At 9 AM on January 14, 2017 I was on a bus driving past Usain Bolt’s high school in the middle of Jamaica. I was also frantically trying to turn on my cellular data to find out if Ryan got me registered for Dirty Kanza. I quickly found out he did and was simultaneously overcome with a feeling of relief and a feeling of oh sh!t. I wouldn’t find out until later that day when I arrived back in the US that the race sold out in minutes. But it was official, I was in.
Before I get to far, I better explain what Dirty Kanza (DK) is exactly. DK, is a self supported gravel race that takes place in Emporia, Kansas. The course changes every year and is released a week before the race, but it is always a large 200+ mile loop through the Flint Hills with at least 200 miles on gravel, it also includes approximately 10,000 feet of climbing. There are no aid stations, no course markings and no volunteers out on the course. DK has been on my radar since 2013 and after completing Crusher in the Tushar in July of 2016 I knew 2017 would be my year. Late in 2016 I started seeing plugs on social media for a new campaign, #200women200miles, an effort by Dirty Kanza Promotions to increase female participation. I was stoked that the year I planned to conquer DK coincided with such an epic and important movement.
After returning from Jamaica my training was underway. I quickly tried to regain my endurance and get my legs comfortable spinning as I was coming off of a less than stellar cyclocross season. I spent a lot of time on the road and found my legs and endurance came back faster than I thought. Around this time my coach and I planned for a small decrease in volume so I could focus on supporting Ryan at 24HOP (24 Hour Mountain Bike Race). That’s when an exciting start to 2017 turned into a never ending nightmare. Ryan broke his collarbone during the race and needed surgery. After surgery he spent seven weeks in a sling. He couldn’t drive, do anything that required two hands and definitely couldn’t ride a bike. Then I had a business trip to London. A snafu with Airbnb. Two (fun!) trips to Austin for my brother’s wedding. I started a new job. We got a new car to make the drive to Kansas. My Grandpa’s health rapidly declined, so I traveled back to Ohio to see him. My Grandpa passed away and I made a second trip back to Ohio. Sprinkled in between all of those stressful events was plenty of drama that I won’t bore you with. Needless to say I was rarely in an ideal state for the training load that is required for something like Dirty Kanza.
Fortunately, I’m blessed with a great coach and just followed his training plan as best as I could. I figured somewhere along the way things would settle down and I’d get my head in a good space. With Ryan being out of commission I did the majority of my training, which consisted of a few 7+ hour rides, alone. This was a blessing in disguise, because it forced me to become more self reliant and confident. I could no longer lazily roll out of bed on Saturday mornings knowing Ryan had spent Friday night lubing my chain, adjusting my cables and taking care of any other miscellaneous items that needed attention. And my rides went from hours of chasing his wheel and fun conversation to staring at my front tire and talking to myself or the animals I passed along the way.
The low point of my training build was at this year’s Chino Grinder, a race I absolutely loved in 2016, but this year I had zero desire to be there. My head and legs were not in it. The 110 mile race, consisting 60% gravel and 40% pavement took me almost ten hours to complete. That was less than a month out from DK and after that race I wasn’t sure I even wanted to go to Kansas (it is worth noting that this was when things were not going well with my Grandpa, so needless to say my mental energy was focused on much more important things than racing bikes). Despite my lack of enthusiasm I continued on with a plan to toe the line in Emporia on June 3. After Chino Grinder, my primary focus was recovery and getting my bike ready. I got new tires, switched over to Ryan’s custom built i9 wheelset, got a new Ti seat post (with customized sandblasting from the one and only Kaolin) and arranged all of my accessories and nutrition. I also took a lot of naps, got in the habit of going to bed early, and consumed a lot of greens, beets and echinacea. Four days before the race the check engine light came on in our new car (purchased primarily for this trip); Ryan graciously handled that situation and decided to rent a minivan for the long haul to Kansas.
We arrived in Emporia late on Thursday night and checked into our hotel. After breakfast on Friday morning we went to downtown Emporia for registration and packet pick up. Ryan and I had been to Emporia once before, on Christmas Eve, but when we got to town on Friday we could hardly recognize it. The town is quaint with a theater, storefronts and restaurants all along the main drag. Every storefront had their windows decorated or a sign out front with sayings such as “Welcome DK Riders!” or “Good Luck DK Riders!” The sidewalks were decorated with chalk and town ambassadors were walking along the street to welcome us and give us advice on the best places to eat and shop. The atmosphere in the town rivaled, if not beat, the enthusiasm from locals at Ironman Couer d’Alene, but let’s be clear there were no triathletes in sight. When I walked through the doors for registration I was greeted by a Girl Scout Troop and a free box of cookies, which I almost turned down until the troop leader told me “They’re free, from the Girl Scouts!” The town of Emporia really made the riders feel like rock stars!
