“Everybody has plans until they get hit.” (Mike Tyson, October 1987)
As we begin the tight turn off the pavement onto the gravel road, a cyclist is standing on the shoulder struggling with his chain and it’s obvious from the dirt and scrapes on the handlebars and the rider that he went down. He remounts and the bike is protesting even being ridden – Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! as the chain can’t hold any cog for more than a second.
It’s one mile into the race.
The alarm goes off at 3, the agreed-upon wake-up time and I lay in bed as I listen to no one else waking up. Not that I was sleeping anyway. I’m up in the open loft of this big 3 story AirBnB that Megan found. Note to self: don’t be the last person to show up to a shared house because you’ll end up sleeping in an open loft on a five-foot futon, which sort of sucks if you’re a six-foot human. I’m happy i’ve lucked into staying with friends from cyclocross- Stew and Megan, who own The Bike Shop of Winter Haven, and a number of their friends and customers- Dale, Webb, Tara, Ben, and Jonathan and his wife, Ashley.
Eventually someone meanders into the kitchen, and I force myself off the air mattress that Jonathan was kind enough to lend me, and go downstairs to begin shoveling calories into my face. I still feel heavy from the pizza and burritos and Jimmy Johns (and one pancake, thanks Stew!) from dinner last night. The two bowls of oatmeal does not sound particularly good right now, but I manage most of it, knowing i’ll likely be burning enough calories that i’ll need it. Pretty soon, everyone is up and prepping for our roll-out at five for the six a.m. start. I’m not so sure we really need to ride the 3 miles to the start of a 200 mile race and I am quite certain I wont want to ride the 3 miles back afterward, but that’s what everyone wants to do. C’est la vie! I did a pretty good job of packing everything for the bike and pit crew van the night before, so I take my time and try to stay calm. It’s been a very long time since i’ve felt nervous before a race!
Everyone else is feeling the nerves too, I think, and we all mostly do a good job of being kind to each other and keeping the snark to a minimum, though it comes through occasionally (like when there’s four bathrooms and eight nervous racers).
I get dressed and go to put my contacts in, and am happy I brought a backup pair since somehow one of them is torn in half. Not a good omen! I get the backup lens out of the pit van and hope that if I lose one, it’s the one with a backup. I’m also amazed that my sunglasses are apparently sitting on my dresser. In Florida. Thankfully I packed backups for those, too. I decide to go with a summer baselayer and arm coolers; it’s in the mid-sixties right now but forecasts to get pretty warm and then we’ll get hit with afternoon thunderstorms. Rainjacket gets packed in the camelbak, as does the mudstick, which I recently learned is necessary to deal with scraping away the Kansas mud that is like soft, wet potter’s clay. It’ll tear derailleurs straight off, as so many racers learned at Kanza two years ago. It’s been raining for weeks, and a lot of the midwest is severely flooded; I saw a lot of flooding just on the drive from Kansas City.
Another exciting tidbit I learned the day before was that we needed to cover our water bottles to protect us from wet road spray – the heavy rains would wash effluent onto the roads and apparently it’s bad to drink cow shit.
After three visits to make offerings to the ceramic race gods, I was as ready as I thought I could be and met everyone in the garage and we began to ride to the start. Ben, probably the smartest of all of us, got dropped on the easy ride in to town as he was quite intent to stick to his 140 watt max. Be like Ben. Ben is smart. I thought I was smart, too, and had a simple plan of ‘just keep pedaling’. Even if it’s 5mph, keep moving forward, and ‘Just Keep Pedaling’. We arrived in downtown Emporia and made our way to the start corral (or the porta-potties for some of us) and Stew, Jonathan, Dale and I stuck ourselves in between the 12 and 14 hour corral. That was optimistic, but the idea was that we would be spared having to work past riders on the tight gravel roads. We were right in front of the big church, which kindly had opened up their doors for us to take advantage of the restrooms. Dale went first and I watched his bike, and I met a gentlemen on a older Moots Psychlo-X. This wasn’t his first Kanza, and at first I was impressed he was riding cantilever brakes until I realized that all of five years ago, that was still the norm.
