Two-hundred miles of unforgiving gravel, unrelenting sun and ceaseless wind in the perpetually undulating Flint Hills of Kansas. This gravel endurance road race must beckon to those who, whether conscious of it or not, want to push themselves, test themselves, experience themselves in a profound way. It is those shared desires that create such a great sense of camaraderie, almost a brotherhood, among cyclists that dare to face the unknowns that lie out there in the hills, or perhaps lie in the darkest depths of ourselves.
My own experience at the Dirty Kanza 200 seems a fitting topic for my first Adrenaline Zen blog entry, since after fifteen hours of keeping my body busy, I can say that I found vast expanses of time to quiet my mind. The Alan Watts quote below succinctly expresses much of my 15 hours and does a fine job in setting the tone of this entry.
“Zen does not confuse spirituality with thinking about God while one is peeling potatoes. Zen spirituality is just to peel the potatoes.”
― Alan W. Watts
Be in, be with the moment, whatever you are doing, be with it.
It sounds far easier than it is.
Have you ever noticed how doing something you’ve never done before holds you in the present? It’s like seeing through a child’s eyes; everything is new and curious, so vibrant and exciting. My own heightened ‘present-ness’ or peeling the potatoes as it were, started with packing for the event and grew stronger, the closer to the race we got.
Our Thursday leading up to the event was spent in Lawrence, a cultural oasis in Kansas. Our day was filled with bike building, shop talk, bumping into old friends and making new ones. Sunflower Outdoor and Bike was abuzz with so many familiar faces, it felt like a home away from home. That’s one of my favorite things about the cycling community, the true sense of feeling welcome wherever you are.
Now, if you’re into cycling at all, you’ll know what a treat it was that Dan Hughes, Rebecca Rush and Ted King joined the Sunflower Outdoor and Bike afternoon pre-ride in the gravel outskirts of town. It’s not often you get to share a Strava ride with the greats. If you ever get to Lawrence, be sure to check out Sunflower Outdoor and Bike and say hi to Dan for me.
Dan, the Gravel King and his Mathra Crux
Thursday night Kris and I headed to our favorite Thai place in Lawrence. It was a delicious way to end the day spent eating massive amounts of food. So. Much. Food. Friday was even more caloric and at one point I said to Kris that I didn’t want to eat anymore, but he told me I’d be glad to “have it in the bank.” I trust him, more than anyone, so I ate. And ate. And ate some more. I can truly say that I’ve never been more present with a meal than when those two eggs at IHOP Friday afternoon stared me down and dared me to eat them.
Friday night before the race, Kris and I set up a time to meet our support “crew,” Conner. He was a local kid from Lawrence that had just graduated this year. Kris had called him at one point to get us all acquainted and Conner sent a text back saying that he couldn’t answer because he was at graduation. Conner, I’m glad you didn’t answer! Although Kris had lined up our race support months ago, it fell through just a few weeks from the race and we were left scrambling. Kris immediately sent out a wave of emails trying to find a replacement, the race was just a couple of weeks away now.
Kris reached out to a few friends, including Carl Ring, a fellow racer that was exceedingly grateful for the ride we gave him to his hotel after he completed last year’s race. Carl hails from Kansas and was able to get us connected to Conner just in time. Thank you Carl!
Carl still looking strong at Dr. Pepper Ranch. Photo by Linda Guerrette
Back to race prep. Conner and I were in the same boat, neither of us had done this before. We were both learning from Kris, our gravel guru, about the food, the water, the sunscreen, the bike needs. It was a lot for us both to soak in. I pretty much just handed it all to the Universe and figured it would work itself out somehow. I mean, I didn’t have a team pulling for me, I didn’t have a pit crew or a coach at my check points. I just needed someone there to give me some cold water, a bit of food and point me back to the roads.
After one last calorie dense meal Friday night, we arrive at the hotel and I immediately begin to feel restless. Wait, that’s not how I felt, but since the entire hotel feels restless I started to take on the energy of restlessness. I remind myself to breath, just breath and let it all go. We get to our room, lay out our gear for the morning and set the alarm for 4:30am before turning in. I know I fell asleep visualizing the next day; the Friday forecast called for a warm 83F and 11-14mph winds. I could work with that. Sleep is lost and found throughout the night until nature set of its own 3am alarm; sideways rain, wind and hail.
I remember thinking: This changes the game. This changes the game. Boy, does this change the game.
