The Dirty Kanza 200: 200+ miles of largely self-supported bicycle racing on gravel, dirt roads and cow pastures in central Kansas. This event is appropriately named; it is indeed dirty. Yes, it is dirty in the sense that you will leave with dirt on your legs, arms and face. But the Dirty Kanza also plays dirty. It will beat you up, kick you when you’re down and definitely plays by its own rules. Swiftwick’s National Sales Manager of Cycling, Grant Castle, took on the Dirty Kanza this past Memorial Day weekend and shares his grueling experience with the extremely Dirty Kanza.
“This is a question I have asked myself too many times to count. Why go for that ride in the rain? Why run that 50k trail race with nothing but beer and long nights at the office for training? Why do that first 5k run when the last time you ran it was chasing your three year old son to catch him from entering the street? Why take the risk? That is a great question really and one that I am not sure I can answer, but I’ll try.
The Dirty Kanza 200 has been a part of my life since 2009 when I toed the line along with 100 other strangers from the parking lot of a single star hotel in the middle of rural Kansas. The usual story here- several riding buddies get together and come up with a plan. One has heard of a race- a gravel race that involves unpaved roads and unforeseeable adventures in a place that none of us has gone before. This represents a chance. A chance to be kids again. A chance to revisit those feelings of awe and experience the unfettered joy of seeing new things and trying to keep up, and succeeding, and failing. These are things that elude us “adults” in a world of deadlines and obligations and “grown up” commitments. This race is a grand escape, if even for just a couple days.
I remember that first start as my group of miscreants burst to the front of the neutral roll out of town. I remember the cow that literally rammed his bovine head into my buddy’s wheel in the middle of a road, tens of miles from any buildings. I remember the feeling when we made it to the town at the 100 mile or so mark, the one where I commented that I had never felt so spry after 100 miles of riding, gravel and dirt roads be damned. I also remember the utter despair I felt upon falling off the back of my mini peloton and sitting on the rough stones of a rail crossing as innumerable tons of steel and smoke passed in the form of a freight train. I remember the bittersweet joy of an offered ride back to town a few miles later when all I had was emptiness, and the fatigue was all I could imagine.
It is funny how we humans have the ability to forget- to erase our hard drives of those things that should leave the biggest dents. It was not even a day before I was considering my next attempt.
In 2010 I “raced” again with the professed intent to simply race the first half and then act as support for my friends. I did, and it still hurt. In 2011, I intended on finishing, only to die a slow and painful death on a slight rise in full view of an angry sun after giving way too much of myself in earlier efforts to show my cycling prowess to strangers. In 2012, my efforts were cut short when, in perhaps the best form of my cycling life, I was hit by a car while commuting home from work. I went back to The Kanza that year, but only as support for those able to take on the challenge. 2013 offered another surgery to address the damage done by mis-adventure with that motorist. 2014 was lost to other obligations.
The year 2015 was my come back year. The year that I would go back and slay the dragon. The year that I would make amends for opportunities lost, for chances missed and for mistakes made. 2015 was the year that I would address the rolling hills of Kanza with a voice loud and proud. I would arrive with the commensurate fitness and a swagger buoyed by months of effort and knowledge of what it took to conquer 200 miles of the unpaved and unexpected. Guess what? Life took over from there. My training suffered the fate of many plans. It died a slow and quiet death, punctuated by work commitments and the joy of being a dad and husband. When posed with the question of undertaking a training ride or being present with my kids and wife, I chose the latter. It was not ideal Kanza training, but I wouldn’t trade those choices for any podiums.
I arrived at the 2015 Ten Year Anniversary Edition of The Dirty Kanza 200 in the worst physical condition of any of my previous attempts, but I had the best outlook. Perhaps I was delusional, but I was the most confident in completing this monster I had ever been. Plus, I had a secret weapon (actually two secret weapons, but more on that later). Jeffy had committed to being my guide, my sensi, and my life coach through this journey. Jeffy is Jeff Scott, a 51-year-old paramedic that had completed the Dirty Kanza 200 on three other occasions, including what was arguably the toughest year in its history- a year when 350 brave souls toed the line but only 68 finished. I call Jeffy “the closer.”
We arrived in Emporia, KS under dry but gray skies. The rain was the buzz around the event, as it had rained all week. Flooding and course changes were a real possibility. The weather for race day looked cool as compared the 90+ degree temps of my previous attempts. We could expect cloudy skies and low to mid 60’s.
4:00 AM arrives quickly, and we are parked and ready for the 6:00 AM start with little fanfare. The start is much more crowded than my previous experience, as this event continues to grow at an incredible pace. Jeffy and I settled in near the back of the 16-hour finisher’s section and wait for the start. We are off in a cacophony of shifting gears and shoes interfacing with pedals along with the nervous talk and chatter that is inherent in these things. We settle in and pedal toward the outskirts of town following the pack lead by a police escort. As is Kanza’s nature, the unexpected happens when a freight train crosses our route, and the entire peloton is stopped as it passes. Just a few moments later we re-commence our pedaling and hit the gravel at a nervous pace as folks seek out the smooth tracks on both sides of the road.
We settle in and pass, or are passed, dozens of times before Kanza again reminds us who is making the decisions today. Around a corner we hear feedback from spotters on course that the next section is not ride-able. It is muddy and goes on for “2.5 miles.” Okay, here is the first test in this long exam.