Dale returned and we switched places so I could run in to the church. The nice gentleman at the door was greeting every racer as we came in and I hope he knew how much we appreciated him being there so early and letting us in! Though, he was probably confused why I came right back in five minutes later to use his facilities again. Nerves. . .
The start finally goes off, and we begin the neutral roll out of town. I was really surprised how aggressive some riders were being. Such a long race, and it was as if they were going to lose a chance to meet Elvis if they weren’t up front. Shooting through gaps of riders as if they were in the last lap of a crit, shoving their way through groups. . . I was sad for them. If you weren’t fast enough to get a call-up, guys, you probably don’t need to worry about the break of World Tour riders going up the road. Eventually I got worried some dummy would end my race early and so I put out some pointy elbows and tried my best to protect my space.
We were rolling along pretty swiftly, and I lost Jonathan in the crowd, but did my best to stay near Stew and Dale. Onto that first dirt section and past that unfortunate rider, Stew and Dale were about 50 yards ahead of me and I wanted to try to stay with them, but after my Dirty Pecan experience I knew if Stew was gonna go hard, that I was better off riding my own pace. Every sixty seconds or so I would pass someone on the side of the road dealing with mechanicals or flats. Stew and Dale weren’t getting further away, so I began surfing riders that were passing me and hitched enough rides to reconnect with them. For all but a few moments, the next 50 miles would pass with me on Dale’s wheel, and Dale on Stew’s. I was worried Stew was frying himself, but was happy to have a free ride behind a diesel!
So much fun. The gravel roads can be challenging, but my bike was simply perfect for this type of terrain. I had the luck to be riding the new Moots Routt YBB, and on these roads, this bike was simply a pig in shit. I really love my Psychlo-X, but it was definitely out of it’s element when I had loaded it down with tons of bottles and bags and accessories for some of the other gravel rides I’ve done.
The Psychlo-X is a cyclocross race machine, and that is what it is really good at. The right tool for the right job, right? And the more i’ve been able to ride the Routt, the more i’ve really been able to discern those differences that seem so small when you’re staring at a geometry chart. Ample tire clearance was a necessity because if that rain had continued, i’d need room for the mud build-up. Longer wheelbase and chain stays made for confident descending on some pretty sketchy gravelly roads. (And I’m a Floridian, so my descending skills end at the end of my driveway.) And that new addition to the Routt lineup, the YBB rear mini-suspension, took out the violence of those potholes.
Stew was actually keeping it easy on the climbs (thankfully) but the ups and downs of Kansas are relentless. It’s either a climb or a descent. The only flats were the riders I was still seeing every few minutes on the side of the road. You could also tell how rough a road was by how many bottles were strewn about. I even saw tubes and nutrition all over the place- and I thought, only partially jokingly, that next year I don’t need to pack anything- I can just live off what I find along the route. (Thankfully, the organizers have a group ride called Klean Kanza to pick up this refuse a week later.) We pass one poor guy who looks frazzled, dealing with an upside-down bike. As we riders should do, I call out to see if he needs anything, and he replies ‘tube!’, and I make a note not to ask anyone else if they need anything as we ride on.
We passed some people, and then passed them again a few minutes later because we had to stop four times to pee in the first hour. Some of us tried to pee off the side of the bike at speed, as is fairly easy to do on pavement. Not so on gravel roads, and after Stew soaked his shoe we thought the few seconds lost pulling over to the side and stopping was worth it. I guess chugging a bottle of water 10 minutes before the start wasn’t the wisest decision. But, my plan was to save the camelbak for after the first checkpoint so I would be spared the hassle of refilling the reservoir and could have a speedier transition. So aside from the chugged bottle, I had two 26 oz bottles on the frame, a 20oz bottle in my jersey pocket, and a backup bottle mounted by the bottom bracket if needed. For nutrition I had made 20 Skratch labs rice cakes the night before, and had four for the first leg, nine for the second leg, and then five for the final push to the finish. I also had assorted skratch gummies, some honey stinger gels, and some clif bars if I needed variety.
On one of the short paved sections I caught up to Jayson, from gravelcyclist.com and exchanged hellos. He said have fun, as he’d be taking it easy and riding a relaxed pace. Jayson is smart. Be like Jayson. And keep an eye out for his video review soon!
