I’ll admit, I fully expected to be snapped awake to immense thunderstorms at 3am like in years past… but I slept soundly and awoke peacefully. Perhaps the calm before the storm? Finished off my Cup-o-Meusli, loaded the bottles into their cages, aired up the tires and donned the EB kit. I have to say; I am very impressed with the chamois of the EB kit. Combined with the Muc-Off chamois cream; I had zero issues with butt fatigue until WAY late in the day and I’m sure that was more from lying in the cold river that then washed the chamois cream out more than anything else.
Rolled the few miles to downtown and realized I didn’t grab my wallet to purchase a coffee at Granada Coffee company, so no caffeine for this guy. Ah well, I found Jay standing not far behind the start line and, while closer to the front melee than I’d wanted to be; opted to grab a spot alongside. We chatted for a bit until Bob and Luis rolled in to take their spots a couple rows up closer to the front. Everyone was in good spirits and I was satisfied with my location so I kept the bike there as we snapped a few photos. Within 15 minutes or so, the street was packing in handlebar to handlebar with riders and the announcer queued up all the big names in attendance. I have mixed opinions on the pros and ex-pros entering these events, but that’s a blog entry for another day. In the end we’re all still self-supported (or are supposed to be) and I just have to accept that’s the equalizer.
The clock counted down and we were set off by one of the local families to a neutral roll-out past the university, then set free once upon the gravel. My experiences from years past reminded me that the dry years of DK throws up a ton of dust from all those angry tires and pedals churning through those first miles so I prepared this year by donning a thin neck tube that I could pull up as a dust mask until the chaff separated from the wheat. It was a good move as the rolling clouds of dust were so thick they made my eyes water. What looked like a fog rolling out beyond the edges of the road was just gravel dust, heavy with the morning’s humidity.
This was a HUGE group and, from the looks of it, I was smack in the middle of the lead pack. I could move up easily and would find pockets of clean air in which to pedal, making new friends along the way and seeing a few old ones. I’d pull from the bottle whenever the Garmin beeped at me, or sometimes right before. The effort was a solid 6-7 with occasional bursts up to an 8 or 9. The frustration specific to me was how so many riders just parked it in the corners, turns, and curves, then smashed pedals out onto the straightaway. There should be a basic cornering class for lots of these converted gravel riders. At any rate, I held my lines, waited for some rider to push a little too hard, watch him over correct and drift too wide, then take that inside line. So long as everyone stayed rubber side down, all was good… until it wasn’t. At least ½ dozen times in the first 30 miles, I watched riders either completely entangle one another and take two people down at once, or watch a lone rider grab too much front brake on a descent and go full yard sale into the ditch with all contents of the bike and pockets strewn across the road. I’d always ask if they were okay and make a quick assessment if they needed anything more. None really did as it was usually their pride hurt worse than anything on their body.
Then there was the first B road at about mile 25 where I watched a wave of riders slowing and parting around a crashed racer. Fully concussed, completely unaware of what happened but being cared for by a few riders. That section was a particularly rutted out, dried mud double track leading down to a creek bed. A sobering reminder to never take the course for granted, always keep your wits about you, and give as much maneuvering room as possible between you and other riders. Your off-road skill level may be expert level but you don’t know what anyone else’s around you might be.
The predictions were right; that was the point where the front group shattered into pieces. I was still confident in my pacing and the fueling was going as planned so I got back up to speed and caught up with others that were looking to ride in a group. Here’s the thing about riding in a group, at speed, on gravel. Imagine the P-ride where you have a solid and committed group of fit riders all working both with and against each other to a mutual goal/finish line. Now, put all those motivated riders on the road and tell them they must ride in a path that isn’t much wider than the yellow dividing line between the lanes of a paved road. Move out of that clean line and you’re on chunky, loose gravel, a rocky shoulder, or ruts from truck and tractor tires. Then, just to increase the challenge, add to the situation that nearly none of these riders understands the concept of a rotating paceline and that shared effort among everyone in the pack is equally beneficial to everyone in the pack… You beginning to see the dynamic as it plays out?
Catch a group of riders, watch their behavior from the rear for a few minutes, then move into a position to help with the group effort, make it to the front, do a solid pull, then try to rotate off… realize no one is pulling through, stay in your position, adjust your effort level and pace, pull off into the chunk, then self-rotate to the rear. Maybe attempt to organize them into a concerted effort, but more likely that they just fizzle apart after a few miles. Rinse and repeat… Now, I wasn’t doing 400 watt pulls… just moving at the same pace we’d all been pedaling and rolling the hills with as much momentum as the geography would allow.
