I remember reading up on the DK a few years ago and earmarked it as something to try. At the time, I was interested in ultracycling events and long days on the bike, but I hadn’t really even approached some of the lead-up style races. After putting together some 6 hour mountain bike races and finally a successful 12 hour mountain bike race, I felt like it was time.
The Path to DK
But the lead-up was a bit more scattered than I thought it would be. When I laid out goals for 2012, I had two big races planned and one of them was a trail run. This created a bit of a challenge for me: I needed bike time for DK200, but I needed running time for the trail run. I remember a few winter long rides in St. Louis on my road bike and trying to get in runs where I could. It was interesting coming from a mountain bike/cycling background and trying to re-embrace running.
And then things changed up drastically. In March I finalized plans to move from Missouri for the first time since I was eight and make a home in Denver. March and April involved packing, trips to Denver and moving. April was my 1st month out here. March wasn’t an easy month to get much training in and since I was moving I decided to skip my trail run. So April was the first chance I had to really start my road to DK.
With that in mind, I bit the bullet a bit. I was in a new town, but I had work to do. I knew I needed to try to get a 100 mile ride or two and maybe a longer ride to see what kind of food or other changes needed to happen. So with this mindset, I logged over 500 miles including over 100 miles on 3 different bikes in April. This was the most I had ridden in a month ever! This involved finding new routes, exploring Denver by bike, and hunting down some gravel/dirt to ride as well. The training was fun and I was feeling better on the bike.
Even as June pulled close and I started to taper, the event didn’t feel real. Right up until the Tuesday before the event, I just didn’t feel like there was anything different. Suddenly I was packing, planning with my sister who was going to provide support. All the plans we had laid since winter were now showing up as real piles of gear. Then there was the thought: can I really ride 200 miles of gravel? My only ride really above 100 miles didn’t really provide too much confidence. Many of the people I had talked had discussed things that are beyond a racer’s control: tires, mechanicals, etc. So how was this going to go…?
The Long Gravel Day
Arriving in Emporia, Kansas did provide a slight bit of respite from the stress. I don’t know why… but the excitement relaxed me a bit. Seeing friends from St. Louis relieved some of the clouds. My sister and I got in an easy hour on the bikes on Friday and Saturday was go time.
The start line was cold and dark. We had left before many of the other racers in our hotel and I was pretty relaxed putting together some of my gear on the bike. I rode about the start for a while, saying hi to people, and before very long, it was time to line up. I lined up with a group from St. Louis and we rolled down the street as a pack. For awhile we run in and out of various groups. The pace was easy, but that was good. I had that race energy that wanted to take off like a MTB race. But this is 200 miles…
There are many, many details I remember about this race: riding early on in the race with the STL crew; the beautiful morning weather rolling through the farms surrounding Emporia; eventually being on my own rolling through a few groups of riders. One point early in the race we were surprised to see the leaders come back through our group after they had made a wrong turn.
One of my favorite things about this race is you almost always see where you are going to go before you get there. I had heard about Texaco Hill and the approach to it was one of those moments where you know that you’re climbing that road and that hill. At this point, one guy in a paceline I was in slammed on his brakes and the guy in front of me went down and rolled. It was strange even so early how different this seemed to put on the brakes and steer not to hit the guy.
As I got to the top of Texaco Hill, a herd of cattle came running across the road ahead of some cyclists. What a crazy site to be in an open pasture and the see these cattle interacting with the race in this way. And so the race continued on. Miles came by, hills came by. I tried to always stay aware of roads we crossed and where I was. In the final few miles before the first checkpoint, a group of riders started to roll by and I made the decision to latch on. And I sucked their wheels until we hit the pavement into Cassoday and then made a pull into the checkpoint.
In the chaos of pulling into the checkpoint, I missed the fact that my sister was waiting in the overflow parking. In fact, I missed that there even was overflow parking. I rolled around the parking lot and was about to get my phone out of my pack when I found her. The support was pretty efficient and she pointed out that we were in the prarie chicken capitol. “I’m in the capitol for something I didn’t know existed!” I told her. And
I rolled out for leg two. This leg started a bit roughly in that, 1) I was heading west (into the wind) and 2) there were almost no groups to ride with. A few riders went by going faster and I caught a few riders here or there. But overall, it was lone wolf time.
Some of my memories of the race are a bit blurred. I’ve lost track of what section something happened in. 200 miles is a long way. Even after the race, it would take time to go back over something like this. I remember there was a great creek/road section which was a fun deviation from straight-as-an-arrow roads. I remember a few times in the second section catching up to a rider and informally trying to get a group going, but often just pulling away from them.