The roads are tons of fun; the descents can be exciting, but as long as you aren’t too close to the rider in front and have a clear view of the road, it wasn’t too scary. The excitement usually came from (quickly) catching up to people descending conservatively. There’s no ‘yellow line rule’ on gravel roads, and so safely passing people could be challenging. I was glad I had put a bell on the bike. Sometimes you’d have a very heavily rutted section that could be worrisome, and if you were unlucky enough to fall into the rut you would need to be very focused on not hitting the 8 inch walls, which would very quickly remove you from your bike.
The gravelking tires we are all running are great; I will note that they do have a propensity to grab pebbles and rocket them up into the face of the person behind. I needed sunglasses early in the race less as protection from the sun but more from projectiles. I even kept my buff up over my nose on less dusty roads to save me from literally eating the road. I guess I was lucky; the 40c tires I was running were awesome. Stew was running the same tires, though narrower to fit his Cannondale SuperX frame; the SuperX was a popular choice for lots of riders (like the EF Education Cannondale pros). The Routt YBB I was riding was simply flawless; everything worked perfectly, nothing gave me issues, and I’m pretty sure I may have been the only racer riding a Campagnolo equipped bike. That’s too bad. . . though, I will say that maybe next time I will run shorter gearing – I had thought midcompact chainrings and an 11-28 would be fine, as it worked for the mountains in Georgia. It was not fine in Kansas.
I’d trained as well as I think I could have. I lucked out when my friend Mitch was up for a lot of Sunday hundred milers. He and I and another friend, Bob, also went out a week before Kanza and did a solid 75 on the gravel around lake apopka, where I had a chance to give the new Moots Routt YBB a good shakedown run. The bike was flawless there, just like it would be in Kansas. But, like Iron Mike’s quote, all the training and planning can only go so far. . .
Eating is surprisingly difficult on gravel roads. Opening a wrapped rice cake and eating with one hand on the bars on a gravel road could be very stressful. Every 45 minutes my Garmin 830 would shout at me that it was time to eat, and luckily I never had a mishap, though I would usually need to catch back up to Dale and Stew after losing their wheel because I was concentrating on eating and steering with one hand and not crashing. I was doing well with my hydration, too.
About 5 miles or so from the first checkpoint, on one of the climbs, I felt a stab of pain in my gut, and noticed how bloated I was feeling. I hoped the feeling would pass, and pressed on, keeping Dale and Stew in sight. Just Keep Pedaling.
We had a few fun sections, like a water crossing, where everyone was walking through and that seemed like the wise thing to do- maybe the stones were slick. Halfway across, a rider rode past easily and I regretted my choice, and my wet feet.
One climb later and I knew I needed to let them go. The discomfort was getting sharper, and I was sad to see my diesel go on without me. I just needed to get to the checkpoint, get a coke for the sugar and let those magic bubbles settle my tummy down. It was about this time I noticed a rider going the wrong direction. I wondered if they had lost something, or maybe they were a local just out for a ride. Finally we came into the little town of Alma, and at first it looked pretty desolate but then I turned and saw the checkpoint for Kanza. It went on forever! First I saw the purple flags for the for-hire supported riders, and I was directed by some volunteers to continue down to look for my Orange support section, where Ashley would have the van set up. I was surprised to see Stew and Dale coming toward me out of the purple section, as they hadn’t used the for-hire. . .
Block after block of support crews. This was amazing! There were so many people out cheering and supporting riders. I was feeling pretty low those last few miles, and coming into town and being cheered and seeing someone’s toddler daughters made me miss my family, and I was surprised to suddenly feel very emotional. Just keep pedaling.
Blue section, Red section, Green. . . eventually I wondered if I had missed Orange, but here it was, the last one, and I turned in and Ashley was parked on the corner and Jonathan was there already and they called out to me. I came in and mostly just needed a bathroom now, but wanted to try to be efficient, so dropped my empties, picked up fresh bottles, and loaded up my nine cakes, as the next food checkpoint would be in ninety miles. Stew and Dale came in, and while Stew peed on the truck I heard that the volunteers that had been helpful for me had been less so for them. I would have loved to ride with them, but left quickly in search of the port-a-potties. Not so easy to find, actually, and thankfully a bystander directed me to where they were hiding behind some buildings.