I recall being on the front of a particularly fast group when I saw a Banana kit up ahead and realized it was Bob with a flat. I yelled out as much and loud as possible if he was okay and/or needed anything. He waved me off so I kept rolling. Knowing in the back of my head, well, it’s Bob; he should be passing me again in the next hour or so. I wouldn’t see him again until we hit Alma.
Headwaters road was at mile 30 and was a much more rough, loose, and sketchy B road. By that time I’d found one of my single speed buddies and we were chatting when he informed me that, at the moment anyway; I was in front of Taylor Phinney. That he’d suffered a flat awhile back and hadn’t yet gotten back on the pace. I took that as my victory for the day and we motored on. I bombed down Headwaters and am pretty sure I caught air at one point along that chunkiness. I could look down at that spindly fork and watch it easily flex ½ inch or more along those rutted and chunky sections. The remainder of roads into the first stopping town at Alma were uneventful. I’d not suffered any flats, my fueling went as planned, and I was feeling particularly motivated to tackle this next long section with my legs feeling great and everything on the bike rolling well.
Rolling into Alma after 3 hours and 30 minutes had me feeling ecstatic in so many ways; never before had I felt good enough to roll with the lead pack to the first town and I still felt amazingly fresh. The scene greeting me as I entered the center of town was near apocalyptic. So many cars, trucks, bikes, people, so many signs pointing in all directions that were not color coded, blocked streets, me in a panic looking for my support and not finding her… Everyone that wasn’t attending a rider was asking me what color and I would yell out orange. They’d point me toward the orange section, and I’d roll through… no dice. I rolled out of orange through the other colors, back into orange and still, no support. Finally, I stopped, pulled out the phone and called, thinking I’d missed seeing her car as the parking in that little town was… chaotic, to put it nicely. Nope… she wasn’t even in Alma yet! W.T.F. I tried to remain calm… how far out are you; 10 minutes she said, FUCK! So I waited… she finally texted her parking location and I rolled up to her clamoring to grab bottles and water jugs. She had overslept and forgotten to grab all of my pre-bagged calories from the fridge in a panic to get out of the room and on the road. I tried not to panic… but had already been sitting idle for 15 minutes awaiting her arrival. All she had with her was the cooler full of ice, a bag of Tailwind and jugs of water.
Knowing that the next section would be an 85 mile proverbial gauntlet of pitched rolling hills and B roads with only a neutral water stop… I was less than happy at the skimpish options laid out before me. I filled each bottle with 400 calories of Tailwind, rummaged through the cooler and slammed a bottle of Maca energy drink, a Coke, and rummaged through my toolbox for any spare gels I could get my hands on. I found two Gu packets and a squeeze pack of mango/coconut goo (basically baby food). Throwing all that in my pockets gave me 1500 calories to last 85 miles in the hottest part of the day. Queue the womp, womp, womp sound…
I rolled out of Alma scrambling in my head as to how to play this out. I’d made amazing time from the start to the first town, but much of that was eroded by the time I finally got to leave town. I still had a goal to beat the sun, but with such a long stretch before I could replenish calories; I’d have to play the conserve game to make the ones I had last, stay hydrated throughout the heat of the afternoon sun, and maintain an adequate pace solo unless I could find solid working groups (unlikely).
Honestly, much of the next section to Alta Vista is a bit blurry in my memory as I dug myself a deep hole of caloric deficit trying to stay hydrated. The roads turned much more rolling, winding, degraded, and many with multiple creek crossings. The creeks were a blessing with their cold, clear water and I honestly laid down in one to cool off my core and legs until I felt refreshed enough to get moving again. The terrain being what it was had slowed my progress and drastically altered my nutrition calculus. I actually recall stopping along the route at least twice to pick up unopened SiS packets that had ejected from someone else’s pockets along a particularly rutted section of B road. At that point I couldn’t turn down free calories and they were very welcomed.
Near mile 100 I thought I was seeing an oasis when it was actually a neutral watering section set up by Team EF… recall that bit about riders not being able to accept assistance from anywhere except the aid towns and the official neutral water stop in Alta Vista? And it just happens that Taylor Phinney’s team was putting on the neutral water stop out in the middle of nowhere? I’m not one to cast aspersions… and if he only took water, great… but it doesn’t exactly paint a great picture. Don’t get me wrong, they were helping as many riders as would stop and offering ice bandanas with their water trailer connected to a farmer’s well spigot… but still seemed a bit, off.
