|Photo Courtesy of Jason Boucher|
I dared to change positions in an effort to sit down on the grocery store's parking lot with my back against LeLan's bumper. It was a shallow stab at some respite from the hunkered in feeling I'd had for the last 10 or so hours on the bike. LeLan ran support for all in a Salsa kit this day, but I felt he was "my support guy". I was only slightly aware of him buzzing around, occasionally asking if I needed anything. Guttural responses were all I seemed to muster as I sat transfixed on what appeared to be hamsters running around under the skin of my calves. "It's so weird how much they're moving", I thought. "I know I'm a little dehydrated, but that's a lot of movement". Soon, I became vaguely aware of a handful of people standing in a half circle around me as I heard in an echo type voice, LeLan calling for others to "check out his calves". "It looks like he has an alien living inside of him", I heard a woman say. I turned to LeLan, giving him a look that seemed to go right past him. He apologized as if he felt guilty for turning me into an interesting high school science experiment. "It's o.k." I said, in a somewhat defeated voice. I was completely wasted and I had one more leg of the 2011 Dirty Kanza to go.
My second trip to Kansas had me expecting heat. Last year's DK brought me to the brink of death so I tried to plan for the worst. I vowed to manage the heat the best I could. I'd ride the 200 miles in a conservative fashion and be certain to have more than enough fluids at all times. Coming off a strong finish in the Trans Iowa had me relaxed and comfortable. Also, I was traveling with a crew of guys that set me at ease, Joe Meiser and Ryan Horkey who I've ridden literally hundreds of miles with and Jason Gaikowsky who'd I'd only recently met, but definitely shared similar interests, such as pounding out miles on bikes. These guys helped the race nerves disappear, as did our hosts, Randy, Dustin, and LeLan. We were welcomed with open arms into a like minded atmosphere complete with a fully functioning bike shop in the home as well as a dog so big I could have ridden it. We were also lucky enough to have Velo News' Technical Editor, Nick Legan stay with us. Nick would be competing in the race as well as covering it. It wasn't long before Nick was one of us.
Arriving a day early gave us plenty of time to prepare and tweak the details. We asked each other simple little questions like, "how much air pressure are you running?", as if we didn't know what worked for us. I guess maybe there was a bit of nervous energy running around the place. I had my kit set and I was determined to keep it the way it was. I had nothing on my back in the way of a hydration system, yet things seemed heavy. I was a bit concerned with the weight, but I felt I needed everything I had packed. I wouldn't change a thing.
|Eki and Meiser's machines|
6:00 a.m. and the starting line saw 4 Salsa Cycles kits standing side by side in the front row. Pictures were being taken and final instructions were being given. I kept thinking about staying up front and staying safe. I hoped the pace would be manageable, but with approximately 300 people in the race there were bound to be some fast riders. This would later prove to be very true.
We were finally under Police escort out of town and ready to be set free to the gravel. I was happy with the speed, but consuming more dust than I wanted. Always keeping Meiser in my sight was paramount as he has a knack for staying up front and never missing a break. "Stay with Meiser, make the break" became my mantra. However, if the split begins in earnest and the pace goes to the stratosphere do I keep fighting for it or let them go? Against all previous commitments the little boy in me who refuses to lose decided to make the break at all costs!
Approximately an hour in we began to climb into the high plains. A long line formed as the leaders began to lift the pace. Guys were definitely stringing out. Experience told me that this was it, a break away would be established after this climb and if I wanted in I needed to get on it now! Shortly into the climb I was split off the back and losing ground to some exceptional climbers as the pace was going into a frenzy. I told myself to hold on the best I could and concentrate on getting one rider back at a time, then I'd make up time on the decent by taking early risks when I felt I could. It was working, but I was on my limit and well into the red zone. At last I was on top of the plateau and beginning the harried descent over exposed bed rock shelves and softball size loose rock. I began to question the high pressure I had in my tires as my bike danced under me, barely within the limits of control. Almost there I pressed for more energy and took a few more risks at high speeds through very rough terrain to eventually latch on to the last man's wheel. A transition back to gravel and I was in the break away. Out loud I said to myself, "You did it. Good job. You made the break".
