Friday, May 17, 2013

2012 Dirty Kanza 200 (Check That One Off My List)

First of all, a big thanks to Salsa Cycles for letting me ride on their roster, if it wasn't for them, I would have been on the sidelines of this race, at best.  Huge thanks also to K-Mac, my fellow 40-something riding partner, as well as Hurl and Melissa who traveled with us down to Emporia and were there at the three checkpoints to patiently dole out supplies, comfort, and deal with our ever changing moods from stop to stop.

Thursday was travel day, where we spent nine-plus hours on Interstate-35, meeting up with Zeke and Jones in KC for a beverage on the way.  Arriving at nightfall in Emporia, we found a motel with a hot-tub and decided to make it our home for the next three nights after realizing that sleeping in tents before and after an ultra-endurance event didn't sound like such a good idea after all.

Friday was spent rousing last minute supplies including food and drink for the support vehicle, officially check in to the race, and attend the rider meeting at 7pm.  Once I signed the race waiver, was given my number and course map for the first 62 of the 200 miles, there was a sudden realization that this thing was actually going to happen.  What the hell did I get myself into?

My ride for the 200-mile event: the gravel race proven, steel frame Surly Pacer.  Setup with folding Vittoria Randonneur Pro tires sized at 700x37 (I geeked way too long and hard on tire selection for this event,) SRAM compact crankset, nine-speed Ultegra, and Nitto Noodle bars with bar end shifters.  Note: Do not under any circumstance use short reach road brakes on the Dirty Kanza 200, such as the Ultegra calipers shown here.  
I thought getting into this race would be something I could do as a way to mark four decades, signing up prior to my birthday, knowing the big four-oh was coming up.  I admit knowing very little about this race other than knowing it was the king of the gravel grinders.  After I was confirmed on the roster, I did a quick search and found some fairly wicked stories of the intense heat and humidity, hail storms, shredded tires from the flint gravel, walking miles on and adjacent to sloppy muddy roads, but also of beautiful scenery with tallgrass prairies as far as you can see.  Certainly there be some rewards for doing this race, otherwise people wouldn't be racing in it, right?

When you've got a big ride coming up, the anticipation can sometimes get the best of you.  I surely didn't sleep a whole lot the night before the race.  A few minutes of rest here and there, but too many panic awakenings and tense glances at the clock to make sure I didn't sleep-in were par for the night.  I was already awake when the 4:30am alarm chimed, but it was now officially time to get up.  One of the first things I did was to squeeze an above average glob of chamois cream into a fresh pair of bib shorts and stretched them on before opening the door to the outside world, where I met a brisk and colder than expected morning - hopefully this low temperature would keep up throughout the day.

We were soon some of the first arrivals on Commercial Street in front of the Granada Theater, the official start location.  A double espresso was quickly summoned for me as I lubed my chain and made sure my water, food, and other gear was stowed.  The requirement of a compass and strong recommendation of a survival blanket was a sign that this bicycle race was in a different category than any I had attempted previously.  I had already gone over everything before going to bed, but taking a few extra moments to ensure nothing was left behind helped pass the time and gave my mind something to focus on.

Pre-race photo op courtesy of Hurl, showing myself and K-Mac in front of the Granada Theater marquee, about 15-minutes prior to the 6am start.  On the top right is race director Jim Cummins on the theater marquee.  That's Matt Gersib from Lincoln on the left wearing the mustard wool jersey.

Just before 6am, race director Jim Cummins counts down to the start and soon there are approximately 420 riders rolling south down Commercial Street under police escort.  I was soon excited to see that the Amtrak Southwest Chief was crossing through town in the near distance, with near orchestrated timing in that the gate arms were up by the time we crossed the tracks.  This train was crossing the south- and mid-western United States from Los Angeles to Chicago, while our long and arduous trip would end up exactly where we started.

The first turn onto gravel was in the first two-miles, turning right just after a bridge with a waterfall on the right.  Seeing the lead riders lined up single-file with the backdrop of a golden wheat field lit by the rising sun was surely an awesome sight to see just before I made the corner and is a photo in my memory I wish I could have captured to share.
2012 Dirty Kanza leg 1, page 1.

