Dirty Kanza is a 200 mile (206 miles this year) self-supported gravel ride in the Flint Hills around Emporia, KS. There are 3 checkpoints every 50ish miles that are the only locations that riders are allowed to receive aid from their support. The event itself does not provide any nutrition or hydration, each rider is on their own and must have at least one person to support them or pick them up if they cannot finish. Riders need to be prepared to carry whatever is necessary to get you 50 miles from checkpoint to checkpoint because this area is very remote. The event starts at 6:00am the first Saturday after Memorial Day and everyone must finish by 3:00am Sunday.
While it takes months to prepare your body to be able to ride 200 miles, the nerves don’t kick in until the first weather reports come out 15 days before the event. This year the initial reports showed lows in the 60s, highs in the low 80s and, in a complete shock, winds under 10 mph. There was also a slight chance of a stray thunderstorm. While they are called the Flint Hills, the elevation changes are not that drastic. The hills are more rolling than grueling. What makes this race different is the wind. Typical of the Midwest, Kansas is also humid. The combination of wind and humidity is typically the reason Dirty Kanza keeps half of all starters from finishing in most years. As the week progressed, the chances of rain diminished while the highs moved up to the mid 80s.
The roads are open to traffic, though most everyone in the area knows about the race and its 1,150 participants. I was passed by one car the entire race. We started with a police escort out of town and many times when cars had the right of way, they waved riders through. I guess when 4,000 people, and their wallets, come to a town of 24,000 you become very friendly.
On race morning I woke up at 4am to eat breakfast and get everything ready for the race. My wife, Cathleen, was providing me with support. It was up to her to change my nutrition and hydration while I re-lubed my chain and got any tubes, CO2 cartridges or anything else I might need to make it another 50ish miles.
The race starts with Emporia State cheerleaders holding up signs for riders expecting to finish in 12, 14, 16, or 18 hours. My goal was 14 hours, but these were nearly perfect weather conditions so I met some friends in between the 12 and 14 hour groups. 13 hours would be a great day, but race director Jim Cummins mentioned that the recent rains and traffic had created “hero gravel” and normally rocky gravel roads were more like paved roads in most sections.
The first section was 48 miles to checkpoint 1. It began with a neutral rollout on pavement until about 2 miles in where we finally hit gravel. These first sections were truly like paved roads and the pace was well above where I thought I would be. I felt good, so I let it roll. We turned into open grazing territory and had a few creek crossings as things got a little hillier. The Flint Hills are notorious for sharp rocks that eat tires like they are going out of style. This is not a race for a tubed wheelset. If you don’t ride tubeless, don’t come to Emporia until you upgrade. Once we hit gravel you start to see people on the side of the road repairing flats. Even in the relatively benign first section I saw many people on the side of the road repairing flats. My front derailleur got hit by a rock at 38 miles in and I had some trouble shifting in to my big gear. Nothing fatal, but a concern.
At the first checkpoint I made a near fatal mistake. In a rush to get back onto the course, I forgot to take of my hydration pack for Cathleen to change out the bladder. She changed out my bottles and my food while I lubed my chain and I quickly left Madison, Kansas for the first time that day. Fortunately it was only 52 miles to the next checkpoint in Eureka, KS and I always put more than enough liquids in my hydration pack. I knew the bottles would take me at least 2 hours and I was averaging 16 miles an hour, so I figured I had enough to get me there with the scraps in my hydration pack. I was right and a rather uneventful 52 miles later I was in Eureka, KS.
The third checkpoint was back in Madison, KS, but instead of 50ish miles, it took us 62 miles to get back to town. I wasn’t too concerned because what little wind we had that day would be at our backs. This was the most remote and grueling section of the course. I went into a pain cave at mile 140 that I wasn’t sure I would be able to get out of. It felt like it took 3 hours to move the final 22 miles to the third checkpoint. When I finally arrived my friend who was forced to drop out after his derailleur came off was there to help. This was my longest stop. I ate some pizza and as much of a Reese’s peanut butter cup as I could handle. I drank some flat Diet Coke and some pickle juice. I felt awful entering the checkpoint, but it was only 44 more miles and I had almost 4 hours to get back to Emporia before the sun went down at 8:44. I got myself together and headed out of town. At the very first turn I went straight and asked some people that were watching the race where to go. They sent me on my way in the right direction and a few minutes later I found my second wind and started to feel better. A few miles later I came up on a female rider that got on my wheel. We traded pulls for 40 miles back into town. I probably would have slowed down if it wasn’t for her pushing me. She fell back a bit as we hit pavement back in Emporia and the final hill by Emporia State University. I finished in 13 hours 21 minutes and I was spent.
Riding in Dirty Kanza was the greatest cycling experience I have ever had. All along the way ranchers and their families would be at the top of their driveways cheering racers on. I experienced the lowest low I have felt and recovered to finish 39 minutes before my goal time. Racers come to Emporia for the challenge, but they come back for the people. This town, and this race, is simply an amazing experience that every cyclist should try and experience.