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The Yellow Brick Road is Made of Gravel: Dirty Kanza 2016

GRIT.  GRAVEL.  GRIND.  FIND YOUR LIMIT. 

“We’re off to see the wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
We hear he is a whiz of a wiz, if ever a wiz there was
If ever, oh ever a wiz there was, The Wizard of Oz is one because
Because, because, because, because, because
Because of the wonderful things he does
We’re off to see the wizard, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
do do do do do do do do do do…”-Wizard of Oz

COURAGE, BRAINS AND A HEART:  The underlying theme of the Wizard of Oz is built on self-sufficiency as Dorothy journeys to the Emerald City, home of the great Wizard who can grant all wishes.  On her way, she befriends the Scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin man who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who is in the need of courage.  Once they arrive in the Emerald City, they realize that they themselves are capable of all of the real magic.  It is one of America’s greatest best-loved homegrown fairy tales.  As I signed up in January for the Dirty Kanza 200, I wondered if my first Dirty Kanza would end in a fairytale at the “Gravel Emerald City of Emporia”?

HISTORY OF DIRTY KANZA:  Dirty Kanza (DK) began in 2006 with 38 entrants in a hotel parking lot and has grown to 1,900 courageous participants in 2016.  IMG_3526There are 4 self supported route options available to participants:  Fun ride at 22.8 miles, Lite at 48.4 miles, Half-Pint at 100 miles and the granddaddy with 206 miles.  Dirty Kanza 200 is a self supported 206 mile (329km) ultra cycling gravel race through the Flint Hills of Kansas.  In 2016, participants came from 40 states and 10 countries, including both amateur and professional racers Ted King, Tim Johnson, Brian Jensen, Dan Hughes and Lyne Bessette (Olympic Cyclist) and Rebecca Rusch (a.k.a The Queen of Pain) to tackle the gravel “Cave of Pain”.  Although there may be varying level degrees of athletic ability at the start, it seems that everyone has one thing in common, the undying thirst for adventure and exploration.  Professional racers and amateurs all line up to begin with the same competitive spirit and desire to push their limits in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

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Dirty Kanza 200 start:  Photo courtesy of Dave Leiker.

grav·el
ˈɡravəl/
noun
  1. a loose aggregation of small water-worn or pounded stones.
    synonyms: pebbles, stones, grit, aggregate, shingle

    “two truckloads of gravel”

PRELUDE TO GRAVEL: The Kanza seed was planted for me back in 2013.  I remarked to friend and fellow rider in my club, Rich Aycock, about “this gravel event in Kansas that was 200 miles.”  Like the Tinman in search of a heart, the thought of doing an event in an area I had never been to was intriguing and I started out riding gravel prior to moving to road cycling, so the lure was there as soon as I heard of it.  It would take me a few years to make it to Emporia for my first Dirty Kanza 200.  I really wanted to do it 2015, but my brevet schedule to qualify for Paris-Brest-Paris did not allow it.  I recall watching the reports of the event very closely in 2015, intrigued by the challenge of 200 miles, fully self supported on challenging gravel terrain.   As a virgin randonneur in 2015, this style of cycling was very appealing to me.  In the fall 2015, I knew I would make it to Emporia in 2016 to tackle the prestigious Dirty Kanza, also known as the World’s Premier Gravel Grinder. The event has become a leader in the cycling industry, being featured in the most prominent cycling and adventure magazines.  The 1,900 slots were sold out in 2 hours when registration opened in January.

I Ride for Her video

ARRIVING IN KANSAS:  I arrived in Emporia the evening before the race with good friend and gravel junkie, Anthony Wozniak.  We traveled the 10 hours from Chicago to Emporia.  Tony and myself trained since January for DK and were excited for the adventure.  When we arrived, there was an All Things Gravel Expo for the afternoon where sponsors could showcase their products in addition to rider orientation.  The rider orientation took place in Emporia Granada Theater and was led by Jim Cummins, Executive Director of Dirty Kanza.  From this well orchestrated orientation, it was apparent that the town, locals, and Dirty Kanza Productions had a great deal of pride for their event.  The passion was palpable the moment you turned onto Main Street Emporia.  During the rider orientation, there was even a guest speaker, Tom Richie, who was a landowner, rancher and former endurance athlete who came out to explain proper rancher etiquette in riding through the Flint Hills.  Additionally, Rebecca Rusch and Yuri Hauswold (DK winner 2015) spoke and gave us all a pre-race gravel pep talk.