I spent some time relaxing in the blue box and when I came out I didn’t really feel much better, but hoped if I just went easy for a while my body would even out. It was time to eat, but the idea of food made me feel nauseous right now, so Just Keep Pedaling. Out of town and back to the gravel roads (the pavement was SO NICE) where another rider passed me going the wrong way. Maybe they forgot something at the checkpoint. Speaking of which, I forgot that coke. Dang. And it’s getting pretty hot now, but I didn’t sunscreen my arms and this sun is cookin’, so I leave the armcoolers up. One rider passes, and he has a speaker blasting music in one of his bottlecages. Normally I am not a fan of music on a ride, but this is a very welcome distraction and I am sad to see him eventually ride away from me. At the top of a climb there was a big wet marshy section, and I hopped off to walk around. Even in the grass, this mud was clinging to me like crazy and I could feel it trying to keep my shoes. I feel elated that the rains had let up and this wasn’t a 200 mile slog through this stuff. It wasn’t too long a section though and I remounted and had to kick the mud clear before I could clip back in. On one climb I am actually catching up to someone! Amazing, considering my pace. He hears me coming, looks over his shoulder at me, and jackknifes sideways right in front of me. I manage to brake and not smash into him, and he sighs ‘Sorry’ as we now walk up the rest of the hill, having lost any momentum and both not in any mood to try remounting.
It’s been an hour since the checkpoint and I know i’ve got to eat. I manage a few Skratch drops, but any more and I am gonna vomit. Even my Skratch hydration isn’t going down very easily. I’m metering my effort and making sure to not top 200 watts, even on the climbs, but my tummy is only getting worse. There’s now some new, sharp pains below my gut that are making their presence known. There’s no shade anywhere. I know I still have 40 miles to the water stop, but I begin to use my precious water to coat the cooling sleeves in an effort to cool off. It works. . .for a minute or two. More climbs, and i’m being passed by riders much more frequently now. That’s ok, i’m not trying to win. Just Keep Pedaling.
Finally a few trees! They are small, and spread out, and the first couple of shady spots are already occupied by riders in different states of distress. One changing a flat, another slumped against the tree. He looks up at me, so at least I know he isn’t dead. Eventually at the top of (another) climb I stop in a shady spot and rest a moment. I force down a few gummies and then do my best to not let my insides go outside. Things are not going well.
After a while, I decide it’s time to press on. More hills, and my trusty garmin alerts me to each of the rated climbs along the route- it seems like 7 or 8 of the 10 rated climbs are all frontloaded into the first 100 miles to the route, which i’m not sure is either nice or mean. As i’m walking up another I decide ‘mean’. And then another rider comes by going the wrong way. How is someone way out here? There’s literally nothing, so it can’t be a local, and why would a racer go back? I’m walking climbs now, as 150 watts seems an impossible task, and these climbs need like double that just to get up them. It’s so hot, too, and finally I give up and yank off the arm coolers and wowww that is so much cooler now. Shoulda done that forever ago. I’m gassy now, too. At least, I hope it’s gas. But I really don’t care either way.
More (slow) miles pass and I still can’t eat. And my power meter is telling me that at
this effort i’ll finish sometime in August. Pouring precious water over my head feels nice for a
moment, but i’m starting to realize the math here is adding up to me quitting this race, which
seemed impossible this morning. I was gung-ho about death before dishonor, but when faced
with what was beginning to feel like actual death, began to reconsider that idea. Another long
false flat I was managing to ride and then I saw a group of cars at the top, and some
When I reached them, I saw two dejected riders sitting on the roadside. This was the turn in to Lil’ Egypt Road, which I had earlier been looking forward to seeing just how gnarly everyone was making it out to be. But I knew my race was over.
I hadn’t eaten anything substantial for over three hours, and was only feeling worse and worse. I sat down to wait for the Jeep to come get me. I texted my wife what I was doing and she asked me to call her, and she did exactly what I would’ve needed her to do in any other instance. She tried to talk me out of quitting, which I love her for, but I had already decided. The spectators kindly lent me a big blanket to protect me from the sun (and from the pitying eyes of the racers passing by) and I sat dejectedly in my little loser-teepee. I felt a little better when I saw that, though i’d been sitting for twenty minutes, my heart rate wasn’t dropping below 100bpm. So at least I probably made the right choice. I watched racers as they navigated the turn and began their descent into Lil’ Egypt Road.
