[words by Clara Kelly // @claradodd]
Do you ever get a gut feeling that you can just do something? Even though it’s hard, even though it’s a bit crazy, you just know that you’ll be able to pull it off.
Dirty Kanza was my something for 2019.
After watching teammates Ally and Bri adventure to the middle of the country last year, I had major fomo. I resolved that I would enter the lottery, and give that race my all if accepted.
I entered the lottery. I signed up for the Middle GA Epic to see what an extended gravel race felt like. I signed up for the Fried Clay 200k to see what an absolutely awful day on the bike felt like. I was accepted in to the 2019 Dirty Kanza lineup.
I trained inconsistently, never on the bike when I thought I should be, set back by energy slumps, work going nuts, a shoulder injury. I rode when I could, and tried to focus on the one thing I really wanted, to just finish. Keep pedaling when you can, every bit counts.
Race weekend looked favorable--the constant rain in Kansas was letting up, the temperatures were projected to be unseasonably mild.
We made the drive out west in a day, the three of us (Megan, me and a coworker Jacky) in the Adventure Fit. I was grateful for friends and a teammate to distract me from the pre race dread already setting in.
Friday started out with a quick 10 mile shakeout. Seeing just how many people were in town was incredible. I have never been amongst so many bikes at one time. Another rider recognized our kits and rode up to tell us she’d won a GRITS shirt. I felt SO cool in that moment. Major shout outs to Allie and the BAWSE Bike Collective for making me feel like a rockstar and for being rock stars themselves.
We killed the rest of the day wandering around the expo, watching the DKXL riders take off and attending orientation. I’m still choked up thinking of the announcer on that stage reminding us all that not only is this race for the pros and and veterans who finish fast, but for those DK200 riders that come in after 2am, for those cyclists that struggle through each mile. The grassroots of Kanza stand strong, and I’m grateful to have witnessed the community that put this event together.
5am wake up Saturday. Bags pre packed and double checked. Sunscreen applied. 3 miles to roll in to town in time to watch the 200 group take off. I always watch my heart rate at the start of a ride, it jumps about 50 bpm from sheer nerves.
The roll out was slow, it’s hard to hit the road hard when you’re in a pack of hundreds. I didn’t mind, as I’ve always preferred to work up to speed. Megan and I had agreed to stick together if our paces lined up, and we spent a comfortable first 25 miles cruising through what felt like a three lane gravel bike highway. In other words, a dream.
The notorious Flint Hills began to make their presence known at around mile 30, but quite honestly, after the loaded climbs in Juliette on Fried Clay, the gentle rolling hills in Kansas felt like small potatoes. Maybe I had trained more than I thought, or maybe it was lucky combination of the right energy on the right day. Either way I was loving zipping up those ascents.
Scarier to me were the descents on the other side, flying over sharp chunks of loose gravel just repeating “trust the bike, trust the bike.” I am forever grateful to the homies at Loose Nuts Cycles for getting me converted to that tubeless setup, and for always keeping my bikes in race shape.
We slowed down a bit at mile 40, Megan’s body decided to revolt, and those climbs did not treat her well. Luckily the SAG stop at Mile 55 served as a solid motivation to push through.
I’m not sure how long we stopped, but I was grateful to eat more pickles than I cared to count, and pee in an actual bathroom without an audience. Chain lube and snack rearrangement didn’t hurt either.
Refreshed, we took off just in time to hit the steepest hill I’d seen yet. By the top of that climb, it became clear that Megan and I were likely splitting up for the rest of the ride, and I pulled ahead at a steady pace, thinking of the promise I’d made to myself. Keep it slow and steady for the first 70 miles. See how you feel. Push it at the end.
In spite of taking off on my own, I was never alone that afternoon. Temperatures climbed and fatigue set in on the extended hills, but there were always other riders to chat with, to take on as mental challenges and I pushed on.
My front derailleur stopped shifting by mile 60, but being stuck in a smaller gear wasn’t the worst. Mile 70 came and went, then mile 75. I tipped over when I stopped to reapply sunscreen, a classic tumble caused by a failure to unclip. I was tired, and my muscles didn’t know how to do much but pedal any more.
The whole course was 105 miles, I knew I didn’t want to burn out too early, but I knew I had a lot left to give. I held back through mile 80, then hit the Salsa Chase the Chaise stop at 83. I stood on that couch with my bike and an eagle on my back and I knew it was time to finish strong. I told the ladies that cheered me on that I was “gonna fucking crush” the last 20 miles. And then I took off.
Those last 20 miles were so sweet. Yes in a “so sweet bro” kind of way, but also in the way that I will cherish them for a long time. I flew.
I kicked up my average pace, blew past water stops and spun up hills other tired riders were trudging through. I told myself I’d stop to pee and have a gel and apply sunscreen at the 15 mile mark, and instead I saw the flat roads and just went for it. I don’t think I stopped grinning the whole time.
There were a lot of pep talks those last 15 miles, there were absolutely moments when the fatigue crept in and I thought “you don’t have to do this so hard.” But I told myself I hadn’t come this far to give up now, that I didn’t want to finish feeling like I could have pushed more. And I just kept tapping in to that power.
Rolling back in to town involved a stupid hill near the college campus in Emporia. That was the moment that could have broken me, and I had my head all the way down as I tried not to think about how close I was and how slow that hill felt. Then these two guys spotted the flames on my kit and called out “Mother of bikes! Breaker of chains!” and I was laughing, giggling my way up the rest of my hill. To those two guys: thank you. You helped me get my strength back in that moment.
The rest of the end blurred by, somehow there were cars I had to think about again, then barriers to get between and all of a sudden I was across the finish line and going way too fast directly towards some very kind event workers.
A finisher ribbon was placed over my head, a half pint glass put in one hand, recovery drink in the other, a blissfully cold towel put on my neck. All I could think was that I was going to drop the fragile thing in my hand. Luckily Bri was there to give me a hug, then take my bike, then the glass, then help guide me out of the masses and in to a bit of shade while I attempted to remind my legs how to do anything but be on a bike.
June 1st, 2019 was one of the coolest days I have spent on my bike. The Dirty Kanza community is heartfelt, strong, and powerful. I can’t wait to get out there again, and again, and maybe again for the 200. Bikes are tight, I am grateful for where they’ve taken me.