At any rate, I refilled my two empty bottles, but was desperately low on available calories. I had one bottle of Tailwind left and my two gels with 20 more miles to Alta Vista and 50 to the next aid town in Council Grove. The sun was high, bright, without a cloud in the sky, and the temps were pushing 100 out on the open prairie. The wind was picking up out of the west and my mind was digging a deeper hole of self loathing.
One of, if not the least talked about challenges of such an event is the mental aspect. There will be a point during the day where your mind will try to shut you down and you will begin bargaining with yourself on your original goals. This back and forth between the mental imps I will call Stop_Now and Keep_Going are epic battles that rival anything from a J.J. Abrams movie. Typically Keep_Going is confident, in control, and can maintain the mental faculties while keeping his nemesis Stop_Now in check. There comes an intersection though of dehydration, heat, exhaustion, lack of calories, and topping over a hill, only to look far off to the horizon to see little specks of individual riders along a ribbon of gravel. These allow Stop_Now a brief moment of victory. He seizes control of your willpower as you pull over under a shade tree to get your mind right. Pedaling while fighting internally with him is nearly futile as it occupies every single thought that passes through your head. Call it fatigue, call it whatever, but I had to face this imp right there and then. I pulled over under a broad shade tree on an open section of gravel and just laid down in the soft grass. It was a necessary moment of meditation to clear my head, re-focus my effort, and get back on the saddle. I don’t even know for how long I was stopped, but after quelling that imp of insecurity; I felt better about continuing.
That said; the damage of caloric deficit was quickly accumulating its toll. I was sipping my last bottle of Tailwind and, after draining it; began supplementing with the plain water bottles and Salt Stick pills from my frame pack. Those got me to the Alta Vista neutral water stop where I made an egregious error. I should have tasted the water from the container before pouring out the last bottle from the EF stop. The neutral water at the Alta Vista location was from their municipal water supply but tasted like lightly diluted Clorox. It was horrible and nearly undrinkable… I know I wasn’t the only one that had issues with it as others I would talk to also experienced some really excessive belching right after that water stop and all the way to Council Grove. I believe, with good intent, the town had treated their water supply with a heavy dose of chlorine just prior to the DK riders rolling through and that chlorine was off-gassing after we drank it. That experience was horrible and not one I’d recommend to anyone, ever. My gut was turning flips and I was prisoner to needing the hydration. It truly was a no win situation. I pedaled on, but my pace was slow and lumbering at best.
I texted my support just after passing through Alta Vista in the hopes that she would be ready and staged with calories in Council Grove. She replied to dig deep and keep pushing, so I tried to find my happy place inside and push through the gut flips. The course was wearing on me, between slipping the pedals and traction on the chunky gravel climbs and being hammered by the sun on the open prairie, my will was again slipping. One of the DKXL riders heading in the other direction yelled out that the next river crossing was flowing fast and cold and felt amazing on the legs. Who am I to argue at this point? I declared I would try to cool my core and refresh for a minute in the river when I crossed. He wasn’t lying; that river felt amazing and my legs and core thanked me by finding a new vigor to push into Council Grove.
The route turned onto a narrow gravel greenway that signaled I was close to town… my pace quickened as I was desperate to refuel and dump these chlorine gas bombs. Chaos again, as rolling into the pits area had signs and supporters yelling colors but luckily this time, there was only one single winding route through the pits and not a bunch of dead end blocked roads. I ofund my support parked nearly at the end of the pit areas at the exit of the aid town and I was elated to see everything set up and ready to go. I dug deep into the cooler, grabbed a bottle of Mexican Sprite, and completely drained it within a minute, crammed about 300 calories of potatoes, pickles, and a cookie in me, then plopped down on my toolbox to let it sink in. I could feel the surge of those calories taking hold as my energy level rose and I could once again form coherent thoughts. My mind had been in a chlorine fog for hours and I’d not appreciated just how much that had debilitated me. Another support crew from across the way came over and offered assistance by oiling my chain. I uttered out a thanks and worked to get the body moving again.
