If you’re into gravel riding, you’ve heard of the Dirty Kanza. You’ve heard stories of beautiful landscapes in East Central Kansas, you’ve heard of amazing people, and you’ve heard of mental and physical perseverance like you’ve never experienced. And after my first try of the Dirty Kanza, I can tell you the stories are true. The Flint Hills of Kansas are uniquely beautiful, the people of Emporia are unbelievably kind, and I had to dig to a level inside myself that I’ve never experienced before.
My Dirty Kanza journey started on a cold January morning where I was continuously clicking refresh on bikereg.com to try to snag one of the coveted 1300 positions for the 200 mile event. As 8am hit I was already clicking through to the checkout page in hopes of getting a position. 2000 total positions sold out in a record 8 minutes and I was very fortunate to have snagged one of them. Within 2 hours the excitement had worn off and the first thought of ‘Oh no, what have I done’ set in. By the time I had gone to bed, I had a 3 month training schedule printed off, a goal body weight in mind, and dreams of crossing the finish line surrounded by the sound of a hundred cowbells coming down Commercial Street as I completed something I never thought possible.
As the weekends ticked by, the miles started increasing, and the confidence of completing was increasing. I began to set a goal of finishing before sunset, “Beat the Sun”, which is an extra challenge that even fewer have accomplished. I based the success of a training ride off whether it was “Beat the Sun” pace or not. If I could maintain a 15mph pace on race day I would have 1 hour and 3 minutes of stoppage time to Beat the Sun, which was plenty of time if my SAG crew was prepped and ready at the check points. Most training rides were well above my goal pace and my confidence increased weekly.
Then May 6th happened. Less than 4 weeks to the Dirty Kanza, an old IT Band knee injury flared up in full force. I had experienced IT Band issues about 2 years previous with running, but never had issues biking. After a visit to an Ortho Doc, lack of serious injury was confirmed, but rest was highly recommended? REST!?! I only had 3 weekends to finish out my training and rest seemed to be out of question, but my body demanded it. In the following week, 2 mile rides felt excruciating and reality of even finishing the DK seemed impossibly far away. Rest, easy spin, Ice, stretching, yoga, and repeat was all I could do for about 10 days. With only 2 weekends left I tried to work up the miles again with a 20 mile ride. No pain. The next week I tried commuting again to work (16 miles a day), no pain! Then the final weekend before the DK I tried to push to 60 miles to test if this was going to be possible. No pain! Ok let’s do this!
The Friday before the race, my wife and I left Lincoln at 4:30am to head down to Emporia for the early morning group ride. My wife was able to join us for the very easy 15 mile ride. It was hard not to get start struck on a simple group ride, Amanda “Panda” Nauman, Rebecca Rusch, Ted King, Jay Petervary, Dan Hughes, and many more were riding right next to me. While many in the world would have no idea who these people are, the gravel community sees these people as idols, and they were all chit-chatting feet away like there was nothing special. The rest of the day was filled with check in, visiting vendor booths, watching the Midwest Premiere of “Blood Road” by RedBull Studios (highly recommended), getting all my equipment prepped, dinner with my wife and parents, and finally relaxing as the sun set one last time before the big day.
|Waiting at the start line. 5:58am|
The alarm went off before the sun cracked the horizon and the day had begun. I put on my Goldenrod Pastries jersey, threw the cooler, equipment, and bike in the truck and headed to the start line. The sun started to rise, the music started to play, and the man on the sound system rambled words of encouragement. As I waited at the start line, I turned on my GPS and loaded the 206.8 mile course in my GPS. ‘Just 1% at a time. I can ride 2 miles no problem. Just 1% at a time’ is all I kept thinking as I tried to clear my head. “1 minute to start!!” came across the sound system. I pressed start on my Garmin and my heart rate showed for the first time 124 BPM and I hadn’t even clipped in yet. To say I was nervous and excited was an understatement. “5…..4…..3…..2……1…..Have a great day”. The group started moving, the nerves left and it was just another bike ride with 1200 of my gravel friends.
|Coming into Checkpoint 1. Mile 48|
The first 48 miles to check point 1 were extremely fast and it was spent in groups of 15-20 people. I knew I wanted to stay in groups as long as possible. When a faster group would swing by, I would hop on the train and get to work. The first quarter of the race through the rolling hills was finished with nearly a 19 mph average and I felt really good going in to Checkpoint 1. A quick refuel and I was back out in less than 10 minutes.
The next 35 miles seemed to go really well. Getting in good groups and doing pulls on the front until I was relieved by the rest of the group. The first issues of the day started appearing around mile 85. Seemingly out of nowhere my stomach started cramping and causing some nausea and pain. I didn’t want to eat, but I forced myself to keep eating every 45-60 minutes as I knew there was a lot of day left. As I pulled into check point 2 at mile 104 I had already ridden farther than I ever had. I’ve already accomplished more than I’ve ever done in my life, but I’m only half way. As my SAG crew worked on my bike and reload my supplies my stomach was not cooperating. I was flushed, couldn’t eat or drink, couldn’t go to the bathroom, and couldn’t throw up. It was like I was in a painful world of limbo and the time was ticking away. As I tried to nurse myself to health, my mom happened to walk over and ask a sponsored team for some advice. “A little can of Coke and he’ll be 100%.” I should have known. I’ve seen people drink coke on long rides, but didn’t know why. Within 2 minutes of drinking an 8oz can of Coke my stomach was feeling night-and-day different and I was able to hop on the bike and get out of checkpoint 2. Unfortunately I had wasted over an hour, and many of the riders I was riding with were long gone.
