This past June, I completed my first Dirty Kanza 200, riding a custom set of Cantu Wheels built by my husband John and my trusty steel frame bike "Bumblebee" built by our friend, Hans Schneider. Here is my story...
**Article by Venny Wilmeth, first published in the Texas Racing Post. Video and Newspaper Article to follow.
The wonder and reward of the Dirty Kanza belongs to anyone who goes looking for it. Somewhere between a bustling start and the finish of a 200 mile race, limits are either made or broken. The Dirty Kanza is just as much a personal conquest as it is the Super Bowl of gravel events.
I first caught the gravel bug at Gravel Worlds in August of 2016 in Lincoln, Nebraska. 150 miles and 10,000 feet of climbing. There was a buzz in the air about the Dirty Kanza. 200 miles? I’m good. Who is crazy enough to ride 200 miles? I can’t ride 200 miles.
I laugh because five months later I proved myself wrong and signed up in January. There came the nerves clicking the ‘Register’ button. Luckily no hesitation because it sold out in less than an hour. One click and my journey to Kanza had begun. My husband was not so lucky. His category sold out within 13 minutes! He would settle for next year and be my one man support crew for this year’s journey.
The Dirty Kanza (DK200) celebrated its 12th anniversary and has grown to more than 2,000 participants. The town of Emporia, Kansas becomes a holy grail for any gravel rider. This is what happens when a the community is engaged and involved. The entire experience is not possible without them and it’s one of the reasons, if not the main one, why people come back for more.
The Dirty Kanza 200 is 206 mile course with roughly 9,000 feet of climbing. You are self-supported and self-navigated riding through remote and rugged regions given any weather conditions. No support is allowed along the course. There are three check-points where you can refuel and replenish with your support crew.
12 weeks of training, lots of mental preparation, hundreds of solo miles ridden (what I call character building miles), many miles with friends, and dozens of articles and videos later. The big day had finally arrived.
My first goal was to finish. I thought 16 hours was good, well safe, goal time averaging roughly around 13 mph. A bigger goal was to complete the Race the Sun challenge and finish before the sunset at 8:42 pm.
I can’t think about the start without getting the chills. With a 6 a.m. start, riders start filling Commercial Street beginning at 5 a.m. in the morning. The broadway lights of the Historic Granada Theater serve as a beacon to the start line. We take a moment to celebrate the weather, because shockingly enough rain and thunderstorms had crawled along the forecast up until the day previous. What a break! Dawn is breaking, smiles, and sighs. “5 minutes to the start!” My stomach drops. I feel a sense of accomplishment just getting to this place. The countdown begins 5…4...3…2…1 “Let’s roll!”
This was the first of many cloud nine moments throughout the day. Around 2,200 riders rolled down Commercial Street escorted by police for the neutral start. Friends, family, and locals lined the streets cheering us on as we headed out of town to the gravel roads. The pros were up front leading the pack. I was about 40 seconds back playing it safe, knowing I would have to save my matches for later. The first section of gravel roads were hard packed. Everyone quickly organized themselves into one of the two pace lines that the road allowed room for. Trying to get around riders was tricky with looser gravel surrounding us. I trusted my skills and moved safely up when I had the opportunity.
After mile ten I was opened up to a new country, the Flint Hills of Kansas. Open range, rugged, and rolling hills as far as the horizon. At the top of the climbs you could see the most stunning views of the sunrise, hazy blues mixed in with the peachy glows. Pinch me. I couldn’t be mesmerized too long. The Flints Hills is also infamous for flats. Given that the Native Americans used flint rock for arrowheads, one cannot be too zealous bombing down the fast, gnarly descents. I remember our friend saying, “Respect the descents and watch your line.” There were some drop offs where you couldn’t see the steepness of the slope until right before you came upon it. Large sharp edged chunks of rock awaited for you at the top, the bottom, and sometimes in between. At the bottom, several riders would be pulled over fixing flats. Respectfully, I descended.
Around mile 30 we were coming out of the Flint Hills and ranching region to more familiar fast gravel roads. I felt good and eventually joined onto a pace line. We averaged about a 20 mph hot pace into the first checkpoint in Madsion - mile 48. A welcoming crowd awaited us at Madision High School. My husband, John, quickly escorted me to the van to refuel. My face was all covered in dry Kansas dust. I splashed water on myself, drank a can of coconut juice, and restocked rice cakes and gels while John checked my bike and re-lubed my chain. After a quick bite, I was off.
