2018 Dirty Kanza

Executive Summary:

Race Priority: B
Race Execution: C-

  • About the race:  Dirty Kanza is a hugely popular gravel race in Emporia, KS.  Although they have grown to have multiple distance events (25, 50, 100 and now 350 mile races), it’s most well know for the 200 mile race.  The course goes through the Flint Hills region of Kansas, has over 9000′ of climbing (according  to my Garmin 820) and provides both beautiful and challenging racing.  The race draws so many people that they have moved to a lottery system to get into the race, and had over 1000 people signed up for the 200 mile event alone.
  • What went well:  I really enjoyed the course and the local community. Emporia and the surrounding communities really made racers welcome at the event.  I had the opportunity to ride with a couple people I coach (Heather Poskevich and Janie Hayes), which was great.  I managed to overcome a critical fueling error, and still finished the race.
  • What I could have done better:  My execution on my fueling plan was extremely poor (starting in the first hour), resulting in GI distress quickly and then pretty severe dehydration soon after.  Some errors at the checkpoints compounded the problems, and possibly led to mechanical issues later as well.  A lot of compounding issues… the positive (which kept this from being a “D” execution) was making adjustments so I could finish the race.
  • What I learned:  Dirty Kanza is a “must do” course for those who love gravel.  The course, racers and community are all great.  The big takeaway for me was the need to keep my fueling strategies simple…more complexity increases the execution risk, which can have a significant (and compounding) impact on a long events. 
  • Results:  I finished 11th/129 in the 50-54 category, 121st/1017 overall, and was the 2nd Iowan to finish (by less than a minute).  My official time was 14:00:07, with an average speed of 14.7 mph (including stops).  Garmin activity located here.

Weather / Gravel conditions:   A storm came through just before the race was scheduled to being, delaying the start 30 minutes.  The initial temperature was around 64 degrees with a north wind at around 12 mph.  The day heated up with temps getting into the mid to upper 80’s, and the winds were in the 17-18 mph range, with gusts just under 30 mph.  My Garmin showed an average temp of 93 for around 90 minutes around Eureka… it was toasty out there.  The rain created a thin layer of mud on the course for the first couple hours… just sticky enough to cover everything in a layer of fine layer of mud.  As the day warmed up, the majority of the gravel dried up fairly quickly… leaving us with DK’s well known flint gravel (and the associated mayhem).

Race Report Commentary:

DK reminded me of an Ironman… it’s different than any other gravel race I’ve done.  First, it was by far the largest gravel race I’ve done, with over 1000 participants in the 200 mile race.  I believe there are over 2000 people in all of the races combined… similar in quantity to Ironman races.  Second, the race organization and structure was larger to support the quantity of racers.  It had a well organized check in procedure and a reasonable sized expo.  There was a racer’s meeting, and it was also which was also broadcast via Facebook as there wasn’t enough space for everyone.  Third, there are three checkpoints that serve as resupply areas.  Racers are required to have a support crew (or you can pay an extra fee for a crew service) and your crew can provide you assistance within the checkpoint area.  They typically help with refueling, bike service, etc.  It reminded me a bit of going through transitions in triathlon… the clock is always ticking and getting in/out is important as well.  Fourth, it had huge support from the community.  So many businesses had signs up welcoming the DK racers.  Even more important (for me and some others), there were local farmers / community members out in the race handing out bottles of water at random places on the course.  It was so cool to see that many people supporting the event.  Lastly, they have one of the main roads in Emporia closed for the finish, and the course ends in a large chute lined with screaming people… what a way to finish a race!

Start to Checkpoint 1:

We started with a 30 minute rain delay.  I was happy to hear this, as I didn’t relish the idea of riding through a thunderstorm and I went back and sat in my car to stay warm.  It was still sprinkling a little, so I waited until 20 minutes before the race start to head to the start line.  My intent was to work my way down toward the front of the race (not the very front), but there were so many people I ended up maybe in the first 1/3 of the race, at the 14 hour finish sign.  I looked for Heather and Janie, but didn’t see either as everyone packed in for the start countdown.

As expected, it was slow and close riding getting out of town.  Once on gravel, it ended up being just a long line of riders.  There wasn’t a much opportunity to pass, and I found myself wishing for hills to spread everyone out a bit.  The gravel was wet and a little sticky, but not really too slick.  Fine mud was spraying everywhere with all the people riding… I was eating a fair share of dirt during this portion of the ride.  There was a re-route of the course and I briefly saw Janie in front of me.  I saw Heather and we rode together for a while and chatted a bit.  The first hour the pace and intensity was lower than I had anticipated, simply because there wasn’t a lot of places to go.