The 3am storm became the entire hotel’s wake-up call. People start milling around, waiting for breakfast to be served at 4am, including us. Finally around 4:30, Kris and I wander to breakfast supplemented with our own foods, and we eat more calories than I think I would normally eat in at least 2 meals. I don’t want to eat it all, but Kris’s wise words about nutrition and racing are echoing through my head, so I eat it all and take powdered donut for the road.
Kris and I roll up to the start line at about 5:30am and there are people everywhere; Kris and I, a number of our cycling friends and about 1100 other brave and/or brainsick cyclists. The volunteers on roller skates hold up 12, 14, and 16-hour time posters, guiding us to line up according to when we think we will realistically finish. My second goal is to beat the sun, so I line up in the middle of the 12-14-hour crowd, hoping to finish before 8:45pm.
Photo by David Leiker
The energy and excitement was truly palpable, yet people were acting so causal. The air was cool and the sheer number of people on the side of the road at the start line was inspiring. I gave Kris a good luck kiss before he took off and lined up with the lead group, and with that, the race started at exactly 6am.
At first things seem no different than any other race; some people are squirrely, some are just cruising, and some people are far too eager, trying to weave their way through hundreds of riders for a better position, even though they have 204 more miles to do so. I’m just spinning, people watching and enjoying myself. This only lasts for 2 miles on the pavement, for when we turn onto the first section of gravel, we’re greeted by a wet, muddy mess. I’m immediately back to peeling potatoes, zapped back into the present that must be dealt with. Only a few meters in, I see a derailleur lying in the middle of the mud, people were pulling off to the side with mechanical issues and others were stopped in the middle of the muck with broken chains. Ridiculous mayhem and we were literally 8 minutes into the ride.
It was at this point that I remembered that this race eats bikes and confident souls for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. To be clear, it is a race of fitness, but it’s just as much a race of biology/physiology and good fortune. And let’s not forget, how will your mental state hold up? I start to pedal gingerly, listening for any unusual noises coming from my bike and at one point decided to pull over and clean the mud from my drive train and other odd places the mud seems to be clinging to with great tenacity. I had a brief flashback to last year in the 100 mile race where we had to carry our bikes for 3 miles through a brutal section of mud and I wondered if I could find it in me to do that again. This was the first mental test I faced that day. But I kept moving, as did many others, through a few more miles of water and mud until we seemed to be out of the lowest lands, at least for now.
Mile 2. Photo by TBL Photography
The air is still cool and I’m enjoying myself for the first 25 miles, until I ride through a large puddle at the bottom of a hill and hear the unmistakable sound of a rock hitting my tire just right to give me my first flat. Again I hear Kris in my head telling me to stay calm, to not freak out and just change it as quickly as I could. I was changing that rear flat in record time until it came time to get the tire back on. My previously injured right hand/thumb did not have the strength to get the last few inches of the tire over the lip of the wheel. I had a tire iron, but with the wet and mud, it kept slipping and would not seat the tire. I asked a couple of guys around me who had also flatted if they could help me get the tire on, and unbelievably, they both fixed their own flats and rode away. I went back to my tire iron and eventually got it back on, but it was painful watching 13-15 minutes of riders go by.
This was my first experience with the two types of men that ride the Kanza… those that have a kind and supportive attitude when you pass them or ride near them, and those who grimace and scowl when you smile at them as you ride by, or they try to drop you if you try to grab a wheel.
I get rolling again, but only for a few miles, when I bomb a beautiful downhill and hit a large rock at just the wrong angle which causes me to fishtail back and forth before eventually going head over heels into a rocky ditch. I distinctly remember thinking, “well, this could be it” as I dove over my handlebars, headfirst into hope. Hope that I would somehow come out ok. To my amazement, when I’m done tumbling, I jump up, check myself and my bike and we both get back on the road together, happy to be in once piece.
Only 164 more miles to go.
When I reach the river crossing, I dismount and eagerly drown my legs and feet in the cold water. Once safely across, I climb the muddy exit, mount the machine I’ve bonded with and finally start to settle in. Now I’m in my zone and I start to really notice the immense landscape. I slowly scan my surroundings; there are too many shades greens to count and the tall grasses dance for my entertainment. I get lost in this new environment and ‘wake up’ to discover that I only have a few more miles to go before the first planned stop.
Kris with the lead group at the river crossing
I make it to the first checkpoint in Madison, feeling pretty good, despite the two mishaps, but I can’t find my support van. I rode up and down the aisles looking for that van, trying not to get frustrated. When I finally find it, Conner is nowhere to be found, so I lube my own chain, put 3 (warm) water bottles on my bike, grab another tube and CO2, eat my homemade protein bars and head back out. About 3 minutes out I realize I just pulled a rookie move. I don’t have a CO2 cartridge head so I have to go back to the check point to pick it up. I could risk it, but if I were to get a flat and not have that, I’d be up the creek. And goodness knows I might not be able to depend on the kindness of a gentleman rider.
