DKXL: 350 miles of Dirty Kanza
I’ve never cried tears of happiness during a bike race before. I’m not really the crying type. But after 350 long, beautiful, painful, lonely, wonderful miles in Kanza country, I rolled into Emporia on Saturday afternoon with a lump in my throat. Turning onto Commercial Street and entering the buzz and excitement of the DK finish line, everything started to sink in and the tears started to flow.
DKXL was one of the first races I’ve ever signed up for that I didn’t really know if I could do. 350 miles in one go is huge. Plus, this year has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It’s been the most stressful, busiest, least training-focused year ever. I’ve been busy building my coaching company and expanding my roles with Shimano. We had a couple major product launches (did you see the new GRX…. Hot damn!) in the past few weeks and I even spent the final week before DK in Bellingham, Washington for a media camp for the XT and SLX launch. Needless to say, training has not been a top priority.
But as we lined up on Friday afternoon of DK weekend, looking out into the afternoon haze, trying to glimpse what was to come over the next 24+ hours, I exhaled all the stress and nervousness that had been building through the past few months and breathed in the excitement that was bubbling up at the start line. The final minutes ticked away before the start and then we were off.
In the most pleasant and casual fashion, 80 riders rolled out of town with hopes of returning with stories of victory, of self-discovery, of redemption or success… whatever that meant for each of us. For me, finishing was the priority. Beyond that, I only had two goals: first was to be the most positive, supportive person I could be throughout the event. I’d cheer for everyone as we passed each other back and forth. I’d help people when they needed it and I’d smile as much as possible. The second was to just roll with the punches. Flat tire? No problem, I can fix that. Bad stomach? All good, just slow down and take care of yourself. I was going to make it to the end one way or another and hopefully help motivate others along the way as well.
After about 15-20 miles of casual riding, the group started to split apart. Hills and rutted roads helped with the separation. As the front runners went up the road, it took everything in me to not chase them down, to try and hang onto the front men’s group as long as possible like I typically do in gravel races. I knew I needed to be patient this time around and I’m honestly surprised I was able to curb my competitive side and just settle in to a manageable long-term pace.
As we chugged through the first 50 miles or so, I happily found myself riding with good friend Dan Hughes. There’s nothing like a familiar face and solid wheel to chase to make you smile and remember we’re all out there together. We got to chat a little bit, take a few pulls for each other, and joke around in front of the photographers. Dan has taught me many important things about gravel racing throughout the years. The most important certainly is how to time the perfect uphill attack for the classic “lookback” when photographers are shooting from the top of the hill. I guess the next lesson will be how you can still steal the shot from behind….
Dan and I also got to goof around at the Salsa Chase the Chaise Lounge. This brand activation is the best, most original and fun thing I’ve seen in a long time. Having riders stop mid-race to sit on a random chaise lounge and take funny photos is perfectly gravel. It’s just silly enough to remind everyone that we’re all out here on aero bars and franken-bikes doing ridiculous things and that we should just smile and enjoy some fun. So of course, Dan and I honored this with a foot massage and plenty of laughs.
Eventually, Dan and I parted ways and I headed into the night for a long 9-hour roll through the Kanza darkness. Hands down, riding through the night is my absolute favorite part of DKXL. Watching a glowing orange and red sun melt away below the horizon and then smelling the crisp twilight air. It’s incredible. The dead of night is exceptionally dark, especially this year with no moon in sight. The stars glisten in the deserted sky and fireflies buzzed around, blurring the line between sky and earth. It was breathtaking. So much so that I stopped and turned off my lights, sat down in the middle of the road and just looked up to take it all in. This is gravel, it’s adventure and discovery at its finest. And it left me with the perfect sense of peace, surrender, and gratitude to be out there experiencing it all.
Until suddenly a pack of coyotes started yipping and howling close by, pulling me out of my trance and got me quickly back on my bike. And just like that, I was rolling along, smiling and so deeply happy to have had that moment.
At daybreak, just as the sun was rising with another brilliant orange and fiery red display, I rode out of Cottonwood Falls and hit an amazing section of road that rolled north for miles. I’d just filled up on fresh drinks, a breakfast sandwich from Casey’s and a red bull and I felt like a new person. I’d made it through the night, nothing was seriously hurting, my body was thankfully holding together, and it was at this moment I knew I could make it to the finish. Of course, I knew there were still 150 long, hot, hilly miles ahead. But something inside me just clicked and said, yep, we’re doing this. And that was a very good feeling.
Over the next few hours, the temperature started to rise and I started to suffer from the heat. My stomach stopped wanting food so I was relying on liquid calories for the most part. I bought a big bag of ice at every checkpoint town and filled my bottles, my camelback, my sports bra, and some ice socks that I’d brought along in my pack. I used every last bit of water on my bike to spray myself down and I ticked off mile by overheating mile. This was the lowest point of the whole event for me but never once did I think about stopping. Ever since that moment in Cottonwood Falls, I was convinced I’d get through and I wasn’t going to argue with that feeling.
So, I suffered on and finally cooled off enough to start enjoying the ride again. By this point, I knew I was riding in 3rd place and despite telling myself that I wasn’t there to race, that I was just there to finish, I couldn’t help but let my competitive nature take hold. How cool would it be to nab a podium spot at DKXL? The problem was, I had slowed up a bit through the previous section while I was dealing with the heat and Katie Strempke, an incredibly nice and super strong racer, had caught up and I saw her ride past me as I sat and ate a popsicle at the last checkpoint town.
That’s when the competitive fire really revved up. With 40 miles to go I felt like I was in the first 40 miles of the race. My legs felt amazing, my stomach was full of icy cold Red Bull and water, and I started to fly up the hills and race down the descents. I tucked and powered through the flats and quickly rode past Katie, saying a quick hello and good job, secretly hoping she wouldn’t challenging me to the finish because I didn’t know how long the caffeine and sugar would last. In reality, I don’t think Katie even cared I was there. She rode the whole race so consistently and had her game plan dialed. She’s probably better at following her own plan of steady riding with the goal of finishing and not getting caught up in the race than I am. In either case, Katie motivated me to ride faster than I thought I could through those last few miles and I’m very thankful to have had that motivation.
The last few miles of DKXL were emotional for me. And that was weird. I didn’t really know what was going on and the people around me must have thought I was nuts. I was a sniffling mess and just kept bursting out with a cackley laugh like I was losing my mind. And honestly, I kind of was. The whole DKXL experience was overwhelming and I wasn’t prepared for the emotions.
But as I started down Commercial Street and saw the finish line appear with the familiar friendly faces of Jim Cummins and Kristi Mohn waiting, the tears turned to smiles and laughter - normal laughs this time. All the finish line hugs still give me goosebumps thinking about them. Kristi wrapped me so tightly that I felt like I was floating. I’m pretty sure Meredith Miller actually picked me up off the ground so that I was floating. It took a few minutes for everything to sink in but the excitement and support I felt at the finish line is indescribable.
After finally coming down from this finish line high, I heard that Nick was just 30 miles out from the finish and that high came rushing back. I went through the same set of emotions I’d just come out of as Nick crossed the line and I got to be the person on the finish line doling out hugs.
Looking back a week or so later and I’m still in awe of the amazing friends who’ve supported this crazy adventure from the start. From Dani and Emily sending Dad Jokes all day to keep me laughing, to the encouraging texts from Liz that made me smile and dig a little deeper each time. For all the crazy long and ridiculous rides that I’ve made my friends go on throughout the years. It all adds up and each played a part of this finish for me. The support and positivity throughout the gravel community is infectious. It’s the most inspiring and encouraging community and I’m so thankful to be a part of it.