Unfortunately, this is where my day started going wrong.  I was carrying two bottles with CarboPro with double rations, and a Camelbak with plain water.  My plan was to drink about 2/3 of a bottle (for 266 calories) and then dilute this with water from my Camelbak, to ensure my carbohydrate concentration didn’t get too high in my stomach (high concentrations slow digestion, slow fluid absorption and can lead to GI distress).  Unlike most gravel races, the paces were slower so I had plenty of opportunity to grab my bottle and drink.  And I did… but too much.  I ended up drinking my first bottle in less than an hour, for more than 400 calories.  I’m so accustomed to having 200 calories in a bottle, that it just didn’t register that this was a problem, until my stomach wasn’t sitting well.  It didn’t take long for my stomach to get a bit bloated and start to hurt, and from then on was a matter of trying to continue to get calories and fluids in the best I could.

After the first hour the field spread out and passing became easier.  We also got into the really pretty pasture lands, some hills, and the somewhat infamous flint gravel.

Combination of sharp flint in the gravel and embedded rock on the road surface. This was relatively mild compared to some areas of the course.

Even though the racing had spread out, there were still sizable packs of people, which made passing or descending tricky at times.  It’s not that the hills were steep, it’s just that road had the large embedded rocks and ruts, and it’s easy to get trapped in a pack into riding a crappy line over rocky areas.  It was amazing how many people were on the side of the road changing flats in this area… I’ve never seen that much tire carnage in a race.

Although my stomach was cramping, the rest of my body felt okay and I started to pick up the pace.  I tried to work my way forward between packs.  One of the more memorable experiences at this point occurred when a group of cows got spooked and bolted toward the road and all of us riding in a group.  We all sprinted, trying to stay in front of the cows before they crossed the road.  Unfortunately we sprinted toward a dried creek bed, and one of the first guys to hit it almost went over his handlebars in a rut, and then we were all slamming on brakes trying not to hit each other. It was a super close call, but I managed to get on my way again without being hit.

I eventually found myself in a pack of around 30 people, and and saw Janie up ahead.

Typical pack of riders, early in the race. Janie about in the middle on the left side of the picture, with me back about 6 spots.  It’s pretty easy to find Janie… if you zoom in, she’s the one in the pink with the huge smile.  I’m in the white and black, with the grimace.  😉

Janie and I rode together in the pack for a bit, and then she darted to the front of this entire group.  I really wish I had pulled out my phone and taken a picture.  Watching this huge group of people all drafting behind Janie brought a smile to my face.  Well, for just a bit.  Then I decided I needed to get on the gas and get up to the front with her. I was feeling good (other than my gut) and I thought I should make up some time while I could.

Trying to catch back up to Janie. More grimace. Note that the guy off his bike was on his bike going over the rocks in the previous photo. The side of the road in this area were littered with stopped cyclists.

We rode together for a while near the front of this pack.  My legs were feeling good, so I pushed on from there.  I knew CP1 would be coming up, and I had backed off the calorie intake for a while (just taking in water), trying to get my stomach to calm down.

Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2:

I had signed up for hire-a-crew, and had marked my bags and dropped them off the day before the race.  I had specific items in each bag based on where it was supposed to be on the course.  For bag 3, I included chain lube, spare tire and gel with caffeine as I thought I might need these items later in the race, but not at checkpoint 1.  Unfortunately, they mixed up my bags, so I had CP3 stuff at CP1.  It didn’t mean that much to me at the time, I just figured I’d lube my chain at CP2 and I’d just carry some of the caffeinated gels with me for later.  It was a slow stop for me… I hit the restroom to see if it would help my gut, to no avail.  I had my nutrition in my water bottles in my bags already (without water), and the volunteers helped me refill my bottles so I was ready to go.  I refilled my camelback, and then was on my way.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Janie passed me in the checkpoint.

Shortly after getting out of the checkpoint 1, we ran into a muddy road.  There were a few sections were I got off and carried my bike over a couple particularly muddy areas. We also had a few water crossings here, which were very interesting.  The water was so muddy it was hard to get a feel for the water depth before starting into them, unless you saw a rider in front of you go in first.  I distinctly remember going through one that was well over my bottom bracket, as the guy behind me said, “oh great, there goes our bottom brackets.”

Taken the day after the race, the cows had no interest in giving up their water hole again.