The first several turns kept us heading south and west on this clockwise course, the current relative easy pace was realistic for the 200-mile total duration, the roads so far mainly consisting of double-track.  Turning onto Road H, I was behind a rider on the right track and I was getting antsy as I felt we were now riding too slow.  It was about mile 12 that I decided it best to jump across to the left track, where what looked like a dark and fairly solid centerline gave way to a few inches of sandy mud the consistency of a half baked chocolate cake.  My brake calipers were instantly filled and overwhelmed with this sandy goo as the whining of tire on packed mud grew louder and the resistance quickly felt like I was dragging a lifeless body behind me.  I had no choice but to pull over on the right shoulder in the mud.  It took what seemed like an eternity to clean my calipers with the lever on my frame pump with the occasional dousing of water from my bottle.  In the meantime a few hundred riders rode by.  I was still dragging mud as I headed south, very apologetic to waiting riding partner, K-Mac.  I spent the next few miles squirting a bottle and a half of water on the brakes before they went quiet again.  I'd say not to use short reach brakes on the Pacer, but the fact that I had to mill the brake pad slots to accommodate this frame should have told you enough already.
Still wearing the windbreaker while riding during the first 62 miles, about to negotiate a turn.  Photo by
Somewhere around mile-20 I was following K-Mac and four others when I noticed we were passing a posted course turn to the left.  I called out and we slowed, and moved to negotiate the turn.  One rider kept going west, however, and though we all took turns screaming as loud as we could, he rode on.  None of us were about to spend the energy to go chase him down, and as we rode south, we took one more glance as he pushed hard into a climb, headphones a-blastin'.

Talking to a rider named Chuck shortly after this turn, he was telling me about a notorious hill coming up at about mile-32 or so.  It was called Texaco Hill and it was something that went on for 3-miles or more, had rocks that would slash your tires, and took pleasure in separating the weak from the strong.  I'd never heard of this hill, in fact quite the contrary, I had heard the climbing didn't start until past mile-120.  While I wasn't too worried, it did remind me that I really didn't talk to people about the course and really had no idea what the hills were going to be like throughout the rest of the day.  I had a Donald Rumsfeld quote in my head for a while at this point because I think it summed up the remaining unknowns of the course pretty well for me.  I just kept smiling to myself because I knew that whatever frame of mind he was in at the time, at least he probably knew what he was talking about:
I kept an eye on my odometer, making sure to keep an eye on the hill that started somewhere around mile-32.  There were a few sloping hills we negotiated, more and more cattle herds nearby, and an ever increasing number of pumpjacks.  There was a long and gradual hill at mile-30 with some climbing, but I was more interested in watching the cattle and pumpjacks at work than to concentrate on what my legs were doing or how many gears I had left.  We got to the top of the hill and a few groups were stopped to rest, getting water and food from their packs.  I looked around, saw that we were at the apex of the plains region as far as you could see, and asked a few stopped riders whether or not that was Texaco Road.  Turns out it was and I had let the hype get to me, not to mention being a couple of miles off on where I thought the hill started.  Time to relax and cruise for a while, because I was feeling much better about the ease of the hills on this ride as compared to the ones I know and love on the Almanzo.

The road turned back into double track, this time very rocky with small boulders and quite a bit of fast downhill sections.  Keeping an ever present eye out for tire shredding sharp rocks, I was having a blast flying through this section, bunny hopping off of large flat rocks, while carefully keeping an eye out and negotiating around cowpies.  This section is something I would love to go and do again, though riding my mountain bike would make far better sense on this section as compared to the 37mm wide tires I was riding now.

Near mile 50, the map had a "CAUTION - WATCH FOR WILD MUSTANGS!!!" label.  I had to admit I was excited at what to expect, my mind racing with wild stallions racing back and forth across the road between the riders.  In truth there were two herds of wild horses that we saw from a distance, which was in itself a highlight and I was happy to know that these beautiful animals still had claim to the land.
2012 Dirty Kanza leg 1, page 2.

