Last Thursday I jumped in the car after work and headed down to Minneapolis to hook up with a fellow Salsa rider, excellent competitor, and friend, Joe Meiser. Joe was kind enough to allow me to crash at his house before we hooked up with the rest of the guys the following morning. The next morning saw Joe and I spinning easy to a local diner to meet two of the remaining four teammates that would make up the "Dirty Six". Sadly, we were minus one Sean Mailen who bowed out with a nagging knee injury. Ryan Horkey and Pete Koski were already at the diner when we rolled in, this is where I met these two top notch guys and fine riders. I'd come to spend a great deal of time with them in the coming days. Emporia is nine hours south of Minneapolis and you get to know a little about everyone in the car on a ride like that. I liked what I saw. Our remaining two teammates, Jason Boucher and Matt Gersib, would join us at our final destination.
Jim Cummins, director of the event, had arranged for us to be hosted by a local rider and participant of the DK. Randy, the home owner, and Dustin, who I believe was renting, would play a pivotal role in the experience I will attempt to convey in what follows. Their hospitality and generosity were unmatched. The nine to ten hour drive went by faster than I expected as we tried to keep up with Joe's antics and musical choices. We pulled into the pre-race meeting point at the local Best Western where we met Randy and Dustin. Once registration was completed we relaxed and socialized with some familiar faces as well as joined our final two teammates. Soon after arrival I was taken by the number of people who started to pack the room. "There are a lot of people here, this is a big deal!", I thought. As usual the anxiety began to build, but I pushed it down. After all, this was a 200 mile race, no Trans Iowa distance. I had nothing to worry about. An important lesson was learned here; never under estimate any of these gravel races. The "Dirty Six" were introduced to the room by Jim Cummins as it was clear he was appreciative of Salsa's involvement and support of this event. The meeting adjourned and we were released to make our final gear tweaks and adjustments.
My kit was set and my plan was simple. I'd ride through check point one in the break, stop at check point two (100 miles) for a refit and push for the finish with the leaders. My goals were clear, a top ten finish in this stacked field would be something I'd like to take home and a finishing time of under 14 hours would be something I could certainly hang my hat on. Finishing under 13 hours would really put a smile on my face. It's amazing, how things can change. "Adapt, flexibility, survive", were words that I didn't realize I would begin to live by.
Our 'digs' and my kit. (DBD)
The start was calm and similar to most gravel race starts. We were rolled out by a police car and set loose to our own devices as well as the gravel after about a mile or so. Immediately, Joe jumped to the front and brought the pace up. I cursed him as I clamored through the front of the field to gain his wheel. "Really, do we have to do this now?", I thought as my heart rate rose. It was a race after all, so if we can punch out some of the field now and get to the business at hand we might as well. I took a few turns on the front of the field and felt I was driving hard. I was careful not to stay up front too long and kept my eye on all Salsa jerseys as I knew it was imperative I stay near Joe and Ryan. If Joe and Ryan were involved in a split that left me hanging behind I knew it would be difficult to join them again. However, if we stayed together I knew we'd protect each other if we could.
As the miles clicked by and the nerves settled I was impressed by Joe's ability to always find a hole in order to make his way to the front. Ryan's riding style was smooth and controlled with hidden horse power that he taps when he needs it. These are a couple of talented riders I was with. It felt good to be among this group. Soon the legend of the DK began to rear it's head and riders were pulling off with flats. I noticed the first to go was teammate Matt Gersib, who rang his front wheel hard off an unsuspecting rock. Scenarios such as this would play out from time to time and whittle the group down one by one. I was confident in my tire choice and knew I needed to focus on being attentive to the surges that seemed to be lead by Corey 'Cornbread' Godfrey and last year's winner Matt 'Machine'.
An hour into the race the pace remained high, uncomfortably high! Pulling up to Ryan's wheel we remarked about the pace and hoped it would come down. A quick head count had me realizing that the break was now made up of nine strong riders turning out a feverish pace. Then it happened Troy Kraus, a skilled rider and one to watch in these events, caught a rut and was on the 'floor'. Three or four riders piled up behind him. In a nano second I shifted to mountain biker mode and threw my Chili to the right and off the road in an effort to avoid the crash. I emerged from the carnage unscathed, but the leaders were walking away. I buried myself in order to latch on. High on a plateau with no cover, totally exposed I battled the wind trying to bridge back. I could see Ryan hanging on to the back end of the group ahead checking over his shoulder to see if I was going to make it. I tried to send him telepathic messages to sit up for me and help me get back, but I knew that was not going to happen. I was not his responsibility and he was doing what he could do to stay hooked on at that point. I had to get through this one by myself.
