Observations from a day spent clinging to the lead group in the Dirty Kanza 200. What I ate, what I would have done differently, and will I be back? I can answer the first two queries, but the third is still a question even to me.
In the early afternoon of the first Sunday in June, I wandered slowly down Commercial Street, Emporia, Kansas. Measured steps recalled the efforts of the prior day. The thousands of riders and supporters were mostly gone, returning downtown Emporia to its sleepy Midwestern vibe, but the signs were still everywhere. Though all the stores and most restaurants were closed (it was Sunday, after all), the town's support for its most illustrious event showed prominently in the windows of the Chamber of Commerce, the town museum, and every cafe, eatery, and even pawn shop and tattoo parlor on the main drag.
"Welcome, Kanza Riders", the chalk on the sidewalk read, "DK200 - Good luck!" on windows and doors and sandwich boards left unattended, guarding locked shops like only possible in small, safe towns. And my personal favorite: an old bike, fully clothed in an intricately-crocheted multi-colored sweater, knit number plate simply reading "Damn Crazy".
The Dirty Kanza 200 is a damn crazy event, but my life is rarely described as sane. Two hundred miles of rolling gravel roads, with no course markings, no prize money, and no neutral feeds, just three evenly spaced checkpoints for personal support crews to refuel their unhinged fathers, mothers, children, and friends. In the lead pack, we tore through, grabbing pre-made feed packs, dumping water into empty Camelbaks, and generally spending less than ninety seconds prepping for the next sector. Others took longer; naps are not unheard of, provided a healthy gap is maintained to the rolling 10mph average speed time limit. Over 207 miles, this equated to a final cutoff at 3am, 21 hours beyond the start.
Six in the morning felt early. Real early. I had to teach a class at UC Santa Barbara until 6pm the preceding Thursday, so my only option was to book an overnight flight to Kansas City, via LAX and Houston, arriving mid-morning on Friday. With a bike to build, logistics to sort out, and a photo shoot for Niner Bikes scheduled, there was little time to nap after completing the journey to Emporia. The only upside was that I had no issues at all falling asleep at 10pm Central Time, despite the early hour programmed by my Pacific-timed internal clock.
Unfortunately, six and half solid hours of sleep did nothing to remedy the feeling that the 4:30am alarm was actually the middle of the night for me, which is not the time to eat the substantial breakfast I needed to fuel eleven hours in the saddle. I managed to slam a few Clif Organic liquefied energy food packs, and rolled out on an empty stomach.
Except for a few notable riders flatting, the first one hundred miles were fairly uneventful. Last year's winner and former Pro Tour rider Ted King tore a sidewall right in front of me less than two hours in, and my teammate Zack Allison suffered an unfortunately slow leak just as the group was really starting to thin out around mile 70. Ted caught back on around that point, but quickly flatted again on a shaley descent and never made it back to the front. Neil Shirley also suffered a flat, and Nate Whitman might have flatted or maybe just blew up after unwisely attacking over and over again in the first sixty miles.
I carried three bottles for the first 48 miles, at which point I swapped out for two freshies and my 70oz Camelbak, in addition to grabbing the first of three goodie bags of bars, Bloks, and gel. With no solid food in my stomach, I started on the bars just twenty minutes in and kept eating at around that frequency until my stomach gave up with an hour to go. Over a little under eleven hours, I went through a dozen Clif or Mojo bars, a similar number of packages of Shot Bloks, and at least ten gel packets.
By the second checkpoint, the field of over a thousand had yielded a lead group of just ten. We were rotating well, averaging an astounding 20 miles per hour for the first hundred miles. Small hills momentarily shattered the group at times, but I was quick to remind my fellow strongmen that if we were dropping people at mile 80, imagine how easy we would doing so at mile 150. It was certainly better to have more company.
As I predicted, a small effort from Mat Stephens on a short hill after 130 miles was all it took to dispatch the bulk of the group. I say "small", and at the time it didn't feel that small, but a look at my power profile from the day reveals the uniqueness of such a ludicrous event. My highest 5-minute average power from the entire day was only just barely into the aerobic threshold, and a solid 15 watts under numbers I regularly produce for the entirety of full hour-long climbs in training. Fatigue from the initial gravel century saps peoples' legs and will, and only Jake Wells and I were able to put out enough effort to make the split.
Even though my legs felt good, as soon as the three of us established a gap I quickly found myself in a very dark place. I think the lack of a solid breakfast caught up to me, and the only reason Mat and Jake didn't leave me by the side of the road as I skipped pull after pull was that they quite literally needed me. Somehow neither of the them had the course loaded on their GPS's, so they had to tolerate my wheelsucking for two miserable hours while I slurped caffeinated gels in an attempt to recover from the bonk while hoarsely barking directions from the back of the paceline.
Persevering through the massive bonk and some minor heatstroke caused by the midday temperatures peaking in the eighties, I made it to the final checkpoint. There I rapidly slammed a coke, poured ice down the back of my jersey and a gallon of water over my head, and set out for the final fourty miles.
Though restored by the ice bath, it was apparent at that point that Mat was by far the freshest rider of our tiny lead pack. His clip-on aero bars certainly were part of it; an accessory that didn't even occur to me coming from racing in California. Out west, our gravel grinders are more mountain and less gravel. We race on natural surface Forest Service roads arguably more suited to fat tires than 'cross bikes, with long climbs and technical descents that reward bike handling and climbing ability much more than aerodynamics. The Lost and Found event near Lake Tahoe, which took place during Kanza weekend, was won on a mountain bike and that's not the least bit surprising to me.