The remaining ride to the first checkpoint was otherwise uneventful.  A road grader was out working the latter section of the course and I rode the freshly graded section for a few miles before bunny hopping over the rock pile on the centerline.  Mile 62 rolled up just as a freight train was crossing in front of our path, but we slowed a bit and it had passed by the time we crossed the tracks.

Knowing there was cold water and food waiting for us was a morale booster.  K-Mac and I stopped for about 15-minutes, eating a PB&J, refilled the water bladder and bottles, lubed the chain, cleaned more mud from my brakes, and away we went.  Hurl and Melissa did an excellent job at having everything laid out for us, even dragging all the supplies closer to the checkpoint tent so we had less work to do once we arrived.  Huge props to our support crew, again, their work was not immediately acknowledged, but without them our moods would be in the pits.
Refreshed and smiling as I roll out of Check Point one at mile 62 in Cassoday, Kansas.  The day is early with 138 miles to go.  The windbreaker vest is off as the heat is beginning to turn up.  Still rocking the Salsa Cycles jersey, I was planning on a kit change once we passed the halfway point.  Photo by
We picked up the second map when checking into the first stop and this time it was single-sided and totaled 44-miles of riding.  The first map was double-sided and was more work to unfold and re-fold it as my cue sheet holder was a bit smaller than the maps provided.  I need to spend some time making my own cue sheet mount - there really isn't one I've found that doesn't get in the way and is also easy to read the contained map.

2012 Dirty Kanza leg 2.

This next section wasn't going to entail much hard riding, I told myself, though I really had no idea of what to expect.  It was now about mid-day and the sun was starting to intensify through the clear blue sky.  The roads were for the most part compacted gravel and dirt, with a continuous and simple barbed-wire fence running the length on both sides to keep the cattle from straying.  We had to cross the occasional cattle guard, and K-Mac had told me a week prior of riders pinch flatting on the sharp steel approaches when the gravel gets washed away by the frequent storms.  I lightly lifted up on both wheels, one at a time, whenever I crossed these steel guards as insurance against flats, though it also gave me something extra to do and helped to break up the monotony of turning the crank.

We made several stops to briefly hide from the intense sun on this second section, with the first occurring around mile 85 under the canopy of a large tree at the top of the prairie:
Stopped at mile 85-ish for a bit of rest from the sun under the shade of a roadside tree, not in view. 
There were two or three creek crossings on this leg, and while I have no issues with riding through them, I decided to walk through the creeks with my bike on my shoulder for each of them.  I learned my lesson earlier about getting mud in my brakes and I was not going to jeopardize a chance to finish due to my poor equipment choice.  Each crossing was between five and ten feet across, and getting my shoes in the water wasn't the worst thing to do in order to cool off a bit, so I wasn't complaining.  I'd like to note that K-Mac rode across them all, but she was using disc brakes on her super top secret Salsa prototype stainless steel Vaya with S&S couplers, which of course gave more than ample clearance for mud or even small boulders between her tire and fork or frame.
2012 Dirty Kanza directions into Florence, Kansas.

The stop in Florence came up later in the day than I would have liked, but the intensity of the sun was really slowing us down.  I didn't want to push it and overheat myself, and K-Mac was starting to show signs that she was suffering more than I.  It was about 3:30pm when we pulled into the second of the three checkpoints, this one at mile 106.

Normally you reach this mileage and you're done for the day, but it was deeply set in my mind that the goal was 200 and we were only halfway there, with the rest getting easier and easier as we ticked off the miles.  If you were to tell me at the finish line of this years Almanzo that I had one more lap to go, I honestly wouldn't have been able to attempt it because my mind was finished at the end of that race.  But knowing from the start what the goal was put everything in perspective and I knew that most of the battle was keeping your mental game, whether or not your legs would provide was something else entirely.

Speaking of mental states, I think both of us were quite a bit disengaged from the state of mind of our support crew at this time, who were doing everything they could to help us out.  Sitting in the saddle for as long as we had up until now, our minds were more in a state of survival: food and water, manage your line in the gravel, pedal down the miles, keep an eye on the map so you stay on course, and gear down on whatever train of thoughts are going on in the background of our heads.