I soft pedaled in the security of their draft. A rough count had me one of about 10 men with no chasers in sight. I knew they were there, 290 of them coming for me. I couldn't worry about that, I needed to focus on how I was going to stay with the likes of the company I was now with. I glanced around to see past winners and several top 5 Dirty Kanza finishers. I wondered if I belonged. These were some fit individuals and they were in full business mode. There was very little talking, just 10 men tending to the task at hand, pulling through and drafting. I would earn my keep, but first I needed to recover from what I did to get there. Resting became my priority. Suddenly, the leader of our group announced a right hander coming up, a signal to be careful as the group would be managing a turn soon. It was a minimum maintenance road we'd enter. This seemed like old hat to me as it was just 5 short weeks ago that I went through a ton of these things in Iowa. Things were different this time. The rough tractor trail was sun baked and hard as a rock. The leaders pinned the section bringing the pace back up into the danger zone. Immediately, I was shelled to the back of the group as a young stud from Colorado was putting his stamp on the race. "Do they know how far we still have to go? Do they know how hot it gets here? Do they know what they are doing?". I let them ride out of my sight, cursing myself for even trying to catch on in the first place. I used up precious energy early only to get dropped hard by guys who redefine acceleration. I felt I had made a critical mistake. I dropped into the middle ring and began to get comfortable for the long haul. I had no idea what the day had in store for me or more appropriately what Kansas had in store for me.
|My registration kit|
A comfortably hard pace, some good conversation with Mark from Salida, Colorado and I was pulling into the first check point. Instantly, my new friend LeLan appeared calling my name and clearly ready to help me in any way I needed. He seemed chalked full of the same nervous energy I had when I was trying to make the break. While I was calm and collected LeLan bounced around me like a humming bird doing whatever he could to satisfy my every need. This was his first entrance into the race as I would be his first rider of the day that he needed to tend to. LeLan understood bike racing and the importance of crew. A smile crept across my face as he topped off my fluids and gave me condition reports of the upcoming leg including wind direction. I "knucks'd" him and snapped a foot in while telling him that I appreciated what he did for me. I rolled out of the check point in about a minute's time to the sound of LeLan's encouraging words. "I think LeLan thinks I can win this thing", I thought. With this guy on my side, maybe I could...maybe.
I pushed steady with the promised wind at my back. I was comfortable now and I was hooked up with Kansas City rider, Joe Fox. Joe owns a bike/running shop in K.C. and is one hell of an athlete. He's finished high in the Dirty Kanza in the past and knows exactly what he is doing. More importantly he proved to be a super nice guy, his riding prowess came as a bonus. I was in good company to say the least. We covered all areas of our lives with each other as well as the miles. Things were going well when suddenly a new personality emerged, Eric Brunt. Eric, a Trans Iowa veteran and 2011 finisher came upon us and announced that he wouldn't mind sticking with us for a bit as he felt we were two "proven" guys and it was as if he was thinking, "if this is the pace Ek and Fox are riding, there must be something right about it". I laughed to myself, but took the compliment to heart. I also hoped I wouldn't steer this kid wrong. I reminded myself that I knew what I was doing, everything would be fine. I couldn't help but notice that it was getting warmer.
100 miles and it was flat out HOT, but the check point was coming soon. It was at the c.p. that I'd find a convenience store and buy a cold pop. I had become concerned about my calorie intake through the first half of the race. I had eaten very little, in fact barely anything at all. I wondered if it was just that my body has experience with hours and hours of exercise and doesn't require constant calories. Obviously, that notion is absurd! I couldn't deny it, I was way behind on calories, but every time I did try to eat it was so repulsive that I just didn't want to do it again. I promised myself that I would get more cals on board early into the next leg, things were going to be just fine. Where's LeLan? I'm almost to the c.p.
