Spoiler alert: I finished and am currently not dead. Yay!
My first gravel century — 104.6 miles to be precise — and while “riding time” was 10mph, that’s not what counts in a gravel race. Total time is the key measure and mine averaged, ulp, over 12mph. Sheesh, though, I ain’t mad. I have the data, including splits; I know what I need to improve.
The DK offers chipped timing — a chip is imbedded in the bike tag — so a rider’s time doesn’t start until that bike rolls over a pad at the starting line. This is especially appreciated in a race with 3,000 participants — it hardly matters that I started about 15 minutes late! Nerves!
I’ve realized my first 5-10 miles I remain a bundle of nerves. It takes me awhile to calm down and get into a groove. Once I did, I was feeling pretty good. I stopped a few times early on to check on some solo riders who were stopped at the side of the road. I knew I was at the very back of the pack and I hadn’t yet seen a support vehicle. Once I’d been riding awhile I came across the sweep Jeep loading up some riders who were calling it quits, I felt better just calling to a “you OK?” to riders on the side of the road, and I kept rolling. You don’t get on the podium stopping to help people in a race, but I was many hours behind anyone who was going to be on that podium, and some of the people stopped really looked like they might need help. But I admit, even early on I started to worry about that midpoint time DQ. (My line was going to be “you don’t get on the podium stopping to help people, but you don’t get into Heaven ignoring people who need help” which I think is cute but not really what I’m trying to say.)
When I checked in at mile 54, the halfway point at Council Grove, I was happy to learn the checkpoint wouldn’t close for another 25 minutes — I’d made it! There were kids at the entrance with their hands out for high fives and this 5 or 6-year old little dude said “GOOD JOB” to each one of us. I had all of that 25 minutes, if I wanted, to rest, refuel, and relieve myself — the last in a flushing toilet, a luxury on an endurance ride.
I hadn’t even dismounted when a volunteer appeared to take my bike and offer to refill my water bottles and bring me a PB & J, a banana, a pickle, and a Payday bar. YES PLEASE. I sat at a picnic table in the shade and put my feet up on the bench. Dirty legs but I didn’t see any swelling or other alarms. It was delightful to be handed water bottles & hydration pack freshly filled with delicious cool water. I was glad I’d packed an extra water bottle in my drop bag, because I’d run out about 10 miles before the checkpoint. It was turning into a much warmer day than anything I’d trained in, because we simply hadn’t had more than a few warm days yet this year.
Drop bags can come in many forms, but in general, it’s a small bag you pack yourself and leave at registration for use at a checkpoint. Checkpoints may or may not have anything other than water – NEVER ASSUME! so the drop bags are a way you can have snacks, electrolyte powder, extra chamois butter, fresh socks, a Rick Springfield poster — whatever you think you might need at that point. For the DK 100, there’s one checkpoint, for longer rides, there are usually more, and you designate bags for that particular point in your ride. Checkpoints are the only place a support person can help you. Any help out on the course that’s not “neutral,” i.e., available for all riders, like the AMAZING FARMER WHO HAD CHAIRS & SHADE SET UP BY HER COLD WELL WATER PUMP AND THE SIGN “FREE WATER FOR RIDERS” oh yeah I’m still so grateful for that – anything not at a checkpoint that’s not offered to all will get a rider disqualified.
As the checkpoint announced, “FIVE MINUTE WARNING!” I filled up my bottle again and prepared to mount up. A woman rolled in and learned she had 5 minutes to roll back out over that checkpoint pad or she’d be DQ’d. Her face just absolutely fell and she looked so beat – but only for a moment, because she was instantly swarmed with volunteers who pulled the pack from her shoulders and the bottles from her cages; they were an Indy 500 pit crew, efficient and supportive, handing her a banana and tucking Payday bars and squares of PB & J sandwich into the feed bag on her handlebars and telling her gently but firmly she’d be better off peeing out on the course somewhere than risking DQ trying to get out and back into sweaty bike clothes in the bathroom. As I rolled out she was back on her bike and getting a hug as the bottles were stuck back in their cages and the freshly-filled hydration pack was ready for her to grab – the checkpoint volunteers cheered as she rode back over the pad with a minute to spare. (Another spoiler: her name is Jennifer, I had a chance to chat with her a few other times on the course AND I saw her the next morning — she finished too!)
The reader pads are not only at the start and finish, but also at a point a few miles from the finish, which alerts the finish line team to the race order coming into the chute. They always like knowing the order for the lead riders, right? They get the crowd pumped up and the people get excited hearing who is in front and which riders are right on their tails. When riders enter the chute, Jim announces name, event (200, 100, 50) and home town (and the crowd goes wild!)
The chute is this amazing corridor protecting the riders as we barrel to the finish, and it’s lined on both sides with the whole town standing and cheering like crazy, banging away on cowbells with adults and kids alike holding out hands for high fives from incoming riders. I mean, I was HOURS after the first place group and the cheers and welcomes and high fives were still there for me.
Food trucks and other booths are in the streets and the whole town comes out for the party. Dirty, sweaty riders mingle in the crowd, proudly sporting “finisher” tags and hang over the chute, chugging water or chocolate milk or beer and stuffing their (our) faces with walking tacos while cheering in other riders. It’s a good idea to keep moving, to keep legs from getting stiff, but at some point it’s time to head back to the motel for a shower and sleep. It’s a big giant party for DK and as tired as we are, it’s hard to leave.
I’d like to share my gear & clothing notes in a separate post but will include here a few things I learned. First: I’m a goddamned rock star, Haha, who wrote that? In all seriousness, I found the pain and then I found the strength and will to push past it. I simply wasn’t going to give in. A great bike in top form saved me. Cold well water saved me. Finding Salsa’s “Chase the Chaise” chaise / photo op at mile 80 inspired me out of a very low point. Remembering words of encouragement and support from coaches and friends buoyed me.
I found that my bike geometry isn’t quite right, because my lower back & triceps were hurting more than anything else by the end, along with my feet. My right tricep just totally gave up and would not support my upper body weight – this with 6 tough miles left in the race. Because I’m missing important abdominal muscles, I need those arms to hold me up. So those last 6 miles took me over an hour because I tried to ride flat sections one-handed and stopped multiple times to rest and stretch and massage my arms.
I may need to use different shoes for my next century. I love my snazzy teal Specialized kicks, but my feet went from sore to painful to numb toward the end. There’s a tradeoff between power (super rigid soles that transfer leg power to pedal power) and comfort. And… I think I have plantar fasciitis.
The biggest thing I learned was how to push through discomfort, pain, and the voice in my head that whispers I have no business being there. Two things in particular were those pushers: 1 – my absolute unwillingness to disappoint my Camp DK coaches and 2 – Wendi Shearer’s parting words as I reluctantly rolled away from her.
Wendi is an incredibly strong rider and a very nice person. She’d had a catastrophic mechanical failure that was unfixable on course. Her race, a second year attempting the DK 200, for which she’d trained, prepped, and planned for a year, was over. She knew I’d also attempted the 200 in 2018, and she knew that on good advice, I’d reduced my sights to the 100 this year. We talked and offered each other snacks for a few minutes before she encouraged me to go on, saying, “Finish for both of us.”
I did, Wendi. Thanks to you and Kristi and Kristen and Nick and Curt, to Aaron and Treva and Brigit and Sarah, to Jim and Lelan and all the organizers, coaches, volunteers fo Dirty Kanza and to the welcoming citizens of Emporia, especially Emmy E and also the guy I talked to at the bar who just moved there and was like, “WTF dude this shit is crazy,” I did, I finished. I motherfucking did.