Monday, June 4, 2012

Racing the Kansas Sun

The open range of Kansas

As I slid my index finger between the rim and the bead of the tire pain coursed through my whole body. The sharp edge of the bead opened the wet, dirty skin of my finger like a hot knife going through butter. A deep breath was all I had to ward off the feeling. I had to keep working the problem, I had to solve the problem. The sun baked my back as I contemplated the state I was in. My world was reduced to a completely destroyed rear tire and the Kansas flint rock strewn about me. I was 80 miles into possibly the most rugged and challenging gravel road race the country has to offer. I was deep into the Dirty Kanza 200 and I was in trouble.

This would be my 3rd "go round" with the Flint Hills of Kansas. The first two efforts saw me finish the event, but barely. The unbearable heat brought me closer to physical destruction than I had ever been. Yet, for some reason I was going back. I'm not really sure even now why I wanted to go back. I guess I felt I had something to settle in Kansas. I couldn't leave it the way it stood, with me against the ropes taking punches. I needed to work out of the corner and back into the middle of the ring. This 3rd attempt would leave me satisfied, I hoped.

Early morning sunrise

I came to Kansas rested, but was somewhat unsettled in my head. I was nervous. The DK is scary to me and with good reason. It has a rough personality and isn't very friendly. Easing into the race as quietly as possible was my plan. Keeping my goals for the day to myself was my way of hopefully not upsetting this unpredictable "personality". Almost as if talking out loud about my hopes would result in the DK saying, "Oh yeah, we'll see about that." So, while the rest of the boys discussed their strategies I kept to myself for the most part. I'd keep my secret buried down deep. I wanted to knock this thing out in under 14 hours. I knew I had the legs to do it, but I wasn't sure which way the tables would turn. So, I taped the times I needed to hit the check points to my top tube. If I could get in front of those times I'd be ensured a sub 13:40 finish and that might allow me to let the final bell ring on my fight with DK.

My game plan

The start always seems to go off like a rocket with guys flushing their systems of nervous energy. This year I'd let that all play out in front of me as I knew burning unnecessary matches early never turns out well. However, I was quickly falling more and more behind the leaders. I decided it was too much, so I pushed up closer to the "red zone" for just a bit. The "red zone" never seemed to come, I was feeling strong. One of the most elemental rules in racing is, "when you're feelin' it, go with it". I went with it, jumping into a fast moving group I found that I fit in just fine. I was even earning my keep with some long pulls on the front. At one point I even wondered why one of the riders had the number 1 on his plate. Was I actually sharing pulls with a two time champ of the Dirty Kanza? I was and it didn't even hurt. We seemed to move through other small groups until there didn't seem to be anyone in front of us any more. I assumed the lead group was really putting the hurt on us and they were off the front. This was not the case, the early leaders had missed a turn and were now fighting to get to us! However, the confusion of early attacks and the chaos of the race had me thinking I was in about 20th position. I was wrong.

Paul from the U.K. (with Camel Back) and Joe Meiser

My friend Ryan Horkey who had raced the DK with me in my two previous years was attending, but this year he would serve as support to all in Salsa kits along with Lelan Dains. Lelan was instrumental in my survival last year. As I pulled into check point 1 I instantly heard Ryan's voice calling out with a sense of urgency and possibly surprise..."Eki, over here!". I located Ryan and rode to the pit area he had established. As he worked to replenish my supplies I removed a base layer as the temperatures were rising. Ryan moved with a deliberate style that gave me confidence that I was in good hands. It was getting to be time to leave the C.P. when he told me, "You're the first Salsa rider to get here." (7th overall) I was surprised to say the least.

Heading out of the check point another rider asked, "Are you Eki?" "Yep", was my reply and apparently that was enough for us to hook up and begin riding together. It wasn't long before we were joined by the guy with the number 1 on his bike. The three of us began to work together, but the reigning champ's pulls were beginning to hurt. Soon my new friend was coming off the pace while I tried to hold the wheel of the fast moving rider who was clearly heading toward his own goals, winning! I sat up, wishing him luck in my mind, now I'd ride my race.

Shortly after the first check point I began to absorb my surroundings. I set the race aside and marveled at the vast expanses laid out before me. Reaching back for my camera was when I heard the unsettling sound of air leaving my rear tire. I guess the pictures will wait, I thought. Now, to my thinking one flat in this race is a given. I happily changed out the tube, but took notice of a cut in the side wall, this tire needed a boot. I had what I needed and repaired the maimed tire and I was on my way in 10 short minutes. But, Battle Creek Road was ahead and I had no idea what this section had in store for me.