|Joe and I relaxing the night before race day.|
"EKI, CHECK IN AT THE SALSA TENT, THEN I'M RIGHT HERE!!!", as he aggressively pointed to his car. The trunk was open, coolers were ready to go. He knew exactly what he was doing. He hit me with a barrage of questions about my condition and what I needed. I slowly told him I needed all my water topped off, that I was completely dry. I may have mentioned that I was having trouble eating. But, the fact is that the guy just got me so pumped up that I felt I could have ridden 400 miles. Set to go I asked him where the store was, because I needed a pop. "I've got Coke on ice right here", he said. I couldn't believe it when he opened the cooler and I saw a commercial for Coca Cola in front of my eyes. As I downed the life giving force LeLan came to the conclusion that I needed an "ice sock" on the back of my neck. O.K., at this point I would have let him start an I.V. on me, that's how much I trusted him. As I mounted up, I felt a little bundle of ice slip under the neck of my jersey. I rode away as the rivulets ran down my back. I wanted to pay for the rest of LeLan's master's degree at that point.
His description of the next leg ran through my head like a stuck record. "This is your longest leg, 62 miles. The wind is going to be at your back, which means it's going to be your hottest leg. You will never be over hydrated, drink as much as you can and I'll see you at the next check point." He seemed so sure of himself about the heat. I guess maybe I had hoped in some way that none of it would come true. It wouldn't really get that hot, would it? 20 miles into this stretch I began to sink into worry. I had been riding alone for some time, my alliance with Joe Fox was broken up with my early departure from the last c.p. I felt as if I was lost at sea. I started questioning whether I was on course. I desperately looked for tire tracks, but the sun baked dirt gave up no clues. Finally, a rider approaching from behind. I was on course! Maybe he'd slow up for a bit and ride with me. I knew he was going faster than me as he was gaining fast. As he collected me I gave him a wanting look, but his only reply was "Hi" and he motored past. It was the 2009 champ Mike Marchand and he certainly wasn't slowing up for me. I was on my own and I needed to get used to it quick. "Buck up and knock it off" I told myself. Amy, my wife, always tells me to remember that the pain is temporary and that you do this because you love it. "Try to enjoy this" became my motivation. Realizing that I had been staring at gravel for over 9 hours without really looking at Kansas I thought I better start taking a look around. It was then that I literally lifted my head up, looked left, then right to notice the most amazing thing, grass for as far as I could see in any direction. I saw no farms, no poles, no wires, just sky and land. "Whoa, this is something special", I thought. I broke my cadence as I strained my eyes at the expanse to my sides, it's only disruption the small ribbon of gravel that I was traveling on. I felt small and insignificant as if I was borrowing some time in this space, as if Kansas was letting me be there if only just for awhile. The perspective of this race, this sport, the things we do in our daily lives, all snapped into focus and seemed almost other worldly compared to what I was experiencing right then and there. Physically I was hurting, but mentally I was present and I was doing what I loved. Keenly aware of my situation and piqued with emotion at the awesome spectacle that I was fortunate enough to be a part of I rounded a bend and crested a small rise to see what would prove to be the single most beautiful thing I have witnessed in nature throughout all of my days on this planet. There in the crispness and heat of that Kansas afternoon were four wild mustangs grazing. They instantly became aware of my approach and bolted together in full gallop, eyes bulging in such a way that I felt they most likely had never had human contact. Dust poured from their hooves as they held close to one another running from the unknown, me. Time stood still as I watched them go. How will I ever convey this experience? I resolved to keep it for me. I will be the only one to ever know what it was really like.
|L-R: Joe Meiser, Tim Ek, |
Jason Boucher (back), Ryan Horkey
"What the???", I said as I heard a voice, a singing voice. "I'm totally losing it", I thought as I turned around to see my friend Joe Fox approaching with his ipod in. Turning down his volume he said to me, "There's nothing like a good song to pick you up". I was happy to see him again. He couldn't have come at a better time. I had asked Dustin one of the hosts we were staying with when the hottest time of the day was. He told me with complete certainty, 4:00 p.m., it was now 2:00 p.m. I relayed this information to Joe and he, being from K.C., confirmed it and let me know that we most likely had a rough couple of hours ahead of us. We agreed to "make it to 5:00" then look for the temperatures to start dropping, but would they climb first?
Joe and I topped out on a plateau and it felt as if Mother Nature wrapped an electric blanket that was on high around my body on the hottest day ever. I saw him fumbling with his gps, when he announced the highest temp we'd see, 99.8 degrees. "Holy Shit, I wish you wouldn't have told me that".
