Monday, June 2, 2008

The Dirty Kanza 200

This was a long race. The report is long as well.

"The Dirty Kanza 200 is a 200 mile gravel road race in the Flint Hills area of eastern Kansas." After reading this sentence, most people would have found something else to do on the last day of May. After noting that a compass, front and rear lights, and two spare inner tubes are required equipment to start the event, any sane cyclist would have decided to attend the IORCA/Psycowpath race at Lake Manawa instead. Not being a member of either of these groups meant that I was one of 75 people signed up to take part in the 3rd running of the Dirty Kanza 200.

I left Des Moines at noon on Friday after a quick stop at Rasmussens to boost my spare tube count and nutritional choices. The drive to Emporia, KS was uneventful as all 5 hour solo trips on the freeway are. After unloading my stuff, I spent the next hour or so talking to the other riders and going over my bike, camelback, and mid-race drop back to make sure I hadn't missed anything important. A quick trip to the hardware store netted me some bungee cords to mount my the spare tire I brought, and everything was in order. Event registration was quick and efficient, a common theme for the race organizers the remainder of the weekend. A number of us took a short walk over to the Centinela Mexican restaurant for some pre-ride carb loading. After dinner we snagged our event shirt (brown is the new black) and hung around for the prize drawing. I was one of the lucky winners and received with a Blackburn X6 lighting system. Fellow endurance racer Dennis Grelk set the alarm for 5:15 AM and we crawled into our beds around 10 PM for a few precious hours of sleep.

Saturday morning greeted us with gray skies, comfortable temps and some extra humidity in the air. I rode to the parking lot, put my drop bag in the pile. I spend the next few minutes chatting with other riders, watching the lightning in the southern sky, and waiting for the race meeting to start. The meeting started off with the announcement that the storms to the south contained tennis ball sized hail and the race start could be delayed until 8 AM. A few minutes later, with the storm tracking away from our route, we were off. The first couple of miles were a comfortable 16 MPH cruise through town with a police escort leading the way. Though, with morning traffic levels being what they were, it was a symbolic gesture at best. A half mile or so south of Emporia, we turned west onto the first section of gravel and dirt, which ran along a low lying field. As we kicked up a large cloud of dust, the starting group of 70 riders quickly split into distinct sections as people settled in on a pace. The first group of 25 or so riders was moving along around 18 - 19 MPH. The second group of 20 or so, which I moved up into which was running around 16 MPH. The third group was moving around 14 or 15 MPH, with a few riders strung out of the back. As I was talking with another rider, I heard a noise coming from my back wheel. Barely 5 miles into the race and I had gotten my first flat. I pulled over, inspected the tire for debris and replaced the tube as the last two riders asked if I had everything I needed and then rode on. The infamous flint of eastern Kansas had claimed it's first victim of the day.

After completing the tire change, I got back on the bike, and missed the next turn by misinterpreting my location on the map. This mistake cost me about 30 minutes and added about 8 miles to my route. One back on course, I proceeded to pick up the pace and dig in for the remainder of the section. My mistake had eaten into my time cushion and I wanted to get some of that back in case I ran into issues later on. I settled into a quick but maintainable pace for the remainder of the first 50 miles. There were a number of shorter, punchy climbs in the early part of the course due to the topography and how the water drains off the limestone and flint hills. The flint hills do not bend to your will, your will bends to them. After three crossings of the Kansas turnpike, the course entered the first of many sections of open range area. I crossed the first cattle grate carefully, not knowing what to expect. For the remainder of the day, they weren't a factor. I rode onto the streets of Madison with a couple of other riders and arrived at the first checkpoint shortly after 10 AM. A floor pump at this checkpoint allowed me to vent all CO2 out of my back tire and pump it back up to proper pressure. I had a quick chat with Thad Hoffman and some of the other Lincoln riders as we took a break. Thad had put a good wobble in his front rim going through a water crossing, and was forced to use his bike as a shield against a charging bull in one of the open range areas soon after. I snagged some PowerAde from the Casey's, and rolled out just behind Thad and the rest of his group around 10:45 for the start of the second leg.

