Monday, June 1, 2009

Dirty Kanza 200

Cliff's Notes version:
  • 20 hours in the saddle.
  • 10th place overall.
  • 17% finish rate.
  • Epic.

WARNING: Long race. Long report. You've been warned.

Finish. One simple word with many meanings. 85 people started the 2009 Dirty Kanza 200. The Flint Hills topography, the 90+ degree heat, and the headwinds all combined to finish off 70 of the starters at various points along the route. In the end, only 15 people were able to cross the finish line.

Leg 1 - 61 miles

After a few final words, and a warning or two from this year's host, Jim Cummins, 85 riders rolled out of Emporia, KS at 6 AM towards the town of Cottonwood Falls. We had a neutral start through town, with a lot of filming and photography being done by the folks at IM Design Group. The jeep pulled off at the edge of town and soon we took a right turn onto gravel. My legs and bike were both feeling pretty good, so I sat in with the lead group of 30 or so, including Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey, Endurosnob, and Dennis Grelk, to gauge how the day was going to go. The group motored along at a solid 20+ MPH or so until the first climb. After the climb a group of around 10 riders including Godfrey and Snob were headed off in the distance, leaving the rest of us to pick up the pieces and reassess the day's goals. My legs settled into a comfortable rhythm while my mind entertained itself by taking in the scenery and playing musical snippets from days leading up to the race. Occasionally, the comfort of "the zone" was punctured by the appearance of the video crew passing by to set up for the next shot. After a few miles of flying through some open range area, I turned south and heard air coming out of my rear tire. My highly puncture resistant Schwalbe Marathon Extreme had been taken out by a cut in the left sidewall. It didn't look too bad, so I quickly swapped out tubes got back on the bike. A few minutes later, I met up with Dennis Grelk. He and I took turns pulling into the head wind, and navigating a number of water crossings from mile 30 - 35. By mile 40 or so my back was starting to ache from the climbs and fighting the headwind, so I let Dennis ride off while I once again settled into "the zone". The rest of this first leg was uneventful, other than the constant throbbing from my lower back. I was going to have to dull the pain if I had a chance of finishing the race. As I rolled into the first checkpoint, I was greeted by Dennis patching a tube and a volunteer telling me that I had arrived in 23rd place. That explained why my back was sore and I was feeling a bit spent. Too much effort expended too soon. I'm never been a top 25 rider at these events. After the shock wore off, I looked at my tire and saw the tube starting to jut out of the sidewall. I booted the tire with a dollar bill, and made stop at Casey's for some Aleve, Gatorade and to refill my Camelback. It was now 10:30 and the heat was really starting to build.

Leg 2 - 42 miles.

The route out of Cottonwood Falls was 5 miles of chipseal consisting of a long steady climb out of town, followed by a screaming fast descent and some river flats into the town of Elmdale. The Aleve was kicking in and I settled back into "the zone". Nothing really notable in this section. We followed the twists, turns and rolling hills northwest along Diamond Creek Road for about 15 miles until we turned back northeast for the final push into the town of Council Grove, KS at mile 103 or so. I started standing on anything but the most shallow climbs and it made a huge difference in my speed and how my back felt for the rest of the race. I did have a (illegal) support vehicle sitting in front of me for a bit until I asked him to move on. He had paced someone for a while a bit earlier and I wasn't terribly happy about it. I never did get the rider's number. He'll have to live with the fact that he cheated to get to wherever he finished. Other than that, this section was pretty tame. No flat tires, just a lot of steady pace making. I pulled into the checkpoint a little after 2 PM and immediately took a peek at my rear tire. The dollar bill had worn through and more of the tube was pushing through the hole in the sidewall. While I went to work on boot #2 (this time of the dual Gu packet variety) fellow competitor Chad Meinert offered me the spare tire out of his drop bag. I initially declined his offer, but quickly changed my mind. I wanted to finish the race on my tire if possible, but I wanted to be able to finish if it failed. I snagged two slices of pizza and two bottles of gatorade to refuel and three bottles of water to refill my camelback. I was down to fumes in both my 100 oz camelback and one of my double strength bottles of Accelerade in this 38 mile section. I was also seeing goosebumps on my arms at various points, which wasn't a good sign. After sitting in the shade for a while, taking in three more Aleve, I took off around what I think was 3:15PM.