56 miles to the next check point in Eureka. Three miles after leaving Madision, I feel like I’m missing something. I reach a hand behind and slap my back. Nothing there. “I forgot my CamelBak!” I decided not to turn around and make the best out my two water bottles I had. I start riding with a small group of 4 and the guy up front starts talking about Texaco Hill. He points off to the distance. “See that tiny tower, we’ve got a hard four mile climb ahead of us.” If it was one thing I felt good about, it was climbing. I had trained for this and felt prepared with a 46/36 chainring paired with an 11-28 cassette. I climbed a higher cadence than most and mixed in some out of saddle riding while staying in good rhythm. I survived Texaco Hill with energy to spare. Another tough climb was Teter Hill. It was long and steep, some people had to get off and walk their bike up. Ten miles from the Eureka awaited one last kicker. This one was a rough and steep, two-punch climb. I climbed around the bend and my head tilted up to see the top of another arduous climb. People were hiking their bikes left and right. I could here grunts of determination behind me. The last five feet to the crest, I begin inching my way forward using every part of my body to keep the pedals turning over. A group was cheering us on at the top. Once over the climb I quickly recovered and started tackling down the rollers that lay before me. They were nothing compared to the previous climbs. I soon found myself working in a fast pace line with 6 other friendly faces. We encouraged each other and communicated as we rolled into Eureka. Coming into checkpoint 2 (mile 104) we parted our ways to our support crew. I hoped to see them again.
Leaving the checkpoint, I didn’t forget my CamelBak this time. John helped me replenish with Pedialyte and it worked well. I was never extremely thirsty or hungry. After 104 miles, I was in good shape. Going into the third leg (miles 104-162) I was optimistic at first, but it became a slow drag and my mental energy went south. The third leg has been describe as some of the following descriptions: the dark place, where you’re mentally trying to climb out of the hole, dying a million deaths, and fighting demons. Fortunately, I had that little voice in my head. “Forward progress.” After all it was demoralizing to look down and see my speed under 10 mph. I thought about all my friends and family that were cheering for me back at home. I thought about how my husband was not going to let me quit. We were in this together. Quit wasn’t in our vocabulary for this journey, but it grazed my mind. My hopes to beat the sun were diminishing. “I just want to finish.” There were not many trains or pacelines created. Everyone seemed to be in their own solitary confinement, fighting cramps, overcoming mechanicals, or fixing their fourth flat. It was a long 58 miles.
I came out of that hole once the town of Madison was in sight. The last and final checkpoint! Recovering from a demoralizing 3rd leg of the course, John looked at me, “You can do this, you can still beat the sun.” I had just under 3.5 hours to cover the last 45 miles, seems reasonable, but after 162 miles anything can happen. I was physically and mentally beat. Then suddenly a spark. Two guys pass me and we start pushing each other. We start working together to stay on pace, a small pain train was then created of 6 riders with one goal in mind, Race the Sun. The uplifting camaraderie of the gravel culture was in full force. It was suspenseful and hurtful, to watch the sun creep closer to the horizon while putting everything I had into each pedal stroke. Our pain train dwindled down to two riders, me and Steve. This was Steve’s fifth Dirty Kanza 200 on a fat bike. This would be his first time to beat the sun. Eight miles out and we’re making good time. Don't flat. Don't flat. Don't flat. Four miles out, the sun is just above the horizon. I was overcome with emotions seeing the town of Emporia.
“We're going to do this!” I thought. I got goosebumps passing under the iconic I-35 tunnel coming onto the Emporia State University campus. That's when I could hear the loud speakers and crowd from downtown. I forgot about the pain, I was on cloud nine once again. One more hill then we winded through campus. The main street of Emporia was electric in the air. We approached the finishing chute down Commercial Street, lined with family, friends, and the fans roaring with pride, cowbells and high fives left and right. That feeling I will never forget. We beat the sun. I gave my husband a big dirty hug after crossing the finish line. I had finished my first Dirty Kanza 200. And yes, I plan on coming back next year for another unforgettable experience.