The ebbs and flows of gravel racing could make a guy think he was bipolar. The highs I've experienced after 12 plus hours on the bike border on religious. The lows, well, we all know about the lows. They'll have you hiding in the shade of a tree along a dirt road rethinking your purpose in the world. You'll question your sanity. But finding that place can also bring an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Gratitude for your life, your family, your typically able body. Gratitude for a community that creates opportunities to find your limits (that is the tagline of this year's DK200 after all) and does so with an enormous amount of support, enthusiasm and understanding.
My 2016 Dirty Kanza 200 was a success in many ways. I saw loads of friends. That is always a highlight for me. Cycling media, pro cyclists, industry peeps, gravel regulars were all in Emporia. It was great to catch up with several of them and just as nice to see some of them in passing.
The Race: To be blunt, the ride was a tough one for me. I had great legs and a bad guts. I rode a safe start and was eating and drinking well right up to the point where, after cresting a steep rise, I emptied the contents of my stomach roadside. Lots of fluid lost. I went from zero to eleven on the nausea scale. While I didn't publicize it, I was riding Dirty Kanza unsupported. So I carried enough food and fluids to get to the halfway point in Eureka, where I would visit the Casey's convenience store for nutrition. That meant that I had plenty of food on board and slowly began taking a nibble whenever I could manage. I set a mental timer that every 10 minutes I would take a sip of fluids and a small bite of food. I couldn't always stomach doing that, so I would re-evaluate every 1o minutes. Doing this, I got myself to mile 102.7 in Eureka and went to the store. I hadn't eaten much so I only bought a couple liters of water, some Gatorade and an ice cream. Temps were up and I wanted to stay cool. With a primarily north/south route, at the halfway point racers had to turn north into the wind.
While the wind can be a strong nemesis, I chose to view it as a blessing, keeping me cool and focused. After eating a bit more and downing some water (typically I drink Skratch all day) I began to come around. My attitude was positive and I began working with different groups out on the road. For 20 miles, things were good. Then they weren't. For many miles after that, I had to avoid looking at the mileage, my speed, the time of day. I turned on my upbeat Dirty Kanza playlist and tuned out for a couple hours. Trying to push when I felt a small lift in my energy and conserving when needed.
I constantly reminded myself that the wind was my friend. I had all the food and water I needed. My bike was running well, no flats and a great gear range. The weather was perfect. I was moving. I coached myself, saying that riding was the only solution. Stopping only delayed the end. Slow miles are better than no miles (my Tour Divide mantra). But push when you can.
I crawled into the third checkpoint, in Madison at mile 162, confident that I could make it to the finish. But it was going to be a knock down, drag out battle inside my head to get there. After crossing the timing mat, I rounded a corner in Madison and saw my wife. It was a wonderfully welcome sight. She had suffered from a bad stomach and pulled the plug in Eureka and then rallied to come to Madison to support me. A banana and a small Coke from her worked a small miracle. Not the made-for-TV type miracle, but after getting them down I was able to put what power I had left into the pedals. This was miraculous after feeling like I had floated the pedals for several hours. Again I turned off the screen on my GPS that showed the numbers. I focused on the route, determined to not make a wrong turn. I nodded my head to Tom Petty, John Mellencamp, Macklemore, The Doobie Brothers, Ben Howard, Dave Matthews, Paul Simon, Pharrell Williams, U2 and others. Singing "Free Fallin'" out loud brought a smile to my face.
I began to catch a few riders. "Good job" and "Hang in there" and "Stay strong" exchanged. And for a time, I was exhausted and moving and happy. And then another low. And in the low, I checked my computer. Only 15 miles to go. I could walk that if need be. I carried on. I couldn't eat any of the food I had on me. Couldn't really drink anything else either. Then I heard a train. And up ahead, sure enough, there were a pair of trains stopped on the tracks. A few other riders were already there. A few more arrived. I saw a friend. We chatted. Eventually the trains moved on. It wasn't a welcome rest. It was just a delay. But the time off the bike did help make the last ten miles easier. I rolled into town and crossed the finish line, thankful that I had pre-ridden the last miles of the route with Mike Reynolds, an Emporia eye surgeon who, along with his family, hosts me and Kristen each year. I hadn't beaten the sun. I hadn't beaten my 14-hour goal, but I had beaten one of the lowest calorie days in my ultra cycling experience. I had nursed my way across the line. Success.