I finished writing this race report a day before myself and friends, Tim (who you''ll read about below) and Graeme, were hit head on by a reckless truck on a beloved Vermont dirt road. As I've reread this report (which has taken me forever due to the lack of energy and pain pill haze) my perspectives on some of the challenges I faced a few weeks prior in the DK200 seem so trivial and childish. Although to maintain the "feelings" I felt during the DK200, I left this writing untouched. What I would give for a sprained toe (oops sorry no spoilers). Remember it can always be worse.
This traumatic experience will forever scar me, emotionally and physically. It was an event that could have easily taken any one of our lives (or all three of our lives) and we are SO lucky to be alive. Broken bones, internal injuries and too many surgeries will have me off the bike for some time. I miss my bike, I miss the trails and dirt roads I've cultivated relationships with and I miss riding and having fun with my friends. It's cliche but I must say it: life is precious and fragile, it could be over in an instant; Live in the present, be kind and live the life you love.
Saturday June 4th, 2016, 6:20am Distance 5.5 miles.
Tic.Tic, tic, tic.
Tic tic tic tic tic tic tic.
I come to an abrupt stop along a flat muddy road and join the rank of countless broken-down racers. The rear derailleur bent into my wheel and snapped the derailleur hanger, rendering my bike useless. The sun is barely over the eastern horizon and my race is over.
"...but at least now I have a somewhat decent (at least very common) excuse to achieve my first ever DNF", I think to myself, almost amused.
A mechanical problem seems like a better excuse for not finishing today than what I thought would take me out- a stupid, injured, big-fucking-toe- especially since I'm surrounded by healthy racers that are abandoning the race for this exact reason.
I'm plastered in mud. Everything is soaked. I've never seen so much carnage. I've never seen such an insane start to a bicycle race...
WARNING: This is a long story about a long race that never happened for me. Much of this story takes place hours, days, weeks, months, and even years before the actual event. I never thought I'd write about an event I didn't finish but too much happened during this event to not share and too much happened leading up to this race to not share.
(Yes, I rode more than 5.5 miles- keep reading!)
Tuesday May 31st, 2016.
Five days before the Dirty Kanza 200 (DK200), a cool fog engulfs the Connecticut Shoreline. The air is still and the predawn light is barely evident through our cracked blinds. I wake around 6am to a throbbing and swollen big toe on my right foot.
Without breakfast or coffee, I put on my cycling kit and prepare for an easy ninety minute spin. As I push my swollen toe into the carbon soled shoe, it barely fits and pain is no longer ignorable. No matter- nothing is going to stop me from cultivating the perfect taper for this upcoming race; especially not a sore toe.
On flat pavement at 14mph I seep through a fog along a dark and empty Middle Beach Rd. The mood is somber and every rotation of the pedals induces a sharp pain in my foot.
Now carving deep squiggly ruts, my tires sink into the sand along the bike path at Hammonassett Beach. I try to accelerate and escape the grasp but the deep beach sand forces me off the bike and I begin walking. More pain surrounds my foot.
My mind rambles into an internal dialogue...
Me: Uh oh...
Me: It's too close to race day for this type of thing to happen. You are fucked.
Me: You'll be okay, with a few days of rest and some TLC, you can cure this, don't worry.
Me: No way man, you are fucked, racing 200 miles with an injury? Are you crazy? You need to be 100%!
Me: Shut up brain. Shut up foot. You are going to Kansas. We are doing this.
The sky now grayish blue; a tell-tale sign the fog is about to burn away into a beautiful Spring day. Fuck! Why does my toe hurt?!? At mile thirteen, I make the decision to head home early; time to begin healing.
My inner hypochondriac quickly surfaces and with much Googling, I have several "authoritative" self-diagnoses..... Spider bite, Gout, Lyme disease, Infection, Sprain..... But why and where did this injury come from? And what bad timing! That evening I try every homeopathic remedy, to every ailment mentioned above but still find no relief.
The next morning, less than twenty-four hours before our flight to Kansas, my toe is more swollen, red and tender to the touch. Fearing an infection that could cause serious problems, I schedule an appointment with my Primary Care Physician. He thinks its a contusion of sorts and prescribes a strong anti-inflammatory. So, twelve hours after leaving the Doctors office, with hopes that things would start to heal, I limp onto a plane headed Wichita Kansas to race the DK200.
Staged out of Emporia Kansas, the Dirty Kanza 200 is a 200 mile long ultra-endurance bicycling race, held on the gravel roads through the Flint Hills region of east-central Kansas. This area once home to the great Kanza nation, is unbelievably scenic and rich in history. It is also very rugged and remote. Often time’s riders will see no signs of civilization for miles on end and to make things more "memorable" the weather and course conditions are almost always extreme. Heat, wind, flash floods, exposure, and even Tornados may be encountered. Racers are solely responsible for their personal well-being, and have to make their own informed decisions, and suffer the consequences of those decisions. This is not a race to take lightly.
I Ride For Her from Salsa Cycles on Vimeo.
I Ride For Her from Salsa Cycles on Vimeo.
|The week prior about 90 miles from Emporia.|
Logistics for cycling events are challenging. The longer the race (and the farther away it is) the more logistics needed. Add a Hotel that cancels your reservation last minute because winds ripped the roof off, a few airplanes and pre-shipping bicycles via UPS and the complexity increase ten-fold.