My stomach continued to be an issue.  I started taking in calories again, and trying to get fluids down as well. Unfortunately my gut was just sloshing around, and it didn’t feel like the water was being absorbed.  I continued to try to get down what I could, but I knew I was falling short of both calories and fluids.

I eventually caught Janie again.  There were less packs by now, and we rode together for a while.  She ended up dropping back, so I was riding mostly solo the rest of the way to CP2.  As I got closer to Eureka, I noticed that my chain was starting to make a lot of noise.  I decided I needed to take the time to lube it, since I wouldn’t have lube at CP3 as planned.  I noticed that I was feeling pretty crappy as I entered town.  The temps were up, my stomach was upset, and I was low on both calories and fluid… and my power was dropping quickly.

Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3:

I arrived at CP2 in a bit of a mental fog.  I found the hire-a-crew, and got my checkpoint bag.  I gave them my water bottles with nutrition in it, and they filled them with water.  They also took my Camelbak and filled it for me as well.  I grabbed my bottles, put on my Camelbak and got on my way.

A short way out of town, I realized I hadn’t lubed my chain.  I had a list taped to my top tube as a reminder on what to do at the checkpoints, and it just said “mechanicals”… and lube chain didn’t register in my brain with this reminder.  My chain was noisy, but there was nothing to be done with it now.  I also noticed a bigger problem.  I could tell from the weight on my back that the volunteers hadn’t filled my Camelbak full of water.  I didn’t know how much water I had, so I needed to start rationing a bit to make it to CP3.  This was less than ideal, as I could tell I was already a good be dehydrated from my stomach issues.

Top tube list… mechanicals didn’t register as lube chain.  Don’t worry, pills don’t refer to PEDs, but rather Tylenol for my cranky-old-man-somewhat-broken body (which I didn’t end up taking as I was worried about it’s impact on my body’s temperature regulation in the hot conditions).

Not long after Janie caught me.  We chatted a bit, and she was feeling good and looking super strong.  I tried to draft behind her, and within 30 seconds my heart rate was banging on my threshold.  My power wasn’t that high, but the dehydration was causing my elevated heart rate.  With half the race to go and a questionable water situation, I dropped back and watched her ride away.  My Garmin was showing temps in the low 90’s, and I was feeling pretty low.

Around 25 miles out of Eureka we crossed a small river.  The guy in front of me stopped and asked the spectators sitting on the other side if it was ridable.  They said, “yes, if you pick the right line.” He got off and carried his bike over, and I did as well.  Taking a fall on a moss covered road seemed like a bad idea.  Then things turned for the better… one of the locals offered us water.  I grabbed a bottle and chugged half of it.  They offered me another bottle and I put a bottle and a half in my Camelbak, feeling much better about my situation.  Although not great, my stomach seemed to be processing fluids again and I had a never ending thirst.

About 45 miles out of Eureka (148 miles into the race), my chain started making even more noise.  I was climbing a hill and it was grinding and sticking a bit.  I decided I’d stop at the top of the hill, as I didn’t want to restart on an uphill.  The chain stuck, popped, and broke.

Fortunately it didn’t take my derailleur with it when it went.  I pulled off the road and got my chain tool out, and a spare Wipperman Connex connector (these are great by the way… I highly recommend them).  I took a link out and had a lot of trouble getting the new connector in place.  It seemed to have too much friction, so I suspect the existing chain face plates had been bent when the chain came apart.  I took another link out, put the connector back in, and I was good to go. Well, I was good to go after 14 minutes of screwing with it, and being passed by about 100 people.  That said, they were 100 super nice people… so many people asked me if I needed anything or any help.

This day was far from what I had planned, but I continued to make progress toward checkpoint 3.

Checkpoint 3 to Finish:

I arrived back in Madison, KS for checkpoint 3.  Note that both CP1 and CP3 are in the same town, but at different locations within the town.  I found my hire-a-crew and got my bag, pulled out my water bottles with nutrition, threw my used water bottles in the bag, and they took my Camelbak to fill it with water.  When they brought it back, I double checked to make sure it was full, and then headed out of the checkpoint.  Before I made it out of the area, I felt water running down my back and into my shorts.  I stopped and checked, and when they unhooked my hose, it was only partially hooked back in… and part of my water had leaked out already.  Rather than a repeat of CP2, I went back to the area and they refilled my Camelbak.  I checked the hose connection, and then headed out again.