About 2 miles outside of Madison, we turned south onto what the county road crews had optimistically labeled a "minimum maintenance road". At the bottom of a somewhat rough hill was a 4' deep drainage area with a steep water chiseled rock hill on the other side. After walking the bikes across and up the hill, we got continued our ride. We had been informed that the reroute on this section and might not be marked that well. Some misreading of the map detoured us off course for a couple of miles, but the decision was driven by the group so we had no one to blame but ourselves. After getting back on course we found the reason for the redirect. 5 feet of water rushing across one of the many concrete high water crossings that dot the landscape in this part of country. Soon we entered another open range area and started a long multi-mile climb to the top of what the locals call Texaco Hill. With the single speeders needing to stay on top of their pedal strokes, the pace was a bit higher than I wanted to maintain so I sit back and find a comfortable pace for the long climb, passing one lone rider about 1/3 of the way up. With 75% of the climb beneath me, I felt something striking my right ankle. I looked down to see that my seat tube water bottle cage had fatigued and snap off. I removed the cage, stowed the water bottle in my camelback and finished off the climb. Turning a corner at the top of the hill, I noticed a dead cow laying next to the road. About 40 feet further along was where the stench and the route intersected. I picked up the pace to minimize my misery, and then stopped to snap some souvenir photos along the ridge. I was told this was a stage coach route in years past. With a view like this, I can understand why. Leaving the reroute, my energy was waning slightly, so I ate a package of Clif Shot Blocks. I'm not sure what they put into them, but it didn't take long for my energy levels to return to normal. Another rider and I passed Thad's group not too soon afterwards. One of them had rolled a tire going around a corner. With everything under control, we rolled on. Not too far up the road my riding companion appeared to have a broken spoke. It turned out to be a piece of fence sticking out of his rear tire. He pulled out his cell to call for help and told me to keep rolling on as he was stopping at mile 100 anyway. The rest of this section was uneventful, other than a short standoff with some cows, and another flat tire courtesy of the Kansas flint. Thankfully, I was able to change it standing under a nice shade tree. The Lincoln crew rolled by as I was finishing up, and we rolled into checkpoint 2 around 2:30 PM.

Checkpoints 2 and 3 were at the same location, the city park in the town of Cottonwood Falls. The race organizers had erected a tent underneath some excellent shade trees. I took some extra time here to get gear out of my drop bag, clean the accumulated salt and dust off of my face and neck, and just generally relax for a bit before starting the 3rd leg. Ten minutes after I arrived, eventual record setting winner (and national 24 hour mountain bike champion) Cameron Chambers rolled back in to start his final leg. He was in the checkpoint about 10 minutes before he took off. A sobering look at the performance gap between national caliber athletes like Cameron and normal guys like me. My legs were feeling very good at this point, with no real aches or pains. My lower back, on the other hand, was making it's distaste for the day's activity known so I took some extra time before leaving to stretch. The RD's warned us that someone might be altering the course markers on this section, and that we should pay extra attention to the map. I left around 3:30, riding by myself, again. I had not even made it to the edge of town when I saw three riders coming back towards me. Afraid I had made a wrong turn, I asked them what was going on. They had turned around and decided to call it a day. I soldiered on, wondering what might lay ahead on the route.

The first 10 miles or so alternated between west and south, allowing the southwest wind to make its presence known. About mile 112, I ran into Thad's group along with David Pals discussing if they were on the right road. I offered my opinion that they were, and we moved ahead. The road quickly changed from gravel to parallel dirt paths in grass. To the right, a crow and a buzzard hungrily stared down at us from the top of a ranch gate, A few yards further down a hill would see us riding through the worst section of road of the ride. We went from dirt to mud and rock. Then the hill became steeper and the surface became water ruts filled a combination of dirt and hunks of 2" - 3" fill rock. At the bottom we were greeted some well water worn ground rock and a water crossing with more water worn rock on the other side. Two more water crossings later, and we were out of the worst of it. A couple of long climbs were next and Thad's group would be off again. About mile 126 I stopped and talked with Steve (also from Lincoln), whom I had briefly chatted with just as the race started. I was feeling pretty down at this point and let him go on his way even though he was encouraging me to get on the bike and pedal. I was standing next to a highway, staring at another long climb and finally snapped. I called home to get a bit of encouragement from my wife only to find that she neither home nor answering her cell phone. I left a very haggard sounding message on the answering machine, ate three more Shot blocks and soldiered on. I had no one to come and get me, and if I had to ride back to Emporia, I figured I might as well follow the route. Again, I don't know what is in those Clif Shot blocks, but it works. After the climb up the hill, I got into a good rhythm and I could see Steve up ahead. At mile 138, the road turned back east towards Emporia and the surface turned into well smoothed chipseal. After almost 140 miles of gravel, it was a welcome sight. After catching up to Steve, we chatted for a bit, and he told me not to slow down on his account. While I appreciated the gesture, I was definitely tired of riding with and talking to myself. We soldiered on at a reasonable pace, cruising the river valley and asking ourselves if we were going to make the time cut off, and would we continue on if we did. At the end of the valley we came to another big stair stepped climb with some radio towers on top. I rode about a third of the way up before my back and butt had both said enough, and I climbed out of the saddle and proceeded to walk the next half mile of the climb. Steve joined me in the "walk of shame". However you want to look at it, it provided me a much needed mental and physical break. Steve and I rolled back into Cottonwood Falls with no further incidents, reaching the checkpoint at 8:30 PM, 30 minutes before close.