As for the bikes (what really matters), unfortunately, they arrive in Emporia a little worse for wear; mine the worst of our three. A bent rotor, broken rear derailleur, messed up brake calipers, fraying shift cables, and bent cable housing to be exact.
Upon seeing my trusty steed in such disrepair, my mind instantly flashes back to Amity Bicycles, in Woodbridge CT, and the hours my friend Kurt D'Aniello and I spent inspecting, repairing and dialing in every aspect of this bike. She was perfect when I last saw her. Perfect.
Transit was not kind to her and now the front brake is rubbing badly, the medium cage Shimano Ultegra derailleur is replaced with a long cage Shimano 105 derailleur, a new chain is needed, new shifting cables and housing also needed . The shifting still isn't perfect and it needs to be ridden for a good ride prior to the race.
I'm nearly 24 hours away from race day. My big toe throbs in pain and my bike is home to many new problems; this is a nightmare before a big race. Yet (thanks to folks at High Gear Cyclery) I'm genuinely calm and positive. Matt Brown, Dylan and the rest of the crew at this shop are so kind and good to us, I know I'm in the best hands possible and they will do all they can to get me rolling. Disclaimer: If you are ever in Emporia, you want to visit this shop and support them; it’s got some of the nicest people and best customer service I've ever experienced.
About a block away, several large rectangular windows make up the lower half of a mid-century brick building. Emporia's only microbrewery/restaurant- Radius Brewing Company. Looks good. We sit down at a high top table near the bar and enjoy perfect rib eye steaks. This is cattle country after all. I sip one of their "rumor has it- IPA's". It's delicious. I could drink 1,000 of these. The citrusy hops, cold feel and high alcohol are the perfect combo for this long day. By 11pm CST I'm in bed.
On May 31st, 2015, my friend, Tim Ahern raced the DK 200. He battled 8 flat tires, a 3 mile hike-a-bike, and two crashes to finish in just under 17 hours. He came home saying he wasn't sure if he'd go back but I could tell the event had its claws in him and he would go back to set the record straight. Innocently, I told him, I'd be interested in going if he chose to do so.
After that we didn't talk about the Dirty Kanza much and after I raced the Shenandoah Mountain 100, I put the thought of racing the DK200 out of my mind. But sure enough, around the New Year of 2016, Tim was quietly preparing his return to Kansas and he sent me a text.
Tim: No pressure but tomorrow morning registration opens for DK200. I think this is your kind of race.
Me: I'm tempted and kinda scared.
Tim: it's tempting isn't' it?!?! It's like a vortex. I won't push you either way. I'm glad you're thinking of it. It should definitely be on your bucket list....
Me: I'm still undecided although I must admit, I'm leaning towards it.
Friday June 3rd, 2016.
The air conditioner in the Emporia State University dorms (our revised weekend accommodations) is broken and our open window only blows in a hot breeze and the sound of a freight train every twenty-six minutes. Despite the heat and noise on the 6th floor, I slept incredibly well and wake with my toe feeling slightly better.
After breakfast on campus, I'm anxious to get out and see the first few (and last few) miles of the course. I also need to shake down my newly repaired bicycle and make any necessary final adjustments. My swollen toe doesn't fit in my normal cycling shoe without pain, so I use an older shoe and cut a hole in it where my big toe is. To keep the grit out, I cover it with blue, "I love Bacon", duct tape. This should work, I think as we roll out for a "60-90 minute spin".
On the other side of a bridge, about a mile and half south of town, I see the right turn where the neutral paced start will end and the race begins. I burn this landmark into my mind and imagine being surrounded by a thousand riders. I visualize how I'll start tomorrow morning...
Look through the turn and find the best line onto the gravel road; okay.
Commit and carve the bike in; got it.
The bike tracks perfectly and the notorious Kansas flint stone crunches under my tires. A few minutes later a truck is heading towards us emitting a plume of white dust. The dust is so thick I can't see through it. "Geesh...a bit of rain could really help these roads", I mutter to myself as I pull my jersey up over my nose and mouth to protect myself from inhaling the crud. The weather forecast for tomorrow looks perfect (partly sunny, lower humidity, temperatures in the low 80s, and winds NNW 8-15mph) but AccuWeather does show an 8% chance of .01" of rain at 12am. Maybe we'll get lucky and get a slight shower to kill the dust.
Unlike last year, the course is dry and there is little mud. In fact, I haven't seen any mud. The gravel is somewhat loose where recent Spring floods washed the roads out and there are occasional deep ruts engraved into the roads. It’s a little more technical than I had thought it would be (which I'm excited about) and it feels fast.
Now at a normal pace, there are no sounds. The bike is silent.
A quiet bike is a happy bike.
My toe feels okay.
I think I'm going to pull this off!
My spirits are high around mile eight and we stop for a nature break and to snap photos. We are about forty minutes or so into our ride, so we discuss back tracking to Emporia. I hate backtracking and always prefer loops but regardless we don't want to ride too much before tomorrow.
Thereabouts, we meet three other riders from New England. Tim knows one of them and they are doing a loop. If they can do a loop, why can't we? I think to myself. I hate backtracking.
"Would you mind if we follow along with you guys?"" I interject.
"Sure” they respond.
Cautiously Tim asks, "Well, how long you going for?"
They're planning to ride further than we want to so on their map, they point out a shorter option that hooks into the last few miles of the course. Looks easy enough. So we pedal on with them and chat about familiar riding places and friends of friends back in New England.
