05 June 2013

Race Report: 2013 Dirty Kanza 200

[Gravel] "is the mirror that shows you who you are, not who you tell people you are."
--Paul Krumich, gearjunkie.com
2011: I first learned about the Dirty Kanza 200-mile gravel race from my Pfoodman Racing teammate Stephanie. She endured severe weather, frame-gobbing mud, and scorching temps to finish 3rd female. To me, 200 miles sounded like way too much time to be on a bike.

2012: This Dirty Kanza thing popped up on many St. Louis riders' schedules and I watched my friends enjoy near-perfect weather conditions in the Flint Hills. But 200 miles still sounded like way too much time to be on a bike.

2013: Before my adventure racing schedule got filled, I needed a crazy challenge. I was signed up for the 154-mile OGRE, I figured if I was going to put in all that training, I might as well follow it up with the 200-mile Dirty Kanza 5 weeks later. So I built myself a Salsa Warbird, recruited my brother Steven to crew for me, and put in a bunch of miles. Time to get tough!

The week before DK was tough for me. I knew I had the fitness to finish 200 miles (barring uncontrollable events like mechanicals or weather), but I let the stellar women's field get to my head a little bit. Would I be competitive? I always feel at a disadvantage in single-sport events; my specialty is being decent at many things (running, biking, paddling, etc), rather than being excellent at one thing. And DK is A WHOLE LOT of one thing: saddle time. This anxiety about wanting to be competitive made me feel even worse...shouldn't a successful DK200 be defined by my personal goals, rather than subjective comparisons to other competitors, some of whom are even full-time cyclists?! Yeah...it was a vicious cycle. Fortunately the Warbird needed a thorough cleaning after Cedar Cross so I focused on that and got my head screwed back on straight. It was time to race my race, not chase others around.

Part of my anti-anxiety plan was to try and make DK into as much of a multi-sport event as possible. I know this sounds crazy because it's really "just" a bike race, but I wanted to play to my strength of being decent at many things. So I looked at the parts of DK that are not about bike riding: navigation and pit stops. I made a plan to execute these parts of the race with no mistakes, and then let the actual riding run its own course. To handle the nav, I made a map/cue-sheet-holder that was tested and tweaked at the OGRE and Cedar Cross. To handle the pit stops, I made an overly-obsessive-and-detailed plan with my brother to minimize stoppage time. With those two puzzle pieces in place, it would just be up to my legs to keep the pedals spinning.

Mom made us cookies and we ate them on the drive to Emporia.
I pick up my brother from the airport (he lives and works just outside of Detroit) and we hit the road to Emporia, Kansas. The drive is easy and includes my first-ever Panchero's experience. Yum. We slide into Emporia barely in time for the 4p rider's meeting. It's a little surreal seeing the Granada Theater for the first time - it's such a symbol of Dirty Kanza and it means I've really arrived. After the meeting I pick up my race packet/swag and catch up with a bunch of friends I've made from riding gravel all over Missouri. Rock stars, all of them. We grab dinner at Wheat State Pizza with Orange Lederhosen, Team Trail Monster, and a jerk. Wendy aka Sasha is being profiled by a rather prominent news organization so there is a cameraman too. So crazy!! Dinner finished (including 1 free screw-up pizza), we head back to the hotel to get bikes sorted. I take my sweet time getting everything organized, including plenty of chat time with Jim, the Kuat boys, Team Virtus (yes, there was prancercising), Kate, and The Other Guys. My brother gets his instructions from me and Zoll. Heads hit the pillows much later than ideal, about midnight, but hey, that's par for the course in adventure racing so I'm not worried.