WHY RIDE THE FLINT HILLS OF KANSAS? The Flint Hills of east-central Kansas are 4% of the remaining tallgrass prairie left in the world, the only remaining natural tract of natural tallgrass prairie in North America.  The rolling hills and terrain are serene and celebrate the beauty of the Midwest and Kansas specifically.  The geology of the Flint Hills make it difficult to plow the fields which in turn makes the region so challenging of riding the Dirty Kanza.

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Basically, the route is made up of rough hills of Flint, limestone and shale.  The terrain displays the classic erosional topography of the Flint Hills in which limestone units form flat-topped hills and steep benches on hillsides. Shale units are eroded into more rounded hills and gentler hill slopes.  The lush, green Flint Hills go on forever as you look to the horizon and not see another person or building.  It is definitely a place to get very cerebral.  You have expansive views of tall prairie grass and hills combined with wildlife including vultures, tortoises, cattle and wild mustangs.  You are alone out there, all alone with the sound of gravel under you wheel and wind at your ear.

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Horizons are not boundaries in the Flint Hills of Kansas.

My DIRTY KANZA STEED AND SET UP:   Like the Scarecrow, I needed to work and strategize my bike set up and drop bags for this ultra event.  My steed for the Dirty Kanza was a Salsa Warbird built up by Bob Olsen and his team at Wheel Werks in Crystal Lake, Illinois.  I upgraded from Tiagra to Shimano Ultegra components with a 46/36 front cog with rear cassette at 11/32.  My wheel and tire combination were tubeless Teravail Cannonball 700×38 tires on DT Swiss R24 wheels with disc brakes.  Additionally, I had Pedal Shimano Deore XT cleats with a Cobb Dirt Plus saddle.

My bike packing gear included Revelate design bags (made in Alaska):  Pika, 1/2 frame bag, TT handlebar bag  and one feedbag.  My lighting system was a Gemini Duo LED Light set with 1500 lumens (on high setting).  The weight of my bike alone (no bags or lights) was 24 lbs; all of 4 bikepacking bags loaded with my equipment came to an extra 6 lbs, and including the 5 filled water bottles I was carrying with me on the bike (two,  25 ounce; two, 22 ounce and one 20 ounce bottles) the total weight of my bike and gear fully loaded put me at 35 lbs.

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Salsa Warbird:  Orange Crush ready to battle the Flint Hills.

CONTROLS:   The 206 mile route has 3 checkpoints or controls as we call them in randonneuring. There are time limits to reach checkpoint and they were: Leg 1 from Emporia to Madison at mile 48; Leg 2 from Madison to Eureka with 54.7 miles (total miles 102); Eurkeka to Madison with 58.8 miles (total miles 161.5 miles) and then the finish from Madison back to Emporia with 44.9 miles (206.4 total miles.) The rules of the event via the Dirty Kanza Rider’s Bible are each individual is fully unsupported between check points.  If you have assistance or a team, they can meet you at the respective controls,  but you are on your own in between the checkpoints.  Both Tony and myself did not have any rider support there but had signed up for support provided by Dirty Kanza for a fee of $75 to benefit the Never Let Go Fund.  The organization is a 501 (c)3 established to support local Emporia families while their child is undergoing cancer treatment. For the fee, they would have our drop bags at each checkpoint with additional water and some supplemental food.  I was glad to have their assistance and donate towards such a worthy cause.

MY RIDE GOAL:  My goal for the DK200 was to ride a 12 mph average (including checkpoint stops) and finish at 11:00 pm.  Although my training was not what I would have liked heading into this event,  I gained an advantage in my determination, perseverance and a strong mental will.  I knew riding in this different region would present challenges I was not used to, so pacing was going to be key to finishing the challenging distance.  I went to bed the night before well rested and excited for the gravel adventure in the morning.