By that time, I was 11 hours into the race and 50 miles out from the finish. My mind was busy with the mental math of whether or not I could still beat sunset… by my calculations, if I maintained at least an average speed of 15mph and with no mechanical or tire whammies; I could just beat the cutoff time. I put my head down and just focused on forward progress. Mile by mile, hour after hour; I creeped closer to Emporia. The quality of the gravel had drastically improved as well as somewhat flattened out. There were still some hills but nothing like the steep B road pitches from the previous section. This was much more manageable and, with calories back on board, I could pedal consistently again without the fog or imps of mental anguish impeding my goal.
I continually scanned the horizon for both a water tower that would signal a close approach to Americus, the final town, as well as keeping a close eye on the sun’s descent. At one point I even had to stop and pee, that was at least a good sign I was re-hydrating. This would be cutting it close… At the 14 hour mark, I rolled into Americus. That meant I had exactly 45 minutes to move my ass the final 12 miles to the finish line. Shit, math again! I calculated that I had been holding slightly less than my desired 15mph average so I’d have to ratchet up another notch for this last section.
Ask me to this day and going forward; I will say it was fate… rolling out of Americus on the paved road, there’s a right and I’m back on a dried mud B connecting road. I recalled pre-riding this just a few days before while it was still wet and thinking to myself that this would be a treacherous end to a long day if it didn’t dry out. Luckily, it was dry. It was on that B road that I met John, a singlespeed rider on nothing other than a Moots. I could tell he was kind of deflated and trying to muster up the energy to push on to the finish in time to beat the sun. We struck up a conversation and laid out our timeline if we were to make the cutoff. We both made comments about each other’s Moots and the challenges of tackling this course on a singlespeed. I told him that feat was on my list of things to tackle, but not until I had formidably beat the sun.
Two days before the race; this is what that road looked like:
He looked at my gears and said there’s no way he could keep up with me on the pulls to make it back in time, but I assured him we could make it if we stuck together and worked through every pull. I told him I’d set my drivetrain on a single gear that kept us together (turned out to be 42:17 for me) but that also kept us at a sustainable pace and we agreed to tackle those last 12 miles in a concerted effort. It was go time… he’d check his watch and I would call out the turns since his Garmin had stopped navigating for him long ago. We’d each take our turns on the front, pushing the legs into submission, then taking a break behind the other. Minutes ticked away, the sun sank lower along the horizon and we just kept pushing. The time on my Garmin said we would just make it if we maintained that pace. Both fatigued, but also driven by the sun; we finally hit the pavement. I think it was here that I saw Adam P. but I didn’t know what his new kit looked like and it didn’t even occur to me to ask… I should have backed off a second to see if it really was him and get him to latch on, but we were motivated and didn’t break the momentum. I called out the left turn off the highway and we were at the base of the hill. I mustered every last measure of effort out of my searing legs to attack that final hill before the turn through the university. Descending through the parking lots, I realized John wasn’t with me so I backed off and waited for him to catch up. No way was I crossing this line without both of us after those last miles of teamwork. Finally, at 8:39pm; I crossed the finish line and collected my Beat The Sun patch. I was elated, depleted, and ready to collapse… after first tackling this beast of an event 5 years prior that took me nearly 17 hours to complete, on the same bike from that initial ride, and with the nutritional challenges of the day behind me; I had finally put together all the pieces to successfully beat the sun.
Some ride stats for those curious:
- Time – 14 hours, 39 minutes
- Bike – 1997 Moots Psychlo-X with YBB and Independent Fabrications fork
- Drivetrain – Gevenalle CX1x11 with WolfTooth 42t front ring and 11-28 rear cassette
- Bike setup: Revelate Tangle frame bag with support kit, Revelate Mtn Feedbag for third bottle, Brooks Cambium C15 Carved saddle, HED Belgium+ wheels with Vittoria Terreno Dry tires mounted tubeless w/ 4oz Orange Seal in each.
- Total calories consumed: 3300 (not nearly enough)
- Flats – ZERO
- Mechanical issues – Zero
- Mental Issues – Too damn many to count
In hindsight, I left a lot on the table and could easily see a sub-13 hour finish with similar race day conditions and the absence of mechanicals or flats. The calorie deficit problem was my own personal battle and one for which I should have found a better working solution out of Alma. Knowing the caloric desert I was facing between Alma and Council Grove should have given me pause to collect my thoughts, stow my frustration at the late arrival of support, and figure out a way to carry more future calories on me or on the bike. Whether that had been finding a convenience store and raiding their power bars or something else; it was my responsibility to address my needs until the next town. I’m happy to have beat the sun and being out there with local friends made the event just that much more enjoyable. Perhaps I’ll check off that single speed box from my list on the next version…