In about a mile we hit our first real hill. It's only 114 vertical feet of climbing but it is steep. My GPS shows a grade of 11%. I shift into an easier gear. The hill steepens more, now hitting 13%. I shift again into my granny gear.
Tic, tic, tic
tic tic tic tic tic....
This familiar sound usually doesn't end well for a drivetrain so I jump off my bike mid-hill and stop the rear wheel from spinning before doing any damage. I look up the road and watch the other New England riders crest over the top and ride away. The limit screw adjustment is off on the rear derailleur and it pushed the chain over the cassette, wedging it between the spokes and cassette. It's severely wrapped but with help, I'm able to fix it in a few minutes.
Again back on the pedals and nearing the top of the hill, I confess, "I'm glad we decided to do a loop, if we didn't hit that hill, I would have never known that the limit screw adjustment was off and I'd be in big trouble during the race tomorrow.... I probably would have broken my chain."
We continue on, now alone. The sun is relentless and there is no escaping it, the heat rises above 91 degrees and we've been out for nearly two hours. Not riding hard but still exposed and losing precious hydration. I only brought two bottles of water, I should have taken more.
"We can't be more than 9 miles away from town at this point" I say as we hit a paved highway. Then as if trying to convince myself, I promise,"We'll hook up with the course again soon " and I stick my right hand out to indicate our turn onto the road I see on my GPS. I slow up and begin to turn right but the road is pretty much gone, it washed out from the floods a few weeks ago. Okay no problem, we'll take the next one.
Without much choice our 60-90 minute spin evolves into "a 3 hour tour"....
(Cue Gilligan Island theme song)
After our ride, I bring my bike back into High Gear Cyclery and let them know the limit screws need more adjustment. Like a professional pit crew, they make the tweaks and I head out for a test ride. I'm tired of being in the sun and my big toe feels more swollen but this is a crucial adjustment to have dialed in for a 200 mile race. And after twenty or so minutes of riding and finely adjusting the cable tension on the rear derailleur, it is perfect. I head back to the shop. "It's all on me now guys, you've done everything possible to ensure I'll have a good race and now I just need to go out and give it my best."
The cold tile floor, back in our dorm room, feels good on my swollen toe as I methodically lay out my supplies for tomorrows ride. With my legs spread out before me; I stare at my right foot. My toe has gotten much worse- the heat, ride, and past few days of walking have made it more swollen and tender. The joint barely flexes and I can hardly walk without a limp. I can't believe this.
Later that evening, at the Pre-Race Meeting, we sit inside the Spanish styled (and historic) Granada Theatre and absorb the words of wisdom and safety. At one point, Rebecca Rush, a legendary cyclist who has National wins across multiple off-road formats (Leadville 100, 24 hour MTB World Championships, DK200 to name a few), explains, to a room of nearly 1,000 racers, "You will come out of this event a different person."
I knew this when I registered for the DK200 and her reminder pushed my thoughts back to that day.
January 9th, 2016.
Tim: Registration is open but I didn't see your name?
Me: I'm in. I'm both terrified and excited.
Tim: I'm psyched that you signed up. Scary isn't it? For what its worth.... It's just as scary second time around.
There are certain dates I'll never forget. For a few reasons, the day I submitted my registration for the DK200 is one of them. It will always impact my life and shape my future.
March 21st, 2016.
There is a new post on ridinggravel.com's Dirty Kanza web forum. I've been stalking this web forum for three months now. I quickly email the Poster. It's available. I take a screen shot and text it to my Dad.
Me: You wanna spot in the DK 100?
Me: I emailed the guy. It's available and it's yours for the taking.
Dad: I'm not sure, lots to think about.
Dad: ....Ok got it. Step 1 accomplished!
Me: Hahaha GREAT!
Nine days prior we had gone out for a 41 mile mountain bike ride. After nearly five and half hours on the bike, riding lots of rocky single track, my Dad felt pretty fit and confident.
I assure him, "With this kind of base fitness he could easily get prepared to do the DK100", which is the 100 mile option of the Dirty Kanza.
"You think? I'd probably do it if I could get a spot... It'd be pretty cool." He admits.
And just like that he is committed.
Saturday June 4th 04:00am- Race Day
My alarm goes off. Thank god. I've been awake on and off for the last two hours. Mostly because my toe is more painful and swollen than ever and partly because flashes of lightning have been illuminating our cheap dorm room blinds for the last hour.
I text Tim.
Me: Rise and shine Tim!
Tim: Yep... no one expected this.
He knew about the storm too. My right leg is elevated on my suitcase as I lay in bed looking at the radar. A small front is just finishing up its pass through Emporia.
I stand up and pain shoots upwards from my toe. "If I was home, I wouldn't even go for a short ride today" I admit to my Dad as we prepare to head out to breakfast. "I just can't believe how horrible my foot feels." With this injury, I'm overwhelmed by the amount of miles on my plate today. I grab my rain jacket and limp out of the dorm room.
Outside the sky shows no hints of daylight. There are no stars nor a moon, blackness fills the void above us. The rain has stopped but the roads are wet. Tim talks about the possibility of the rain causing problems on the course. From his room he noticed a nearby roof top had flooded. "Nahhhhh" I drawl out casually, it'll be fine." Conditions could be absolutely perfect, I think to myself. No dusty start, tacky dirt, oh man I want to race. Oh man I want my toe to feel better.
The cafeteria is already packed with racers, some already fully dressed in their cycling kits. I notice one racer walking around in their cycling shoes and my toe cringes in pain. Tim looks at my foot disappointedly. "That’s not good. It looks worse than it did."