THE MORNING OF DIRTY KANZA (Saturday, June 4th):  Mother nature would have her way.  I woke up at 3:30am to a thunderstorm.  This was going to make things even more interesting.  I recall hearing the stories from 2015 hoping the storm wouldn’t wreak too much havoc on the course.  I learned in randonneuring not to worry about the weather and arrive prepared for anything.  So I went back to sleep until 4:30 am.  The weather forecast was projected to be fair with 83F with 11-14 mph winds with a steady headwind to be a factor in the second half.

Tony and I arrived at the start at 5:15 am and it was a beautiful site.  The Granada Emporia Theater was all lit up and cyclists were everywhere.  The nervous energy filled the Emporia air.  The excitement was palpable, with racers mingling and wishing each other luck in their DK200.  People were commenting on other bike set ups, if this was your first time at Dirty Kanza, and asking if were you going to try to “Race the Sun” as a personal goal.  Race the sun is a prestigious award in the Dirty Kanza 200 for those who complete the 206 mile race before 8:42 pm. Those who complete that (usually around 10%) receive a special custom print of the event similar to the belt buckle given to finishers in the Leadville 100 MTB race.  It seemed that everyone was on a voyage of self discovery and adventure in Emporia.  My goal was to not “Race the Sun” but compete against myself in the 206 miles of gravel ahead of me.  It was basically a 331 kilometer gravel brevet and I was racing the clock to finish.

Five minutes to go.

Computer on.  Check.

Gear good.  Check.

Pre-Kanza selfie with my gravel cycling partner-in-crime Tony. Check.

As I waited for the countdown, one quote came to my mind.  I deeply inhaled, exhaled and remembered what Emily Dickerson once said, “The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience.”  My soul was ready, time to see if my body was as well.

Countdown with five, four, three, two, one…

Ready, set, go…

944 of us on the Dirty Kanza 200 starting line were off on our adventure into the Flint Hills.  We rolled out neutral for 2 miles with fans lining the street, cheering all of us on with cowbells galore.  Then the neutral roll out stopped with a bottleneck at mile 2 as we hit the gravel a few miles out.  The thunderstorm and rain left this area with 1 foot of standing water.  It seemed like small rivers had formed from the storm that rolled through at 3 am.  Hundreds of people began dropping off to the side of the road immediately from problems with their derailleur snapping off, chain’s being dropped or flats. The first section of the course was a muddy reprise with sections of peanut butter mud. It was a cycling war zone, I termed it “Derailleur Alley”.  There were many casualties here so early on. I remember saying to my bike, “Come on Orange Crush, just keep moving forward.  You can do it…you can do it.”

I geared low and kept pedalling through the casualties carefully and diligently.  I was thankful to navigate through those challenging few miles unscathed with any mechanicals so early on.  Fortunately, after those few miles at the low lying farm grounds of Emporia, there weren’t any other mud ponds to get through early on.  Well, there were three river crossings to deal with, but more on that later.

The scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin man who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who is in the need of courage…

SECTION 1 from Emporia to Madison, 48 miles.  As I moved through the first section of the course towards the Flint Hills to Madison, I felt confident of the day ahead and what I was going to see and began to ride through cattle pens.  As we moved farther south the area became more remote and beautiful.  We rode through Nation’s Ranch, established in 1900.  My Salsa Warbird was performing flawlessly and I was extremely happy about this, especially with the carnage I experienced so early on. I was hoping this would continue on my Dirty Kanza journey.

The Flint Hills are vast, rugged and remote.  They make one feel so small and insignificant.  It is simply pure, untouched, underdeveloped beauty.  I felt like it was the closest thing to flying without even leaving the ground.  I was riding in a painting, where the sky and grass come and melt together in a sea of green and blue.  It was so picturesque, I only wish the pictures would do it the justice it deserves.  At mile 30, I came upon Texaco hill which really woke my legs up with some steps sections.  It was as if Dirty Kanza was waking me up to the challenges ahead.

At mile 39 I hit the first of 3 river crossings on the 200 course, the Verdigris River.  I knew I would not be able to ride the river crossing.  As I entered the water to cross, it felt so good and re-energizing to my feet.  The crossing also allowed me the opportunity to wash off the mud from my rear derailleur.  The view was quite interesting heading into and out of the crossing.

