An unenviable task: writing a reasonably short blog post about my Dirty Kanza 200 (DK200) experience. Notice that I did not say “ride” – preparing for and doing this event was indeed an experience that changed my body, my mind, and my soul. An event that bills itself as the “World’s Premier Gravel Grinder” with a motto “Find Your Limit” should deliver nothing less than that!
I contributed an earlier blog post about the late-March Dirty Kanza training camp, where I got to experience the terrifying, “baby-head” sized gravel of the Flint Hills of Kansas before race day. In that post I discussed hiring a coach to prepare me for the event. Both choices were rewarded in spades on race day – a fancy and light new bike was not in the budget, but my body (the “engine”) and my mind (the “pilot”) were both well prepared going into an event where I would need both operating at top level for an estimated 17h.
That’s not to say that I did not have any hiccups en route to Kanza. I took a nasty over-the-handlebars spill after touching wheels with teammate Jason during a Cheesehead Roubaix recon ride about 7-8 weeks before the race. I later learned that I broke two ribs in the crash, but I still finished the ride. This was right around the time when I needed to start stacking up long, long rides on the weekends. I tested the limits of both my pain tolerance and my mental strength on those rides and got the work done that I needed to get done. Another hiccup was the long, cold, and wet spring that prevented me from undergoing ANY heat adaptation that I knew I would need on race day – early June in the Flint Hills is not very kind to those not adapted to high temps (80’s) and high humidity.
Race day conditions could not have been much better. Weather and road conditions produced a new women’s finish time record that included an EXTREMELY tight finish between 1st and 2nd places – only FIVE SECONDS separated the two racers! We had extremely good fortune in terms of weather; I say this despite the heavy thunderstorm that caught me and many other riders in a terrific deluge. I nearly shat my shorts while riding as blinding flashes of lightning and sternum-shaking claps of thunder surrounded me, all the while all the voices in my head were screaming “OH MY GOD OH MY GOD OH MY GOD THIS IS NOT SAFE!!!!” Aside from heavy winds that preceded the incoming storm, winds were favorable and light and not a factor on the day. It got very warm as expected in late afternoon, and I found surprisingly that the heat was not a factor for me despite zero heat adaptation. I could tell that the heat was affecting other riders though; I saw many parked on the side of the road as the heat increased. I kept riding, encouraging them to get back on as soon as they could! Even though Emporia received more rain than normal this spring, there was hardly any of the legendary derailleur-hanger-destroying Flint Hills “peanut-butter” mud to be found on the course. The two days before the race were windy and mostly dry, and that no doubt helped in that regard.
At training camp, presenters emphasized that one should “prepare” rather than “plan” your Dirty Kanza ride. Plans go out the window quickly at Kanza, as I found out first hand. There are three checkpoints/rest stops at around 50-60mi intervals. Some riders bring their own support crew to service bike and rider at these stops, but I elected not to bring one for my first time. Instead, I purchased the “rent-a-crew” volunteer-staffed bag drop service, which meant I would prepare drop bags in advance for each stop that they would help me with. I meticulously planned my maintenance/fueling/clothing swap strategy down to the amount of dry fuel powder pre-loaded in the fresh bottles for each stop. The plan factored in late-day heat as well as a mid-race jersey/base layer swap to freshen up for the final half. That planning went completely out the window when Bag #2 showed at Stop #1!! This heavily impacted me mentally, and took me a while to bounce back from both during and after the stop, revealing mental flexibility/resilience as an area for me to improve on for the future.
Can’t talk about a gravel race without talking equipment. I rode my trusty Surly Cross Check – it was a beast and worked out well after sorting out my position to be less road-like (longer and lower) and more gravel-friendly (more upright with shorter reach and wider, flared bars). Belgianwerkx was the source for my Giro Privateer shoes, and I looked to Nick to spec/build the handbuilt tubeless wheelset that worked flawlessly. Jordy also did a once-over on my rig before I took off – thanks!! I had zero mechanical or tire issues, partly due to Belgianwerkx’s quality work and partly due to the karma accrued by carrying every portable tool (Leatherman, Crank Brothers M19, combo tire lever/quick link pliers) I could along with numerous spare parts (tubes, CO2 cartridges, chain sections, quick links, spare derailleur cable, bar plugs, zip ties). I always say, “It’s not done until it’s overdone!”
I was happy overall with my performance at the race. Based on the century ride I did at the DK training camp and the very little gravel riding that I did afterwards, I had a 12-12.5mph average speed goal. I finished 206mi in 17h elapsed time, hitting that target exactly. Of the overall elapsed time, I only rode for 15h, meaning that I averaged 13.81mph – FAR higher than my target! I climbed well, considering I do not possess a wispy climber’s build and considering that my ride (Surly Cross Check) was no carbon fiber wonder machine. I packed a low gear (34×36) that allowed me to climb every single hill on the course without walking my bike – that was a HUGE plus because I could spin up all but the steepest parts of the climbs. Riding up steep hills even in mid-single-digit speeds is FAR faster than trudging up on foot, and is far less demoralizing than being passed by some dude (i.e. me) who’s riding the entire climb. I lifted my speed in the last hour after finally experiencing heavy fatigue around sundown. I finished strongly, drinking in the cheers of the crowd that greeted us at the finish line. My wife said that I looked far better than many of the folks who finished before me!
My biggest take-away from my Dirty Kanza participation is that what my mind can conceive as “possible” has opened significantly. I truly had no idea what I was in for when I contacted them for coaching and signed up for training, and that was probably best. Had I known, I might have talked myself out of preparing hard for something and achieving it and missed a terrific opportunity to challenge myself and “Find My Limit”!!
I found Dirty Kanza to be an incredibly beautiful and grueling experience that demanded more from my body, my mind, my soul, and my bike than any other event I have ever done. Doing this was truly a life-changing experience for me and I am very proud of my accomplishment – me even being able to say that is a huge step for me – and I have every intention of toeing the line again next year. I will target the “Beat the Sun” award, where you need to finish before sundown (~8:45 PM) after starting at 6 AM. Bringing some higher power in the legs, having my own crew or piggy backing on another one to get me through checkpoints FAR faster, and having similar favorable conditions would make finishing in 14h 45min or less well within reach for me! Of course, I expect Kanza to have other plans…and I expect that I will adapt well in order to achieve my objective.