His nerves are slightly frayed as well and he is fighting negative thoughts surrounding his sore knee but he extends his best suggestion to me...
"Look, you know you're going to toe the line today but you might not be able to do the entire race. Nobody is going to be able to make that call besides you. You could race to that first hill and see how it feels. Maybe it will feel alright and you can push on but you are going to have to be honest with yourself and call it quits if it hurts. You don't want to be stuck out there waiting for a rescue. It could take five hours for somebody to get to you and that would really be bad."
We walk back to the dorms to get ready. This is such a difficult pill to swallow. I've devoted so much to this day. I'm so sad and disappointed.
Back in the dorm room, now convinced my day will end in failure, I still get ready to race. I fill two bottles with water. "Should I even bother mixing in my perpetum with my third bottle?" I ask my Dad, thinking about the small cost-savings of not using it.
I slide my swollen toe carefully into the cycling shoe I cut a hole into. Even with the hole and tape, it's tight but the stiff sole keeps the joint from bending and there is less pain than I had imagined there would be.
Everyone battles self-doubt before a big race and our pre-race nerves are high as we shuffle into the elevator with our bikes.
Outside, the sky glows in a pre-dawn light and we roll down the wet pavement of Commercial Street towards the start. I quickly say good luck and good bye to my Dad and roll forward with Tim.
"Tim, I'm not sure what is going to happen here today but you've got good legs and you're going to have a great race. Don't worry about trying to ride with me; I'm going to hang with you as long as I can."
We get to the staging area a few minutes before the start. Riders are packed tight across the entire road. I think 1,200 racers are registered for today, nearly a thousand show up. We eek out a spot on the sidewalk 3 or 4 rows from the front and scope out a line that will let us seamlessly move into the front of this large group.
5, 4, 3, 2, 1. We're off!
We navigate to the end of the side walk and carefully push off, rolling over a curb. Now, transported into a different world, somewhere in the front of this massive group, our position is excellent.
Like most neutral starts I've been in, chaos is all around. Although today, the pace is surprisingly slower than I anticipated. We are traveling 16-18 mph and for the first mile or so I can enjoy the hundreds of spectators lined up along main street cheering, as if we were in a Parade. The energy level is incredibly high. This is amazing.
We cross over the Cottonwood River. I remember this from yesterday. The right hand turn to begin the race is just a hundred meters up.
Anxiety builds and the group grows twitchier.
Right turn coming!" a racer yells. I try to visualize my line from yesterday but there are too many riders around me and I can barely see where I'm at.
A line between riders opens up and it looks good. I take it and I carve my bike through the turn. Tim is slightly to my right. We made it. That wasn't too bad.
Within a second, the gravel is gone. Holy shit. We are traveling 10 riders wide around 20 mph through standing water. The road, now reminiscent of a river is completely flooded and we slash through kicking up an impressive amount of muddy water.
My gloves, handlebars, helmet, glasses, face, and everything are covered in a muddy film and my shoes and bib shorts are soaked. I push the pace and squint my eyes following with the lead group. I'm charged with adrenaline and a focus to stay alive, my foot no longer bothers me and my mind is clear. This is insane. I love racing.
To my right, somebody goes over the handlebars and splashes down into a ditch. To the left I see a person standing next to their bike. Some riders begin running with their bikes. What happened to the dusty road we were on yesterday?!?
The road takes a sharp left hand turn. At 23 mph I hold my line through the turn. I'm squeezed between racers and one almost locks bars with me. This is tight. I stiff arm them and we both safely make it through the turn. Rubbing is racing.
Up ahead I see another section of flooded road. The group slows up. "Couldn't the rain have just waited one more day." a racer behind me pleads. I look back. I know him. That is Garth Prosser a pro endurance cyclist who races for Specialized. I look ahead of Tim and see Tim Johnson, a CX Legend, and could that other guy be Ted King? Wow, we are definitely in the lead group. This is awesome.
After the second "river" things look better. The road, now a tacky brown color, doesn't show signs of flooding but the tire I follow kicks up lots of small pebbles and mud and my face is getting pelted. I pull my sunglasses off my helmet and put them on. Ha. I can't see a thing, they are caked in mud.
And then it begins...
I see a rider on the left with a broken derailleur. First one. Five seconds later and I see more racers being taken out with broken equipment. What is going on here?
Rolling along cautiously, the bike to my right is making a horrible sound. I look over and see mud building up on it and the chain is jumping around the cassette. tic, tic, tic. I look down and inspect my bike and drive train. It too is starting to cake up with mud but the drivetrain looks good.
Ahead, a few riders jump off their bikes, throw them onto their shoulders and begin running. They are trying to save their machines from mechanicals. Instinctively, I jump off mine and do the same and then I remember. SHIT. My toe! The pain radiates up and I cannot run.
I walk/limp rolling my bike along the side of the road and within five feet mud is caked so thick my tires stop rolling. I pick up the bike and head towards a nearby irrigation ditch. Crouched in the water, I use my finger to push out the massive clumps of mud and pebbles. Once fairly clear, I splash it with the dirty water. The tires spin freely enough again and with my injured toe, I have no choice but to try and ride.
I ride cautiously for fifty meters or so and then, on the flat, benign-looking road, it happens.
Tic, tic, tic.
Tic tic tic tic tic tic tic.