The second checkpoint was also a bit unique in my mind. Finally, after 106 miles we reached a town and pulled into main street. Town! Civilization! Non-barn-like buildings! Except … it was kind of like rolling into town in an old western where all of the citizens are hiding in the houses. We didn’t see a soul. But we pressed on, following the arrows. Finally I found support and my sister had setup a popup to get me some shade.
While this year’s race had mild weather in DK’s of the past, shade felt great. In fact, the next section was so exposed I finally realized something. In my prep for the race, I had come up with lists of stuff to pack, lists of stuff to eat, lists of things to do while getting ready for the race. I did my best to stick to the lists and so far everything was going great. Right? Well, there was one step I kind of messed up. And it wasn’t until I was heading east towards Council Grove that I really began to notice: I forgot sunscreen on my legs and now, 120-ish miles into the race, any time the sun hit them, my legs would catch on fire. What’s a little extra pain while riding 200 miles in Kansas, right?
And there was a point in third leg where I thought I was delusional. I had been on my own for a while. My legs were sunburned. But I still had my spirits and was doing pretty good with food. My water bottles were warm and not so pleasant to drink from. And eventually I noticed one rider appear from under a tree. They were moving up the road, but slowly. They weren’t going particularly straight either. I rolled up next to them and asked how it was going. They were responsive, but you could see the suffering. I asked if they needed anything, but they said they just ate and were doing fine.
A little bit up the road, I saw another rider pop out of the shade. But this one looked familiar. It couldn’t be Peat from STL, could it? I thought. Earlier in the race, Peat had been in the group of the leaders when they had made a wrong turn. They were going orders of magnitude faster than our group. So we only glimpsed Peat as he steamed by. Now I found him checking his map. We rolled down the road and while I knew he was having a rough day, the company was amazing. We stopped for a few other riders along the way, chatted, joked. On the final stretch of road into Council Grove, Peat stopped to rest for a bit and I went into town on my own.
At the third checkpoint I had accomplished more miles in a single ride than I ever had before. I was feeling pretty good although my knees were aching, my legs were on fire, and other pains. My sister had scored a shade spot on a side street. I got some food. Changed into some compression socks to cover my sunburn. When I pulled myself from my seat I found Todd and Karen and Peat. We rolled out together. We all talked about how we ached, how we were enjoying the rail grade trail at the beginning of this section. At one point I looked straight down the road we were on and saw a set of hills above a line of trees and knew immediately: we’re going over that! This set of hills kind of shattered the group a bit. I was just trying to keep going, get the hills done so I could get the “free speed” on the downhills. But the last hills stretched us out.
And eventually we rode past a large, blue lake and people boating by waved at us. That really made me think about how we must look… dust covered bikers in the last 30 miles of a 200 mile day.
As we approached town, Peat and I joined up again. Some ways out, we joked about sprinting for the finish. The moon was full so I just rode with a “blinky” power light. Finally we reached pavement on the edge of Emporia. We started chugging into town. I realized I knew where we were and started to mentally plot our way to the finish. While doing this, Peat calls out that we need to make a left. Mentally tired, I start my turn and realize there is a car NEXT to me. My heart stops for a moment and we make the turn. What’s a near-car collision in the last mile of a 200 mile day?
In the few years I’ve been racing… I’ve finished lots of races. Even some of the biggest races are always best because you finish and you celebrate with others that you just raced for 3 hours. Or 6. Or 12. But as we rolled down Commercial St., the emotion of finishing this race that I had worked on for months finally hit me. We passed the barricades and saw the finish line. People on the sidewalk cheered for us. We had been on pavement for maybe 10 minutes. We’d seen only about 6 people in this time. Suddenly there was a tunnel of over a hundred people, music, people were cheering and ringing cow bells. It was overwhelming! Peat and I crossed the line. They handed us a sweet finishers’ glass with a 200 mile sticker in it. Someone filled our glasses with beer. People — strangers — came up to congratulate us. My sister and friends made it over. It was a sweet feeling.
I had started out on the path to the DK as a personal challenge. Can I finish a race like this? Ride 200 miles in a day? How will I deal with all the things that can happen with weather, the bike, or nutrition? And that’s what I got out of it. I learned that I could plan and work towards something like this and pull it off. There are now, weeks later, things in my mind. I can do it again, I could do it faster. I won’t say that I would never take on this race again, but it’s still not solidly in my mind to do it again. This was a good growth and I know now that some other things on my cycling list are approachable. Always find a challenge and always strive to meet it. So what’s next? A 100 mile MTB? A 24-hour team or even solo? One of Colorado’s long road rides?
- Kona Jake the Snake
- Stans Alpha wheelset
- Schwalbe Marathon Cross Tires (ran it with tubes)
- Two Revelate Designs Mountain Feed Bags
- A Backcountry Research Race Strap, BR Back Forty Strap, BR Tulbag
- Osprey Raptor pack