For the last two years, I’ve shied away from the Dirty Kanza 200, a 200-mile gravel race through the Flint Hills of Kansas. It’s notorious for being hot and shadeless — as it traverses some of the last remaining unplowed native tallgrass prairie — and people who know me will know that I’m not exactly a fan of the heat. (Look no further than my cyclocross nickname, Grindcore, Princess of the Ice…)
This year, it was the initial cost of entry that kept me from signing up right away. But when my buddy Chris was selling an entry to raise funds for his house, I decided to bite. Soon after, I realized this would sandwich two weeks after Almanzo, two weeks before Ponca, and four weeks before Odin’s Revenge. Suddenly, I had one helluva gravel calendar.
In the week leading up to the race, I had a couple mild onsets of panic. In the midst of an incredible ethnographic field school in anthropology, where I was spending every day in the woods engaged in pretty intense physical labor, here I was, planning to spend a really long day on the bike. But the weather was cool and rainy, and maybe being outdoors all day, while tiring, would be a benefit. At least I could hope. On Thursday, I said goodbye to my classmates and professor, who all wished me well with the “damn, she’s crazy,” look in their eyes. A few days before, our professor had shared the story of the last Omaha buffalo hunt with us, where 500 Omaha Indians traveled south into the tallgrass prairie in 1876, seeking out the last of the wild bison. The hunt was not very successful.
My travel companions for this trip were Matt Wills and Corey Godfrey, seasoned veterans (and past winners) of the event. My WMD and I made ourselves at home in the backseat of Corey’s Mint Julep, and we hit the road.
After rolling through beautiful countryside on the way to Emporia, where I noticed the rapidly increasing size of rocks, we arrived at our hotel. On the way in to town, I remembered that Emporia had been on my reading roster in the spring, as it is home to one of the most well-reputed teacher’s colleges in the country, Emporia State University. Funny I hadn’t connected the two until we got there. Worlds overlap…
These guys are pretty great travel buddies. I missed the memo on the matching shirt, but at least I got the pants color right. Also, this is a rare instance in which I look short in a photo, which in turn makes me look even more like my mom.
After checking in to our hotel, we rode downtown in not terribly hot but definitely humid conditions. Corey had plans to ride with consummate fast lady Monika Sattler, and Matt and I had plans to eat a lot of food and acquire some lovely Colorado beers from our buddy Noah of Boulder. I was also hoping to run into my high school friend Anatoly, whom I hadn’t seen in more than a decade. As luck would have it, he was checking in at the theater at the same time we were, and joined us for dinner.
Unlike many gravel endurance events, the Kanza allows riders to have a support vehicle, on condition that they only meet you at designated checkpoints, which occur every 50 miles. I’ve grown accustomed to being self-supported, and had made no plans to have a support vehicle. When Anatoly heard this, he was floored. His parents were doing support for him, and he insisted they at least have water for us, too. Anatoly was a student of my mom’s, and his parents know my parents, and as much as Matt and I ensured them not to worry about us and keep their sights on their likely much faster son, his mother worried that she wouldn’t be able to face my mom if she didn’t help me out. So sweet! We worked out an estimated schedule of our estimated arrival times, gave them some money for water, and headed back to our Nebraska table. By this time, Corey and Monika were back from their ride, and she and I got the chance to have a nice long conversation in German. I love getting the chance to chat with native speakers, especially when they tell me I sound just like one, too. Thanks, Papa!
We headed back to our hotel to pack bags for the early morning, then crawled into bed for an attempt at a short night of sleep. I maybe slept for a couple hours, as my mind was going through the next day and what I’d packed over and over. Corey’s alarm went off at 4 AM, and it was time to get ready. We rolled to the start line in the dark, and caught the Dark Knight, Jim Winklepleck, along the way. Matt and I said goodbye to Corey and lined up with our 16 hour rollergirl — the race uses members of the local roller derby to hold up big signs separating the pace groups — and I ran to the coffee shop to pick up a double espresso. In line, I spotted the lovely Malcolm Tassi, with a hug and a kiss and a “where have you been all my life?” I reminded him to come back to Nebraska.
