Thursday, June 9, 2016

Dirty Kanza 200 - You Amaze Me!

"Oh man, I didn't think it was possible for it to be harder than last year, I'm in a really dark place."  fellow racer and gravel enthusiast Carl Ring shared with me as I came up on him around mile 125.  His humbling words sharply matching my current realization....that things were starting to get really freaking hard.  By now it was about 9 hours into the race and around 3pm in the afternoon.  It was hot, I mean oppressively hot - clocking 99F on my Garmin.  There's no place to hide at the Dirty Kanza, and we were battling a 17mph headwind -- that of which we both knew would not disappear for the next 81 miles. I promised Carl that "it will pass" - because it usually does. It was a tough moment to share with someone I had crossed the finish line with in 2015.  As a person Carl rocks, and I badly hoped he would find the finish line.

At the 2015 Dirty Kanza 200 Finish with Carl
Photo Credit: Adventure Finish

Flashback 11 hours and I was sitting across from Tom at the IHOP taking down some french toast and feeling quite rested.

I wasn't overly nervous, but rather confident and excited about the adventure ahead.  It had of course thunderstormed overnight and so the roads were wet as I took my place in the starting gates right behind behind coach.  Matt's a pretty calm dude, never really on the rollercoaster....which makes his presence a postive one before a race and I was sure this would be a steady wheel to follow as we rolled out of town. 

Photo Credit: Linda Guerrette
The sun was still waking up and Commercial Street was absolutely buzzing.  There's a special kind of energy that surrounds this race and you can feel it from the moment you set foot on the ground in Emporia. I waited in anticipation as they called up some of my competition and embraced the reality that this was a much more competitive field than the previous year.  I knew a spot on the podium would be coveted, but I also knew that 206 miles was a long way to go and a lot can happen in that many miles.  I took a deep breath and within minutes we were rolling slowly out of town as fans lining the street cheered us on our way!   I was pleased to see the pace was a bit slower than last year's start and I stayed calm as we cautiously made our way through some of the first mud puddles. Things were seeming better than last year until , well until they weren't....

All of the sudden riders in front of me began pulling over to the side of the road dropping like flies.  The mud wasn't nearly as bad as last year, but it was enough to scatter the grass with hundreds of riders, myself included.  Not again! I initially thought as my chain dropped. I pulled off to put it back on, promising myself I would walk the rest of the rest of the mud.  I couldn't get the chain to stay on the chainring and I had no idea what was wrong.  Looking up I saw coach walking with his bike.  I did the most logical thing I could think of and joined another random guy in a standing water pond and proceeded to splash water all over my derailleur and remove all the cake like mud from my tires.  Then, to my surprise, the chain stayed on!! I was freaking elated!!!  I picked up my bike and walked rest of the mud section praying it would work when I started to ride, soon enough I was back in the saddle feeling like some kind of survivor.  Thankfully that was the worst of it and the rest of the course was smooth sailing.  Except, I was on the chase - a different place from last year, where I had faired pretty well in the mud.  I slowly chipped my way through the field respecting the distance and the anticipated heat and wind. 

Photo Credit: Matt Fowler - Gravel Guru
Soon I was having a total blast, loving the views and the rolling prairies that occupy the first 50 miles of the race. I was holding a strong pace, smiling, and pointing at all of the running cows!!  This part of the course is so beautiful that I seriously can't believe we only have to drive 8 hours to experience it! 
Look at all these cats drafting off me through the creek crossing! :)
Photo Credit: Matt Fowler - Gravel Guru
I shared some miles with some good friends on this part of the course and was feeling absolutely awesome as I rolled into the first check point to be greeted by both Tom and Danielle's mechanic from GRBC, Ted.  Ted had offered to help me with some mechanical pit support and he was absolutely amazing.  I left that aid station in what I thought was about 6th place on a bike that felt nearly brand new!