Race morning, up at 0400, breakfast, coffee, pack the car, and then Zoll and I ride the 2ish miles over to the start line in front of the Granada Theater. I'm on my trusty Battlefinch, ready to put it to the ultimate gravel test. Zoll is rocking a very stylish Kona fixie. There are signs to help us stage ourselves in the big field - probably about 600 riders (630-ish people signed up, but I'm positive there were some DNS). We take some pictures, and right at 0600 on the dot we start!
The bike looks better here. Android camera.
...but I look better here. iPhone camera.
Leg 1, 51 miles, 0600 to 0921 = 3:21
In the first mile, my race is almost derailed when someone else's water bottle ejects and rolls towards me. Somehow I manage to avoid it and breathe a big sigh of relief! The opening few miles are completed in super-comfortable temperatures and clear skies. There are riders everywhere but I must have seeded myself perfectly because I never feel like it's too crowded or sketchy. When there's a wheel available I just sit on it, if it's too slow there's room to pass and if it's too fast I just let it go. Even though I'm in a group I am still checking my map every few turns - adventure racing has taught me that navigation is #1 priority and I know a wrong turn would kill my motivation. About halfway through this segment, I do a systems check and get good feedback. My goal for today is extremely ambitious, and I won't beat the sun unless I have perfect weather and a good draft for the majority of the ride. With the wind at my back, I decide to bank a few miles at a hard effort in an attempt to get ahead of schedule. This strategy is almost entirely against my previous steady-eddy HR-based training, but since I'm riding solo today, I feel liberated to take risks without penalizing any teammates.
Multiple pacelines on the tire tracks.
I give myself permission to go, and the Combatpigeon sings. This bike just loves the Flint Hills gravel, and I feel completely alive with fresh legs and fresh lungs. A strong tailwind doesn't hurt, either! I'm passing a ton of people, hoping that I don't come back to them in the later stages of the race. I match up pretty well with a Scottish dude with speakers on his bars and we fly through the miles. Not much else to report on this leg because everything went better than expected. A clear indication that easy is BORING!! I roll into Madison, KS with my friend Aaron and I am really nervous about being able to find my crew. I shouldn't have worried, though, because Steven is standing only 50 feet away from the check-in tent. Awesome. I swap bottles, get new food, and scoot out of there in 3 minutes!
CP1, all ready to go. The metallic gold umbrella was what Steven used to get my attention.
Leg 2, 49 miles, 0924 to 1341 = 4:17
I climb out of Madison with none other than my STL buddy Steve. He's crushing a SS today and we chat our way up the steep paved hill. At the top, however, something breaks on his glasses and he stops to fix them. I soft pedal, expecting him to catch up quickly and stoked to have a buddy for this next section. Except...he never shows up. I assume something went really wrong but, since we're so close to the CP, I keep going because I know he's not stranded.

Looking at the map for this next section, I realize we were going primarily west. Which is scary, because the huge tailwind I had coming into CP1 is now going to be directly in my face for several miles. I read ahead on the course and mentally divide it into 3 main sections, and in between each section are a few miles of north/south travel that will provide some relief. About 3 miles before the first nasty headwind section, a group sort of globs together. I have no idea how it happens but suddenly I am working together with about 10 other riders. There are several strong engines in the bunch that do a lot of work pulling everyone else. I put a few minutes in at the front when it's my turn, but after that I realize it would be smarter for me to draft as much as possible. So that's what I do. And after a few miles, who do I see riding next to me but...TIM EK!!! Yes, that Tim Ek. He's a Salsa-sponsored rider who lives in my hometown of Duluth, MN. I listened to his MBR podcasts while driving to Boonecrusher and was totally impressed by his approach to racing endurance events. I can't help but introduce myself. We don't chat much but the whole time I'm saying to myself "I'm in a group with Tim Ek. I'm riding Tim Ek's wheel." Total nerd alert, but very very motivating. Our group absolutely CRUSHES the first section of headwind which is about 11 miles long and ends at the start of the climb up Texaco Hill.