At this time, I seriously considered calling it quits. I was tired, my butt hurt, and I just didn't see how I could carry on to the finish. I pulled my phone out to call my wife and let her know that I had made it in OK and to apologize for the message I left. I had no cell signal in Cottonwood Falls thanks to AT&T's fabulous "5 bars of coverage", but I happened to notice my text message count had increased dramatically since I had left Cottonwood Falls 5 hours earlier. I was fortunate enough to have had some fellow Iowa riders send me some words of encouragement while I was out suffering. Paul, Squirrel, and Tom, I cannot thank you guys enough for taking the time to send those. They were a huge factor in my decision to finish the race. Having made the decision to continue, I went to Casey's, grabbed some PowerAde, two bottles of water for my camelback, and a slice of pizza. In retrospect, I should have had two slices because their pizza is also a wonder fuel for long rides. However, I wasn't sure how my stomach was going to handle pizza, so I took the cautious approach. A liberal application of chamois butter, a quick purge of everything unnecessary from my camelback and I was out final checkpoint (by myself) at 9:05 PM. I caught up with a group of three riders at about mile 160 and quickly decided that I was riding with them the rest of the way in. I'm not sure if it was the food, the companionship, or the cool night air, but my legs started getting their snap back and I found myself quickly ticking off the miles and feeling better the longer we went on. For the rest of this segment we were treated to a wonderful light show from the storms southeast of Emporia, as well as some beautiful star filled skies I have viewed in a long time. We crossed a dam at the end of a small lake, proceeded to finish off the one last long climb on the route and turned east. We passed through Americus and soldiered on through one last challenging road section about a mile or so in length. Think of a wet mud road torn up by off-roaders and tractors and you'll have a good idea of what we rode through.

At mile 195 we turned onto the last section of gravel. At this point, the fact we were in a race took over, even though I had well over 200 miles on my legs. I picked the pace up from 14 to 18 mph to see if anyone else had anything left in their legs. Our group went from 4 to 3 fairly quickly. I upped it a bit more to around 20 and that whittled the group down to me and Oliver from Lincoln. We slowed briefly to see the remainder of Thad's group changing a last mile flat. After learning they were on top of it, we went back to the task at hand. The last small rise to climb over I-35 broke me. I was unable to keep my speed up over the crest and Oliver opened got a gap on me that I just wasn't able to close in the final 3 blocks. I yelled "great sprint" to him and eased up, rolling across the finish line just behind Oliver. Just over 19 hours after my first pedal stroke Saturday morning, I had finished the Dirty Kanza 200, and beat my private time goal of 20 hours.

UPDATE: Results have been posted. I was 36th out of 42 finishers with a total time of 19:06:48. There were 24 DNF's this year.

I put my bike down, grabbed a cold drink from the cooler and waited for other riders to come in. A Burger King run on the bike for some hard earned greasy food, some additional chatting with Matt Gersib and the race promoters, and a shower put me into bed around 2:30 AM.

Since this was my first shot at an event like this, I had counted on this being a learning experience.

Things that worked:

My bike fit by Donny Quixote at Rasmussen Bike Shop. I had no hamstring or quad tightness issues for the entire ride. The bike fit is really spot on right now. I have no one to thank for this other than Donny. Anyone riding events like this that hasn't had a fit done is really missing something important.

Dinotte LED lights. I used a 200L on my handle bars and a second 200L on my helmet as a spot, both powered by Lithium ion batteries. Lightweight, excellent battery life (4+ hours on high for both head lamps with no signs of fading), and a kick ass tail light. These worked every bit as well as I had hoped they would. Someone on the last leg commented that it was like having a car behind him.