Soon enough I was caught by another unknown rider who was in the same boat as me. Completely gassed we looked into each other's eyes briefly and without a word spoken knew what needed to be done. We jumped into a fast moving rotation, drafting off of each other as efficiently as we could. The leaders were coming back to us, we were doing it! After about what seemed like twenty minutes we were hooked back on, but on the back end. The front runners knew people were suffering in this group and it was time to put them out of their misery. The pace was very high as they attempted to push us out of their little club. A glance to my gps told me that at 35 miles I was officially "popped" off the back of the break away and there wasn't anything I could do about it. I watched Joe work with this lead group of about five as they moved through switch backs above me and made their way toward a high point in the plains. I had a conscious thought of how cool they looked, single file, silhouetted against the blue sky.
The scope of what lie ahead of me began to take hold and I set my resolved to settle in and start turning out a consistent pace. I'd see some of those strong men soon. They'd come back to me as their bodies eventually would go through what mine was going through now. The time began to move as did the miles. I picked up riders here and there, but mostly I traveled alone.
Recovered from the early effort I noticed it being surprisingly hot for 9:30 a.m. My jersey was completely unzipped and I was going through fluids rapidly. Of course I'd reviewed the weather forecast before the race and saw that it was projected to be the hottest day of 2010 for Emporia and the surrounding area. Weather extremes seem to go hand and hand with gravel road racing, I'd deal with this one just like all the others.
Pushing through check point one as planned I gained information from the volunteers on the leaders whereabouts as well as the distance to the next c.p. My camel back felt lighter than it should at this point, but I had planned ahead with two tall water bottles in the cages of my bike, I'd go to them if need be. As I approached the noon hour it was getting hot! I knew this would be a tough time as the sun poured it's rays on to me. I told myself, "Just get through the next four hours or so and things should start to improve". The sun has to drop lower in the sky, therefore things will get better, right? The Inuit have something like a thousand words to describe snow and I felt like I needed a thousand to describe "HOT". I had no idea what heat was before this day.
Ninety miles into the race I pulled over in a patch of shade in order to dig out some electrolyte pills as the tell tale signs of dehydration were taking hold. My thinking was no longer organized, I was being plagued by negative thoughts, and I was slowing down considerably. I consumed three of the little white pills and decided I better keep the rest of the capsules handy, I'd be needing them again. Boy, would I ever!
There it was the check point! I was half way and I enjoyed the pleasant reception I was receiving as I pulled through the town. It seemed that everyone knew we'd be coming. People were on the street corners clapping for us, drivers of pick ups were waving to me, kids were running to the sidewalks to get a look at the next rider coming in. It felt good. I put on a strong face at the check point as I absorbed their complimentary words about my position and pace. The staff informed me of the leader's position, but secretly I didn't care, I was hurting. I needed calories and more hydration, preferably the cool kind. My first and most important question was "where can I find some more water?". I moved up the side walk among spectators and the family members of other riders to a gas station. I laughed to myself inside as I heard comments like, "You look strong", "Nice job, you're looking good". I appreciated it, but I knew there was no way for them to know how I felt inside. Pulling into the store I saw a bike and a rider sitting next to it. "Was that a Salsa kit? Yes, it's Joe!" "What up dawg?" I said as I feigned an attempt at humor. "Hey buddy", was his reply. Of course my first question was, "How long you been here?" "Two minutes, my engine just ain't runnin'", he said. "I feel you", I replied, again feigning humor.
Twenty minutes later we were mounting up and had decided to push on together for as long as we could. We joked about how this reminded us of Trans Iowa 5, riding together again. Looking at a forty mile leg in front of us to the next check point, then a sixty after that, we knew we still had a long day ahead. I couldn't help but think about how Joel, co-director, mentioned to me at the check point that there was a portion of this upcoming leg where we would "cook". "How could he know how hot it would be out there?" I thought. Plus, what the hell, we were already super hot. Joel had also warned me about a section known as "Little Egypt". This was to be a very difficult, technical section which was prone to damaging cattle rancher's trucks, not to mention delicate cross bikes. "Whatever", I thought, "I got all kinds of problems right now anyway".
