Holy Asides
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June 13, 2016, 12:00 AM

The Return to Kansas

To read Fr. Scott's experience at the 2015 Dirty Kanza 200, click here and here.

The theme of this year’s Dirty Kanza 200 event was “Test Your Limits.” I guess this also applied to the race organizers, because the course measured 205.5 miles; as if 200 miles were not enough, we got a few bonus miles. A Friday morning test ride of about 25 miles revealed that the conditions were pretty good. The section of mud that we had to walk 3 miles through last year was completely dry. This, combined with the training I had been doing with my teammates throughout the winter and spring, gave me hope that I could “Race the Sun” this year, and emerge victorious. Last year, I finished the race in just over 18 hrs. In order to beat the sunset, I would have to complete the race about three and a quarter hours faster. This would be the “testing of my limits.” And this year there was no mud.

Well, until an isolated thunderstorm came through at about 3 AM, pouring rain on the first few miles of the race. At the very first turn, less than 2 miles into the race, there was a backlog as we had to pedal through foot deep puddles and mud. Thankfully, I had recently purchased a smaller crankset, which enabled me to pedal easier and stay upright and moving (albeit slowly). Going smoothly and steadily was key for the next six miles. When I had a chance, I stopped and shot water from my water bottle into the derailleur to clean out the mud and debris. Some were not so lucky, as there was carnage alongside the road. Broken chains and derailleurs forced many to withdraw after riding less than six miles of the nearly 206 mile race. Fortunately, by about the eighth mile or so, we made a turn and the mud and water were gone… the race was on. We had gotten off to a slow start, but I was certain that I could make up the time needed to beat the sun. And I did; by the time I rolled into the first checkpoint, about a quarter of the way into the race, I was ahead of schedule by five minutes. After a quick chain cleaning, and downing a peanut butter sandwich and some disgusting drink that was supposed to keep my salt levels in check, I was on my way. 

The next 50 miles were pretty uneventful, save for a minor crash when I could not clear a giant diagonal gap in the road, and a bottom bracket that began clacking, so that the next 150 miles it sounded like I had put baseball cards in my spokes. (Believe me when I say, I heard that sound in my sleep that night.) I rolled into the second checkpoint, which marked almost the halfway point, 20 minutes ahead of schedule—so I was gaining time. I left with an extra water bottle, because I was feeling the heat that was starting to make its presence known. Also, I knew the next checkpoint would not be for another 60 miles. I was glad for this decision. Even with the brief rest stop and recharge at the last checkpoint, I was still about 20-30 minutes ahead of pace for beating the sun at mile 121.8, sixty percent of the way there. Then, in a matter of seconds, I knew it would not happen.

Just east of Eureka, I made a left turn heading north onto DD Road, smack into a headwind that would fluctuate between 17-25 mph throughout the rest of the day. In a year when the course was designed in a north to south figure 8, to counteract the brutal winds that often come from the west, that day saw the wind come from the north. I had to ride the next forty miles, battling that vicious headwind, to get to the next checkpoint. Tough does not describe it. The heat combined with the wind was sapping my energy. I was beginning to dehydrate. Thankfully, there was a farmer by the river handing out bottles of water to us. Another ten miles up the road, Dirty Kanza volunteers were handing out more ice cold water. Perhaps ten miles after that, I received a hand-up of Red Bull from one of the sponsors of the race. As I pulled into the checkpoint, I was well behind beating the sun. I had gone from 20 minutes ahead, to 50 minutes behind, in only forty miles. I took my time at the last checkpoint, ate what little I could, and tried to rehydrate as best as I could. By the time I pulled out, I was probably an hour and ten minutes behind. My focus became simply to finish, preferably before midnight, so I could experience the block party in Emporia. (I missed out on that last year, by three minutes.)

As the sun was setting, the wind eased a bit. The riding became easier again, although my heart rate was maxed out at about 70% of my normal maximum. It then became a matter of mental fortitude, as I watched the GPS count down the turns and the mileage. One difference from last year was there were often times when I could not see anyone in front of me. As faster riders increased their gaps, and other riders withdrew from the race, I really had to depend on the GPS unit guiding me, rather than the other riders in front of me. I was still probably 25 miles from the finish when the sun did set, and I finished only an hour and twenty minutes behind the sun. That means, in those last 45 miles, I pretty much kept pace with beating the sun… but that headwind had killed me. At the finish line I heard the locals say again and again, "When was the last time we had a wind from the north in June?" Great. A rarity just for us.

During those last 25 miles, I reflected on the joys of this race: I had no flat tires or other major mechanical issues (save for that incessant clacking); I had a great support team every time I pulled into a checkpoint; I was blessed again with the community coming out to cheer, give water, and high fives. Moreover, I received encouragement and texts from many at St. Joseph's who tracked my progress throughout the day. As I rolled into the finish, almost two hours earlier than last year, I was greeted with cheering and shouting, and my name being announced over the PA system (the video clip can be found here). It was an amazing feeling. I rode through those last hundred feet of pavement giving high fives to everyone I could reach. I had not beaten the sun, but I definitely “tested my limits,” and battled heat and wind to finish. Best of all, the beer garden was still open.

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