Last year, I wrote that the only way to truly appreciate the Dirty Kanza, a 200-mile adventure race across the Flint Hills of Kansas was to experience it. Then, I wondered if the words were a bit dramatic and only in response to the fact that I dropped out after 140 miles. Going back and trying again this year solidified the sentiment: the Dirty Kanza can’t adequately be described in words. Pictures might help, but even they “flatten” the grueling landscape into picturesque scenes of rolling prairie.
This year, the organizers promised more gravel and more hills. At the start, Jim even mentioned the possibility that Cameron Chambers’ sub 12-hour record might fall. According to him, the course was abnormally fast because much of the gravel was pressed into the road bed during the spring rains. As we soon learned, his claim was spot on; what he failed to mention were the endless hills during the first 100 miles. Add in heat, strong heads winds out of the southwest and a pop-up thunderstorm, and the Flint Hills proved once again that just finishing this race is winning…something I have yet to experience.
I wish I had grand stories of sloshing through ankle deep mud, seeking shelter from funnel clouds, or even fighting around the course in survival mode. But, this year I simply didn’t have any fight in me. Even at the start line I knew something was wrong. Instead of excitement and eagerness to hit the gravel, I felt apprehensive and lethargic. I learned the hard way that there is no suffering or fighting through it when if your mind isn’t into it.
The start was fast as always. Just like last year, I watched as the front group sped away…only this year the group swelled to what looked like 30 or more racers. I sat up and watched as a chase group formed and marched off across the hills. I rode alone for several miles and then started picking up stragglers that had fallen from the front two groups. Before long, I was in a peloton of 20 or more riders. We were riding at a fast pace, but with so many working together, the effort was very easy. We stayed together until the rolling hills leading up to Texaco Hill. Then, the group slowly dwindled until I was riding alone again. I caught two more over the top of Texaco and rode with them until the first check point.
As I started rolling out for the second leg, Ben, Rick, and David rolled in, claiming they were making it a quick stop. So I decided wait for them. We rolled out, ready for a fast 40-mile leg thanks to the strong SSW wind that would be mostly at our backs.
Around mile 80, Rick yelled, “Stop!”
“Oh shit. Is that what it looks like?”
“Yelp. A large group is riding towards us.”
We scanned the map while we waited for them to reach us. Turns out we all missed a turn several miles back. Fortunately, back was north so the wind would be pushing us back on course. The missed turn was onto an infamous Dirty Kanza “cut through” that connected together country roads. This one dropped down, down, down, a rock (not gravel) littered trail that finally reaching two creek crossings. All the down meant only one thing: up. The road rolled and climbed for the next 10 miles, before leveling off for the final run into the second stop, in Florence.
During the drop to the creek crossing, my head started pounding. I don’t know if it was the banging and bucking, dehydration, or both, but the pain was blinding. I dropped off the back of the group and started drinking water with Camelbak Elixir. Just as the headache started to let up my feet started burning. I’m not sure if it was hot foot or something else, but I’ve never felt foot pain that intense. I loosened my shoes and took advantage of every downhill to unclip and flex my feet. Both brought some relief but the pain only worsened with each pedal stroke. Seeing the Florence grain elevator on the horizon was the only thing that kept me from pulling over. During those 10-15 miles, I argued about what was next: in or out? I decided I would take an extended break, eat some lunch, and then decide.
I limped into Florence, found Traci and the boys and ripped off my shoes. I sat for 20 minutes with my feet up before I felt any relief. While I sat there, Eric stopped by and mentioned that he was suffering like crazy but was fighting on. I also watched Jim roll out, looking fresh as he did on the line. While I was eating, I convinced myself that I had to go on. So I suit up again. Before I left, I rolled over to the gas station for a quick piss break. I rolled up and found Rick and David talking outside. David suddenly started feeling sick and decided not to go on. Something about talking with him–nothing he said, more the voice in my head–convinced me that I shouldn’t continue. I rolled back to the car, loaded my gear and drove home.
David called just as we left Emporia to tell me that a strong storm blew in, stranding Ben and Rick on the course. The once fast gravel turned to mud too thick for bicycles. I checked radar and felt a sudden rush of relief, not for the storm or the riders that were surely stuck out in the condition, but more for my decision to stop. There’s no way I would have fought through rain and mud. As difficult as it was to drop out, seeing the boiling storm on radar confirmed my decision.
Now, with two DNF’s under my belt, the question is next year? Today, the answer is why bother. But, with probably too much bike time in the past 2 months, that will surely change, especially as registration approaches.