The Dirty Kanza 200
June 2, 2012
I first heard about the Dirty Kanza 200 from Dan Hughes of Sunflower Outdoor and Bike Shop in Lawrence, KS. I know Dan from various Specialized dealer events and very long rides to Interbike. We have shared many miles together on these rides and he basically wouldn’t shut up about this race and getting me to come to Kansas. Kansas for a bike race? This wasn’t exactly on the top of my hit list of places to visit or ride. His persistence finally wore me down and he submitted my entry while I was busy skiing this winter. Before I knew it, hotels were booked, crew lined up, a shop visit scheduled and I felt too guilty to back out.
The Dirty Kanza (aka DK200) has a bit of a cult following. In the 7 years it’s been running, it has grown from just 36 riders to over 400. It fills up quickly and is gaining momentum as one of the best “gravel grinders” out there. Yeah, I didn’t really know about the whole gravel road riding phenomenon going on around the US but I get it now. I ride my Specialized Crux cyclocross bike around the Idaho dirt roads a fair bit in the Spring before the mountain bike trails open up, but I consider this bike more of a temporary substitute for my single track addiction. I have to admit, racing the DK200 enlightened me to a style of endurance riding that I had not really considered. I had way more fun at this event than I had expected.
I dubbed Dan the “King of the Kanza” because he’s raced it and won it more than anyone. I picked his brain for tips and changed up my Crux to rig it specifically for 200 miles in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The course is known for razor sharp rock and a super varied quality of gravel. Some of the roads were freshly graded, fast and smooth. Others were, well, not smooth at all. I was told to prepare for lots of flats, scorching heat, soul crushing wind and more hills than one would expect. Despite the fact that I come from the mountains of Idaho I still converted to a 50-34 SRAM Force compact crankset for this race. I knew I’d be in the saddle for more than ½ of a day and was worried about turning the cranks over for that long. I also put on my new favorite Specialized Oura saddle and a set of Specialized Trigger Pro 700×38 prototype tires with extra flat protection. The bike really was perfect and I had no equipment issues. I was so thankful for that. The race is hard enough without having to battle your gear.
The expected time on the bike was intimidating. I kept telling myself it was only half of the time I used to race in my 24 hr solos. It has been a long while since I’ve had a day in the saddle that long, so I had to psyche myself up for it. I was worried about being bored on the course, so I had my boyfriend Greg make me a brand new playlist for the Ipod. I am not one of those riders who checks out in a group and I rarely race with music, but I envisioned long hours alone and was concerned about being bored. I was glad to have the music, but the variety and constantly changing terrain are what kept things interesting for me.
The heat in Kansas this time of year can be sweltering, so I planned my hydration and nutrition carefully. Many racers used water bottles, but I elected to go with a Hydrapak for extra fluid carrying capacity and I’m glad I did. In 12 hours, I drank nearly 400 oz of fluid with GU Brew electrolyte drink mixed in. I also planned 4 food bags for each of the four legs of the race that included GU Gels (Roctane and Peanut Butter), Chomps and a few Allen Lim rice bars. My nutrition worked well and allowed me to stay consistent through out the day. With the bike and nutrition dialed, all I had to do was ride 203 miles, right?
The race rolled out at 6 AM and I was dreading the first couple of hours of amped up double pace lining. I sat in, put my head down and kept my mouth shut so the gravel pelting my face wouldn’t crack a tooth. I was rolling along in the top group of about 30 and just barely hanging on. My friend and CTS coach, Jim Lehman even gave me a couple of friendly pushes to keep me in the train. At about 15 miles in, just as I was getting popped off for good, someone realized we’d already taken a wrong turn and we all had to backtrack about 1.5 miles. Not a huge mistake, but add that onto a 200 mile day and it was a bit demoralizing. Back on course, we had to jockey back through almost the entire race field. What made this especially complicated is that these gravel roads only provide two single-track lines to ride on. In order to pass, you had to make aggressive jumps across the middle pile of gravel risking a crash or a flat. It took patience, skill and some huevos to get through the pack and rolling at speed again. This process split the front group significantly, so I was sort of on my own, unsure of how far up the lead pack was. I envisioned that the top guys made a break and still had a small group working together getting a big gap. I jumped from group to group and caught up with some of the other women who’d made the right turn. My strategy had been to hang onto a good group for as long as possible to shelter myself from the wind. The wrong turn put a halt to that strategy and I found myself mostly alone just 90 minutes into a huge day. A multi hour time trial is not what I had in mind, but it’s what I had been dealt. I put my head down and tried to be conservative on the climbs to save my legs and then push a decent sized gear on the flats and descents. I went back to what I know of timing my eating/drinking and pushing myself just to the limit, but not beyond it.