Leg 3 - 39 miles

We had a short pavement climb out of town for a couple of miles and then we were back on the gravel again. The temps were continuing to rise and the heat was starting to take its toll on the riders. Around mile 111 I came up on a rider laying on the gravel in the shade. As I stopped and started reaching for my phone, he said he was fine and was just taking a break. I went ahead and rode on. A few miles up the road I came up behind Dennis Grelk again. My legs were feeling good at this point, but I wanted to ride with someone so I wasn't suffering by myself. We traded pulls for a while until we came upon another rider laying in a shaded section of dirt road around mile 119. He had been overcome by the heat and had thrown up further down the road. He'd managed to make his way back to the shade where he was trying to recover. As we talked, my bike rolled forward and I heard the hiss of air escaping from my front tire (flat #2). At least it was in the shade... As Dennis and I were leaving, two more riders pulled up took a short break. Less than 2 miles up the road Dennis pulled over, suffering from a double flat. We walked to the shade of a cattle loading gate and each went to work on one of his tires. I put a new tube in the back one while Dennis patched the front one. While I was inflating the front one, I heard the air hissing out of it. Dennis' patch had not held. Rather than wait, I offered him one of my tubes so we could keep moving. I'm now down to one tube (and 4 glueless patches). Mile 121 - 125 was Lil Egypt Road. Easily the most gnarly section of "road" I've ridden on. Steep downhills with lots of loose flint and ruts, paired with steep uphills made of the same stuff. Dennis and I were moving along through here better than I expected when I heard a bang out of the back end and the familiar hiss of escaping air (flat #3). At this point, I decided it was time to change the tire along with the tube so I could at least make it to the third checkpoint and assess my options. Between Dennis' two flats and my rear flat, I counted 10 bikes that had passed us. I was really unhappy at this point. After changing my tube and tire and packing up the broken pieces, we took off again. I was running on a bit of anger at this point and charged up the hill. I hit the flat section at the top, looked back and saw Dennis walking his bike up the final grade. Knowing that he wasn't likely going beyond the third checkpoint, I rode ahead by myself. Miles 125 - 135 pounded at us with more rollers, but my legs were still feeling pretty good. A downhill mile of chipseal took us within striking distance of Checkpoint 3, before turning up and away across a few more gravel rollers before dropping us into the town of Alma, KS. I (foolishly?) let my anger dictate my pace and I passed 8 - 10 people in the last 15 miles. However, I had been staying on top of my nutrition and hydration needs and my legs still felt strong. At the checkpoint, a number of people sitting around, most of them having decided to call it a day. I walked into the convenience store and made a bee line for the coolers. I returned to the checkpoint area, sat in a chair, pulled out a Budweiser tallboy, a quart of gatorade, and a turkey sandwich and proceeded to refuel. A volunteer asked me if I was going on or calling it quits. I told him I hadn't made it this far to pull the plug. The temps were starting to drop as the sun sank in the west, and if I could get through part of the last leg with some sunlight, I knew I'd be able to finish. Based on the looks I got, they don't see many people drinking beer in the middle of a race. It satisfied whatever craving I was having at the time and by the time I left I was still feeling good. I called home to let my wife know I was going on and ask if she wanted me to call when I finished. Dennis pulled in with a bunch of other riders and decided to find a ride into town. I asked him if I could take the tube from his front wheel back since I was down to none. I bought a second tube from another racer, and would have bought a third one if it had been available. I cleaned the excess stuff from my camelback, threw away my now useless Marathon Extreme and set out on the final leg.

Leg 4 - 62 miles

The first road out of town was Clapboard Ravine Road. It's earned the name. I rode along the flood plain of a creek past some old houses for a short while and then started the long climb up through an area called Clapboard Canyon, alternating sitting and standing to give my back a rest when possible. One the way up, I looked down and see a small box turtle walking along the road. He looked up at me as I passed, and it put a bit of a smile on my face as I thought back to the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" that you read as a child. I hit the top of the canyon and began a hare-like descent down the backside when I heard a loud bang and hiss from the back of my bike (flat #4). I checked the tire for damage and swapped out the tube while a few riders passed. All of them asked if I had everything I needed, which was nice. I'm now down to one tube with over 50 miles to go. Time to get my tortoise on during the descents. I turned south and rode with Jeff Scott and his sweet Moots single speed for a while. We were riding the same pace and I was getting tired of riding by myself. I looked and saw a huge, pink tinged anvil cloud off to the southwest of us. It was beautiful to look at, but the last thing I wanted to deal with was a late evening thunderstorm on the open prairie. Near mile 155, Jeff and I were riding between two fenced pastures when we spotted a dozen cows running loose. The Kansas cattle did not appreciate the buzz of our Chris King hubs. We rode forward cautiously and watched the cows peel off two at a time as we rode by them. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and if the cows had decided to run at us, instead of away, we would have been in a lot of trouble. A bit later, I rode away from Jeff on a long climb, but it wouldn't be the last I'd see of him. A few miles up the road I came upon Keith and Kevin from the Oklahoma. We didn't exchange much more than a couple of pleasantries while we rode, but it was nice to have other riders around for a while. Since I was running with only my helmet mounted light, the extra illumination was nice to have on the downhill sections. They stopped to look at their maps for a bit to get their bearings, and I continued on ahead.