I stand near a patch of cottonwood trees, at the side of the road and take in my surroundings. It is quiet and the road is void of pedaling cyclists. Most are running with their bikes or at the side of the road franticly working on repairs with bikes flipped upside down (rule #49??). It looks as if some have already broken their first repair and are walking back to town. Others are on cell phones calling it quits for the day with a cry for their support teams to come and meet them. With the low hazy light of the early morning, it looks like a war zone.
How many dreams were shattered in these first few miles? I could feel my heart break and for a moment, I'm lost in this world of self pity until I snap out of it and decide I'm not going to quit yet. I can fix this and its a good opportunity to get race repair experience, I think to myself as I sit in the mud and calmly pull out my repair kit. The dirty yellow repair bag is so full of extra items I struggle to find the spare derailleur hanger. I hope I packed it. I couldn't have left it out? Ah, there it is.
I remove the derailleur and pull the rear wheel out. Everything is covered in a film of slippery wet mud and I fumble with the new hanger and drop one of the small bolts, into the mud. Amazingly, I find it and quickly install the hanger. All good, I think. But it doesn't seat correctly. Damn. In a rush, and like an idiot, I put it on backwards.
Hundreds of new riders begin to cycle past me. This must be the DK100 group; ugh… they started twenty minutes after we did. I hear two confused riders talking to each other, "What happened here? What is taking everyone out, was it flat tires?" The mud is more packed down and the only sign of the carnage that took place here are the racers crouched along the road toying with their expensive bicycles.
I struggle again with one of the small derailleur hanger bolts and its (now) stripped out head... "Hey JB! You okay!?" My Dad shouts as he fly's past me. "Yeah, I'm okay, broken derailleur hanger! Keep going!!" That is great, I'm happy to see he is rolling along mechanical free. I tease the stripped bolt out by twisting the unanchored side of the hanger and then flip the derailleur hanger and reinstall it properly. Carefully, I tighten the derailleur to the hanger and put the wheel back into the bike.
A woman, pushing her bicycle, comes up next to me with a wooden paint stirrer and is cleaning out the mud with the stick and water from a small puddle. I had a packed a long wooden spoon for that very reason but with the dry conditions I saw yesterday, I left it at the dorm. Today I'm envious of her paint stirrer.
"Uh oh" she says, “something isn't right here with my bike. Can you take a look at this for me?" Her rear derailleur is bent, throwing the chain off the pulley wheels, jamming her drivetrain. It's pretty mangled. I try to bend it but nothing helps. "I'm really sorry" I say, "your derailleur is toast". Upset, she thanks me for trying to help her and wishes me luck. Like many others her day ended there.
I push my bike to the puddle she was using and start cleaning the mud off my drivetrain and wheels. I slow up and spend more time than I think I needed, not entirely because of the race I want to finish but because if I mechanical again, it will be a long painful walk back to town.
Once clean, I saddle up and begin to ride.
Tic, tic, tictic tic tic.
Ugh I hate that sound! I jump off the bike before doing any damage. My derailleur is bent. I walk over to the side of the road near two guys, who look to be frozen in time, are standing next to their broken down bikes. I close one eye and look down the drivetrain as if it were a scope on a riffle. Yup, it's bent to the inside. I firmly grasp the derailleur and bend it. It looks better but still hits the spokes when I spin the wheel. I use my pliers and bend the twisted metal away from the spokes. I hold the rear tire up and spin the crank. It's quiet. It works. Success!
After being stopped for about 40 minutes, I’ve finally fixed my mechanical problems. Proudly, I pedal on, now surrounded by hordes of casual riders enjoying the 50 mile DK Lite option. The only riders I see with 200 mile race plates are broken down on the side of the road or walking back to town.
Within a few minutes, I'm back into a groove and my toe, although on my mind, doesn't hurt. I can't see my GPS screen because it’s covered with mud but I can see the first hill up ahead; this is the place I need to make a decision about continuing on or abandoning the race.
At the steep midsection of the hill, I shift up towards my granny gear.
tic tic tic tic.... Oh no!
I quickly downshift and no damage is done but I realize my bent derailleur won't let me get out of the two middle gears- a 15 and a 17 tooth cog. Not the worst gearing but not ideal for a 200 mile race.
I stand up on my new granny gear- a 34x17. My cadence slows down and my toe hurts under the higher pressure. Reality hits.
Damn, it’s been a good run but this hill is telling and I can't ride 200 miles with this toe and only these gears. Maybe I could if my body was healthy or if I had all my gears...
And then another internal dialogue begins.Me: Quit here!
Me: but I want to ride!
Me: Don't be stupid.
Me: I'm going to keep going.
I look ahead and imagine this as my soundtrack.
Me: Why don't you ride to mile 15? Then it will be a 30 mile round trip ride. You can do that, you did more yesterday.
I try to clean my GPS so I can see my odometer but every swipe from the muddy glove leaves more mud on the screen. I remove the gloves and spit on the screen. My wet hands get things a little cleaner and through muddy streaks I can read my speed/distance.
At mile 14.9 I'm atop a big hill. I've got to see what’s a little further, this is getting really good.
I roll down the hill at 20+ mph. My GPS hits 15 miles. If I turn around here, I'll have to go back up this hill and that would suck.
I push on. Maybe I can ride out to the "Cattle Pens" at mile 25 and finish with the DK Lite riders at least that way I won't be stranded in the middle of nowhere if my toe or bike breakdown.
A mile later my mind begins negotiating to go farther.....
