I know we are not in Kansas anymore, but I did return the Queen of the Kanza. I didn’t even have to click my ruby red slippers to do so.
The Dirty Kanza 200 is legendary and with all folklores of this stature, sometimes facts are marginalized. I would like to first and foremost correct that this iconic gravel race before gravel races were cool is actually 206 miles. Not 200 miles. That being said, I don’t think I am going to get #DK206 trending anytime soon. We can stick with #DK200 and the legend remains. It is also worth noting that I climbed almost 9,000 feet in the 206 miles. Kansas is not flat, I didn’t see any flying monkeys, but I did wake up the following morning feeling like a house landed on me.
Dirty Kanza takes place in Emporia, Kansas, the heart of the Midwest, and the jewel of the Flint Hills. Gravel racing has been increasing its popularity over the last few years, and I was suffering from a classic case of the FOMO (fear of missing out). I didn’t want to just go ride gravel, I wanted to experience the magic of the Dirty Kanza.
With the blessing from my trade team, Cylance Pro Cycling, and support from sponsors such as Cannondale, Speedplay, Lezyne, Camelbak, and Chamois Butt’r, I was locked and loaded. Then, just like all intimidating events you pretend you didn’t choose to sign up for by your own free will, I compartmentalized it. I put the DK200 in a box as I focused on the road for the first part of the season. From the Pan Am Championships to the Amgen Tour of California, suddenly I realized that Kanza was just barely a week away.
I began frantically aligning all the necessary equipment. I could have saved on expedited shipping if I didn’t ignore the fact I was going to the Kanza in the first place. As the supplies started coming, Things got real. The army was assembling. It felt like a part-time job organizing and researching all possible conditions and solutions. I have had limited experience riding on the dirt and became a sponge to all information I could source. My apologies to all my friends and support that I would text at late hours asking random questions about tires, sealant, and packs. It is good when your contact list has multiple winners of the Dirty Kanza and true champions and professionals in it.
What was I doing? I had never ridden my bike 200 miles, and definitely not 206 miles. The longest distance I had ridden at the time was 122 miles, and that was over 3 years ago.
200 miles is daunting. 206 miles on gravel? Yikes.
The best advice? Make time for you preparation and no matter your luck or your results, you just need to have fun out in the Flint Hills. It turns out though that the DK200 is simply a race against yourself. It has to be your race to challenge yourself to push your limits. I learned this approach when I took part in the Dirty Kanza Women’s Gravel Forum a few days before the event. There was a huge push from the community and Gravel City Adventure and Supply Co to get 200 women riding the 200 miles of the Dirty Kanza. Mission accomplished. The panel had an all-star cast with the likes of Rebecca Rusch, Janel Holcomb and Selene Yeager. I learned most of my “tricks” for the Kanza as I was on-stage sharing my view meanwhile selfishly soaking in all the inspiration and knowledge from the panel and audience. Strong women helping other women is the best.
Bonus Tips and Tricks:
I was advised to break up the ride into four 50 mile rides. Granted, one had to be 56, which actually ended up being 62 with how the checkpoints were set up, but I digress. I was ready: Cannondale Slate. Camelbak. Lezyne GPS. Check, check and check!
50 miles #1 = Dirty Kanza Vacation
The race started and it was a fast and furious. I loved every single minute of it. We had one dismount section over some muddy conditions, and it was pretty smooth sailing into the first check point. I was merrily following the quickly thinning field on the white flint roads. I was already the first woman on the road and I was determined to stay with the lead group.
50 miles #2 = Competitive Advantage
I was really enjoying my “free speed” from the men as we clocked 100 miles all on gravel in less than 5 hours. I didn’t have a huge buffer as the race leader, but I was focusing on hydrating, eating and heckling. I did inform some of the men that they had a competitive advantage to take their natural breaks so easily off the bike. The pace started getting hot again, and I needed to settle in for my own race. Good, I said, you only have a century left. Never in my dreams would I have thought those words would come out of my mouth. I don’t even ride centuries that often. Who says that?
50 miles #3 = was really the 62 longest miles ever
It was a very long and arduous road to the third check point. This is where I did began to really benefit from the Lefty shock on my bike. So much comfort. I was very alone and in a place where it became socially acceptable in my party of one to talk to myself. Out loud. I found my inner crazy. Enough said. And you thought scarecrows weren’t supposed to talk.
50 miles #4 = Don’t Make Call My Flying Monkeys
At this point, whatever works for you, do it. My inner crazy was no longer internalized. She was flying high for all the world to see. OK, it was mainly cows as the witnesses. I left the 3rd checkpoint and managed to forget to grab new bottles and then proceeded to go off course a few times. Did I mention this race is unsupported and you need to even navigate for yourself? Try telling that to my crazy. My navigation worked flawlessly. My brain however did not. If only I had a brain at that distance.
Amanda Nauman, 2x DK200 winner, is a tenacious competitor and fellow Carmichael Training Systems athletes and I knew she would be tough. She was hot on my heels towards the end and she caught me about 20 miles to the finish. She rode a strong and paced race. I didn’t see her having any crazy. As we were riding into the finish, I couldn’t believe such a long journey had lead us here at this exact moment. I understand it is the same course, but these are two solo efforts converging within the last miles. Two individual races becoming one. Hey, I warned you that my crazy was very apparent at this moment.
No one plans to sprint at the end of 206 miles, but we did make the race exciting. I was able to clinch a very dramatic victory while breaking the course record previously held by Rebecca Rusch. As I crossed the finish line, the first person to spray me with champagne was none other than the Queen of Pain herself, Rebecca. I had just broken her record, yet she couldn’t have been more excited. I rode 206 miles in 11:41:40. This is a moment I will never forget. Rebecca and I share the same coach, and she had patiently give me many tips, strategies, and encouragement for the race. More importantly, she is a dear friend and a stellar athlete than I admire greatly. She lowers the barrier to women’s cycling by encouraging others to keep challenging themselves without the fear of judgement or failure. She was why I was here. The champagne burned my eyes.
My race was complete and I had made it over to the other side. Frankly, I was almost more proud of this effort than almost any other result. The Dirty Kanza is truly a pure race against yourself. Yes, you have 3 checkpoints, but other than that, you have only you. You meet that crazy, you throw her a party and then you stay at the finish line until the wee hours of the morning to cheer on everyone else meeting their crazy out there too. True story. Yes, I broke a record. But the best part was the celebration for the next 9 hours with my new “grinded” community. It isn’t always where you go, but who you are with along the way. The main street of Emporia turns into a gigantic block party as we stay up all night to rejoice with every single finisher. Whoever finishes the Dirty Kanza is a champion and winning their own race.
I bet I will return to the Dirty Kanza. After all, there is no place like home. We crazy people like to stay together.