The great thing about the DK200 course is that it’s split into 4 sections of 40-60 miles or so with aid stations along the way. Mentally, that’s better for me to tackle the race in smaller chunks. When I found myself alone, I decided to push pretty hard to aid 1 and see if I could catch up a bit and find a wheel to follow or gap the other women who were now behind me. I was blown away by the excitement and energy in the aid stations. It’s always strange to be alone in your head racing your bike for hours, then to transition to the chaotic stimulus of cheering crews, race staff and fans. I love the aid stations because I get a shot of adrenaline from the people, but it’s always sort of a shock to the system to go from solitude to frenzy and back to solitude again in a matter of minutes. In adventure racing and 24 hr racing style, I kept my pits fast and didn’t get comfy. As a friend said to me a long time ago, “you can run across the hot coals or walk across them.” Better to get it over with.
I didn’t get a sense of where I stood until around aid station 2 (mile 105) where Dan Hughes (King of the Kanza) was rolling out as I was rolling in. Always the sarcastic jokester, he said “I’m in first, so I’m not waiting for you!” I assumed he meant he was in first between the two of us and whatever friendly competition he had going on in his head. I figured I was about 15th or 20th in the overall standings. I had not seen any of the lead group of guys since we took that wrong turn. I laughed at Dan’s comment and wondered if as the defending champion, was he bummed to be so far back in the standings. About 20 miles later, I caught up to another rider and rode with him for about 20 minutes. He stopped, fell back and then I jumped up to one more guy. It was pretty lonely out there and there was no one in sight. I was happy to have a wheel to follow and Rusty was OK with me sitting in. We chatted a bit and he told me that the lead guy was just ahead in the blue jersey. I knew the small speck ahead was Dan. I told Rusty we were not in the lead that there must be a whole other group of at least 10 guys way out in front. I felt badly deflating his bubble, but I had to tell him the truth. What I didn’t know is that Rusty was 100% correct and that I’d passed all of those guys in the transition area without realizing it. It wasn’t until we caught up to Dan at about mile 150 that Dan confirmed we were the top three riders. I nearly fell off my bike with this confirmation that I was riding onto the podium of the most competitive field the Dirty Kanza 200 has ever seen.
I loved being able to ride with my good friend Dan and to have some company for a while. I’d had my nose in the wind for way too long and I really appreciated sitting on a wheel, especially with someone who knew the course. We were all hurting and feeling the affects of 150 miles in the saddle. Things had gone smoothly for all three of us, but we were still hurting and dreaming of the finish line. The closer we got, the more slowly the miles seemed to roll by.
The last aid station at 160 miles was another whirlwind. My CTS coach, Dean Golich was there, Dan’s parents were there, our awesome crew Collin was there. We sat down for a few minutes to refuel and fill up for the final push. The temperatures had reached near 90, which is not that hot for Kansas, but felt plenty hot for this mountain girl. I chugged an ice cold Red Bull and really wanted to dump it on my head as well. Dan told me that we had some big climbs ahead and then mostly flat into the finish town of Emporia. We rolled out as a group of three, but as soon as we hit the climbs, it was clear to me that I wasn’t going to hang with Dan and Rusty. I would have loved to stay with them to have some help on the flats, but the big rollers around mile 170 were just steep enough that pushing to stay with them might have put me over the edge. I had to do my own thing at this point and ride my own pace. I kept myself motivated by watching and the mph on my Garmin 500. My goal had been to keep my average above 15 mph for the whole race, including stops. I played this game for most of the race and when it would drop below 15 mph on the climbs, I’d try to make up for that on the flats and descents. With Dan and Rusty up the road and no one in sight behind me, I settled into my own pace, but tried not to settle too much. The last 20 miles seemed to take an eternity and my fatigue had me worried about taking a wrong turn this close to the finish and losing 3rd place. I tried to focus on the markings, but they seemed scarce or maybe my vision was blurry. More than once, I considered stopping and going back to an intersection to check that I was still on course. Every time I saw someone cheering, I’d ask them if the other riders had gone this way.
I managed to stay on course until about ½ mile from the finish. Dan had told me that the race went through the college campus right at the end in order to keep the racers off the main road. I saw the college, got excited and saw an arrow painted on the ground leading into the campus. I followed it around and around until it started to circle back the way I had come from and said “run course” on the pavement. I might have said a few choice words and then headed back out to where I came from. This diversion probably only took about 2-3 minutes, but it seemed like an eternity and I was bummed that I’d made that mistake so close to the end. I found the correct paint arrows soon after that and headed to the finish line. It was packed and the cheers were overwhelming. It seemed like everyone in the town of Emporia was there. I was kind of blown away with the reception and extremely happy to have finished in the top three overall.
Overall impressions of the DK200 at the end of the day are that it’s one of the best races I’ve ever done. It’s a bit of a mystery as to why it is appealing but it’s a special place and a unique cast of characters that make it totally worthwhile. The riding is a blast and Kansas really is quite nice for riding a bike. Thanks to the King of the Kanza for talking me into this adventure. It was well worth it.
Dan and Rusty rode to a record breaking men’s time of 11:56:01
I was 6 minutes back and finished in 12:02:00 and broke the women’s record!