Joe and I pushed through the miles riding steady and holding an urgent pace. We felt good about how things were developing and although it wasn't mentioned, I think we felt good about being together. Eventually we started noticing one huge roller after the next, all extremely exposed. We were riding in high plains terrain with breath taking, expansive views. This was open range country and it was not uncommon for us to be riding through areas that contained no fences. Many times we rolled through herds of cows. We'd call out like cowboys, "HEP, HEP!" in order to get them to move out of our way. It was a world foreign to me, but I liked it. At one point I pedaled past a black cow standing by the road and noticed how he just looked at me with sad eyes. I remember thinking, "I'm sorry your so hot buddy, so am I".
Still together Joe and I entered the "cooker". We slowed, then slowed some more. I felt like I had been complaining a little too often so I vowed to keep my mouth shut as I know what it's like to hear someone talk about their hardships. You just don't want to hear it! Every one's got their cross to bear at this point. Side by side we moved up a small incline and I looked directly at Joe's face in an attempt to assess his condition. He had his head cocked to the side, a grimace on his face that resembled pain or some type of dementia. My assessment told me he was hurting, so was I! My head was spinning as I tried to cope with the heat. At times I felt like I was losing his wheel, but it wasn't true, we were in this together.
I started feeling like my body heat was in a dangerous place as I couldn't stop thinking about finding a way to cool down. Pressure built inside my head and my vision blurred. Shaking my head from side to side changed nothing and on top of this I was still riding my bike. Controlling the machine emerged as a problem as I swerved around on the road behind Joe. I was circling the drain as they say and it was picking up speed. I was approaching the 'event horizon' or the point of no return. I had to stop and it needed to be soon. All I could think about was water. I resolved to look for a cattle pond, I'd pull over and go lay down in it's tepid liquid. This was an emergency, I had to cool down soon! I toiled in this state for over an hour until I could stand it no longer. I succumbed and called out, "Joe, I have to stop at the next spot of shade. I've got to try to cool my head down. I'm sorry."
There it was, a small shadow on the side of the road. I pulled over to it, ripped my helmet off dropped the camel back and quickly sat on the ground. The trees were spinning around me, my whole world was coming apart. I've never been in this kind of trouble before, what was happening to me? Twenty seconds passed and Joe called out, "It's too hot to stop, I'm pushing on." Afraid of being alone I put my helmet back on and said, "I'll come with you." Not sure how I would do it, I mounted up and wavered down the road at a measly four or five miles per hour with my partner doing the same in front of me. In a hypnotic state I pushed on behind him, confused and scared by what was happening to me. I analyzed my options. If I were able to get cell phone service, which I doubted was possible it would take them hours to get to me and I'd most likely just die in the dirt waiting. My only option was to keep moving forward and we knew a town was about nine miles ahead. Suddenly and without warning Joe grabbed his breaks and muttered something about his shifter being broken. I rolled past to a spot of shade about the size of a throw rug. I immediately shed my kit and pulled the straps of my bibs off my shoulders. Positioning my camel back as a pillow I went prone in the gravel with no regard for the rocks sticking to my skin or the grit that was finding it's way into my being. To me, this was life or death. Things went quiet around me. I was falling asleep and fading fast. I wondered if this is what people go through when they are freezing to death. A voice in my head said, "just let go, it will be o.k., just let go. No! Don't go to sleep, don't sleep!" "Joe? Are you still working on your bike?" It was so quiet. "No, I'm laying down too", was his reply.
Tim Ek and Joe Meiser looking a bit under weight after the race.
"We should turn back, there was a little village about a quarter mile back. Maybe we could find a hose there" Joe quietly stated. We rose from the gravel and rolled back to a home that appeared to have an amateur gardener for an owner. We'd knock on this door and ultimately be saved. One of Kansas' best opened the door. A man in his late 60's living a quiet life with his dogs appeared in front of us and offered his garden hose while inquiring about our condition and our ambition. Desperately I ripped off my jersey as did Joe and we proceeded to take turns cooling our bodies with the hose. The force of life surged into me like a shot of adrenaline to the heart. We drank from the water and continued to spray ourselves off while our host looked on perplexed by not only where we'd come from, but by where we were going. Soon other riders approached and one by one they came for the hose. We helped each other cool down. One in particular stands out; James was really hurting and told me that he too laid down in the dirt. I hosed his back and his head while his life force returned to him. I noted how his eyes seemed to bulge and his speech was unclear at times. Later he would brush a horse fly off my back in an effort to return the favor that I'd done with him in spraying him down.