|Battling stomach issues at checkpoint 2. 104 miles in, 102 to go.|
The next segment was the longest and hilliest segment of the race, and because I took so long in checkpoint 2 the group of riders my pace were gone and I ended up doing most of the next 63 miles solo. “1% at a time. 1% at a time. Another 2 miles, I can do it. Zone it out.” While I was still averaging a good pace of 14.9 miles an hour for segment 3 I was feeling the doubt creep into my mind. Peddling out of the saddle was nearly out of the question, as both thighs would cramp up the moment I tried to put the power down. As I saw the time tick away I could tell the dream of Race the Sun was slowly ticking away. But at about 5:45 I rolled into the final check point feeling confident I was at least going to be able to finish. With a sub 20 minute pit stop I was leaving Madison, KS headed back to Emporia to the finish.
Less than 5 miles after leaving the last check point I felt a familiar sting in my knee. ‘No! Not now!’ I called my wife and told her to not leave the last checkpoint yet, I had a bad feeling about my knee. Less than 5 miles after that call, my knee was in extreme pain and I was feeling devastated. ‘1% at a time’ seemed impossible. Even getting over the next hill seemed unfeasible. I called my wife, “I’m done. I can’t do it!” Perhaps in the most calm and encouraging voice she said, “It’s ok. I believe in you. Stop, stretch, and do one hill at a time. You’ve come so far. You’ve worked so hard. I know you can do it.” Feeling defeated, I pulled to the side of the road, did the intense stretches I had been doing for the last month, and tried one hill at a time. The knee pain was still bad, but I tried to turn it off and try to get to the top of the next hill so I could coast down the back side. ‘Only 35 miles left. I’ve rode 35 miles hundreds of times. I can do this.’
Even though I was trying to think positive, the voice in the back of my head told me to stop and give up. At mile 178, a guy named James came up behind me and asked how I was doing. I told him the situation and he responded with countless words of encouragement. James’ day had been riddled with punctures and mechanicals and his Race the Sun goal had been slashed as well. He also told me his GPS had crapped out and as the sun was setting reading the que cards was getting more difficult. He told me to hop on his wheel as long as I could and I would navigate and he would pilot. He was Maverick and I was Goose. James was incredible strong and pulled me for the next 20ish miles at nearly a 20mph pace.
As I watched the sunset on my goal of beating the sun, I was still excited to see the lights of the Emporia turn on 1 by 1. I was going to be able to do this! With the help of James, the miles ticked by quick, 198,199, 200!! Only 6 miles to go. James wanted to stop and take a picture at mile 200, but told me to push on because he knew I was struggling. I yelled a huge “Thank you!” to James as I rode away into the darkness. The last 6 miles were completely alone in the dark. Just me, the glow of my headlight, the sound of moving rocks beneath my tires, and a chorus of Midwest creatures in the ditches next to the road. In my pain, it was peaceful. “Only 3% left. Only 2% left. Only 1% left! I’m going to do this!” With about a mile left, I pulled off the last gravel road and into Emporia, KS.
One last brutal hill that may have seemed like nothing 14 hours ago, but now looked like Mount Everest. The last hill was lined with people screaming, “This is it! It’s all downhill from here!” I slowly creeped up the last hill, legs on fire, and fighting cramps with every pedal stroke. Done! I could see the beacon lights in the sky, I could hear the sound system playing music. The sides of the route started filling with people cheering the finishers on. ‘I am really going to do this!’ One last turn onto Commercial Street and there it was. I could see the finish line. The pain was gone, there was no more cramping, the doubt had vanished, and all that was left was raw emotion. I slowed down as I rode through the final .5 mile to the finish. Soaking in the cheers, the cowbells, and the lights. Months of hard work was moments away.
“Next rider is JASON STROHBEHN from LINCOLN, NEBRASKA!!” comes from the sound system as I crossed the line. I let out a yell and repeatedly bunny hoped my front tire off the ground in celebration! I did it! At 15 hours and 35 minutes, I was done. I had done something I didn’t think my body was able to do! As I get to the end of the chute line, my wife and parents are there to give me a hug and celebrate with me. Random strangers saying “Congrats”. It was an incredible moment. A slow limping walk back to the truck, cleaned off as best I could, then back to the finish line to cheer people on and get some “recovery tacos”. The day was finally winding down. The high slowly started wearing off, the pain started setting in, but the accomplishment couldn’t be taken away.
Looking back, the whole day seems like a blur. For 13.5 hours on the bike, you tell yourself to zone out, ignore the pain, shut up and keep pedaling. When it’s all done and you start to drive back, it’s crazy to think it actually happened.
I did learn an incredible amount from this one day. I learned how to be better prepared in training with proper stretching and the importance of rest, I learned to bring Coke to every endurance event, I learned to stretch and take breaks when needed during an event, I learned that your body can do way more than you think it can, and I learned that all great things are never completed alone. I couldn’t have done the Dirty Kanza alone. Thank you to my support crew, my mom for asking others for help when I needed help with my stomach, Annie for encouraging me to believe in myself when I couldn't, and James who will forever be remembered as the positive light in the dark times of that day. Thank you to Goldenrod Pastries for allowing me to represent your great team. I’m excited for an opportunity to race the Dirty Kanza again someday, and with the lessons I’ve learned, hopefully next time I will Beat the Sun!
I can now confirm the stories are true. The landscapes are beautiful, the people are amazing, and the Dirty Kanza will teach you something about yourself that you never knew before. Until next time.