Couch to Kanza
How I did everything wrong and somehow everything went right.
A few years ago, I was invited to ride the Dirty Kanza with four of my closest friends. It wasn’t the right time of life for me, so I bowed out. It ended up being a foul weather year and my friends who did ride came back with a heap of fear and respect for the event. With those conditions, I don’t regret missing that year, but I have wondered ever since if I could finish the Kanza.
When I was invited to ride it this year, I told myself I wouldn’t even start if the conditions were wet and stormy. I just didn’t need to suffer through a wet muddy ride to learn about myself, nor could I afford to shear off a derailleur or shatter a wheel. I’d suffered in past events. I don’t need more suffering. I wanted to test myself to see if I could ride 200 miles, but even more than that, I wanted to see if I could enjoy it.
When the opportunity arose, just two months from the day, Couch to Kanza was born.
Here are the ways I did it all wrong and somehow had one of best rides of my life.
I was in absolutely no semblance of fitness when I decided to do the DK. I had about eight weeks to change that, but I also knew I’d be traveling for work and I didn’t want to overdo the training and burn out. My regular commute is just over 22mi/day and I generally ride 2–3 times a week. That was my base. I looked at the calendar and added a couple long rides, but the last thing I wanted to do was have my riding dominate the schedule for my family. I spaced the rides out and tucked them into times that wouldn’t conflict with other plans. My only long rides were 75mi and 125mi road rides and one 70mi gravel ride, The Ten Thousand, in the Illinois Driftless.
I didn’t really change anything about my diet, abstain from alcohol, or give up desserts. In fact, the tiny bit of extra riding I was doing probably (certainly) fueled more appetite for those things. Out of fatigue (ergo: lessened willpower) and to spite the “training”, I didn’t resist the temptations. As Tom Waits said, “There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby.”
Ride a lot of Gravel
There is no gravel in South Central Wisconsin (see also: none, because despite what the locals here think, crushed limestone is NOT GRAVEL)(Seriously, stop calling it gravel, you’re embarrassing yourself). The moment I hit gravel a few miles into the Ten Thousand, I smiled a big smile at the sound, a gritty whisper saying, “welcome back…”
I have plenty of gravel in my legs, my lungs, and no doubt cemented in my GI tract after all these years. I was convinced my road miles would translate to DK. The gravel in Kansas had been elevated to a mythical status by reports from other riders: “It’s not like our gravel…”, “… as big as boulders and sharp as nails!”, “cracked, loose and rutted as redneck teeth!”. Ok, that last one didn’t actually come from anyone, I just thought it was funny.
I wasn’t too worried about the gravel, but maybe I should have been.
Spin a short Warm-up Ride
It’s essential to get out on a ride the day before and spin the legs to warm up. It’s not essential to keep riding and riding and talking and talking and lose track of the miles. But that’s what we did. We bagged 30 chill miles on Friday morning. Whoops. I had a sinking feeling I’d blown my Kanza before it began.
As it turned out, though, I felt zero crust on my legs as we set out on Saturday morning. And I always feel crusty when I start riding. It was strange how good I felt from the get-go.
Abstain from Alcohol
In the past, I’ve given up booze leading up to big events, and that has probably been for the better. This time, I didn’t, if only to see what would happen. I hadn’t avoided alcohol during my anti-training, so I figured I had to honor my state-dependent (muscle) memory and have a beer on the eve of DK. I did drink liters (and litres) of water with it. Then I had another beer. I blame/thank Watts.
Eat Right the Night Before
Emporia’s restaurants were bursting with hungry riders on Friday night, so we decided to avoid the fray by walking almost a mile what I’ll call a “Plan D” Mexican restaurant. It was “autentico” and very, very dirty. They ladled the salsa from a 5gal bucket. We had a fun crew of 10, most of whom were seasoned DK vets. I had the #12, which was some amalgamation of all four ingredients used in Mexican food, but I can’t remember exactly what it was. It had chicken in it (or perhaps opossum). Chad had a shrimp burrito (because he lives on the wild side) with Diablo sauce (because he loves the devil). He instantly became sunburnt and his eyes flushed like fire hydrants. It was funny, but not funny. I was genuinely worried he might run out of moisture and dessicate like a mummy. But he didn’t.
My meal was iffy, and for the third or fourth time that day, I was certain my Kanza was donezo. But it wouldn’t be the last time I thought that.
Get Good Rest
I did not get good rest. The dorm room mattresses were quite comfortable, but my head wouldn’t turn off on Thursday or Friday nights. And I woke up super early on Saturday morning — 3:30 or so — and couldn’t get back to sleep. I figure I slept about three hours that night, which, again, left me feeling like my day was ruined before it began.
The extra time in the morning allowed for a peaceful preparation, plenty of coffee and the other pre-ride rituals. I still can’t believe I rode 207mi on three hours of sleep.
Don’t Mess with your Nutrition
I forgot my drink mix. One of the biggest no-no’s is to mess with your established nutrition and digestion habits before an event. I usually use a mix of CarboRocket and Nuun. The CR I’d been using was new and so very few places had it in stock. I was probably using the CR incorrectly anyway (because I just really like beets) so I decided to try Tailwinds products and add some Nuun in there. Worked perfectly. Zero cramps. I did lust for a chilled bottle of tart Rocket Red throughout the day, though.
Bring All the Calories and Eat Them
Everyone says you should eat more than you think, so I went nuts and stocked my cooler. I had backups of all my faves — Tobitillas (tortillas with a varied mix of PB, sunflower seeds, banana, dark chocolate, and bacon bits), Turkey sandwiches, sausage sticks, string cheese, candy, and coconut-covered cashews. And a Snickers. The first Tobitilla was perfect at mile 65 or so. I was excited to eat two more after mile 100, but then I promptly left them at the checkpoint.
