turned onto Little Egypt Road, which I'd heard would be the hardest part. The terrain was pretty difficult, plus the wind had died down and the heat was really serious. I started getting nauseous, which for my body is a signal that I haven't taken in nearly enough sodium and electrolytes for the heat. Somehow I'd forgotten to compensate for getting Pepsi instead of sports drink at the last stop. Usually if I take two or three hundred mg right away I can arrest the issue before my physiology goes really haywire. I couldn't immediately find my electrolyte tabs and didn't want to get off the bike, so I ended up doing the easiest thing I could think of. I threw two orange-ginger nuun into half a bottle of warm Pepsi, creating one of the most disgusting beverages I've ever had to drink. I forced it down, then found the tabs and washed two of those down as well. Fifteen minutes later I was feeling better.

Shade was rare, shade on a climb even rarer

It was hot but I was doing ok. I was keeping my exertion level down as much as I could and even walked some climbs so I could keep from overcooking myself. As I drew closer to the third checkpoint several times I came across guys who had just laid down their bikes and pretty much just crawled under bushes to find some shade and rest. It was a brutal afternoon to say the least. Finally I rolled into town for the third checkpoint and then made a beeline for the ice machine at the convenience store. I spent a couple minutes sitting in the store where about 20 guys were cooling off and resting including Robb, Steven and Scott. I really wanted to just finish this thing and was feeling like I had some good momentum so after a couple minutes I got back on the bike. There was one last convenience store in Erskine at mile 168 but I was not sure if I would make it there before its closing time of 8pm. If all went well I would, if I got a flat or took longer than expected I wouldn't. I packed enough water to just barely make it back to Emporia and figured if I got to the c-store in time it would be a bonus.

It was like 6:45 PM when I took this photo, but still in the mid-90s and the sun was nowhere near the horizon. What is up with that sun of yours, Kansas?

It was late in the day but it was still in the upper 90s. I felt like I was having trouble getting in enough air, like I was breathing through many layers of cloth. This had never happened to me before but I tried to just listen to my body and not freak out. I trimmed back the pace to keep my heartrate on the low side of the aerobic zone hoping it would get better with some patience. When the gravel pitched up a bit and I found myself working harder, I just got off my bike walked it. As I was walking Steven passed me and asked if everything was ok, and I told him I just felt like walking for a bit. I didn't want to say I was walking because I couldn't breathe, I was afraid if I did he might stop mid race! It got better after a little while and I picked the pace back up.

I made it to the Erskine convenience store at 7:55! I was overjoyed to buy an ice pop and some gatorade along with more giant cups of ice. I sat for a second chatting with folks as the sun finally started to dip toward the horizon. It was time to finish this off.

in the last part of the race sometimes the gravel evolved into lovely doubletrack

The miles between 168 and 203 were the best of the whole day. The sunset was just beautiful and there was some great tallgrass prairie. As darkness fell a thunderhead off in the distance was lighting up constantly with beautiful cloud-to-cloud lightning. A strong tailwind pushed the racers towards Emporia.

The darkening roads were smooth and easy to ride by headlamp. I ramped up my speed, especially when I realized I was close to finishing under seventeen hours. Due to my bonus miles earlier in the day I couldn't be sure quite how far I had left to go, but I decided to leave it all out on the course and hammer in to the finish.

I rolled over the finish line at 17 hours 4 minutes, in first place women and 28th place overall. Out of 162 who started, just 65 racers would finish. I am super happy with this race, I really had a great time all day. I won some great prizes from Salsa and a kickass trophy but the race experience was the real reward. The scenery was just fantastic, the photos I took don't do these vistas justice. The people racing here were the best ever, just a really great assortment of laid-back endurance nuts. Every racer I encountered was in a pretty cheerful mood, even if they happened to be lying under a bush hiding from the sun at the time.

I was so happy to be up there on the podium after such a good ride! This trophy is really cool, handmade of welded bike parts by Joel, one of the two race promoters. Photo is taken from here.

I was so glad to have such a great group to be with at the race. Not only was it good to have folks to carpool with, it was great to be with people who'd done the race before and had so much good advice about it. Thanks especially to Hilary and Jeff who didn't race but kept our minds at ease on race day by doing support. I am also so happy that my bike issues worked out in time for this. The SIR9 was comfy all day and the carbon fork made it a really good gravel bike. Except for the one flat tire I had no mechanical issues all day either which was fantastic.

Dirty Kanza was seventeen hours of good times.

Lots and lots of thanks to Jim and Joel, the promoters of this race. If they hadn't had a race there, I never would have taken the time to really appreciate this area. At interstate speed it's impossible to take in the subtle beauty of the prairie. Going through it on a bike slows you down enough to really notice things. Being on gravel lets you appreciate the texture of the rolling hills, and see it for more than just flat. And being out there for 200 miles means you're enveloped by the powerful weather and really feel the size of the landscape.

Finishing strong was great but everyone who was on the line Saturday morning really accomplished something. This race isn't just about physical fitness. Signing up for this means trusting that you have enough patience, mental flexibility, and good attitude to ride all the way to the horizon, over and over, and work through any problems your bike or body may have over the course of a really long day. Being bold enough just to roll up to the start is major in itself.

I really hope I get back to this race next year and I am looking forward to seeing another 200 miles of Kanza gravel in 2011.


  1. Fantastic! What tires did you use?

  2. Strong work Emily! I knew you'd kick some Kanza booty.

  3. Epic! I'd have had to reapply sunscreen so often.

  4. Thanks guys! Mandy I used a 1.9 Kenda Small Block 8 in the front and a 2.1 WTB Nanoraptor in the rear. I thought I was going to use Nanos front and back, but the night before noticed a defect on the bead on the front one so I swapped to my backup tire. They worked fine, except for the flat on the rear. I might go with something even slicker next year as there is no need for much of a tread out there.

  5. Great write up and great pics! Congrats on your finish and your experience.

  6. Congratulations from a friend of the Lincoln, NE crew! Super inspiring; you're clearly a kick-ass woman.

  7. Nice writeup, very well worded. I "only" made it 100, but after reading this I feel like I know how to prep a little better for next year. That ride was something else.

  8. Great work out there Emily! I'm stoked to hear you enjoyed the event. We'll see you next year out on the Flint Hills gravel!

  9. Congrats Emily! That is a major achievement! I'm jealous as I was not able to finish Dirty Kanza 2009! I know what the first 100 miles feels like, I can't imagine what the second 100 is like! Way to go!!

  10. Don't know what half of this means, but it sounds pretty amazing. Congrats!

  11. Congrats on a great race! You are amazing.

  12. Congrats! Excellent writeup! Inspiring...

  13. Congratulations and great write up! I was one of the finishers, althoug I had a terrible ride physically.