We downed our espresso, and my adventure companion and I were ready to roll. Before taking on this race, I cleared it with Matt that he’d ride it with me. There aren’t a whole lot of people with whom I’d want to make such a pact. While I was ready to ride alone if something happened, I really didn’t want that to be the case. With how my season and training had been going, we had hopes of putting down a pretty darn good time. It wasn’t supposed to be too hot. That said, I was in this race to finish, not to set any records. And if you want to finish an event like this, make friends with Matt Wills. He knows how to do it. I was in good hands.
Looking ahead at the start line, the street was full of cyclists from curb to curb as the dawn washed over us. The addition of blinky lights and the doubled distance gave this a different vibe from Almanzo, but again, there was buzz in the air. Two TransIowa veterans, including female finisher Andrea Cohen from Iowa City, lined up with us, and Andrea told me she’d be following us all day. Happy for the company, I told her that as a TI finisher, she might be disappointed with that decision — badass lady! Before too long, we were off, rolling through the town of Emporia, across an overpass, and then onto the gravel.
We had double pacelines like this for miles and miles, and Matt wove us steadily upward through the group, with me right on his wheel and Andrea right on mine. The rock was mostly packed, but big and chunky when it wasn’t. After some flat stretches, a few climbs started to spread us out a bit. A few people recognized me by the jersey, and we chatted it up, enjoying some pretty sweet tailwinds. We had a couple little hike-a-bikes, and then we were on the tallgrass prairie.
The prairie was absolutely stunning. There’s no real way to capture the feeling of being there in a photograph (though Eric Benjamin does a fine job of getting close), and I don’t think, save for maybe on horseback, that there’s any better way to experience it than by bicycle.
About 35 miles in, I hit a water crossing on a descent too fast and suffered the only flat I’d have all day. We had a big river crossing to portage, and before we knew it, we were at Checkpoint #1, 15 minutes ahead of the schedule we’d prepared with Anatoly’s dad. With that nice tailwind, he was ahead of schedule, too, and after thanking them profusely for their help and hummus sandwiches, we gave our water to Debe Dockhorn, who fed us oatmeal cookies covered in peanut butter and sent us off, saying she’d see us again in another 50 miles.
So Matt, Andrea and I pushed off again, and right into the wind that had been giving us such a nice push. We were working a solid paceline, but our average speed was dropping. We’d have folks lurking in our group, only to come around us and thank us for working for them. Thanks. While I felt fine taking pulls, there was a lot of doubt creeping into my mind that this pace and effort was not going to be sustainable. We still had well over 100 miles to go. Andrea looked strong, and I started getting really worried she and Matt would never slow down and that I’d be left in the lonely, windy, dust. By mile 75 or so, Matt was starting to slow down, and I breathed an internal sigh of relief. We were going to finish, and finish together.
We were leapfrogging with a bunch of other Lincoln riders at this point, including a bunch of time riding with Mark Falloon and Rick Dockhorn. We came up some climbs to some incredible vistas, one which quite literally brought tears to my eyes.
It was astoundingly beautiful, crisp skies in contrast with an endless horizon. It wasn’t hard for me to visualize the buffalo hunt my professor had been talking about the week before. The wind was blowing probably around 30 mph, and the roar of the wind through my helmet was deafening. There wasn’t really much in the way of making conversation. Somewhere around mile 80, Andrea rode off strong, I sat up, and Matt and I rolled into Checkpoint #2 in search of Debe Sue and her amazing cookies.
Rick was still there when we arrived, and we refueled, re-sunscreened, re-chamois buttered, re-chainlubed, and rehydrated. After 50 miles of headwind, we were promised about a 10 mile stretch of respite. I’ve never wanted to keep going straight on a road for longer more than this. But it ended, and we turned back into the NW wind. We had more prairie to traverse, and were occasionally greeted with free ranging cattle.
Matt on the singlespeed, keeping steady pace and smiling. Couldn’t ask for a better riding partner. Though we should probably look into a tandem…maybe it would cut the time in half? Girl can dream, right?
The roads went on and on. Blah blah blah, you get the story. After Checkpoint #2, I took my computer off my handlebars to charge it for awhile, and this helped me psychologically — I couldn’t watch the mileage creep. If I got to 125 miles, it would all seem like a countdown from there. And as luck would have it, that’s about when I took the computer back out. 25 miles to Checkpoint #3, where we were hoping we might catch some Lincoln friends. We were not on a fast pace anymore, though we kept moving steadily onward.
Yep, we’re still riding.
There were numerous stone walls, stone houses, and gorgeous old stone barns in this area. This is old stuff.