After packet pick up we attended the #200women200miles women’s forum, which was hosted by pro roadie Janel Holcomb and had an all-star panel including Rebecca Rusch, pro roadie Alison Tetrick, Fit Chick Selene Yeager, Kristi Mohn of DK Promotions, 5x DK finisher Wendy Davis, & Laura Haraldson from Salsa Cycles. I typically don’t attend events like this, because I am extremely introverted and the crowds and pre-race energy exhaust me, but attending the forum was one of the best decisions I made leading up to the race. I got lots of great advice and felt relaxed and at ease going into the race. Immediately following the forum we attended the mandatory riders briefing. After the briefing we grabbed lunch and I practiced using my Garmin eTrex in town and out on the first few miles of the course. Finally, we went back to the hotel to get my bike ready and after a standard pre-race meal of rice and beans, I had some cherries for dessert, because they have melatonin, and crawled into bed around 7 PM to watch a few episodes of The Wonder Years.
I slept great and woke up easily around 4 AM. As Ryan loaded up the van I quietly ate my breakfast of steel coat oatmeal with quinoa and blueberries. We got the the race start around 5:15, as we slowly made our way to the starting corral we ran into our friend from Arizona, Harry Johnson. Harry and I lined up in the corral together and took a few pictures with our respective support crews, Vince and Ryan. After they left the corral Harry and I chatted about previous races and about Montana and Alaska, two of my favorite places. Before I knew it the call ups were finished and they gave us the official send off of “3, 2, 1, Let’s Roll!” As we crossed the start line Ludacris’ Roll Out was blaring in the background, it was going to be a good day!
Ride 1: Start to Checkpoint 1 (48.4 miles)
The race has three checkpoints where riders can meet their support crew and refuel, these checkpoints are at mile 48, 104 and 162. Knowing this I always planned to mentally break the race into four smaller rides.
After leaving downtown Emporia the pace gradually picked up as we approached the gravel. The giant parade of cyclists leaving town quickly spread out into many micro parades, sailing out into the open roads that lie ahead. I knew that I really wanted to push myself during the first 48 miles. This is not how I typically race, and it may have been a gamble to test a new race strategy during the biggest race of my life, but I was confident in my strategy. I kept my bike in a hard gear and sat in as often as possible, jumping on and off different pace lines. When I felt I could go faster I jumped behind a faster group and when I wanted a little recovery I sat in with a group going at a steady pace. There are hundreds of decisions to make in a race as long as this one. I was incredibly grateful for all of the time I spent practicing drafting with my coach and his friends. I never felt uncomfortable riding so close to others, which was a huge win for me. Another new strategy I decided to test on race day was eating solid food every 45 minutes, right from the get go. I typically wait at least 60-90 minutes to start taking calories, but during the panel discussion I was given some good advice (not to put yourself in a deficit at the start) and decided to take it. This worked out wonderfully.
Somewhere along the way we had to dismount to walk through a muddy section at the bottom of a hill, but it was short and we didn’t run into any additional mud on this portion of the route. I passed several people changing flat tires, I wish I would have counted because it felt like I saw 60 people changing flats, realistically it was probably half that. I attribute this to line choice and low tire pressure. Towards the end of this leg I saw my friend Dax, who was racing the DK100, I didn’t realize it was him at first, because he was going so fast, which made me happy. A while later I saw Rebecca Rusch, also racing DK100, comfortably sitting in the second position of a pace line that was hauling, awesome! I rolled into checkpoint one ahead of schedule and honestly fifty miles of gravel had never felt so easy. Ryan was a nervous ball of energy waving me down at the checkpoint and I followed him to the van as he sprinted through the grass. At the van I was greeted by Ryan’s parents who I knew would be attending, and his Grandparents, which was a total surprise. Ryan’s Grandparents are seriously two of my favorite people in the world so I was thrilled to see them and it gave me a little boost. I gave everyone hugs as Ryan lubed my chain and then I grabbed a new water bottle, CarboRocket and ProBar and set out again.
Ride 2: Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (55.8 miles)
I was feeling great after leaving checkpoint one and was eager to get back on the gravel. As I left town there weren’t many other cyclists around and I started getting nervous that I would have to rely on myself alone for navigation. Soon enough I caught up with other groups of riders or vice versa. There weren’t as many pace lines at this point and most people were riding alone or side by side. This is something that I find slightly frustrating about amateur riders, but oh well. The roads during this portion of the course were much rougher than the roads in the previous section. They were narrower, windier and had lots of very chunky, loose gravel. I guess we were officially in the Flint Hills at this point, because there was also a lot more climbing than in the previous section. The hills were short, but they were steep with grades getting up to 9%. I was really grateful that my coach and I had done so much riding at Papago Park because the road conditions were most similar to that – lots of loose chunkiness, which required careful line choice and confidence on the steep descents. With the hills and winding roads came amazing scenery. This was the most scenic portion of the course so I spent a lot of time taking in the views. It was incredibly pastoral and reminded me of the English country-side.
I rolled into checkpoint two and my average speed had only decreased by one mph, which was great. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that Ryan’s family was still there. I really enjoyed seeing them again, and appreciated that they drove all the way down to Eureka. I took a little more time at this checkpoint even though I didn’t feel like I needed to because I wanted to reward myself for getting to the halfway point with some Coke and a Payday. I was also getting extremely hot so Ryan cooled me off with an ice cold towel and I took off the bandana I was wearing around my neck to protect my mouth and nose from dust. Ryan gave me two CarboRocket Electrolyte pills since I was getting a little salty, which was great because my stomach was also hurting (the pills have ginger and peppermint in them). I took another water bottle, CarboRocket, ProBar and a few Honey Stinger Gels and continued on.