With some deft skills Joe turned his machine into a two geared rig. He no longer would possess the ability to access the gears on the back of his bike, but still had his front two rings. He'd get home on these gears. I made a promise to myself that I'd help him get there. We'd make our way to the next town, there we'd reload for the final thirty miles to the finish.
Eskridge, Kansas I think is what it was called. This small town was our last chance at contact with the outside world so to speak. Here is where we'd pull it all together and ultimately go for the finish. A small convenience store turned into what would become a forward fire base of sorts. Bedraggled and beaten men began to pull into the small building with far away looks in their eyes. Joe and I consumed cold Mountain Dew and refilled our hydration systems. I tried to get some calories on board, but my stomach protested with every swallow. I fought through it as I knew it was crucial that I give my body the fuel it so desperately needed. Soon enough we were among about six of what used to be our competitors and now were just fellow riders, all in this mess together. Some looked worse than others. James from back at the garden hose sat next to me. His skin glistened with sweat and his pupils looked dilated. He said little, but it seemed that he had much to say. Finally, he asked me if I thought it would be a good idea if he made himself throw up. "No!", I told him. Joe responded in kind stating that his body needed all the nutrients it could possibly get at this point. Meanwhile, a rider fell sound asleep at the table across from me. He was quickly awakened and encouraged to eat and drink something. His head bobbled as he clearly didn't comprehend what was being said to him. The scene became surreal as it continued to unfold. I decided to leave due to the atmosphere of broken souls all around me. I told Joe we needed to roll, he commented that he wanted just a few more minutes. I paid the kind lady at the counter and went outside in search of some shade. A few moments passed when Joe asked me if I still had my map, our way home. "Yeah, why?" "Because, that guy in there threw up all over mine." He went on to report that James did the same. "We have to get out of here! This place is no good for us, let's go!", I told my partner. Clearly, he knew I was right as he geared up.
Two miles down the road we pulled over to get Joe's machine into a gear built for more speed as it seemed the terrain was more forgiving. A solo rider passed us and was looking strong. "Tim, you can go after him if you want, I know how it is.". "I'm sticking with you, we're coming in together." He said, "Thanks, it means a lot to me to have you with me, we're a good match." At least that's how I remember the exchange. It doesn't matter, we were a good match and sometimes bonds form out there that the pursuit of competition can't break. This is where we were at. We talked about the beauty of Kansas and the things we saw this day. I pointed out the sunset to Joe and remarked about how difficult it would be to explain to people back home. He plainly stated, "that's why we ride our bikes for 13 hours, to see stuff like that". I knew what he meant.
We put the closing miles behind us as the darkness closed in. The road was smooth and so were we. I knew it had to be discussed so I brought it up about three miles from the finish. "How do you want to do this? You want to come in together or do you want to fight it out?". "You're going in first", was the reply. "Are you sure?", I asked. Joe commented about my sportsmanship out on the road. He was clear about how he felt. I recall thinking about his willingness to stay true to the bond that forms between competitors when the chips really are down. We joked about sprinting for the line anyway, but Joe was adamant that I come in before him. I called on him to give it his best, because I wanted a shot at him fair and square. I joked with him that I was confident I could take him in a sprint regardless of any agreements. We laughed and agreed to "line it up" when the time was right and when we could see the finish.
We followed a series of small poles stuck in the ground by the side of the road with "blinkies" on them. They'd lead us to the line. Passing a man on a Harley Davidson sitting at a corner we were informed that we were a mile out and he remarked that we "looked good", I laughed. As we approached the downtown area an Emporia police cruiser flipped on his flashing lights and seemingly offered us an escort through the streets. "No way", Joe stated. "He's going to lead us in!", was my response. The cruiser pulled off just in time for us to see the block party going on in front of us and the finish banner. I could hear the band playing a Tom Petty song when we squared off. "Let's do it!" We rose from our saddles and pushed our machines one more time. Side by side we rocked our bikes back and forth checking each other's position compared to our own as we closed on the line. What seemed like three hundred spectators cheered as we battled for the finish. I crossed a half bike length ahead, but I knew that we crossed together. We took 5th and 6th position overall, finishing somewhere around 15 hours.
We adapted, we remained flexible, we survived...we rose from the gravel.
A special thanks to Jim Cummins and his crew for putting on such an amazing event. And, of course THANK YOU Salsa Cycles for being simply the best brand out there. Joe, Ryan and Pete, I'd travel with you guys anywhere. Thanks for making it so fun.