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Verdigris River: Mile 39

As I moved along the course towards the first control in Madison (mile 48),  the temperature continued to climb towards 93 degrees, it was getting hot out there.  So much warmer than the projected temperature.  As I arrived at the first checkpoint, I headed over to get my first drop back to refuel and re-pack my bags for the next leg.  There was a mechanic stand there and I had them take care of my derailleur while I went to quickly refuel to get on the bike.  This first stop was around 15 minutes in total time spent there.  And then I was off towards the second checkpoint in Eureka.

PEDAL…SMILE…REPEAT…

The scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin man who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who is in the need of courage…

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SECTION 2 from Madison to Eureka, 54.7 miles (102.7 total miles): This is where things began to get rough with the temperatures continuing to rise and the strong headwinds we encountered for the next 50-60 miles.  This section brings out the true iconic Flint Hills with the very large Flint Hill gravel with 2 inch pieces of bolders at times. There was a large portion of double track regions where the line you choose mattered more than the draft, with razor sharp pieces of flint in the center of the track.  Additionally, you were unsheltered as there were few trees on the route to provide any shade or shelter from the wind.  With the terrain, there were fist size rocks you had to push up which made the climbing up a hill more difficult and descending even more challenging.  Attrition is important at this time, staying ahead of hydration, nutrition and pacing are key to keep moving.  RFM (also known as Relentless Forward Movement) is key.  This is where my randonneuring experience played in perfectly where I have learned to try to be smarter than my plan.  I have also come to realize that where you feel that you are prepared, really be prepared to surprise yourself as anything can and will happen.  Like the Cowardly Lion, I was constantly  fine tuning my courage for the ongoing adventure…

PEDAL…SMILE…REPEAT…

 The 2nd leg towards Eureka had a quite a bit of climbing with long climbs that seemed to stretch to the sky. The fist size rock made the hard climbs even more challenging, combined with the 15 mph headwind.  There was hardly a tree on the course and no clouds in the sky to get any reprieve from the heat.  I kept pushing towards the second checkpoint in Eureka at mile 102 with the strong headwind continuing to beat me back from Emporia.  I wasn’t going to be denied ‘da Kanza and I kept moving forward.

HEAT.  WIND. HILLS.

HEAT.  WIND. HILLS.

PAIN IS CERTAIN. SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL.

 PEDAL. SMILE. REPEAT.

PAIN IS CERTAIN.  SUFFERING IS OPTIONAL.

HEAT.  WIND. HILLS.

THIS IS KANSAS.

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THESE ARE THE FLINT HILLS.

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THIS IS DIRTY KANZA.

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Teter Rock Hill

THIS IS THE LURE OF GRAVEL.

“…Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more…” -Carry on Wayward Son, Kansas

 SECTION 3 from Eureka to Madison, 58.8 miles (161.5 total miles):  I arrived at checkpoint #3 back in Madison again with 161 miles being completed, feeling tired but confident on finishing.  My time through the checkpoints was getting longer due to my fatigue but I was optimistic I would finish.  Although there were dark moments, they were few as I believed in myself and my ability to finish.  I was not having any mechanical problems with my bike, my nutrition seemed to be on key as well as my hydration. As the ride continued, the only problem I was having was with my cleats.  I was having an extremely difficult time getting out of my cleats.  It felt like my shoes were cemented in my cleats.  I did have to stop to adjust my cleats and wash my clips off with water at the final river crossing and that did help a bit as well as loosening up my pedals so I could get out of them.

The scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin man who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who is in the need of courage…

This 3rd section of the route included new roads never experienced before in a Dirty Kanza 200 with a strong north-west wind on an extremely hot day.  Keep pedaling, keep moving I kept saying to myself.  There were also 2 additional creek crossings that were helpful in cooling off a bit at mile 129 (Tar Creek also known as Rocky Ford) and then again at mile 138.  The 3rd creek crossing was slippery from moss covering the rocks and had a big step off in the middle.  I took it slow walking through.  As you can see, I enjoyed the crossing and soaked in the experience of all of this gravel festival and it’s treasures…

SECTION 4 from Madison back to Emporia, 44.9 miles (206.4 total miles):  As sunset came near, the temperature began to drop to provide much needed relief from the heat.  The wind also began to decrease. See, there was an advantage in not “Racing the Sun” after all…smile.  This section of the course brought in nice rolling hills with a majestic sunset to an amazing day of gravel riding as the moon lit up the sky.