The remainder of the race was somewhat of a slogfest for me.  My HR was sky high relative to my power (heat and dehydration), and I simply couldn’t quench my thirst.  I felt really crappy overall, and was simply trying to keep moving forward.  Periodically I’d pass someone or would get passed by someone.  Once in a while I’d link up with someone for a while, taking turns pulling… but generally none of these were long lasting.  Everyone seemed to be gravitating to their own paces / power output, and it made it harder to work together.  I also stopped three times on this section to grab extra water to try to quench my thirst.  I wasn’t really worried about running out, it was just that plain water was going down better than the carbo pro mixed in my water bottles.

As I approached town I passed a woman on one of the final gravel roads.  It was a bit confusing coming into town (maybe more mental state than anything) and I was riding pretty slow coming toward the final stretch.  Suddenly the same woman starts to pass me headed down the finishing chute.  Now this is a bit of a faux pas when finishing an Ironman (unless you are one of the few racing for a Kona spot), and I was a bit surprised at her hammering it this close to the finish.  As tired as I was, my competitive spirit came through, and I hammered what I had left (interestingly, I hit my peak power of the day, and topped out at 29.9 mph here).  The crowd was screaming… and it was exhilarating… and then in a moment of lucidity I backed off. After 200 miles of racing, letting my ego get me into a crash suddenly sounded pretty stupid. I shook her hand and said nice job… only realizing later that I’m 99.9% sure she wasn’t racing me at all.  Rather, she looked at the clock and realized she was close to squeezing in under 14 hours (surprisingly, it’s not all about me after all, is it?).  The other takeaway from this finish was in line with Alex Hutchinson’s book, “Endure: Mind, Body and the Curious Limits of Human Performance“.  Even as fatigued as I was and as crappy as I felt… there’s always a bit more inside, given the right motivation.

Although I was a bit disappointed with my race day performance, I loved the race itself.  I’d highly recommend it for anyone interested in gravel racing.

Misc Post Race Thoughts:

In retrospect, my early overconsumption of calories likely caused a couple of immediate problems and one longer term issue.  The gut can only process around 60 grams (240 calories) of maltodextrin per hour.  Dumping 400 calories in by stomach in less than 1 hour likely overloaded my system, leaving undigested carbs to slosh around.  Likewise, the concentration in the bottle was high, potentially decreasing digestion rate even more.  Not drinking enough for the next few hours got me behind in hydration, leaving me very dehydrated for much of the race (literally my urine was brown at one point… sorry TMI).

The graph above shows my HR (orange) versus 4 other racers.  Comparing peak HR (as a proxy for intensity), you can see my HR was out of norm from hours 4 to 10, likely due to dehydration.  Key takeaway… keep nutrition strategy simple, to avoid execution mistakes.

The Hire-A-Crew was fine overall, understanding the limitations.  Having your own crew would be ideal, but I’d use them again with the following changes:

  • I’d duplicate items in each bag (lube, gels, etc.), so if the bags get mixed up, it doesn’t create any issues.
  • I’d either fill or check my Camelbak each time.  They are dealing with a variety of equipment, and to assume that they’d get everything perfect is probably naive.
  • I’d add my to do list right on my bag, with additional details.  It’s so much easier working from a list than relying on a fatigued mind to perform perfectly.

I’d use a different chain strategy. I’m a big fan of waxed chains, and my first choice for this race would be to go with an Ice Friction chain.  I used one on the BC Epic for over 640 miles of gravel/MTB riding without requiring supplemental chain lubrication the entire ride.  As a whole, they tend to be much more tolerant of the conditions that occurred in this the race.  I’d also take small bottles of Silca NFS lube with me, if I needed to supplement at a checkpoint if needed.  (Here’s a great review of Slica, and here’s a site discussing lubricant testing / wax as a whole.  The advantage of Iced chains is simply the break-in is done for you, and they are great in both longevity and low friction… and no, I am not sponsored by them… I just think they have a great product.

I was thrilled to get through the race without a cut tire or flat.  I was a bit worried as I went with pretty light tires (Maxxis Rambler 120 TPI), paired with Challenge latex tubes.  Generally I ride setup tubeless, but my primary gravel bike was out of commissions with a Di2 RD issue, and my backup CX bike doesn’t have tubeless rims. That said, I’ve had good experience with using Flat Attack within latex tubes, and they worked great in this race as well (here’s a great article that did tube sealant testing on both latex and butyl tubes).  Interestingly, when I put these tires back on my other bike and set them up tubeless again, there were three holes in the tires from DK, that were presumably sealed by the latex / Flat Attack combo (I’ve seen this before as well).  Good tires and sealant… thoughtful lines going through the pastures… and a little bit of luck can make all the difference.  Of course I’d still pack extra tubes and possibly extra tires in each checkpoint bag… 😉

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