I wasn't eating, I was no longer racing, I'd given that up long ago. I was surviving now, trying to get to the final check point. Some how I felt the c.p. would help. At least LeLan would be there, he would help me, he would bring me back to life. Inexplicably the miles were passing and we were getting there, but there was one hell of a bank of clouds forming behind us. We hoped for rain and guessed at how much the temperature would drop if it poured for a bit. The rain would be our salvation...we thought.
|Smiling, but exhausted! (Photo: Cornbread)|
A Salsa tent appeared along the main street of a small Kansas town and there was LeLan. He looked concerned as his eyes met mine. I recall wondering what he was seeing in me that put that look on his face. I could count on one hand the items I'd eaten so far and drinking fluids was now a problem as well. Every square inch of my body was filthy and I could see that my legs had significantly shrunk in size. I was in trouble and my man knew it. He told me that updates were coming in about a significant thunderstorm that was approaching fast with golf ball sized hail and cloud to ground lightning. He went on to say that Mother Nature may end this thing for me. I didn't know how to take that. Did LeLan think I wanted to quit? Was it written on my face that I wanted out? Is that why he looked at me like that? Disappointed with the notion of quitting the idea of not riding anymore flooded my mind. No, it took over in a millisecond. I felt myself slipping on that slippery slope of quitting. A volunteer then approached and told us that the Sheriff has ordered everyone to "take cover". "What is going on?", I thought. "Is this for real?". "Two riders just called in from the course and reported seeing a tornado on the ground", another volunteer yelled. My sister's email from before the race jumped into my mind, "Tim, no one wants you to die in a bike race". I didn't want to die either. I told LeLan I'd sit by his car for awhile to see what develops. I forced a banana into my system while volunteers frantically broke down the check point. Just then, Joel Dyke, past co-director of the Dirty Kanza yelled to me, "Eki, Joe wants to go!". I stood up and I saw my riding partner of the past several hours kitting up. Joe Fox was looking at me as if to say, "We're not done buddy". I stood up and yelled, "LELAN, WATER ME UP. I'M LEAVIN'". "AWESOME! YES!", he shouted as he sprang into action. He managed my bottles while he told me that I was his most inspiring rider, the title of an award to be given out by the directors later that night. I thanked him and told him that if it weren't for him none of this would be happening. Then, I asked him if I could take one of his Cokes with me.
40 miles to go, lighting strikes off our right flank, with a wall of blackness coming on fast when Joe turns to me as we soft pedaled out of town, "I think we can get in front of this thing and around it". Were we going to try to out run a Kansas thunderstorm on our bikes? Yes, we were. I popped open the Coke as we pedaled side by side down an old rail road grade in a steady rain. I took a long pull off the can and felt the cold pop go down my dusty throat when I noticed Joe looking at me. "Want a sip?", I said. "Sure, I could use one", was his reply. We shared that Coke and laughed at the ridiculousness of what we were doing. I thought to myself, "these are the best times of your life".
Joe and I climbed out of the woods where we had taken shelter from the hail and wind. Feeling safe enough now that we weren't going to be killed by lightning or a tornado we were back on course and feeling positive...for now.
Suddenly, our tires were spitting thick, sticky mud all over us. The rain had transformed the gravel into a dirt like super glue. Soon our wheels wouldn't turn and our derailleurs were nervously twitching. I was worried that a derailleur would hang up and get torn off if we weren't careful. We decided to try to clean them in an act of prevention. Pushing on I commented on how Joe's looked good with no mud while mine seemed to be collecting it like crazy. Just then, a horrible sound and a flash of metal and parts of Joe's bike all over the ground. It had happened 30 miles from the finish, his ability to shift was now over. He'd need to turn his bike into a single speed and limp home, somehow. I wanted to help, but there wasn't much I could do. He assured me that I didn't need to wait, but I was conflicted. Ultimately, I went on without him as I worried about what he must have thought. Other riders were with him now and helping, actually returning the favor. Corey "Cornbread" Godfrey had the same thing happen to him back in Trans Iowa and it was Joe who helped him through it. Corey was bringing Karma back around now.