I saw another few wrong-way riders before it finally dawned on me that all day, I had been scowling at the racers of the DKXL, the 350 mile version. Apparently it routes them opposite to our direction. It was pretty humbling to see them, drilling it up and out of the Lil’ Egypt section, already 240 miles into their race.
The rescue Jeep finally found us and got us to checkpoint two, where we would be picked up and ferried back to the start/finish. I made my way to the bathrooms and found my pee to be a fairly unhealthy shade of dark brown. A good a place as any for my first experience with Rhabdomyolosis, I guess. The kind volunteers got me a coke, water, and gatorade, and I heard the nearby crowd cheer, and turned just in time to see a flash of pink and purple- two EF Cannondale riders blasting through the checkpoint. Eventually I was on the way back to the finish line with some other abandoners, and we did our best to keep each other’s spirits up on the long drive. One of them, apparently, was the not-dead guy I had seen slumped against the tree.
I managed to down all the fluids, and once unloaded, felt good enough to try to ride back to the rental house. I also got a hold of Ashley to let her know where I was, and learned that Dale had taken a bad spill and was at the hospital. Something really bad about his knee, apparently. I hoped it wasn’t too bad, and managed to get home (so very slowly) and got in the shower, cleaned up, and laid on the bed and took a good three hour nap.
By the time I woke up I was feeling a little better and managed to eat some crackers, and checked the racer tracking to see that the winner had already finished, and that my friends had at least four more hours before they would. So I nibbled on some food and got the Routt packed up (I think it was mad at me). Eventually I began to feel hungry, and wanted to go hang out at the finish and cheer on riders anyway.
Downtown Emporia was insane. The finish chute was five blocks long, and there were rider’s families and locals lined up on both sides for nearly the whole thing, cheering on exhausted riders. This was really a festival atmosphere; the beer was flowing, there was a ton of food vendors, and there was even a rock climbing wall set up. Cannondale and Rapha were even set up. I’ll admit it wasn’t so much fun at first, watching racers finish and get their medals. But eventually the joyous scene wore off on me (or maybe it was the steak and potatoes from a street grill) and I, too, was reaching out for high-fives from sweaty finishers. The finish-line medics were pretty busy- many people were beaten up and bloody, and every hour or so, the ambulance would cart some poor masochist off to the hospital.
Ashley gave me a ring and let me know she was giving Dale a ride back to the house, and I let her know I would be here to receive Jonathan and Stew. I was watching the race tracker closely, and was sad to see the day had taken its toll on everyone, and they both wouldn’t quite ‘beat the sun’, and would finish around 930 or so. First Jonathan rolled in, looking dirty but pretty fresh, honestly. Pretty incredible that he finished so well, and he had set up his Cannondale SuperX as a singlespeed! I took his bike and he was ready for a beer. After getting him some food, too, we saw Stew come through the finish line. He was not looking so fresh. We got him off his bike and led him to a curb, where he collapsed and continued hallucinating. I wish I had gotten video of him grabbing at imaginary things in the sky. After ten or so moderately worrying minutes, I had a medic come check him out and we pumped him full of coca-cola and snickers. His mind came back to life, though his body maybe only made it halfway back. It was slow going for Mr. Stew.
Ashley arrived in the van and we got our racers back to the house and cleaned up, while we kept an eye on the clock. Our other racers looked like they all had stayed together as a pack and we were all there to welcome them through the finish line sometime after 1:30 am- nearly 20 hours on the road. So proud of them!
We got all the stinky people loaded into the van, and Stew and Jonathan, freshly showered, got in my rental car. I was exhausted, and ready for bed. Stew and Jonathan both excitedly start chanting ‘McDonalds!’ and I was obliged to take my Kanza finishers to the golden arches, where Stew ordered so much food, I actually heard the employees say they were now out of fries.
The big takeaway? I learned I should have stopped at the first checkpoint, cooled off, refueled, and taken my time. But I was still in the mindset of ‘Just Keep Pedaling’, which would be my undoing. Lesson learned, and I hope i’m lucky enough to try again next year!