The next 52 miles are not easy, but they go by relatively quickly even though I’m by myself much of the time. I continue to digest the waves of dirt that disappear on the horizon, marveling at the way I feel so drawn to it, despite the pain it will inevitably make me feel. I get caught by others once in a while, and sometimes I grab a wheel for a time, but I’m mostly riding at a pace that I know I can ride at for hours and hours. Goal number one is to finish and I refuse to let my ego get in the way of that.
At checkpoint two in Eureka, Conner says I seem to be faring a bit better than Kris, who had unfortunately not had the proper hydration and nutrition in the first leg of the race. Guess I wasn’t the only one that made a rookie move.
This race is out to get you in one way or another and there were more than a few broken souls that quit due to improper hydration and nutrition. But Conner said Kris was still out there, and knowing that gave me a little extra to want to keep moving too.
I rolled out of checkpoint two, 102 miles into the race, and straightway was met with a headwind that would prove to be the undoing of many. One hundred and four miles to get back to the start, and this headwind would be taunting me the entire way. All I could do was be in the here and now, with my bike, with my legs, with the hills, with the wind, with my thirst. I was painfully present for the next 61 miles. 61 miles to my next promised land. I was with/within every second of those punishing 61 miles.
I’d like to take a moment here to point out that for some reason, we as humans tend to grow and learn more through suffering than we do through ease and joy. Have you ever noticed that? I was no exception on this day. For almost 5 hours I was nowhere but in the now, facing my deepest doubts and darkness, and digging, searching for my brightest light.
Miles and miles alone, into the unappeasable wind. Talk about a metaphor for life.
About half way through the third leg, I realized I wasn’t going to beat the sun. My pace had dropped drastically and there was no relief to be had. I’d pedal for what felt like miles, but my Garmin would constantly prove me wrong and show that I had gone a mere quarter mile or half a mile. It was as if I were stuck in slow motion. Eventually I made peace with the fact that I wouldn’t beat the sun and told myself to just keep pedaling, that I was still going to finish before 10pm. I’m convinced that the peaks and valleys of emotions I lived through during this leg were more exhausting than my actual physical effort.
When I finally, miraculously, hit the third checkpoint, I felt lighter even though I was utterly depleted. I knew I still had that headwind to face, but I was only 46 miles from completing a goal I had set for myself almost 2 years ago, and that gave me some juice to ride on. I asked Conner about Kris again, and he said Kris was about the same time ahead of me as he was at the last checkpoint, and I was glad to know he was going to finish. I rustled up a little extra energy, made myself eat a couple of Little Debbie fudge brownies and washed them down with the rest of the beer Kris left behind. Not my normal food fare, but those brownies pack a serious punch. From then on I made myself eat every 30 minutes and drink three times as often.
I rolled out of the last checkpoint, back into the wind, with all of the tenacity I could muster. Barring any unforeseen issue, I was going to finish this thing. I rode by myself for the first 15 miles or so of the last leg before Carl snuck up next to me. He slowed a bit to chat and eventually a few others caught up and we had a rotating paceline that did a pretty good job sticking together, despite the randomness of how we all felt on the bike. It was fascinating to watch how each of us would go through times of feeling strong and then moments later would feel mentally and physically defeated. We all experienced it but we kept one another going… until we were stopped by the train.
Fortune and fate. This race has it all. Oh well, it’s all a part of the game. We all lost fair bit of time at the train which was dead on the tracks, but once we finally got rolling again it felt fast and furious. Notice how I said “felt fast?” We most certainly were not going that fast, but the wind had subsided and we all felt spunky because of it. Then Carl asked me when I was going to attack and I told him I didn’t have it in me so he took off with a few others and I kept on with a manageable pace. I laughed when I saw the last hill to get into town… they make you suffer right until the end. When I finally reached the chute of people cheering us on to the finish line, I soaked up the energy they were giving away so freely.
Kris was there, waiting for me as soon as I crossed, and all I could do was smile. I had just spent hours upon hours in various states of mental and physical anguish, present with the highs and lows of not only my physical abilities, but present with all the darkness and light within myself, and I couldn’t stop smiling.
Truth is, I’m still smiling.
Adrenaline Zen: that indescribable experience you have when you are with/in the energy of being in motion. It's the high, the flow, the calm that’s felt when you busy the body and it quiets the mind.