WTB Nanoraptor tires. For a MTB, I think this was one of the best tire choices for this race and these conditions. There was enough bite to feel comfortable in the sand, and on the rocks, and the center ridge line really helped with the speed on the packed sections.

Clif Shot Blocks. Whatever is in them, they worked magic for me multiple times during the race.

Things that didn't:

Nutrition. I ate and drank, but I know that I need to improve in this area if I do more of these events. My lack of
discipline really caused me issues on the 3rd leg of the race.

Storage. You can eat better if your food is easy to get to. Jersey pockets under a camelback are not easy to get to. A frame bag is. One will be on the way shortly.

I have to give a hearty congratulations and thank you to the people from the Heartland Race Series that put this event on. The course was well marked, the event ran smoothly, and even though this was a self supported event, their concern for everyone's safety and well being was very apparent.

A big thank you to the rest of the racers I competed against and the people that I have trained with leading up to this event. You are what make the long hours in the saddle and events like this enjoyable.

Other DK Race reports
Cameron Chambers (1st place overall)
Joshua Stamper (1st Place SS)
Matt Gersib (5th overall)
Steve Goetzelman
Mike Beck (4th Place SS)


Travel Gravel said...

Wow! I am impressed. Weird to think that rocks could be that sharp. Nice riding and nice writing. Later!

Buckshot77 said...

Great race report man! Congrats again on finishing. Maybe next year for me...

gpickle said...

Way to be Steve, sorry we did not cross paths down there but I am sure we will bump into each other somewheres someday.

Steve Fuller said...


I heard you made it down for the race. :) I wanted to meet you in person as well, but the schedules and riding pace did not quite work out. Some other time I'm sure. Great job this weekend for you too :)

Squirrel said...

great write up Steve and one hell of a push to finish the race. I was quite curious if you'd even get the text message. time for us to knock out some more hundies bro!


kent said...

nice work man! and way to keep hammering on near the end!

MG said...

Hey Steve -- Great race report! Thanks for taking the time to detail out your experience so completely.

It was great to meet you, and I know I'll be seeing you around too, because I definitely plan to be in Iowa quite a bit more this season -- at Seven Oaks for the 24 Hour race, and at the Big Wheel Ballyhoo for sure, so hopefully we'll see you soon at one or both of those events.


Taugimba said...

Good job! I enjoyed the write up. It was nice chatting with you Sunday morning.
Mike (from Denver)

Steve Fuller said...


I think that completing this event has given me the confidence to try either the 12 hour solo or 24 hour team event at Seven Oaks this fall.

I wasn't really sure if DK was going to be a checkbox event for me, or if I wanted to come back and do it again next year. Thinking things over the last few days, I definitely plan on being back again next year.

Steve Fuller said...


Likewise, congratulations on your finish and great chatting with you on Sunday morning. Meeting people at the event is the best part of attending for me.

kim smith said...

hello steve! We met each other briefly before the kanza started. I congratulate you on your strong determination, especially when you felt like quitting at the 3rd checkpoint. My monkey is disappointed with me, and rightfully so... See you next year!

Oliver said...


It was great riding with you that last ~quarter of the ride. I'm the one that had serious light envy and mentioned it was like having a car behind me when you first joined us.

After the initial 'Well, that was fun and I won't be doing that again', I'm already looking forward to next year.

Best of luck with your riding.
-- Oliver

MG said...

Right on Steve -- I look forward to seeing you soon then! That's awesome to hear that you're stoked to keep pushin' it in the long races and events.

And Ollie too... I know you're gonna' be doing more of this stuff. You don't have a choice. I know where you live! ;-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve,
It was good to see you join our group on the last leg. I was riding with you when you had your first flat. Great to finish with you. We will have to get together with Paul and crew for some more gravel in Iowa.

Ron Saul

Steve Fuller said...

Oliver - great sprint to the finish with you. You were definitely riding strong that last section. I just didn't have it in me going over that last freeway overpass What is it with all of the ultra marathon cyclists from Lincoln, something in the water??? Good luck to you the rest of the year as well.

Steve Fuller said...

Ron - Likewise it was good getting to talk with you a bit more on the ride back in. I agree that we should get a group together for some more gravel rides this summer. Paul has some great routes around the Ames area that I'd like to ride.

Steve Fuller said...

Gravelo - if the rock is sharp enough to kill a buffalo, then it's sharp enough to puncture a tire :)