I'm completely jazzed to be climbing Texaco with these people (omgTimEkomg!!). On the way up we pick up Tyler and his crew! Normally they would be way in front of me but today they've got a different agenda. It's great to see them and just adds to my motivation. The hill honestly isn't that hard, but it sure is beautiful. Actually, all of the terrain so far has been stunning. Despite the challenging conditions I am having a great time. On the descent down Texaco, I let the Warbird rip. I LOVE descending on this bike - it's so stable and just charges to the bottom of each hill. However, the backside of Texaco is littered with probably the loosest and chunkiest gravel of the day. I pick a bad line and all of a sudden I have a flat. Crap. I'm not really that bummed about changing it because the Velocity A23s I have are super easy to change. I'm mostly bummed about losing my amazing group for the 2nd and 3rd headwind sections.
So I work my way through the change in about 7 minutes, being mindful of not rushing and making a stupid mistake. Tire goes back on, things are dandy, I finish up the Texaco descent and start preparing myself for the oncoming headwind. I turn right onto 270th Street and BAM. Hello, headwind! I don't normally ride with music but I decide that desperate times call for desperate measures. Music gets cranked and I start stuffing my face with QT's 630-calorie chocolate/peanut butter rice krispie bar. But the tunes and the food, surprisingly, don't really help me move any faster. I am struggling here. I see MO rider Don, but he soon passes me.  And so does anyone else; I can't hold a wheel for the life of me. This feeling continues for 5 miles. SLOGFEST. I do get some reprieve as we jog south, but it's brief and pretty soon the course returns to the 270th Street windtunnel. I start playing mental tricks on myself and my mind dredges up a race report from STL's Peat Henry (DK200 SS CHAMP!!) from the Cohutta 100 a few weeks ago:

"The thing is 
we were all stuck in the same boat 
so the thing to do 
is make the best of it 
and be the most excited person out there." 

I'm not exactly excited, but I refuse to get down on myself for going slow. This wind is hurting everyone. Sure, other people might be with groups but that's out of my control so the best thing I can do now is keep pedaling. And pedal I do. The miles slowly tick by. And much to my amazement, when a paceline rolls past, I jump on the back and am able to hold on!!! The effort is still higher than I'd like but I don't care; I have help fighting these conditions. We rotate pulls and make better progress against the wind. There is another Salsa-sponsored rider in this bunch (didn't catch his name) and for some reason this cheers me up immensely again. In the pre-race meeting, DK race director said "There is no other bike company doing more for gravel grinding than Salsa Cycles" and I completely agree. So the more Salsa kits I see today, the more joy it brings me (and the Thunderchicken too, I'm sure). I am able to hang with this group until we hit the pavement into CP2. I'm wayyyy off my projected arrival time, but I'm able to find my brother easily and we execute another lightning-fast pit!

Leg 3, 52 miles, 1345 to 1757 = 4:12
My cooler waiting for me at CP3.
Guess what's awesome about the start of Leg 3?!? 13 MILES OF TAILWIND!! I chat with another rider for a few miles but eventually settle into an all-day pace. One century down, only one to go! Towards the end of the tailwind we have a couple wide-open downhills which I enjoy immensely. Then there's a left turn back into the wind. But as I'm making the turn, I spot two riders off their bikes. I recognize them! It's Mike and Josh from Big Shark. They are seriously fast dudes and I ask them why they're not riding. "We hit the wall" they reply. Oh. OK. I guess that's a reason for stopping. I tell them I haven't found my wall yet. As I make the turn into the wind they yell "...then go find it!". And I certainly will.

The road now is sketchy but I love it. Have I mentioned how lucky I am to be riding an Attackpheasant? Seriously, I don't now how I would have gotten through this race without being completely infatuated with my bike. Back in go the headphones and I get to work, gettin er done. Same story as before - riders pass me, I can't hold a wheel, I get frustrated. I try to eat something, nothing sounds good and that worries me. The wind won't stop. I start to mentally break down and as I'm nearing the top of "Unnamed Road Climb" I just can't take it anymore. I get off my bike and walk beside it. Yes, dear readers, this is what a silkychrome temper-tantrum looks like...walking instead of riding. So dramatic, aren't I? It's the adventure racer in me.

