From Insecurity to Inspiration: My Experience at the Dirty Kanza

It’s Guest Bloggers’ Week! And today Nicole Murray of Kansas City, Mo., is sharing her experience at the Dirty Kanza, a crazy endurance bicycle race. Talk about a life-changing and inspiring time!

dirty kanza What It’s Like to do the Dirty Kanza

The Dirty Kanza 200 (DK) is promoted, and rightfully so, as the World’s Premiere Endurance Gravel Grinder. This 200-mile gravel, ultra-endurance bicycle race in Emporia, Kan., is not for the faint of heart or the novice cyclist. In fact, the Rider’s Bible for the race states:

Do not call us. We will not come rescue you. Event promoters and sponsors are not responsible for your safety and well-being. If you sign up for this event make sure you have a support crew with a well thought out emergency back-up plan.”

This equates to mandatory bike mechanic knowledge in case you break down in the middle of nowhere; because you will, and you will need the tools and wherewithal to fix your bike and keep riding.

That is not my story however. This is a story of false feelings of ineptitude, intimidation and insecurity blooming into insight and inspiration.

I have been dating Tina, an endurance athlete, a little shy of two years. Her friend Julie Ann Pedalino, of Pedalino Bicycles, was forming a new women’s cycling team with a mission statement that promoted “inclusive cycling by developing fast, fierce and motivated women racers who support and encourage their sisters. Through training and advocacy Team Pedalino is empowering women to ride more, ride faster, and ultimately embrace their inner Warrior Goddess.” Tina was going to be on her newly formed team, and I was invited but respectfully declined. “I work weekends and can’t participate in any races, so it’d be pointless,” I sheepishly responded. In reality, I was embarrassed at my turtle-paced abilities. I agreed to listen and attend the first orientation meeting. Once I saw the strength of the other women, it was settled in my mind that I made the right decision.

Fast forward to the DK. Half of the team entered the Dirty Kanza, albeit in different course options. Tina entered the DK 200, Megan did the DK Half-Pint 100, Scarlett and Rachel were to do the DK Lite 50, and Julie was undecided which distance. I signed up for the DK Fun Ride 20, mainly to have something to do for the first few hours. My main job was to be SAG Support for Tina, as the 200 option had three checkpoints riders hit for refueling and bike support. As the race approached, I told Tina I was more nervous for my 20-mile gravel ride than I was for her and her 200. I was absolutely confident in her ability, and absolutely terrified in mine. I had done triathlons before, which have a bike segment, but had never done an actual dedicated bike race. Julie was kind enough to offer her mentorship to ease my trepidation, and said she would ride the 20 with me and offer tips along the way.

Dirty Kanza Race Day

Race day was here. The four distances had 20 minute between start times. At 6 a.m. I waved to hundreds of hopeful 200-mile finishers. They oozed excitement. Then the DK Half-Pint lined up. Megan was in the very front row, chewing bubble gum with the most nonchalant attitude. I kept picturing her saying “Come on boys, let’s get this show on the road and I’ll show you how a woman really cycles.” She was only one of two women who had the gusto to line up at the front, and I was envious of her confidence and ability. Scarlett and Rachel were next to line up in the DK Lite wave and egged me on to join them for their start. The course was identical, only I’d turn around before they did. I relented because my anxiety was increasing the longer I had to wait to start.

dirty-kanza-start

Then, finally, off we went, into the sunrise, a mob of happy cyclists. Julie was coaching me on the various obstacles we could encounter. The rider meeting the day before had boasted a fast ride since the roads were dry, with only a 20 percent chance of rain.

As luck would have it, it rained.

This meant the first 10 miles of gravel was actually mostly mud. Dozens of people were carrying their bikes back to the start. “What are they doing?” I quizzically asked Julie. She had attempted the 200 the year prior with Tina. They made it to the first checkpoint and decided they’d had enough. (The 2015 race pounded the area with weeks of rain, causing the entire course to be a mud pit. I could sense her hesitation as she recalled the previous year’s attempt, and being forced to carry their bikes for miles through unrideable mud. “Their derailleurs are breaking from the mud accumulation” she replied. I pondered the disappointment of the mechanical failure so early in the race as we cycled on.