You know, if I do the 25 mile out and back, that is 50 miles. Wouldn't it be better to ride to Check point #1 and just get a ride back from your support crew? It'd be two miles less riding.
Yes! That is a good idea.
I stare off in the distance atop another small hill and see racers moving down the gravel roads. Wow you can see forever here, they must be 2 miles ahead of me. Since my mechanical, I've probably passed a hundred riders, maybe more. I've moved through all the DK Lite riders and am now somewhere in the DK100 group.
My Mind suggests an even better idea.... "Why don't you try to catch your Dad? If you catch him before Check point #1 you should ride the 100 miler with him. If you don't catch him you can just catch a ride back from your support crew."
Yes, that is an even better idea! ....and once again the race is on.
June 6, 1986
Almost exactly, thirty years before the 2016 edition of the Dirty Kanza, I was three years old and began living with my Dad full-time.
As a child of divorce, I've always been happy with the way things are. I've got two loving parents and I get to celebrate Holidays twice! Growing up with my Dads active lifestyle (windsurfing, triathlons, skiing, and rock climbing) had us travelling and chasing adventures every weekend. By the age of 7, I had probably slept in most Vermont Ski Area parking lots.
Most Father- Sons have good relationships but the experiences we've shared makes ours an extra special bond. We joke that he is the little brother and we raised each other. Although there is some truth to that, I can honestly say, without the rationale, love and passions he fueled me with, I'd never be the passionate, driven and adventurous person I am today. I'd especially never be the person who'd sign up for the Dirty Kanza 200. I owe a lot to this man and I can only hope I'll be as good of a father.
An SAT math question ignites in my mind. If at mile 16, your Dad is forty minutes ahead of you and he is riding his bicycle at 14 mph, how fast do you need to ride your bicycle to catch him before mile 48?
Hmmm....let’s see. That leaves me 32 miles to catch him, which will probably take him approximately 2 hour and 20 minutes. So I need to cover the same distance in a 1 hour and 40'ish minutes. That means I need to average a speed of 19+ mph. Right? Hmm.... sure, I might be able to do that?
My body transitions to an XC Mountain bike race pace. I am hammering hills, squeezing between riders, flying down sketchy descents and really just having a blast. I remember, I love going fast on bicycles and now alone the beauty is increasingly impressive. This is a special place.
My heart rate climbs into a threshold heart zone, I'm burning matches and could care less. Other racers must think I'm crazy as I fly past them. I imagine what they are saying to each other.... "Oh that guy is going to blow up, he obviously doesn't know how to pace himself..." I crack a smile and laugh aloud thinking about it. I don't care, I'm not racing 200 miles, I'm racing to catch my Dad.
I come up on a rider that has a steady wheel and is keeping a good pace.
"Are you in the 200?" I ask.Staring straight ahead he responds, "No I'm in the 100"
He is riding well and I ask where in the group he is.
"I started near the front but stopped briefly for a friend who had a mechanical." He replies.
I tell him about my plan to find my Dad and he laughs, "The Old Man must have some good legs today." He is right.
With no obstructions (trees), I can easily see racers ahead on the next road and the next 30 or 40 aren't my Dad. Ugh, I'll have work through all of them. How long was I stuck with that mechanical? How much ground did he cover in that time? He must be flying! My calculations might not be right. I might not catch him.
On the next long straightaway, the road bends to the right. With low expectations, I look up and see a group of three riders. One of them surprises me, it's my Dad.
"Hey, JB!" I say laughing in a deep voice.No response.
"Hey.... Hey Dad!" I say again nonchalantly.
He looks over and his eyes go right through me. It's the same confused look I saw from him in 2015 when, in a cold, heavy downpour, I went out in a car to find him along the last few miles of the Vision Quest Course. He quickly realizes this isn't a hallucination and I'm really there.
"Oh HEY! What are you doing here, how's your foot?! How'd your fix your bike?" He excitedly fires off questions.
I notice his left forearm is caked in dirt and dried blood. His bib shorts a little tore up. "I'm fine but what the hell happened to you, are you okay?" I ask.
"Around a corner, in some loose gravel, my front tire washed out and I went down. I almost pulled it off. I'm okay but it took the race out of Me." he admits.
The guy I had been riding with off and on for the last hour, is happy I found him and begins to ride off. "Hey man, we probably won't keep your pace but it was nice chatting and riding with you. Have a good ride!” I shout.
Totally stoked I found my Dad, I don't even realize that, this time for good, my attempt to complete the DK200 is over. I'm comfortably losing control of my day and letting my goal go. I should be devastated but without remorse, I'm elated and excited to share this experience with him. My new goal is to help him accomplish his- Finish the DK100 in under 10 hours.
Ahead a sign splits the courses. DK100 to the left. DK200 to the right. We are a few miles from the town of Madison and checkpoint #1. We break left. Soon within the city limits, the town is laid out with red brick roads. I smile and think about the Dark Side of the Moon/ Wizard of Oz YouTube videos I had been watching leading up to this week. Where is the yellow brick road?!
"Dad, you should wash that cut out with some water" I say while doing some rough mental math in my head.
The next 52 miles should take us 4 hours. I'll need about 250 calories and 1 bottle of water per hour. That’s 4 bottles of water and 1,000 calories. I grab 8 fig newtons, 1 banana, 1 peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and a bag of pretzels. That should be enough with the remaining foods and gels I already have.