Our shadows were lengthening as we ticked off the last miles into Checkpoint #3. Finally, we pulled into town.
This is what I look like 150 miles in, frustrated at not finding the checkpoint. Finally, we spotted not only Debe, but also Chris and Emily on a massive Harley. With biscuits. And water. And beer.
The daylight was fading at the temperature cooling as we refueled this time. I got out my jacket. I did not want to sit back down on my saddle, though a little mentholated chamois butter made things feel better. I made one really big mistake here. After Chris offered an extra headlamp, instead of checking my own, which had been in my bag all day, I said we were fine, plus I had my charger. About 15 miles later, I would come to seriously regret not checking…my light was dead. Maybe it had turned on in my bag during the day, or maybe on the way to Kansas, but regardless, the thing was completely dead. And while I’d been told you could run and charge it at the same time, this was also bad information. Not good. I felt terrible. Here I was with a tiny blinky, and while Matt thankfully also had a commuter, I was going to be really slow on those rocky descents with no proper light.
Thus began the last 50 miles — still windy — of moving steadily away from the light of Emporia, only to know we’d turn back and have to ride the distance again. I’d plug in my light and charge it for half an hour or so, then throw it on the bars to ride with it until it died. Then try to ride in Matt’s beam or just behind him as it charged again. Repeat the pattern. It was exceedingly frustrating, and I knew I was slowing us down. I had no idea what time it was. But I knew we were going to finish. Just look for the stakes with reflective tape, turn, and keep riding.
We leapfrogged with groups of riders again, and occasionally, you’d look back and see a bright row of white lights coming down a hill in the darkness. It was mostly overcast, but at one point we stopped and were able to see stars through a break in the clouds. This moment was thanks to Butch Johnson, who told us if we went too fast, we’d miss the beauty of the stars in the Flint Hills.
We pulled into the small town of Americus, 8 miles from the finish, to a substantial group trying to find their way through town. We pushed on, and Emporia looked ever closer while looking so far away at the same time. Finally, we hit pavement. The end of the gravel. But then we came to a highway, and the arrow on the pavement made it look like we needed to go straight down a driveway. So we did. And it was, in fact, a driveway. Backtrack, back to the pavement, and down through the campus.
It was all downhill and surreal to be riding through the empty and well-lit campus at night. Then we were on Main Street, and we could hear people cheering. We’d done it. I still had no idea what time it was, but I was amazed that there were people out and ringing cowbells, welcoming us to the finish line. We pulled into the finishing chute to a handshake from race director Jim Cummins, and a big flash photo from Eric Benjamin. When I found out it was AFTER 2:30 AM, I was absolutely stunned. They were still there.
These photos, taken by Eric Benjamin, say it all. The care of a race director to still be there, the die hard crowd in the background, and the beaming smile of accomplishment.
And then there’s the photo below, taken by Corey. After finishing hours earlier — in time to make the Race the Sun cut-off — he had come down to pick us up so we didn’t have to ride back to the hotel. What. A. Friend. We were so happy to see him.
That’s when the tears started. I had done it. I’d spent 20 hours on the bike, a long shot from the planned 16, but when you’re faced with something like 130 miles of 30 mph headwind, well, you’re just happy you did it. To our luck and surprise, Jimmy John’s was still open, right at the finish line, and we inhaled sandwiches before heading back to the hotel for showers and a quiet victory beer.
It’s been over a week — almost two — since this happened, and the images are still rolling through my mind. The processing of what it means to me is still not all that clear. I’d never ridden that far or that long in one stretch. I’d never ridden that much at night. I’m lucky to have such tremendous friends. And I love what riding a bicycle has done for my life. The smile really does say it all. Thank you.
And here’s My Week #215, where you can see and hear just how windy it was…
Field School in a week filled with thunderstorms, then embarking on and finishing the Dirty Kanza 200.
Most excellent report, and congratulations on your finish.
Also, that Matt Wills is a man among men.
CONGRATS again Liz! I was equally glad that Jimmy Johns was still open when I rolled in! Not sure what I ate, nor does it matter…
You amaze the hell out of me, Grindcore. What a fantastic effort and epic ride. Thanks for sharing your adventure so vividly. I wish I had your knack for gravel. I can surely relate to pushing beyond boundaries and discovering the joy in the agony. Congratulations and well done!