Gettin' it done

Calling Battle Creek Road a road is quite a stretch. This is more of a jeep trail than a road. Picture a creek bed with flint rock scattered about in a scree like fashion and you have Battle Creek Rd. One must choose their lines carefully here as this section is just dying to take a bite out of some DK riders. It turned out I was the rider it wanted most. Not two blocks into the section and my rear tire let go again. Another tear in the side wall. No worries, I would boot this one too. It wasn't until I was completely inflated and ready to go that I noticed a disturbing bulge, the tube forcing it's way out of a separate cut that I hadn't seen. "Oh No!", I thought as I let the air out and began the repair process again. Finally, ready to go. I hopped on and gingerly rode down the trail for not even one minute, until the deafening sound of air releasing from the tire happened again. Another flat! I was in trouble. Running low on supplies, getting very hot, and very frustrated, I yelled out "WHY?!!". My DK was and had slipped away from me. I no longer would meet my secret goals. My thoughts began the cascading process of negativity. I deeply considered quitting. I had the phone in my pocket, but I probably wouldn't get cell service. Well, I could fix the tire the best that I could and ride easy or walk into cell coverage, then Ryan could come to get me. My 3rd Dirty Kanza was over.

I worked on the tire, inflating and deflating as I discovered more problems over and over. An hour had passed without me moving forward. My mental status was in a very bad place. Then it came to me. I flashed back to my early days of endurance racing when all I ever wanted to do was finish. I never had aspirations to be near the front of the race, those things have just come to me over time. I thought about why I do these things and the answer was and has always been, "to see what you're made of". Just then everything turned and I was determined to see exactly what I was made of. In this moment is when a savior of sorts came upon me, Bobby "All Day" Wintle.

My savior, Bobby Wintle

Bobby has been a part of my Dirty Kanza experience every year. He is one of the most positive people I have ever met and one of Kansas' best. His arrival turned the entire event around for me. We began to ride together and told him of my plight. Without hesitation he excitedly told me, "I have a brand new set of tires at the next check point and they're yours!". My spirits went straight to the sky. Not only would I finish, I was back in the fight, working my way off the ropes. Bobby and I would ride together for the next 16 miles. He was there to assist me when my front tire blew a short time later marking my 4th flat of the day. He kept me smiling as he called out "ALL DAY" whenever he heard something he liked or agreed with. When I think of Bobby, I say "All Day!"

Finally, I limped into the C.P. and heard Ryan calling to me. I responded that I needed mechanical help, I needed a complete tire swap. Now, as luck would have it there was a brand new set of tires in Lelan's truck and Bobby's offer was not needed. I actually had a choice as to which tires I wanted to run. With Ryan and Lelan's help we decided to go with the set Lelan had. I began the next leg and longest leg of the race with a brand new set of tires, a brand new goal, and a brand new attitude. I would race the sun...

Ryan (back ground) and Lelan swapping my tires.

My first two attempts at this race had me finishing in the dark. I wondered what it would be like to finish without using the lights, would the finish somehow look different? I was determine to find out.

I pulled away from the 2nd C.P. after Ryan convinced me to take a 4th water bottle. He pushed me up to speed and I called to him, "I'll see you at C.P. 3". My solo effort began. I had lost so much time to mechanicals that I was no longer riding among riders of a similar pace. Therefore, I would catch and move past racers for the next 6 hours, never latching onto a group. I accepted it as a test. Could I time trial the remainder of the race? I switched my gps to map mode so that I could confirm upcoming roads and be assured that I was on course compared to the map of the race mounted to my bars. I paid no attention to the myriad of information the gps held for me, I simply looked to the sky, noting the arc of the sun as it was now my only competitor. My legs felt good, my head felt right and I was doing well, but the race against the sun was going to be close.

Kansas 'B' Road

The heat of the afternoon began to wear on me as the temperatures were settled in the mid 90's. I unzipped my jersey only to allow a bee inside. Suddenly, I felt the bite of what can only be compared to someone grabbing a bit of skin with a needle nose pliers and twisting. I yelled out, "AHHHH". I looked inside to see a fuzzy bee walking around on my left side. Quickly I opened the bottom of my jersey giving him an exit point. The pain was insane, so much that I pulled over to see if his stinger was in my skin, it wasn't, so I pushed on.