The volunteers fill my 3 bottles. Hmm... That won't be enough water.....
"Do you have any extra water bottles?" I ask. I get lots of blank stares and then a racer, in a Salsa Cycles kit, who is cleaning out my Dads wound says, I can take one of his. He endured 6 flats in the first leg and is dropping out. I thank him and tell him, I'll buy him a beer at the finish. Note: Turns out this is Joe Meiser, Salsa Cycles Senior Product Manager and a former 5th place finisher of the DK200 and finisher of the Continental Divide MTB Race. What a nice and helpful dude.
It took us 20 minutes to refuel, clean out Dads wounds and get rolling out of Checkpoint #1. Ahead of schedule and with an excess of food and water, we are feeling pretty confident as we roll into the final 50+ miles.
With a clean GPS screen, I can review our speeds and elapsed time. We've been flying. If we stay at our pace, we'll finish in 7.5 hours. That’s a damn good time! That's good enough for Dad to podium.
And then, less than five miles from the checkpoint, on a dry, slight downhill, the terrible sound I've heard too many times already today erupted from my rear wheel.....
Tic.Tic, tic, tic.
Tic tic tic tic tic tic tic.
I quickly pull to the side of the road but its too late. The derailleur hanger is snapped and the rear derailleur is tangled in the wheel.
Me: Ah, man, it was all going so well. I knew I was on borrowed time, my day is done.
Dad: Can you fix it? I've got a spare hanger you can use.
Me: You're on target for a good finish. I don't want you to have to hang with me while I repair it. Plus my rear derailleur could be toast.
Dad: I don't care about my time; I'd rather be able to ride with you if you can fix it. Really take it.
Me: Okay, let’s do this.
Shaded by a pathetically small tree I begin the repair. A few racers pass by and shout, "do you need anything?" My Dad laughs, "What do you think they'd say if you said yes. Do you think they'd stop?” I don't reply, I'm focused on the repair Bingo, okay, we are all set. Less than 7 minutes to repair. Not bad.
The Kanza Nation is home to a Native American tribe known as the Kaw or "People of the South wind". South Wind eh? Not today. The wind builds out of the NNW holding steady between 15-20 mph. The grass lies over onto its side and gusts hit 30 mph. We are at the southernmost portion of the course and the remaining 45miles will wander North with occasional runs to the west.
Around mile 73 the "six hour weirds" begin to take hold on racers. Our pace is not fast, averaging around 9 mph and we are passing riders like they are going backwards. One rider is lying in bushes trying to convince his friend that he needs to take a nap for a little while. Another pedaling his mountain bike looks at me with a glazed stare when I pass him. "How you doing?" I ask. He doesn't respond with much. I see a few riders up ahead and shout back to my Dad, "Stay on my wheel and lets catch those riders." He is quiet now too.
When we catch the riders and I can tell they are getting beat up in the wind. They look young and strong, maybe if I can give them a rest for a while, they'll recover and we can work in this wind together. At the pace we are going now, we could be out here for an hour or more than we anticipated. I'd really like to push this pace a little higher.
I roll up on the lead guy, "Hey, let's work together here, hop onto our wheel and rest awhile. When you feel good again, we can work through this wind together." They nod agreeing but their blank stares tell me their tanks are likely too empty to recover.
Headed straight into the wind, I pull our group of 4 at 10mph. The road is straight but rolling and my GPS tells me our next turn isn't for 5 miles. On the small descents I move to my drops and softly spin my largest gear, a 46x15. At the bottom of the hill, I no longer hear the crunch of the gravel behind me, I turn around, and I’m dropping the group. Damn, how do I drop them on a descent when I'm breaking the wind and I only have such limited gears?!? I drop my cadence and wait up. The one rider passes me and says, "I'll take a pull but am going to peel off after that."
It's now just the two of us again. My Dad hasn't said much for the last hour or so but he is staying on my wheel. I turn around; His grimace tells it all, he is cracking. Unable to shift into an easier gear, I slow my cadence again.
Ahead I see a lone farmhouse sitting on a hillside with a small group of cyclist gathering at the driveway. As we draw closer, I see racers holding out bottles and kind hands filling them from a pitcher with icy cold water; there are cans of WD-40 strewn around the ground.
I assess our situation...We are approaching heat of the day and our pace is slower than I anticipated, we're going to be out here for a while, I think to myself. "Dad, you want to fill a bottle?" He agrees and we stop.
Back on the road, and 7 hours into our ride, I'm feeling stronger and fresh. Again I tell my Dad to stay on my rear wheel and that we are going to catch the next group of riders we see up ahead. This trick has worked a few times already and he stays on my wheel. I push a pace around 13mph. This is better.
For a short bit we catch a paved road and a tail wind. It's silent and hot. "Feel that? We've got a tailwind. You can really feel the heat now. Let's make the most of this." I say. We move on at 16 mph. Further down the road, kites are flying above us. It is a perfect day to fly a kite. There is a car ahead with other locals filling more bottles for riders. As we pass it by, I see the racer I road with hours ago while I was looking for my Dad. "Hey man! Good to see you." I shout out as we cruise past him.
We turn left, back into the wind and onto gravel. A rider is on the side of the road, his derailleur is broken. A cruel reminder that this race isn't over until it’s over. I continue to push our pace around 13 mph and all is moving well. We pick up another rider and he rides in my Dads wind shadow.