We approached an area that had about a half inch of water. It was beautiful watching the scenery and the cyclists ahead of me float through the water, leaving colorful wakes as the sun reflected their jerseys in the water. Julie instructed me not to hesitate and keep cycling. “Just pick a line and go with it.” These were the same words she used a few yards ahead when the mud really picked up. “Just shift to a lower gear and spin through it. Pick a line and stick to it.” It almost reminded me of learning to ride my bike as a child when my mom would tell me not to be scared of the cracks in the sidewalk. We made it through unscathed.

dirty-kanza-nicole

Mile 5 greeted Julie with a dropped chain. She cleared off some mud and put it back in place and we caught up with Rachel on the side of the road. Her derailleur broke and she was done. We cycled about 50 more yards in thickening mud. Julie didn’t want to break her bicycle, and the image of last year’s mud struggle weighed heavy. She asked if it was okay if we turned around. I agreed and we turned around at mile 6. Half mile after we turned around, I heard a loud pop ahead of me as Julie’s derailleur snapped off, breaking a spoke along with it. A few harsh words were spoken as she inspected her bike. Since no one had a chain-breaker, she started carrying her bike toward the beginning.

dirty-kanza-mud

The whole town supported the DK, including the local Jeep club who were driving the course, picking up riders in distress. It took several passes before we were able to flag down a nice man and his daughter in an otherwise empty Jeep. We picked up Rachel and started phase 2 of our DK Journey … the Jeep Ride. Unbeknownst to us, he was going to drive the entirety of the DK Lite course because his wife was participating. Although we didn’t actually ride the 25 miles out and back, we saw it in all its glory. We passed many broken bicycles and their dejected owners. We also took in the beautiful scenery of the Flint Hills and the determined and fierce riders still going at it.

dirty-kanza-view

I became concerned because we had not passed Scarlett yet. She had never used cue sheets and didn’t have a Garmin or other GPS device. She was fairly new to gravel riding and looking back, downplayed her handling abilities. I thought she had somehow gotten off course and was lost, possibly with a broken bike.

Finally, right before we caught up with Mr. Jeep’s wife, toward the turnaround point, we saw Scarlett climbing a hill like a beast. Here I was worried, and she was kicking butt miles ahead of where I thought she would be! We stopped to ask how she was doing and I gave her one of my cycling gloves since she had lost hers that morning. I was in utter awe at how well she was mastering that course because it got quite technical and hilly at the end of the Lite course. A few moments later we caught up with the wife of Mr. Jeep and experienced the joy of her daughter as she saw her mom achieving the gravel challenge.

dirty-kanza-road

Julie and I needed to be at Checkpoint 2 to support Tina and her boyfriend Kurt who was also doing the 200. Mr. Jeep got off the course and we went 50 mph on the main road to make it back in time. I almost think that part was scarier than anything that whole weekend.

Did I mention we were all standing up in the back, because the bikes took up a lot of space?

Before we hit the speed of the main roads and could actually hear each other, I picked Julie and Rachel’s brains. Julie is a very polite and positive woman, which translated to me interpreting her as inviting me to the team as a necessary for good manners since I was dating Tina. Again, that’s how my brain works.

Rachel seemed more like a “normal” rider versus the rest of them. She did a lot of work with BikeWalkKC, the local non-profit dedicated to pedestrian and cycling advocacy. She was a strong cyclist who did a lot of urban riding, which is what I mainly did. She had an average body build, which is probably why I wanted her opinion more than anyone else.

“Do you ever feel intimidated by those other ladies on the team? Do you always feel welcomed even though you don’t do 100-mile races every weekend?”

Surprisingly she answered that she always felt fine and comfortable and that I should just go ahead and join the team. That was not the answer I was expecting, which just reaffirmed that a lot of the things in my head are just that … in my head and completely made-up make-believe excuses to hold myself back.