The Kanza roads, I found out, are well-maintained and improved gravel roads, with gravel laid down by county works crews and largely smoothed out by rural traffic. These routes are laid out on the standard township and range line grid, so virtually every turn we made was wide and ninety degrees. Occasionally there were creek crossing, but in such a long event nobody had an inclination to risk flats or crashes, so we took them at comically slow speeds. At the risk of offending the Midwestern gravel crew, from a handling perspective Kanza is nothing compared to gravel grinders out west. Multiple guys in the top twenty had aerobars, and I was amazed to see them laid out, casually pedaling on slight downhills in full tuck. Someone showed up to my gravel grinder in April with clip-ons and we mocked him mercilessly, on this day I was the one at the mercy of the wind.
Mat definitely knew this, so with around 30 miles to go he began a series of brutal surges on long straightaways with a slight crosswind. I silently cursed his slippery position, hung on for dear life, and somehow found the strength to pop off ten seconds at over a thousand watts when he attacked trying to dispatch us for good. Alone on the front with Matt, I knew my day would end without victory, so I did my best to just stick with him, until he left me behind for good on the slightest of rises with five miles to go.
I was thoroughly shattered, my stomach tied in knots, unable to eat for the final hour, and cramping in places I didn't know existed. Did you know that if you go hard enough for eleven hours, even your face muscles will cramp? I learned that at Kanza. I think it was Greg LeMond who replied, when asked what it was like to be a professional cyclists, "It doesn't get any easier, you just go faster".
Rolling through town towards the finish, just staying on my bike was a struggle. I had to stop at two stop signs for traffic, and my whole body seized trying to get rolling again. When the finish line finally came in sight, I was totally done. I started high-fiving people in the long finish chute, until a murmur in the crowd caused me to look back and see that Jake had reappeared and was bearing down on me. I gave a half-hearted effort to re-accelerate, cramped again, and went back to high-fiving people as Jake came flying by me. As a professional cyclist, it seems silly in retrospect, but at that point, I did not care one tiny bit. Second... third... what's the difference anyway?
I proceeded to sprawl on the downtown sidewalk in Emporia, alternately sleeping and dry heaving for over an hour, unable to eat and just sipping on a half bottle of water, feeling like I had the flu or the worst hangover of my life. I had ridden 207 miles in ten hours and fifty minutes, averaging a hair over 19 mph while climbing about nine thousand feet in the form of countless thirty second ascents. For the last 70 miles, I rode on pure willpower, which I suppose ran out in the finishing chute. Riders continued to come through that chute until seconds before the 3am cutoff, and I tip my hat to every single one of them for a day well seized.
Epilogue, or How I Know Kanza is Something SpecialSome hours later, I was able to eat again, and eat I did, ordering two appetizers and two entrees that I made quick work of. I packed my bike the next morning, throwing all my wet and nasty items into the bag. As I carried it down the stairs to my rental car, it felt heavy enough that I worried I had exceeded the 50 pound baggage limit, so I took my Camelbak out. But when I weighed it at the airport on Sunday (after eating two more entrees), it weighed just 34 pounds. Either I have a seventeen pound Camelbak, or Kanza really shattered me! Forty eight hours and many entrees after 6am on Saturday, I stepped on my bathroom scale and was to please to find that I was a healthy 192 pounds, two pounds heavier than the morning I left for Kansas.
Looking at this quick video Niner took on Sunday morning, I'm shocked that they let me drive myself to the airport in Kansas City. You can see the exhaustion in my eyes.
Notes on Logistics, Nutrition, and Bike Set UpNUMERO UNO: Menso, if you're reading this in May 2018 and having another ticket to Kansas, CUT YOUR DAMN TOENAILS. My left big toenail was too long, and it will be a casualty of 207 miles spent in otherwise great Giro Empire mountain bike shoes.
You can read about my RLT9 RDO bike setup here, but my takeaways are:
1. Durable 40c tubeless tires are a must
2. At least in the front group at 20 mph, if I do this again I will have aerobars. Doing 15% less work every time I was on the front certainly would have made a huge difference in the end.
3. I was very happy with my gearing. 48/34 up front with an 11-36 11spd cassette covered the full range of light and heavy gears for the day while maintaining the close gaps and cadence control required for what was essentially an absurdly long team time trial.
Nutrition and Logistics
1. I absolutely should have forced myself to eat a breakfast at 4am on Saturday.
2. Obviously flying out at midnight on Thursday is not ideal, but so is the life of the pro cyclist/PhD student.
3. Other than those issues, I handled nutrition pretty well by eating every twenty minutes and holding off on anything caffeinated until 5 hours in, which made the caffeine work really well when I needed it. That said, it's possible that a sweet potato burrito or two, a la The Hardest Hundred, at checkpoints 2 and 3 may have prevented my stomach from shutting down in the end.
4. If it were any hotter, two bottles and my 70oz Camelback would not have been enough between checkpoints 1 and 2 and from 2 to 3. I was dry or nearly so the last twenty minutes before each of those checkpoints.
Will I come be back for another shot at the win? After all the positive press and the kindness of the promoters, I am sure Niner and Clif Bar would be happy to see me on the start line in 2018. I'll leave it at that, because I'm going to personally need some more time to process it all.
Good photos by Kory Swanson, great photos by Ian Hylands, crappy photos by yours truly. Thanks for the photos and the checkpoint handoffs, guys!