About mile 160, I came rode up behind Jim from Lincoln, NE and Chris from Leawood, KS. Jim was on a sweet Salsa MTB and Chris was riding a Canondale road bike with 28 mm road tires. I had talked with Jim briefly before he left Alma and he said I'd probably run into him sooner or later. We were all running about the same pace, so we settled in and started talking. After a brief discussion about directions, we followed the route into Eskridge. The convenience store closed at 8 PM, but the bar was still open as we rolled in about 10:15. I told Jim I wanted to stop for a Coke, and he and Chris were both game for a break. I took in a can of Coke and a can of Mt Dew (total cost $1!!) and bought a couple of bottles of water to top off my camelback. After about 20 minutes of rest and a restroom break, we were off for the last 40 miles. On our way out of town, we saw one rider getting picked up by his support crew. A few minutes later, we ran into Jeff again. Our group of three morphed into a group of four and we pressed onward.

At the start of the day, Jim had been warned everyone about a creek crossing around mile 170. They had marked it with a sign and put up flashers, but they couldn't guarantee that they would be there. We took a turn onto the road and proceeded at a reasonable but cautious pace. As we got closer to the creek, our lights shined on an animal on the left hand side of the road. I looked down, expecting to see an opossum, but instead was at an angry beaver and one of her kits. Not what I expected to see in the middle of Kansas. We came upon the creek, and while it was ridable, we all decided to dismount and walk our bikes across to be safe. We proceeded west up and around Gunbarrel Hill and then were diverted off into what could only be described as an over grown driveway. Two tire tracks of dirt, with shin high grass down the middle and off to each side. As we turned south at mile 175, the dirt turned to rock, but the grass still remained. The next 5 miles were alternating dirt and railbed-like loose rock wheel tracks with grass down the middle. It was really weird to see this out in the middle of nowhere. Once we hit the gravel, I was still feeling good, so I picked up the pace for a while. Jim rode with me for a bit while Jeff and Chris cruised on with each other behind us. After a few miles I was by myself and getting anxious to see the finish, so I kept the pace up. The last 20 miles of road went straight south with a couple of jogs to the east and west to break things up. It was possibly the worst place for a straight section of road like this. At mile 195, I turned east and heard the familiar hiss of air coming out of my tire. Flat #5, ten miles from the finish. I quickly changed the tube and got moving again. My energy levels were starting to come down and I knew I needed to keep moving. About 200 feet up the road my light shines on another set of eyes in the road. This time it's an opossum. It can't decide which way to go, so it crosses back and forth over the road as I ride closer. I finally yell at it to make up it's mind scurried into the right hand ditch. The last 10 miles were more roads with lots of loose rock, and fighting off the pangs of hunger coming from my stomach. I downed a Clif Bar in 3 bites with less than 5 miles left to boost my sagging energy level. Finally, I hit the pavement at the edge of town, the road in front of the hotel and make the turn into the parking lot, crossing the line 20 hours and 10 minutes after I started. Good enough for 9th place in the open class and 10th overall.

There were a few weary souls waiting to congratulate the last of the finishers. They all had long days and weeks leading up to the event, but they were out there because we were still riding. Jim, Joel and his wife Michelle all congratulated me on the finish. David Pals, who had pulled the plug much earlier in the day and could have been asleep, was out there smiling and congratulating me as well. I can't begin to tell all of them how much it meant to have them there at the finish. Jim, Jeff and Chris pulled in together about 3 minutes behind me. I grabbed a drink and sat down for a bit to collect myself. After collecting my drop bag, my finisher's glass, and a prize from the swag table, I rolled through the Burger King drive-thru, get some food and then rode back to the hotel. I put the bike bike in the truck, ate and finally crashed about 3:30 AM.

That's the race report. I have some thoughts on the bike and other things that I'll post during the next few days.