Another key thing I forgot to do was to seal every item in waterproof bags before I left. The bagged ice was bagged water before too long. By the time I got to checkpoint three, I was looking at an ice cold tub of food soup. My Tobitillas were shot and some of the bagged items leaked. Soggy sandwiches and wet nuts were the last thing I needed.
I ate half as much food as I had planned, but also had extra calories coming from the Tailwinds products. I wolfed that Snickers at mile 180, though. I mean wolfed it.
Beware of the Flint Hills
I used to think only idiots got flats. Now that I’ve gone and had flats on the last two events I’ve done, I know that statement to be true. I have been riding Teravail tires since they came out and they’ve done me really well. A couple weeks before Kanza, I finally set them up tubeless and discovered the rear tires was too far gone already. It had too many nicks and cuts to hold air, so when I (predictably) flatted at the Ten Thousand, I just threw a tube in that one.
I really should have replaced it, but I guess I was too cheap, lazy, and confident. I had a couple spare tubes and CO2s with me and the Teravail had previously been rock solid. The first flat on the DK hit me on the brutally steep brick climb leading to checkpoint one. I phoosed it with CO2 and made it to the checkpoint. I kept trying to find that perfect balance of safe and supple. I had two more flats before checkpoint two. And a fourth at the worst… possible… time.
Mind Your Hands
Of all the contact points with the bike, I was most concerned about my hands. I had some nerve damage set in on the Rapha Prestige last year and it rears its head on long-ish rides, deadening my touch and shooting sparks up my arm. I brought two different pairs of gloves to DK, one without padding, which I prefer, to aid with grip and prevent blisters. The other pair is padded and ugly — two things I don’t like. And I didn’t use either pair. I really liked feeling the bar in my hand. My entire ride went great except for a couple sweaty sections where the bar bounced out of my grip.
I brought lights! I put them in the checkpoint gear. And then I forgot them. This was one of the best things I could have done. I was literally racing the sun at that point. The fact that I had no lights lit a fire in me. I burned every match I had to make it to Emporia before 8:44pm. Good thing most everyone didn’t forget their lights — I spent hours chasing tail lights.
I always ride harder when there is quarry on the horizon.
Know the Way
I knew the route. It was on my Garmin. It was on my phone. I work for blackriver! We launched the Dirty Kanza route this year! But in the moments before rolling out, I simply pressed “start” on my Garmin and the app. I wasn’t navigating with the route underneath. What rich and delicious irony! I couldn’t start over or my mileage would be off in regards to checkpoints. I decided to rely on my mid-pack status and trust there would always be other riders around. This was exactly the case until the last 40mi, when I was bridging from group to group and sometimes lost sight of the riders ahead. Luckily the locals lent a hand and pointed the way, except for the one guy who wasn’t directing me but was just waving to say hi and sent me the wrong way. That was cute.
I imagined missing a turn and ending up dead in a ditch. The headlines would read “Routing App Rider Gets Lost, Loses Life”.
But I found my way.
This. This I did. Before the ride, I feared I was being naive, but I had the strangest surety that I would be able to finish the Dirty Kanza. It was 70mi longer than my longest ride and 207mi is no joke. But I like long rides. I thrive over 80mi. I first experienced this at Almanzo a number of years ago, when I seemed to “wake up” at mile 75 and felt fantastic for the last quarter of the ride. “Last twenty, fast twenty” has been a motto of mine for years, and now I know “Last fifty, fast fifty” also applies. I can’t explain what happens, but again at the DK, when I can “see” the finish, my legs feel feisty.
And here it ends…
After escaping the immediate hills outside checkpoint three, which were humiliating even though I was alone, the wind came around to my back and the sun was still in the sky. My fatigued brain did some weak math and told me I could beat the sun. I put my head down and hunted tail lights with a furious joy. I clipped along at speeds around 22–25 on the flats, but I couldn’t muster anything more than a crawl on the hills. I kept doing the math, calculating how fast I had to average to make it to Emporia by 8:44pm. Never before had I felt haunted by the sun. It was unstoppable (but so was I).
Seven miles out, I knew I wasn’t going to make it in time. I decided to aim for 15 hours. I gassed it, emptying the tanks, firing on fumes. Only a couple miles away, my Garmin gave me a low battery notification. I fished in my frame bag for my spare battery and had trouble finding it, costing me a number of hard-earned places. I plugged it in a gained them back. One mile from the finish, I felt the familiar tickle… like a kitten paw batting the back of my calf…
I had a flat.
I was at the northern mouth of the tunnel under 35. I could hear the crowd. It was dark. I had no lights. My phone was dead. The zipper on my frame bag was stuck. My inflator was no where to be found. I watched twenty riders pass. For a moment, I considered immolation, but instead just decided to finish.
One kind rider finally heard my plea, sat up and pulled over. He saved my day. In mere minutes, I was back on my bike and rolling into the finish chute.
It was everything I imagined it to be and more.
So many friends were waiting there and some were yet to come in. I was happy. You often hear people say they couldn’t WAIT to get off their bike, but that wasn’t true for me. I really enjoyed the ride and felt a euphoric buzz for most of the day. The buzz lingers still.
This event was phenomenal and I recommend it. Stay positive, eat, drink, and just ride your bike all day long. It is a commitment, but it’s one you won’t regret. You can do this ride. It’s that simple.
Registration is a lottery for 2018. #couchtokanza will be a community effort so stay tuned. Click here to check out my Ride Story on blackriver.
Thanks for reading.