We dismount and recognize quickly that riding would be fruitless and likely to result in frustration, extra work and potentially broken bikes. We shoulder our bikes and commence a fast march, weaving in and out of others while trying to find that elusive ideal way to carry a bike well designed for riding atop, but terribly built for carry.
Around another corner and looking ahead to a rise in the road, the sight is surreal- people walking in various states of misery and despair as far as the eye can see. This mud would end 45 minutes later with a joyful but somewhat incredulous transition to dryer roads. The end of the long hike did, however, spelled the end of race for many, as they cashed out and took an alternate route back to the highway and back to their lives without Kanza, mud, B roads and uncertainty.
We pedaled with purpose as the previous section had laid waste to our average speed and any plans of a preconceived time to finish were lost in sticky mud and twenty pound shoes. That first water stop was a chance to refill water bottles, eat and prepare for the next section that would take us to Madison, KS and the first of two official support locations. It was 44 miles away, and the B roads and water crossings were ever present as this year edition of the Dirty Kanza included a large amount of roads traveling through private property, punctuated by interested cows and roads only marginally accessible via four wheel drive vehicle.
It was on this leg that I started noticing the Kanza casualties. Folks with that hollow look in their eyes, folks who had eaten at the buffet with a bit too much enthusiasm or had fallen on bad luck either mechanically of physically. I know these folks for I had been one of them in years past.
We made it to the first aid station with a careful and cautious smile. Sort of like that feeling you might get when you think you may have just beaten the house with kings and nines, but the dealer’s cards are yet to be uncovered. We obliterated some extra delicious PB&J as well as refilling bottles and absolutely killing a Coke, frat style. Heck, I think I even considered crushing the empty can on my forehead for good measure. KANZA!
We left the aid station with resolve, knowing that the push to the next neutral water was 47 miles of uncertainty. Those miles came and went, sometimes with speed, other times with pain. We climbed some pitches that others walked, and while I understood that I was taking withdrawals from my account that I may regret later, I still spent with a smile as we crested those steep, loose grades. I had resolved that this was my Kanza.
This middle 80’ish miles was the sum total of my race. In years past, this is where the wheels would fall off, where the pain and doubt would announce itself, never with a loud knock at the door, but slowly as if it had been at the party the whole night, simply just standing in the shadows and waiting to tell that final joke.
We made the final neutral water stop, and I began smelling the barn. I figured just 32 miles to that last aid station. I’d eat like a dirty and disheveled king, smelling of sweat and dirt and mud and cow excrement. I’d re-charge and get on the road that final 43 miles back to town. Barring any unforeseen circumstance, we’d make that 10:30 PM cut off and be on our way to finishing Kanza. No small feat, but I felt good and while my back was a mess and my hand, maimed in that previously mentioned run in with an errant motorist, was absolutely screaming at me, my energy and my spirit were still full of swagger. We rode those miles in the same way as before, stopping only to offer assistance to a rider who was in need of a cleat bolt for his shoes. Yes, a cleat bolt. A small thing, I never planned on using, but had tossed in my bag none the less. I was glad to give it when asked. It is a funny thing about Kanza, but all riders are family. Just about anyone on that course would give their last supplies to another wayfarer in need.
We went on at nightfall and joined with another rider who still had batteries for his GPS, and thus knew where we were going on an otherwise nearly unmarked course. We did have maps and cue sheets, but who could be bothered with such things that late in the game? We were met with ridiculously technical B roads that challenged our already debatable sanity and cautioned loudly to just slow down.
The roads turned to largely smooth gravel and we rode fast, or what felt like fast at mile 275. On the last 8 mile stretch, we joined up with a tandem and several others intent on getting this thing done. We rode with them the final miles, and my legs felt great. My spirit was even better as I wondered if the emotion of past failures and the sheer weight of this Kanza would overcome me at the finish.
I grabbed the trading card in my bag and clutched it as I crossed the line. That playing card was my other secret weapon. I looked at it today, and it has all the wear and tear of 200 plus miles of mud and cows and uncertainty you would expect. That playing card holds the picture of Joel Dyke, one of the fine folks that originally conceived this chaos. Joel was known as “Big Grin,” and his spirit is the only thing I know that was truly Kanza-sized. Joel lost his life last December to an accident. He left behind a wife, a son and an unborn child. He also left behind an immense group of folks that we lucky enough to stand in the shadow of his oversized smile and lust for life. I like to think that Joel let me pass and allowed my less-prepared self to get this done. I rode with his blessing. Thank you, Joel.
Back to that question I posed at the beginning of this ramble. I still do not have an unequivocal answer why I rode the Dirty Kanza, but I do have this. The Dirty Kanza 200 requires one to be present. You must reside in the space and time and place that you find yourself at every particular moment of this race. Failure to comply with this tenant results in a harsh penalty. Those head winds, they don’t care. Go ahead and force the pedals in anger and frustration, just remember that 50 or 75 miles later that check you just wrote will need to be cashed. Be annoyed at that muddy hike a bike and curse your luck and those B roads. Fuss and moan and yes, you might feel better for a minute, but again, the mortgage will be due later and the Bank of Kanza does not offer any short term refinancing or debt forgiveness programs. Kanza does not care, Kanza simply is.”
Grant was wearing the PURSUIT TWELVEs for his Kanza adventure. “The PURSUIT kept my feet comfortable the whole race. I packed an extra pair of PURSUIT FOURs, just in case, and I ended up giving them to my buddy around mile 40. His socks just weren’t cutting it.”