After a few hundred meters of walking I've calmed down and am ready to ride again. The wind is still howling but I've vented and feel tiniest bit renewed. I'm still not fast but I've got enough motivation to keep the pedals turning. And here comes a pair of riders, a guy and a girl from Indiana that I met earlier in the day, and I throw myself onto their wheels to hide from the wind. Their pace is almost too fast for me, but I force myself to stay with them and the one other dude we've picked up. It's UG-LEE. I'm absolutely hating that I need to put out this much effort to manage a measly 10 mph, but if I slack off for one pedal stroke I'll be back in the wind by myself. So I suck it up and WORK.
The Indiana duo pulling on the left. Me pulling on the right. Didn't last long! Check out the next photo in the series: http://kmorris.exposuremanager.com/p/120mile/dirtykanza1484_29_14_3
I stay with the Indiana duo for a few miles until we make a right onto Thurman Creek Road. It's a downhill, and now there's a crosswind instead of a headwind. I am so relieved! I bomb down the descent and at the bottom find the 4-person San Antonio crew dealing with a mechanical, or something. They are just getting ready to roll again so I pass and pretty soon they've caught me. I stay on their wheel for a few miles until we hit some hills and I can't keep up. My motivation plummets again, but shortly after I hear some obnoxious braking behind me and it turns out to be Tyler, Turbo, and 2 other guys! I am so excited to see them and Tyler insists I jump on his wheel. I know he's super strong so I feel absolutely zero guilt about drafting. Tyler's company is exactly what I need at this moment in the race - optimistic, relaxed, funny, just downright inspiring. We all ride and chat together for the remaining miles (there are about 20 of them). I prove my worth to the group when there is a tricky, unmarked turn (Den Creek Road). I've been keeping contact with the map so I point it out and we take it with no problems. A LOT of other riders missed it. Turbo gets a flat just a mile out from CP3, but the boys tell me to ride ahead since they're planning on quitting at the CP anyway. I do and feel very, very grateful that they found me when they did. I roll into CP3 very tired, but also with the confidence that I can ride the 50 remaining miles. My brother and I get lights organized and after 4 minutes I'm ready to hit the road!

Leg 4, 50 miles, 1801 to 2153 = 3:52
Looking at the results now, I leave this CP as 5th place chica, in front of Indiana girl (Corinna) and San Antonio girl (Jenny). I have to stop and pee early and get passed by Corinna and her dude and they are GONE. I am pretty tired so for some reason, it doesn't bother me. Corinna's been riding faster than me all day, it's just my short CP stops that have kept me close to her. So I just stick to my pace and throw the headphones in again. I must be enjoying my music too much because I miss a turn and find myself on a paved road about a 1/2 mile too early. It's a fairly easy correction, however, and pretty soon I'm jamming along on a long northbound stretch of road. I pass a guy fiddling with his pack. A few miles later that same guy catches up to me and it's Mark from Kuat!! I am really happy to see a familiar face, and one as friendly and fit as Mark! We roll side-by-side, catching up on mountain bike and adventure racing stories from around the Midwest. I feel like I'm on life support at this point, but Mark seems fresh as a daisy so he does most of the talking. He soft pedals up the hills so I can keep up and then we both bomb the descents.
Mark, earlier in the day.
A few miles later, Jenny and her San Antonio crew roll past us. They were part of the group that I tackled the very first headwind section with (...oh did I not mention?? Tim Ek was in that group too!!!) and it's cool to keep seeing them. I hop on their wheel and the pace hurts, but I know it will get me done faster. We're cruising along, I hit a hidden pothole, and one of my Magnums ejects! This is the first bottle malfunction I've had all day, and these bottles are sort of special, so I circle back to retrieve it. I'm not upset, I just really want to keep my bottle. Also, littering is bad. I look up and see the group still flying down the road. Except...oh wait, there is Mark looking backwards, and then slowing down. He's waiting for me! I'm both happy and sad about this - happy to have company but sad that he's giving up this free ride into town. I tell him that when I catch back up but he insists it's not a problem. Okay dude, let's finish this thing then!
Actual footage of me with the sunset.
We roll through the remaining miles at an easy pace and keep the chatting going. My knees are sore, my right foot has PF pain, and my hands and ass are hurting too. But really everything's in great shape considering. A pair of riders goes past and a tall guy in a black kit tells us to look backwards at the sunset. We do, and it's the most magical one I've ever seen. It looks like a straight-up Lisa Frank trapper keeper, all purple and pink! Yeah! Who needs to beat the sun when you've got a show like that! As the darkness descends on us, we keep rolling steady and gradually turn our lights from blinky to bright. We miss another turn coming out of Americus but again, it's easily corrected since I'm in staying in contact with the map. The final miles are just no big deal; they're flat, the wind has died down, the pace is comfortable, and I'm just feeling really lucky to have found great company when I needed it throughout the 200 miles. We roll into Emporia and are greeted by what seems like the entire town! Everyone wants to high-five us as we ride down the finishing chute and it's a really fantastic feeling. We stop, Jim and Tim (race directors) hand us our pint glass, and then I'm an official Dirty Kanza 200 finisher!

