The first in what hopefully will be a series of Rider Diaries from Dirty Kanza. Kelsey recounts a day of challenges, struggles, emotions and ultimately success.
In November of 2016, when Allison asked the Internet who would be into doing Dirty Kanza on single speeds, I almost just ignored it. Dirty Kanza 200 had been on my bucket list, but a few years away. There were a lot of things on that list, and I didn’t think I was anywhere near ready to do something that big. But while I didn’t know Allison very well at the time, I did know that she was a total badass, and I thought I would let her know I was interested in hearing what she had to say.
Fast-forward to January, and we had a crew of seven women sitting at my kitchen table talking logistics. Training over the next six months, lists of things that would have to get accomplished. It was happening. We had agreed to do it, and surrounding ourselves with each other made it seem a little less scary. We didn’t know each other super well, but I felt really comfortable with these women, and was really stoked to get going.
Over the next six months, we went on long, grueling single speed gravel rides almost every weekend, with races like Landrun, Barry Roubaix, The Epic, and Ten Thousand sprinkled in between. During these rides, we got to know each other well. VERY well. We dialed in our on-bike nutrition and bounced notes off each other. We swapped gear in and out each week, finding what was right for our own rigs. We learned what worked for us, and what definitely did not.
There was a lot of build-up to this race. Support Crews had to be organized, 100 different lists had to be made for the 100 different things that had to be packed. Dirty Kanza is a 200-mile, self-supported gravel race, and there is no guarantee that the weather is going to work out in your favor. In fact, for about a month leading up to the race, we were pretty sure it was going to be a muddy, stormy mess. We packed for mud, and mentally prepared to be walking our bikes a lot of the way. I knew I didn’t have any expectations of making a podium my first time around; I just wanted to finish, because in this race, finishing really is winning.
Once we all arrived in Emporia, Kansas, all of my anxiety washed away pretty quickly. The whole town shows up for this event, and there were racers from all over the country arriving to get put into a pain cave on Saturday. We listened to a panel of women discuss the #200women200miles campaign, which included my personal hero Rebecca Rusch. Listening to these women, and seeing all the women in the audience who were there to race, got me really stoked, and took away a lot of the nerves I had been feeling driving up. We ate lunch (expertly prepared by our Pro Support Crew of Marie Snyder and Jannette Rho), scoped the course, and then got to watch the premiere of Rebecca Rusch’s film “Blood Road”, which induced another huge inspirational surge. Going to bed that night, I was much more relaxed and felt prepared mentally.
My alarm went off at 4:00AM. I ate the same breakfast I had been eating before all of my gravel rides, with some cold brew to get myself moving. The support car had been loaded the day before, so Mary and I just got dressed, checked our bikes to make sure they were good to go, and rolled to the start line in downtown Emporia. Despite the sun being down still, there was a ton of activity. Racers everywhere, support crews on the sideline, and nervous smiles all around. The countdown started, and all the DK200 racers rolled out into the Kansas sunrise.
The race is broken up into four different legs, with checkpoints at about every 50 miles (some longer, some shorter). Our support crews met us at each checkpoint with all of the gear we had painstakingly organized, and all of our food. The first leg wasn’t particularly difficult. Because of all of our training, 50 miles felt like nothing at that point, and because we were all full of adrenaline, the hills didn’t feel too bad. A huge herd of cattle almost took out the field on a descent, and Rebecca Rusch made another appearance when she crushed down a hill with 20 dudes sucking her wheel. She is my hero.
Mary and I were in and out of the Checkpoint #1 super quickly. Quick food, re-stock water, no mechanicals, so we were in and out. The second leg had a lot of elevation, and it was getting hotter. We rode with our fellow SS Gravel Crew member Kayci for a while, but she was riding at a hot pace, and Mary and I looked at each other, nodded our heads, and backed off. In a race this long, it’s important to listen to your body. I think we both knew that we couldn’t keep that pace up for that long, so we backed off a tiny bit and rode at something a bit more comfortable. The heat was no joke, and neither were the hills.
We rolled into Checkpoint #2 feeling the race a bit more. We took a bit longer and ate a bit more food than the last one, which was a good call. You can’t make it very far if you’re bonking, so fueling the body is crucial. Marie and J-Rho gave us ice-socks, and we left feeling better (I also changed my bibs and jersey, so I felt like a brand new person). My legs were starting to feel it, but the adrenaline rush you get coming into a checkpoint really refreshes your spirits. The third leg of the race was the longest at almost 60 miles. That may not seem like a big deal, but the 10 extra miles in the middle of the day on monster hills with loose, sharp gravel really, really makes a difference. Not just physically speaking, but mentally. Mary and I each went to our respective “dark places” a few times, but luckily we were able to pull each other out of them. Riding with a teammate was a very good decision for me. 16 hours is a long time to be alone on a bike, so riding with Mary made it exponentially more bearable.
When we rolled into Checkpoint #3 (the final stop before the finish), we were looking pretty haggard, I’m sure. Covered in dirt and running on fumes, I was feeling low. I ate some food, grabbed some Sprite, but it was really our friends that pulled me out of my funk. Marie and J-Rho parked near the other support crews, so it was nice to see Brent, Brandon, Chris, and Wanda. Seeing friends during this race always gave me a bit of a mental surge. We (somewhat reluctantly) left the final checkpoint and started on our final leg, which was just 46 miles, which somehow sounded very short to me. Which was a good thing.
By this time it was cooling down, and rain clouds had rolled in. We never really got rained on, but the cloud cover helped a lot. Mary and I kept each other stoked as we rode along, and the elevation had backed off significantly, so we were able to ride at a good clip. The adrenaline was coming back since the finish was now in reach. As the sun started to set, and the sky was purple and pink and orange, I started to get kind of emotional. This had been such a long journey, and now it was finally happening. Also, I was insanely exhausted, so I probably would have cried at anything.
The last 10 miles felt like 100. Not because they were particularly hard, but the sun had set, it was pitch black, and we were alone on the gravel roads. We could see the spotlights shining from the finish line 6 miles out, and we had our heads down picking our way through the darkness. When we finally crossed the highway onto pavement, we knew we were about to finish. Something that felt so far away for so long was finally here. We rounded a corner, and the long finish line appeared. There were so many people lining the sides, screaming for us with huge smiles, it felt like we were winning the Tour. We held hands, raised them up, and crossed the line together. We came to a stop, received our finishing patches, and heard a “Congrats, ladies!” from my Forever Hero, Rebecca Rusch. I could have cried then, but turned my head to see my Support Crew, our Cuttin Crew teammates, and other SS Gravel Crew finishers Sam and Allison, all running at us with outstretched arms. That’s when I lost it. We did it and it felt like nothing I’ve ever felt.
That morning, Mary and I had arbitrarily picked 16 hours as our estimated finish time at the starting line. Just a guess. We crossed the line at 16 hours exactly. We laid down on the concrete near the finish, and slowly regained the ability to speak. We changed clothes, ate a burger, and became human again. We laughed with friends from other states we knew through gravel, we met new people, and finally, we loaded the car and went to bed. The next morning (which happened to be my 27th birthday), we watched our friends get up on podiums, and had a huge breakfast. As I sat there looking down the table, I realized that the 7 women that sat at my kitchen table in January all just finished Dirty Kanza. We all rode 206 miles of gravel and absolutely destroyed it. I tried not to cry but honestly I had cried so many times (all from happiness) that weekend that I didn’t give a shit anymore. Even though I sat in a car for 11 hours that day back to Chicago, it was the best birthday I’ve ever had.