As we lost daylight, the descents did become more challenging with the rutty, rocky downhills.  I was thankful to have the lighting system which allowed me to switch from 400 lumens to 1,500 lumens for better visibility on the downhills.  My lighting system worked well, my Salsa Warbird was performing well but I was getting tired.  I kept talking to myself and saying”must keep pedaling and keep moving towards the finish in Emporia.”  It was gritty determination.  I saw my goal ahead of me, that was clear to me.  I worked hard to keep the negative voices at bay as they can become troublesome and wreck havoc when you start getting tired, fatigued and broken down. Time to get back to my motto when things get tough…

PEDAL. SMILE. REPEAT.

One pedal stroke at a time towards Emporia on the yellow brick road of gravel.

The scarecrow who wants a brain, the Tin man who desires a heart, and the Cowardly Lion who is in the need of courage…

With no mechanicals and no flats, I reached the finish line at 20:20:30 to complete my Dirty Kanza 200.  944 of us lined up on the Dirty Kanza 200 starting line.  553 finished, a finishing rate of 58.6%.  91 racers “Raced the Sun” and finished before sunset.

My Dirty Kanza 2016 fairytale was complete 20:20:10 hours after I started.  I was one of 54 women to finish the 200K distance.  I had a coveted Dirty Kanza 200 finish in the “Gravel Emerald City of Emporia.”

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Dirty Kanza 200 2016 Finish Line

 

You see, I firmly believe that Dirty Kanza was gracious on me. The 206 miles should never be underestimated with the sun, heat, strong headwind, creek crossings and challenging unrelenting wash boarded terrain.  Andrea Cohen, Salsa sponsored rider once said, “The Dirty Kanza will try to decide your fate, but it is always up to you to decide how to conquer it.”

I conquered Dirty Kanza 200.

I survived Dirty Kanza 200.

I had revealed yet another limit on the gravel Flint Hills of Kansas.  And yes, I was super proud.  I took a deep breath as I crossed the finish line to accept my 200 finisher’s cup and sticker.  I allowed my accomplishment to settle in as I climbed up the ladder to sign my name to the Dirty Kanza 200 finishers board…

“…Carry on my wayward son,
For there’ll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don’t you cry no more…” -Carry on Wayward Son, Kansas

IN RETROSPECT:  Dirty Kanza is a quality life enriching experience that extends beyond the bike.  It also significantly contributes to the local community at large.  The event, people and atmosphere makes me think of my local grassroots cycling organization Axletree and what amazing things that they are doing. It seems to me that the gravel cycling community is unique in that a consistent thread is servant leadership to the local community.  It is also more than “a race” or an event, it is a subculture (like an adventure cycling cult) that exists to bring all disciplines of cycling together in search for adventure.  Road, mountain biking, randonneuring, cyclocross, triatheletes, come and drink from the Gravel Growler.

Come one, come all to the lure of gravel.

Gravel seems to be the melting pot of cycling.  It is a sub culture growing exponentially in the cycling market.  There is camaraderie.  It has a luscious lure to it.  It is so inviting and intoxicating.  It allows you to get off the grid and slide through the “in-between” for awhile.  It is you against the competitors, the obstacles of the challenging terrain, the environment, and most importantly, it is the competition against yourself as the true finish line.

It is simply gravel.

It changes you.

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There is magic that exists in Dirty Kanza that you will only know if you experience it.  I believe that once you complete one, you are forever part of the Kanza Family.  I am proud to be a part of this family now with the scarecrow’s  brain, the Tin man’s heart, and the Cowardly Lion’s courage.  You see, once you arrive in the “Emerald City of Dirty Kanza”, you realize that you are capable of all of the real magic.  All of the 1,900 participants of the Dirty Kanza displayed that they are capable of the real magic within them as they pushed themselves to find their limit at the Dirty Kanza.

As with all ultra endurance events, it is analogous to a crystal clear mirror showing you exactly as you are. They are unrelenting and so gratifying at the same time.  Ultra gravel cycling is self challenge and growth realized through the pedal strokes of 206 miles of gravel in the Flint Hills.

Dirty Kanza was epic.

It was life enriching.

It is gravel.

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Vanderkitten Gravel Gladiator

Until the next adventure my friends…pedal, smile, repeat….

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