Steven is right there to collect me at the finish line. I give Mark a huge hug and thank him for looking after me for so many miles, I think it was more than 30. Right away I see Jim and Jamie, also from Kuat, and hear they had a stellar day. Who else had a stellar day? PEAT HENRY! He's at the finish too and I hear he WON SINGLE SPEED!!! DSLITR!!! I ask Steven about Zoll and learn he rolled out of CP3 about an hour after I did, so I think that gives me time to shower at the hotel before coming back to see him finish. On the way to the car, I'm stopped by a herd of very excited kids. They must live in Emporia and they want to know all about my bike - how does it change speeds? How do your shoes attach to the pedals? Did you see any snakes? What did you eat? How bright is your light? What's in your water bottles? Can you sign my shirt? I am totally loving this - I used to be a camp counselor and that kid excitement never gets old. I chat with them for as long as possible before I have to leave to shower. Steven proves his excellent crewing skills once again by bringing THREE baked potatoes from Wendy's. I scarf down two in the car. Favorite post-race food EVER.

The kids. So awesome.

Don't even have time to take gloves off.
TOTAL: 202 miles, 15:53 total time, 15:29 moving time
After getting cleaned up, we return to the finish line to hang out and watch more friends roll in. They have a live results screen and I find out I'm the 7th girl! Turns out Corinna from Indiana held onto the 5th place spot which is super cool. I missed my time goal by more than an hour, but I knew at the start it was extremely ambitious and would have taken a 100% perfect day. I should have known that days at Dirty Kanza are never 100% perfect - this race will always find some unexpected challenge to throw your way. It's all about having a game plan and then being confident making adjustments.

What did the gravel mirror show me? That I am overly ambitious. That I am obsessively well-prepared. That I do not quit. That I am still learning. That I will be back to DK200. Long live the gravel grinder!

PS. Here is a nerdy brain-dump of gear/nutrition details.
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  1. YES! AWESOME! You, my friend, are badass radsauce awesomeness.

  2. You are a freaking rock star!! Loved every bit of this!

  3. Emily, I'm Corinna's "dude" that you referenced above! Just wanted to congratulate you on your DK finish. That was a seriously long, windy, and hilly ride through the Flint Hills and you did a killer job. I too had a funny "I'm riding with Tim Ek moment." Completely silly, but I guess I'm stoked on what Salsa Cycles is doing. I never really had much desire to race bicycles until I stumbled my way into a gravel race they sponsored and now I'm in pretty deep. They are doing some great stuff and it was awesome to see some of their riders out on the course...so I share in your nerdery! Again, great ride and thanks for this awesome write up! Like Corinna mentioned, if you are ever in Indiana and are looking to do some random gravel riding, track us down. We've got some nice routes!

    1. Hi Colossal Hoagie....I mean Dustin the Dude! I hope you're okay with that title :) I will for sure get in touch if I'm in Bloomington, you do the same if you're in St. Louis!

  4. Hi Corinna! Congrats on the strong riding and podium!! Yes I will for sure be at more races, hopefully closer to home!

  5. Great post of the race! Thanks for sharing it!

  6. I knew you'd do great out there, and you kicked ass. I was so glad we got to the finish line in time to see you come through. Awesome job...I'm hoping to keep improving so that I can emulate your smart racing and mental toughness. Although my race/performance was pretty disappointing this year, I could definitely see the difference a year of riding gravel has made because when I wasn't being buffetted by the wind I really had fun riding the gravel...downhills and all!

  7. Great getting to ride with you for a bit. Nice solid finish!

    1. Likewise! loved your race report btw. you have an awesome, gritty writing style that's super fun to read. nice job out there!

  8. Emily, GREAT JOB! It was great riding with you and might I add that you were totally crushing it! You played it smart and looked like a serious veteran out there. I'm pumped that you knocked out the 202 miles. I'm also pumped that you DON'T know how to quit. Keep up the good work and I'll see you on the gravel.


  9. Anxiety is really hard to tackle while facing somethings more difficult. It can be burden your potentiality. You can go for therapist for anxiety to sort out these feelings to achieve your true potentiality.

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