At the checkpoint, I was given a cold towel to cool off with, but I sharply rejected the offer, just wanting to put my bike down, change clothes, and refuel.  It wasn't long after I heard Melissa say the towel was to help cool me down and that a lot of the other teams were doing the same before I warmed up to the idea.  I took the towel, placed it on my head, and let the ice cold water run down the back of my neck.  This simple towel application truly felt amazing and immediately helped me regain my focus and bring my mood to a more manageable level, as far as the support crew was concerned, that is.

Walking to my clothes bag, I grabbed a fresh outfit consisting of a clean pair of bibs, jersey, and socks.  All the clothing I had taken off was drenched in moisture, and I was grateful that I had this chance to dump them off and put on a fresh set for the next half of the race.  Wearing dry and clean clothes was certainly a morale booster, and anything I could do for myself to make the final push easier was certainly open game.

The third leg of the race was soon underway with a distance of about 60-miles and ending in Council Grove.  The leg had a few gradual rolling hills, which weren't too much of a struggle, but I knew to expect some gruesome climbing past the 120- or 125-mile mark.  We crossed Zebulon Road at about mile 114, but I didn't have the energy to stop and get a photo, mainly not wanting to spend valuable time against the clock - my camera was my phone, and it was in a pocket in my backpack, which meant I had to stop and take off the pack to get to it.  The race did have cutoff times for each checkpoint, based on a 10-mph average.  Having a few mechanicals like flats can really eat into this time, not to mention the time spent at the checkpoints refueling for the next leg.  We weren't cruising at the best speed, and I wasn't too comfortable with the small cushion of time we were currently riding at.

2012 Dirty Kanza leg 3, page 1.

We had to stop within the first twenty miles to fix K-Mac's headset, which was rattling loudly whenever she went over a bump, which of course there were lots of.  We were joking that it was Hurl who assembled it, and how not to get your next headset installed by him.  We tightened the headset nut while standing in the shade of a fifth-wheel horse trailer parked off the side of the road.  The smell from the trailer wasn't optimal, but resting in the shade sure did feel good at this point.  This roadside maintenance was the first of the day, well really the second if you count my muddy brake calipers, which of course you should.  I realized that we had experienced very good luck so far, maintenance wise, especially with zero flat tires to this point.  Knock on wood.

At about mile-142, I'm told from behind and on the left that I'm not going to like what I'm about to hear.    My riding partner wasn't going to the finish; it was time to pull aside and stop this foolishness.  We quickly agreed to stop at the next shade, which was visible shortly up ahead on a bridge over a dry stone creek.  One thing I told myself going into this thing was that I would pull out if I got to the point where I was suffering from dehydration, or that I was putting myself into any real danger otherwise.  The furthest I'd ever ridden previously in a single ride was 150-miles, but that was on pavement, and with a tailwind even.  Going into this thing, I had total confidence that I was mentally ready, I was even anticipating a Vision Quest moment.  But I also knew that the Kansas heat and humidity would be the one most likely reason I would have to pull out.

After riding this far together and reading each other's cues throughout the day, I was not protesting this decision, in fact I was ready to convince my partner at the next stop that it was time to withdraw.  We made a call to our support car, where they had stopped and were waiting for us at the third and final checkpoint.  I gave them directions, based on my course map, to meet us at BB Avenue and 2200 Road, about five-miles further up the course from where we were.  We both had agreed that we could take it easy up to that point, which I had estimated a good location where both parties would arrive at the same time.  About a mile before our meet location, we passed a guy sitting on some grass under a tree on our left.  I waved and asked how he was doing, but only got a blank stare in return.  There was definitely a mood shift among the riders we were seeing at this point in the day, the small talk was hovering just over the zero point with mostly just a nod or single word in return.

We got to the agreed upon meet spot about 30-seconds before our support car.  I made sure everyone was well off, K-Mac was happy and healthy, before announcing I was rolling out solo and that I'd see them at the next checkpoint.  I was feeling pretty good and didn't think it would take too long to get through the next twenty miles, and we all agreed to the plan.