It was an out and back leaving the aid station and I especially loved being able to exchange cheers with those that I recognized!  I found some good poeple to ride with and then a few miles later "POP" there went my tire, flat like a pancake.  I think I might have actually laughed, because this is epitome of Dirty Kanza.  The flint gravel here is horribly sharp.  I immediately looked down at my watch and made a goal to try to fix this flat in 10 minutes.  I knew I must have shredded the tire because it went flat so quickly.  I assessed and instantly found a huge gash that looked like someone had stabbed my tire with a pocket knife! (thanks Nick!) Woah, that's not good I thought, and then I remembered that I had packed a couple road tire boots.  I'd never booted a tire before, however, I confidently reassured all the racers that passed that I had everything I needed :)  In all honestly I only kind of knew what I was doing, but somehow it worked!   About 13 minutes later my tire was holding air and I was back on the trail feeling like the awesomest little bike mechanic in the world. Seriously...  I booted my own freaking tire!!! The stokemeter was sky high!

The next 40 or so miles are mostly a blur, but I remember passing a few gals, one bonking and another fixing a flat and a 3rd just because I was riding faster. I  believe I spent most of this section riding in a couple groups. I was nailing my nutrition plan and for the most part I was feeling pretty solid as I rolled into Eureka for checkpoint 2 at 102 miles. 

Photo Credit: Ted Stephany - Sound Probiotics
I was greeted by what seemed like a massive pit crew with everyone asking me what I needed.  I asked Ted for my spare Hed Ardennes rear wheel (thanks Brendan!) and he got to work on my bike.  I was sad to hear that Matt had suffered a race ending mechanical in the mud, but happy to hear that Danielle was feeling solid. Tom wiped the mud off my arms, sprayed on more sunscreen and stuffed ice packs in my sports bra and my back pocket.  THEY FELT AMAZING!! What a great idea! Ted worked on my bike and Brendan and Scott filled my pockets with snacks and a new spare tube kit. Tom swapped out my Hydrapak and told me I was in 3rd place!  I couldn't freaking believe it,  I was smiling from ear to ear - I mean I felt like a gosh darn millionare! 

It was a little quiet leaving Eureka.  We were heading right into the wind, and most around me were hurting and soft pedaling.  It seemed as though most of the people I was riding with with were still back at the aid station.  I managed to grab the tandem wheel of Michigan racers, Elliot and Sally.  They were all smiles with good energy and helped set a nice pace for us in the beginning.  Unfortunately about 10 miles into this 3rd leg "PSSST" and I looked down to see my tire slowly losing air.  Seriously, what is the deal?!   This time I pulled over and realized the gash was less severe and barely loosing sealant so I first attempted to seal it with a couple CO2 cartridges only to realize that the sealant wasn't quite holding.  I finally added a tube, and again booted the tire and was on my way.  I had been passed by only 2 girls during this time and was able to regain my 3rd position fairly quickly.  Soon after that my group came up on Carl.....who was hurting :(  We made our way across the water at miles 130 and then shortly after that things started to get pretty nasty for me.

Suddenly my somach was a total mess!  I tried to drink more water first to see if it would settle, but nope.  So then I tried to drink more dice.  Oh man....I spent the next 20 miles basically watching the miles tick by ever so slowly on my Garmin.  I started obsessing over the math and how many odd hours of suffering might remain.  There was no talking going on around me and believe it or not, even smilling was difficult.

Photo Credit: Linda Guerrette
As I passed Linda I started hoping I might not see any photographers, cuz woah! I was fixated on pickle juice - seriously it's all I could think about. Nick (my favorite mechanic ever had convinced me Friday night that pickle juice was a good idea... so on an impulse I had purchased a small jar of pickles and threw them in Tom's car.).  I was clocking miles under 10mph when I rolled into Madison at mile 161 I was literally a HOT MESS!  Seeing Tom waving me in was the best feeling ever. I needed his smile and his supportive energy, because it's the best in all the land. I swear this man is an angel, and he believes I'm capable of so much more than I do. He gave me another couple ice packs and I was also surprised and relieved to see my coach in the pit!

He had to end his race early and yet was there at a time when I really freaking needed it.  When you work with a coach for more than 3 years, they get to learn a lot about you...they see you at your best, and they see you at your worst. There was no hiding it at this point - I was hurting. 
Photo Credit: Tricia Fynewever Freeman
I sat down in the chair for the first time ever in a long race and I remember expressing that my stomach was a mess and that I didn't know what to do.

