Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Dirty Kanza Article

Here's a more pro version of my Dirty Kanza story, which was originally published in this issue of XXC Magazine.  Shorter, more coherent, and better.  Thanks to Jason Mahokey, XXC editor, for his input and enthusiasm.

The longer version with photos is here.

There are only three ways an endurance race can go wrong, no matter the weather or the terrain.  Your body can fail you, your mind can fail you, or your bike can fail you.  All spring, my bike had been failing me.  I try to adhere to the adage that “only the poor craftsman blames his tools”, and fully believe that a great rider can be great on any bike.  But walking out of the woods with integral parts of the bike stuffed in your jersey pockets, it is hard to deny the importance of the bike itself in getting over the finish line.  

By early May mounting problems had climaxed in a drama which left me bullied and insulted, disappointed, and without a rideable bike.  More than that, it had left me with a sour feeling towards mountain bike racing in general.  Bikes were supposed to be fun, but I wasn’t having any fun.  I gave away my entry to Mohican 100, since I’d have nothing to ride.  In tears I tried to recuse myself from my main racing sponsor,, on the grounds that I wasn’t going to race any more and didn’t want any sponsors even if I did.  To his credit, George paid no attention to my attempt to leave racing.  Forget the old bike and all its problems.  He could get me a new frame and fork, and I would be on the new bike within a week or two.

Amazingly, he actually pulled this off.  The bike materialized, born of substituted, borrowed, and donated parts hung on a spanking-new SIR9 frame and Niner’s rigid carbon fork.  At the same time, the stars aligned and I not only found an entry to the long-sold-out Dirty Kanza 200, but also a seat in the Moots-Swiftwick-Yazoo van heading out to Kansas.  While some might hold that a last minute decision to drive halfway across the country to race a five-day-old bike 200 miles would not bode well, in my mind this was all heading in the right direction.  With each borrowed component, each kindness from a friend or acquaintance, each lucky coincidence, the positive aura surrounding THIS bike and THIS race grew stronger.  Stress was replaced with anticipation, and I prepared for a good day.

I rolled up to the start line of Dirty Kanza believing, with total conviction, that I would have a good day.  I was at the right race, and on the right bike.  I was ready.  

The race began at dawn.  It was windy, but as the sun rose the wind was replaced by oppressive heat.  Most people were going too hard for a two hundred miler, caught up in the excitement and the competition.  By 70 miles in, it was already clear that patience would be the most important mental capacity for this race.  Patience with the distances, the heat, the limits of one’s own physiology.  One of the most difficult and exciting things about racing well in a long race, especially one in extreme weather, is that the action unfolds over the course of hours, not minutes.  Easy, but destructive, to indulge in impatience and frustration, and then lose the will to continue.  But anything can happen; the person off the front for an hour can easily suffer a reversal of fortune.  Or simply slide backwards. 

I kept a steady flow of effort, mental and physical, through the relentless sun, hundred-degree heat, and dusty gravel.  Tending to the physiological needs of the body under these conditions is a challenge, like trying to feed a fussy toddler.  There’s no other option except forcing down melted calories, warm liquids, and nasty salts.  Through it all my mood was upbeat, even cheerful.  I was so lucky to be on this bike, at this race, and riding well.  I felt relieved, emerging from the grips of the past months’ disappointments and recriminations. 
Despite the heat, the terrain we were racing through was beautiful.  Like an especially subtle poem, the Plains require close attention to fully appreciate.  In a car, speeding down the wide and featureless interstate cross-country, there is simply no way to absorb the beauty of this area.  But on the undulating curves of the gravel, riding from horizon to horizon, a bike is a tiny speck within a vast landscape.  Two hundred miles is far enough to see a lot—the big and the small. Bluebirds.  Orioles. Cattle swarming across a field like starlings swooping through the sky. Turtles. Wide green remnants of the original tallgrass, echoing with the ghosts of the bison and the pioneers. New Deal-era bridges over meandering creeks.  Men driving slow tractors through hayfields, waving at cyclists.

It was still in the 90s when I made it to Erskine, mile 168 and the last chance for supplies on the route. I sat for a second on the bench beside the gas station, chatting with other racers as the sun finally started to dip toward the horizon. I roused myself quickly, though, knowing it was time to finish this off.  The miles between 168 and 203 were the best of the whole day. Sunset on the unobstructed horizon was stunning. As darkness fell a thunderhead off in the distance was lighting up constantly with beautiful cloud-to-cloud lightning. A strong tailwind kicked up, pushing me 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 in under seventeen hours. Due to a couple 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. This finish was more than a win, it was an affirmation.  All the bike drama of the last month was behind me.  This new bike might have been five days old but it felt like an old friend.  Just as the poor craftsman shouldn’t blame his tools for his failures, so the good craftsman shouldn’t credit his tools for his success.  But I do believe the goodwill and kindness manifested in this bike of borrowed parts was reflected in the confidence, clarity, and joy I rode with all day. 

Out of 162 who stood on the starting line, just 65 racers would finish.  But everyone who was on the line Saturday morning, even those who didn’t finish, accomplished something. Almost every racer I encountered all day was in a pretty cheerful mood, even if they happened to be lying under a bush hiding from the sun when I saw them.  This race is hard, but it 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.

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