I took off riding east, now alone for the first time of the day.  I was at mile 145 and had 55-miles to finish this thing.  The sun was still strong, but low in the sky, and I had motivation to put as many miles behind me before the sun set.  I wasn't particularly looking forward to riding through the night on unfamiliar gravel, but at the same time knew the clear skies and almost full moon would provide some relief.
2012 Dirty Kanza leg 3, page 2.

I pushed on my big chainring as hard as I could, catching up to two riders in the distance, riding on their wheel for about a minute to cool down before pushing forward some more.  About a dozen riders came and went before I hit a right turn at mile-152-ish where I looked ahead at a road that looked like it was traversed for the first time that morning through a waist-high tallgrass field.

This section was a few miles long and was certainly a highlight of the day.  The double track was laid down in a rolling grass field with the occasional section of grapefruit-sized rocks, some sections more sketchy than others.  I was very glad the sun was still shining as I certainly would not have been able to keep up my fast pace otherwise.  It wasn't too long before a sign across the middle of the course indicated a bridge was out 0.8 miles ahead.  There were two riders up in the distance and I caught them right when we got to the closed bridge, but this bridge was still open for pedestrian access, just a bit of maneuvering around a wooden barrier.

I rode into the final checkpoint at about 9:30pm, just as it got dark, the final mile or two on paved roads.  There wasn't too much motivation for food or drink, but I did take the opportunity to change my jersey before putting on the wind vest again.  CVO walked over and patted me on the shoulder, as I heard he had dropped out early on due to a nasty mechanical.  My first words to him were about lighting and whether he had a spare headlight, and in no time he was helping me mount his Niterider to my handlebars.  I was planning on riding with my Schmidt Classic Nabendynamo, but the hub seized up recently and it was too late to get it repaired before heading to this race.  A huge thanks to CVO for lending me his light, which proved to be a huge upgrade to what I was riding with up to that point.

While I did fill up my water bottle and emptied a few food wrappers, I didn't linger too long and just wanted to keep on riding to the finish line.  I had recently heard that pickle juice was a great way to overcome muscle cramps, and while I wasn't cramping up to now, I felt it was in my best interest to ensure any cramping did not occur.
Eye of the tiger.  Loading up on pickle juice at mile 165, the third and final checkpoint.  Thanks to Hurlio for the shot and for catching the bright smile of Kelly Mac.
I head out of town, darkness having now well set.  There was a period a block off the main street that I and a group of about four others got lost for about five-minutes trying to find the path, which turned out to be a rails-to-trails section on crushed gravel.  Being that it's dark out, I'm reminded on how easy it's going to be missing a turn and how much it will compound itself if I start heading out on the wrong path.
2012 Dirty Kanza leg 4.

There was a section early on where there were several at-grade concrete bridge sections crossing over water.  One section in particular had a few eroded portions, about 3-inches wide and a few feet long, in line with the direction of travel.  I couldn't believe the trail was not at least minimally patched up to prevent any wheel captures, which could realistically prove to be fatal, combining the right speed and unawareness.  Having seen these dangerous obstacles, and it being the dark of night, I was on extra alert to keep an eye on the road ahead to stay upright and safe.

There were several roads with freshly grated gravel curbs I had to cross while on this converted railway section, and the course seemed to be less and less marked as the miles went on.  My mind was playing some serious tricks on me, at times certain I had missed a turn.  Why weren't there any tire tracks, I wondered.  I continued to ride, looking out for obstacles, occasionally looking behind my shoulder for a faint headlight in the complete darkness behind.  Suddenly out of the blue dozens of tire tracks appear out of nowhere, with a sudden appearance of pink flags on the ground indicating a right turn onto the gravel road.  I wasn't lost - yet.

The remaining course was back on gravel roads in the dark country, with only my headlights and the moon to guide me.  I had a LED light on my helmet, which I used to light up street signs on the occasional crossing.  With the assurance of these street signs, I kept a contant list in my head of the next three turns, frequently glancing down at my map to make sure it didn't change.