It was decided. I would buck up and swallow my fear and embarrassment and agree to stop being a tag-along and actually join the team. I had been so inspired by the whole DK experience of Megan lining up front, Scarlett totally blowing my expectations out of the water, Julie’s holding back her ride so she could go slow with me and mentor me, and Rachel giving me a dose of reality — not to mention the hundreds of other riders, both fast and slow, giving it their best shot!

Diry Kanza Support and Gear Support

Now, the stressful part of the journey: SAG (support and gear) Support. Tina had not completed an endurance race in the time we had been dating. Her last Ironman was completed a few months before we met, and the injuries she sustained were just now under control. I had no idea and was not prepared for the mental strain it takes just to support the athlete doing all the hard work!

The night before, we had made a checklist of the various items that needed to be done at each stop. We had an inside joke going on the names of a few cycling essentials. Her heart rate monitor strap would chafe and scar her chest so I told her to lube it so that didn’t happen. So “boob lube” and “V butter” (chamois butter she used to lubricate her inner thigh/groin area underneath her bike shorts) got added to the list for every stop. Things like changing out sunglasses lenses when dusk set and replacing charged battery packs to juice her Garmin, bike light and phone were among other items.

SAG-760

That wasn’t the hard part however. The hard part was waiting and waiting and not knowing. Not knowing where she was or if she was hurt, or if her bike broke and if she had cell service in BFE Kansas to call if any of the above had happened. Kurt is a phenomenally fast rider, so he came into the checkpoints fairly fast. Julie had to constantly ease my nerves. She was experienced at both racing and SAG support so she was used to the game.

“Kurt just came through, and not as fast as we thought, which means Tina will be slower, too. It’s hard for them to gauge their time on something like this. Just wait for Baily to come through. Once he comes, she shouldn’t be too far behind him.”

I would listen for about 10 minutes and then start pacing. I brought my textbook because I knew there would be waiting. I didn’t even look at it; I was too busy pacing. I kept checking, and rechecking her Garmin Live activity, but it had stopped tracking her at mile 26. It’s the unknown I have problems with.

dirty kanza

Finally she rolled into checkpoint 2 with a huge grin on her face, looking as exhausted as if she had taken the dogs for a walk. She hugged us and ate as we went through the checklist. When she went out, I repeated the same cycle of waiting and worrying, mixed with periods of Julie reassuring me. Checkpoint 3 wasn’t as pretty as Checkpoint 2. Riders were coming in looking awful and resting for 30 minutes before going out again. Many had lost water bottles in the bumpy terrain and had ridden 20 miles sans water. This did not ease my mind, which was racing as fast as the riders were cycling.

When she came to Checkpoint 3, a hour and half later than she estimated, I felt immense relief and fear at the same time. She didn’t look well and did not greet us with a smile right away. “That last part was rough. Lots of hills. Very hilly and windy.” The pent-up anxiety rushed out of me and I rapid fired, “What do you need? I peeled oranges, do you need balls, give me your water bottles, do you need a pickle? Do you need a chair to sit? What do you want to eat? Put on your boob lube and V butter!” She took a breath and said, “Calm down, I’m fine” as she laughed. That made me feel better. “Just give me a second to think about what I want to eat.” Once she had some water and fuel in her belly, she started to look a lot better.

tina

At 12:54 a.m., after 18 hours and 54 minutes of riding, Tina finished the Dirty Kanza 200-mile gravel bike race. With Julie and Kurt (who beat the sunset) at my side, we jumped, cheered, and screamed as she rode down the finishers’ line. It was over. Thank God.

dirty-kanza-stats

I hugged her and told her she couldn’t do that again because it was too stressful for me.

“Telling me not to do a race is like telling you not to eat something,” she responded. This was true and I knew it. “Okay, well you can’t do this again unless you have a tracker that works!”

She smiled and agreed. —Nicole Murray

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