10 minutes later, I hear the third rider say to my Dad, "I need you guys a lot more than you need me." I turn around and see the other rider alongside but slightly behind my Dad. His right hand is on my Dad's saddle and he is pushing him back onto my wheel. I smile; it’s great to see my Dad enjoy the camaraderie of endurance cycling.
"How are you doing?" I ask as I fish around in my tank bag and find an espresso gel."Sleepy", he responds.
"Here, take this. In 10 minutes you'll feel better."
"I can't" he replies, "I'm out of water."
"I've got plenty" I say as I hand him a bottle. He takes the gel. I look at my timer and know the caffeine should hit him in 10-15 minutes.
10 minutes later, I ask, "How you feeling?" "Better" he responds as standing up to relive his saddle sores. "Ohhhhh!" he urgently shouts as he begins to pull over to stop. I can tell, its a leg cramp.
"Don't stop!" I yell, “Just keep spinning in an easy gear, it'll go away. Just don't stop." Stopping at a point like this in a long race is the kiss of death. You pull to the side of the road or trail to relive your one cramp and when you stand on your own legs cramps tend to appear in your hamstrings or quads. They can be so bad you'll fall over, or cry, or both.
I have him drink more water and take electrolytes pills, "just keep spinning, they'll go away", I promise.
Soon we enter into the dark underpass that signals the end of the race is very near. "Only a mile to go now", I say to my Dad but he doesn't respond. The last mile has one paved hill and with a nearly 100 miles in our legs it feels like the steepest hill in Emporia.
After a short route through the ESU Campus, we hit Commercial Street and the final finish line sprint. Barriers line the street and hundreds of spectators are shaking cow bells and cheering us on. I give my Dad a fist pump, say that was one hell of a ride and congratulate him. We roll in, slapping high fives with spectators and relishing in the moment. The PA echoes, "From Madison CT, John Biehn and John Biehn II*" The cheers are so loud; you'd think we were famous. We've done it. What a ride!
We shake hands and head towards the shady recovery tent; walking feels so foreign after 8 hours and 30 minutes of cycling. Once seated and out of the sun, the result of our accomplishment begins to sink in. It was a great day and although I didn't accomplish my goal of riding 200 miles, I didn't care. The Dirty Kanza 200 will always be there and I can go back. Today was something more special and it is a day I'll never forget.
It turns out my Dad finished 91st out of 484 finishing racers. 7th in his age group! He beat his goal time by an hour and a half and as we sit in the shaded tent, exhausted and dumb to the world, I proudly share in his victory.
It turns out my Dad finished 91st out of 484 finishing racers. 7th in his age group! He beat his goal time by an hour and a half and as we sit in the shaded tent, exhausted and dumb to the world, I proudly share in his victory.
And then a realization hits....
This must be similar to the selflessness a parent feels when they devote so much of their life to have their children succeed.
And then in that instant, my mind jumps ahead thirty-three years... I imagine myself riding the Dirty Kanza with my thirty-three year old Son or Daughter. Damn, I'll be 66 years old. I hope I can do it. I can't even imagine how amazing that would feel- it must be one of the best feelings in the world.
How many other Parent/Children get to share the camaraderie and experience of the Dirty Kanza? I bet not many.
May 25th 2016
Ten days before crossing the finish line of the Dirty Kanza 100 with my Dad, I leave work and secretly meet my wife, Katie, mid-day. Jokingly, I tell her, "I wore my camouflage hat so nobody would see me." She nervously laughs.
That’s a good heart rate for an endurance pace.
I can't believe that's the first thought that popped into my head when the ultrasound revealed our unborn baby's heart rate was around 120 beats per minute.
Wow, it is real. We're going to be parents.
A total of 944 racers lined up on the Dirty Kanza 200 Starting line. Of those, 552 completed the entire 206 miles. That is a finish rate of 58.6%. 559 took the starting line for the DK100 Half Pint. Of those, 469 completed the 100 mile course. That is a finish rate of 84%. There were nearly 300 riders in the DK50 and another 106 in the DK20 Community fun ride. That’s a total of over 1,900 cyclists. If you love adventure, a challenge and cycling the Dirty Kanza should be on your bucket list.
Tim Ahern had an unbelievable race and finished the 200 miles in 13 hours and 32 minutes. Smashing his goal and beating the sunset by over an hour. He placed 25th out of 559 finishers. When you ask Tim about the Dirty Kanza, he will smile and tell you he "found his limit". Congrats Tim!
My Dads road rash is healing up well and his fitness and cycling skills continue to accelerate. We've been getting him out on the mountain bike lately and I think we'll see him toe the starting line for another race before the year is up. At nearly 60 years old, he is "getting the bug" and if you ask him about his experience at the Dirty Kanza he'll tell you, "it was a life changing experience."
As for myself, nearly 3+ weeks later and my toe has begun to feel somewhat normal. I'm not sure what happened but think it was some sort of overuse/tendonitis issue. Bad timing but such is life and I'm happy with the outcome. I certainly have some undone business out in Kansas and although it’s too soon to say for sure but I think I'll head back out there to finish her off.... someday.
As for that baby of ours- Surprise! Crazy right?!? Well...it's still growing and is due January 8th, 2017. I think that's the day after the Dirty Kanza registration?! Anyways, right now, it's about the size of a peach and growing bigger every day. Needless to say, Katie and I are both super excited for the adventures (and lack of sleep) that are in our near future. And in the distant future, I can only hope that one day I'll be on the other end of another Dirty Kanza experience.
|trip of a lifetime with a great team!|