Photo Credit: Tricia Fynewever Freeman
I wanted to cry, but instead I drank the pickle juice and it tasted AMAZING, so I drank some more and then some more, and then some more, and then I laughed that I was probably going to blow pickle juice vom all over the course. 

Photo Credit: Tricia Fynewever Freeman
Coach told me to just keep drinking water until  my stomach felt better. I voiced that I didn't think I was going to beat the sun - a big goal of mine. He argued back  "c'mon you're gonna beat the sun"  They told me I was still in 3rd and I still couldn't believe it.  I  said "I know I will finish, but this is not going to be easy" Coach said, "just keep pedaling." 

Photo Credit: Tricia Fynewever Freeman
5 minutes had passed and soon I was back on my bike.  After a few miles I started to feel a little better and as a result the first hour went by pretty quickly. The next 2 hours however..... WOAH! they were downright excruciatingly painful. At this point I could no longer take ANYTHING in. Even water would upset my stomach to no end. I seriously was putting Red Bull and Coke in my mouth swishing it around and then spitting it out.  I had rememered reading somewhere that this played some kind of trick on your brain.  Again there were people scattering the sides of the trail sitting in the shade.  I wanted to join them. Just keep pedaling.... I even passed some 100 mile racers, one gal in particular was dry heaving right at the inside of a turn. I passed the 200 mile marker and cursed the amazing race directors for making this one 206 miles.  Those last 6 miles were brutally tough. I was soft pedaling and holding on like a thread with a mouth full of cotton. I was passed by at least 20 dudes in the final 40 miles, but the math told me that if I just kept on pedaling I was going to beat the sun!  I prayed I wouldn't be caught by another female racer and  got one last boost of energy as I crested the last punch of a climb into the town of Emporia!

The finish chute was lined with tons and tons of people!  I picked up speed and couldn't hold back the smile....Tom and Ted were off the ground arms in the air jumping for me, I managed a serious fist bump and felt my eyes well with tears!!   I crossed the line and was greeted by Kristi, LeLan and Jim - the most genuine of race directors I've had the opportunity to cross paths with. Naturally I slobbered Kristi with my best sweaty, salty, muddy mess of a hug.

I couldn't believe it...I had beat the sun and managed a 3rd spot on the podium with a time of 14:26.  This finish line was pretty special and sharing this moment with my main cat was about as good as it gets.

Photo Credit: Mike Riemer - Salsa Cycles

This was easily the hardest race I've ever done. I've never experienced heat or or stomach pain like that for that many hours.  It's one thing to suffer for an hour or two, but it's another to suffer for 5 or 6 hours....that was something else.  It was epic and it left me wrecked and sprawled out on Commercial Street for at least the next 2 hours. Surely long enough to hear Carl Ring's name as he crossed the finish line :) 

"I have a feeling we'll meet again in Emporia" - Carl Ring

That experience was pretty damn special, and truthfully, I'm not sure where you go from here....

But for now, it's to the couch and enjoying all of those things that I love away from my bike, which is still full of gravel (Doh!)

Huge congratulations to all of you that found the finish line on Saturday when there was a DNF rate of 41%. I'm certain you all have some kind of nasty, stubborn determination deep inside. And to those of you who were forced off the race due to mechanicals and/or heat exhaustion - I know you'll cross that finish line next time and I also trust that your feeling of accomplishment will be so much greater than any of us can ever imagine.  For this reason, I envy you.

I'm filled with so much emotion and grattitude right now.  So many people came together to make this experience a reality.  I'm so grateful for Tom and his neverending suppport and encouragement. He's the most selfless, beautiful person I've ever met.

Photo Credit: Mike Riemer - Salsa Cycles

I'm grateful for all you and your support - Your energy is utterly contagious. I love cycling and what what it allows me to learn about myself.  We all get something a little different out of sport.  For me, nothing really tops the way it feels to battle, to perservere and to eventually prevail.  I thrive off brutal conditions and find way more satisfaction in the suffering and the perserverence, than I do in the end result.  Thank you Jim, LeLan, Kristi and the rest of the Dirty Kanza crew for reminding me that I'm capable of so much more than I realize.

Until next time...