About thirty-minutes passed before seeing one and then two red blinky lights in the far off distance.  These lights gave me something to target, but trying to determine the distance was a bit tricky.  It didn't take too long to catch these riders, who were both solo riders at this point and spaced a good distance apart.

There were a few hills, one of which I had heard about near the dam, but it being dark it was only an incline with no summit viewable.  I pushed as hard as I could for the remaining part of the race, which I had maintained since coming off the rails-to-trails section, which was much easier to do now that the intense sun was set.

Passing a few more riders, the bright lights of Emporia could be seen in the distance ahead.  It was further up than I would have liked, and I knew it wasn't a straight line into the city, but was prepared to ride as long as I had to finish.  My mind was set on finishing, and getting there before midnight was my goal.

There was a long straightaway where I could see a single blinker in the distance, not moving.  As I got closer to this rider, I heard him yell at me something about the bridge.  I looked down just as my light lit up metal grates with several inches of spacing between them in-line with the road, perfect for a wheel to drop down into and a good way to end the day.  I carefully crossed the bridge and stopped to check on the rider.  As my headlight turned up all I could see was a blood covered face.  He said he was fine, but endo'ed on the bridge and was fixing a flat.  We talked for a minute, he kept saying he was fine and the bleeding looked like it had stopped, so I pushed on.  I understand the importance of a self-supported race, but a simple sign before this bridge was warranted and there is no excuse to the race organizers for letting this obstacle remain during the race without at least a warning on the map.

All went well until I came into the town, crossed Interstate-35, and recognized where I was - the finish being just a left and a right onto Commercial Street.  But then I noticed pink spray paint on the street pointing me right down a residential area past a college.  Okay then, they must be routing me for a different finish than what I had expected, but this was my first time so just went with it.  The map at this point had very little detail, and I have to admit that after spending this much time on a bike, my mind was a bit fuzzy, so I kept going about a mile before realizing that I finally took a wrong turn, and less than a mile from the finish!

I turned around, frustrated, backtracked to the wrong turn, and rode down Commercial Street where I could see a few dozen people left over.  Hurl and Melissa were there to cheer me on as I held up my middle fingers in the air for a photo finish, not too much past the midnight hour, some 18-hours after the start at the same location.

As soon as I crossed the finish line I was handed a finisher pint glass and sticker.  I let the race organizer know about the crashed rider and the deadly metal grate situation, he sort of laughed it off, and it was my understanding that the rider I saw was not the only one to go down there.  I was dumbfounded and I still believe not going to this spot and putting some sort of warning was simply irresponsible.

Riding back to the team support vehicle, my support crew was more than interested in getting me back to the hotel so they could sleep - they had a very long day themselves and were more than ready to crash.

I got back to the hotel, saw K-Mac, who had gotten a well deserved nap in, I grabbed a beer, and sat on the floor for a while before hitting the shower.  Coming out of the bathroom to a now dark room, I laid down and stared at the ceiling for about 3-hours before dozing off - my mind was still riding and looking for the best line and I could not let my guard down even hours after getting off the bike.

I did it.  I took a lot longer than I would have liked, but I did it.  It was a mental game for me and though it was a tough day, I could have honestly gone another 50-miles.  My mind was focused and other than a sore taint, had the legs to push further.
The long drive home back to Minneapolis, legs needing a stretch.
Thanks for reading, but a long race deserves a long story.


reverend dick said...

Hey man. That was a good story. I have not understood why someone would choose to travel to one of these gravel events when, to my mind, a trip to the mountains would be a funner option. If we're talking bike trip opportunities; them being scarce and all. But I see why you did it now.

You sure had better thank your support crew!

Kate Geisen said...

Congratulations on your finish! I hit that "bridge out" sign in the dark, after riding (and falling on) that sketchy farm road in the dark, and just about flipped out at the thought of having to detour before seeing trampled grass and realizing I could cross the bridge.

shining trapezoid said...

I know this is from 2 1/2 years ago, but how did you fit 37s on your Pacer?

Marco Esteban said...

No issues getting 37mm tires in the Pacer, the only issue is with your choice of brakes. Fatties Fit Fine.