A few miles of walking my bike, carrying my bike, and cleaning my bike I was tentatively riding it again, hoping against hope that my drive train would be o.k. A rider approached quickly from behind. The fast moving rider was Corey and I was happy to see him, but knew it wouldn't last. I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and Corey looked fast and fresh. I explained my predicament and how I was feeling sick and shelled by the day. He casually motioned toward his back wheel and said, "hop on". I smiled and slipped into his draft. Corey doesn't weigh much, but his long lanky body casts a big shadow and I snugged right up on that rear wheel as if it were my favorite blanky. He jabbered on about better times on the bike, but we both knew it was all part of the adventure. I did my best behind him to not throw up and tried to make a few comments from time to time. We were making good time, but I was not doing any work. I just couldn't hold his pace, not at the front anyway. Finally, in more of a gesture than anything else I went to the front and tried to pull for him for what seemed like 30 seconds compared to his 30 minutes. He assured me that we'd be hitting a town soon, about 10 miles out from the finish, there we'd get a Coke. We marveled at the sunset and in true Cornbread fashion he whipped out his little digital camera and snapped a couple of shots of the view and even a few of me. I offered to take one of him, hoping I wouldn't drop his camera and run over it. He politely said "no, that's o.k.", almost as if he knew I had my hands pretty full just dealing with my current state.
I bought Corey's pop at the gas station and we sat on the curb 10 miles away from the finish line as it slowly got darker. I thanked him for being there for me and helping me in. He wouldn't have it. Corey was just glad that we finally got to ride together. Just then a car pulled up with my man LeLan in the driver's seat and Joe Meiser (Salsa rider) in the passenger seat. Excited and concerned at the same time I asked, "What are you doing here and Joe why are you in the car?". The mud took the fight from Joe and simply made it impossible to ride his bike. Joe was behind me due to flat tire issues and got caught in the thick of the storm. His day was done. They wished us luck and said they'd see us at the finish. I assured them that they would. Several riders rolled past us while we enjoyed our drink and conversation and we no longer cared about our position in the field. This had become about beating the Dirty Kanza, not other riders.
|Tough guys in Kansas City|
As we rolled out a small contingent of gladiators on bikes approached from our rear. One of these strong men was very sick, another was on a single speed, and the final one was Eric Brunt from earlier in the day. I was happy to see him and know that he was still in the fight. A fast pace driven by Eric and Corey had us seeing the lights of Emporia in the distance. The finish was within reach! Soon, we'd be rolling through the university campus, turning onto Commercial and into the heart of down town to the finish. We congratulated each other and let our emotions boil up, because it was a sure thing now. We had done it! We rolled past the barriers and I could hear the live music blasting up ahead. A huge crowd was gathered with an open lane down the center serving as a finishing stretch. "Eki, get up here!", Eric yelled back to me. I pulled up between Eric and Corey as one of them said, "We're comin' in together". Completely unplanned we all sat up tall in our saddles releasing our hands from the bars riding three abreast, we joined hands and held them high in the air as if we had won the race. The roar of the crowd was deafening as the adrenaline and emotion poured through me. I moved through the finishing shoot, confused, tired and happy to see LeLan running to me with a smile on his face from ear to ear. He hugged me while he told me over and over, "amazing, amazing!" He came close to my ear and told me that he cried when he saw me coming in. So did I LeLan ... so did I.
|L-R: Eric Brunt, Mike Neumeyer, |
Tim Ek (Photo: Cornbread)
Less than 10 miles to go.
Flyin' at over 20 mph after 190 miles.
At 6:00 a.m. I started a race. At 9:36 p.m. I finished a battle with the Dirty Kanza 200 and I won. There are some things that I will never be able to take from Kansas. Those things will stay there, right where they belong. At the same time, experiences and memories were given to me as life long gifts.
Thank you Jim Cummings for an amazing event. Thank you Randy and Dustin for giving us such a great, welcoming place to lay our heads. Thank you Salsa, for giving me the opportunities you have and for allowing me to punish your bikes only to see them come back for more. Thanks to the boys I traveled with. You guys are rock solid. And, LeLan...you know.