Ride 3: Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 (58 miles)
I left the checkpoint feeling pretty good and headed out of town with another guy on a Salsa bike. This was an easy way to strike up conversation so I started talking to him. Turns out this rider, his name was Luke, worked for Salsa and he was really friendly. I was happy because up until this point no one was very talkative and I was eager for conversation to pass the time. We rode together for the first ten miles and then I saw him again fixing a mechanical, and again at the finish. At the beginning of this leg the road conditions were similar to the previous leg. Either the sun came out or we were in an exposed area because it was starting to feel unbearably hot. This was the most difficult leg of the race, by far. It consisted of miles and miles of steep, loose rollers that became exhausting. I was starting to feel really fatigued and had to get into the small chain ring up front to climb up the hills. I made a mental mistake during this section and spent too much time in the small ring on the descents and in between the rollers because I had convinced myself that my legs were too tired, instead of realizing I could recover before the next uphill. This probably cost me some time, but luckily towards the end of this leg I realized the error in my ways when some of the advice from the panelists came to mind, namely two things. First, every feeling is temporary and won’t last, and second, you can run over hot coals or you can walk over hot coals, but you still have to go over hot coals.
The combination of steep hills and spinning in the small ring was really starting to wear me down, but everyone else seemed to be struggling as well. Leading up to each of the previous checkpoints I had started a little count down for the number of miles remaining until I would see Ryan again, I usually started the countdown when there was less than ten miles remaining. On this leg I started my countdown at mile 44. The miles dragged on – it took everything in me not to keep staring at my Garmin, which was completely demoralizing. I was finally grateful that I had done Chino Grinder, because despite feeling tired I never lost confidence, I had ridden 110 miles on empty before and I could do it again (my coach must be a genius!). I needed to focus on something positive so I started thinking about each of the women I had featured on my blog with an 88bikes donation and what each of them means to me. This quickly moved into thinking about Ryan, my parents, my siblings and their spouses, and my Grandpa. I was overcome with gratitude. My legs were aching but I was incredibly thankful that I had the opportunity to be doing what I was doing. I said some prayers and it was really good. Of course the happy feelings would come and go, but I chugged along. At one point I saw a herd of cows laying in the grass next to the road and I desperately wanted to crawl over the fence and lay down with them, for a cuddle sesh – this was a new kind of low for me, but also hilarious. High points during this leg of the race were getting a water bottle from a family handing out water in their front yard, dismounting for a refreshing and fast moving creek crossing and getting a Gatorade from two ladies handing out drinks from the back of their pick up.
When I got to checkpoint three I told Ryan I was hurting and maybe paying the price for going out hard and barely stopping at the first checkpoint. While he looked over my bike I had a coke and a banana – which is always a lethal combination. Luckily our friend Vince was there and suggested that I take some Tums. I threw back a handful and was really happy I picked out the mint flavor because they tasted great. I loaded up with another ProBar, CarboRocket, water bottle and some Honeystinger gels and head towards the finish.
Ride 4: Checkpoint 3 to Finish (44.8 miles)
The last part of the race was fast and fun. It started with a small rain shower and after the first twenty miles of rolling hills we were back to flatter terrain with wide, smooth roads. Everyone was very spread out at this point so I had to use my navigation system for the entirety of this leg. I even had to yell after a few people that went the wrong way and reassure others that they were in fact still on course, I was so proud of myself. Navigation was one of my biggest worries going into this race because I have zero sense of direction and find it difficult to read a map. When I made it to the last twenty miles I was amazed that I was still able to spin a hard gear and put out 17 mph after putting close to 180 miles on my legs. I almost hit a turtle, heard coyotes howling, saw lightening bugs and watched a deer cross the road right in front of me! I turned my lights on at mile 195 and couldn’t believe I had come so close to beating the sun, less than twelve miles to go!
The race wasn’t over yet, I had to cross a dangerous bridge, cross two highways, ride with traffic on a paved road and make two railroad crossings. I was fortunate enough to make the first railroad crossing minutes before the train came through, waiting at that point would felt like torture. As I came back into town I was overcome with emotion, I couldn’t believe I had done it. I almost started crying but with one mile to go I still had five turns and intersections to navigate before the finish line so I held back the tears in fear that I wouldn’t be able to read my map. Before I knew it I came into the bright lights on Commercial Street and heard “From Cave Creek, Arizona Danielle Goold!” blaring through the sound system. I pumped my fist in the air, smiled and finally got off my bike! As I was making my way out of the finishing chute towards Ryan, I saw Rebecca Rusch out of the corner of my eye and turned back to tell her that I thought about everything she said during the panel discussion when I was out there and it really helped me. I gave Ryan a huge hug and handed him my bike, I couldn’t have done it without him!