Ryan told me at check point 2 that I had a 4 hour leg in front of me, but I completed it in about 3:40 or so. I was happy with the effort and I tried to eek some compliments out of Ryan at C.P. 3 as I boasted about my fast leg. In an effort to balance my comments about the last section I mentioned being a bit tired. Ryan questioned my fatigue as if I was getting soft on him. It was a light hearted moment, but he made sure that I didn't linger too long, as he politely told me that most people weren't really sticking around the C.P. and that "time was of the essence". He was right, I needed to move. Appreciating his candor I mounted up while Ryan placed his hands on the small of my back and got me up to speed one more time. "See you at the finish buddy", I yelled. As I rolled out of town I thought about his comments about how long it would take to complete the final leg. I told myself I needed to be above 15 at all times. The sun was beginning to drop fast.

I knew sunset would be around 8:40 p.m., I decided to take a peek at the time. Changing screens on my gps told me it was 7:30 p.m. I had been on the bike or at least out there doin' it for 12 and a half hours. My thinking was becoming more confused and I was having a lot of trouble reading the road signs. I questioned my vision as I was really having difficulty seeing or more accurately reading. I committed to being diligent with my navigation. A wrong turn now would destroy my chances of beating the big bright ball in the sky.

The setting sun. Not much time left.

I stayed in the drops for the next hour and I no longer seemed to be passing riders. Perhaps I had reached the point where the competitors in front of me were going my pace or faster, it didn't matter, I was alone and it was o.k. Experience with the course told me I was getting close. One more turn and the gravel would be ending. I would enter Emporia on tar roads. The sun was touching the tree tops in the distance, I still had a few minutes! The feeling of smooth tar was foreign to me, but nice. I stayed on top of my pedal strokes as the excitement of the finish built inside. I exited the college campus which told me Commercial St. was just ahead. Commercial would be my last road of the Dirty Kanza. A police man waved to me from his patrol car as I made the final turn. Cars began to honk and drivers yelled from their windows as they watched a filthy, battered rider enter their town. I heard their cheers and I felt their welcome as I came into downtown Emporia. My lights stayed off and I took one more glance over my shoulder to the setting sun and said, "gotchya". Into the finish and into Emporia's open arms I rode.

    Jim Cummins, race director and me at the finish.

Thank you Jim Cummins for this incredible experience. I know you see the joy you've given people and I hope you see mine. Thank you Ryan Horkey and all the Salsa crew. I hope you appreciated my stories after the race. Thank you Bobby Wintle, I know the cycling Gods sent you to look after me. Lelan, you know...Thanks buddy. Randy Smith, your generosity is unmatched. Thank you for giving a bunch of dirty bike riders your home for three days and for giving me your tube out there on Battle Creek Rd. Finally, thank you Emporia Kansas, you set an example of embracing cycling that the whole country can follow.


Unknown said...

Awesome man!! Congrats!

Anonymous said...

WOW! Great write up...and great effort.
Best regards,

Kid Riemer said...

Bravo Eki. A battle well fought!

Unknown said...

Sweet story! One of your best. Such a great tribute to the sport of gravel cycling. Nice work, Buddy.

bobby said...


You beat the sun, I LOVE IT! Setting personal goals is what it's all about man, thank you for the incredibly kind words. Hopefully I can make it up to MN for one of the 100 mile MTB races you were telling me about. That would be epic.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I don't know what else to say?

Kate Geisen said...

Wow! Fantastic race report and great race!! I wasn't even close to beating the sun to CP3, but I had to smile when I read your line about seeing what you were made of, because I used that exact same phrase in my race report.

Well done. Huge congratulations!

Steve Fuller said...

Perserve, adapt and keep your eye on the prize. WTG Eki.

Cornbread said...

You're a good man, Eki. It was great to see you again on the Flint Hills gravel. All a pleasure to ride with you.

fryn porky said...

JHP! Nice work Eki

MG said...

All Day is right! Nice ride out there, brother. You showed the persistence of the champion you are.

Great to see you and ride with you a bit this weekend.

Ari said...

Awesome Tim!

Anonymous said...

Hell of a ride...How was that Salsa prototype? A 2013 model coming?