How Dirty Kanza Changed Mike’s Life

“Anyone who has known me since I was young knows that I have struggled with weight my entire life. I was significantly overweight throughout elementary and middle school. I lost much of it during high school and college, only to add in the bad habit of smoking during my college years. Then, the weight began to find its way back during my 20s and 30s. The combination of obesity and smoking did not lend itself to an active lifestyle, so exercise also fell by the wayside during my 20s and 30s. All of this culminated with me having a massive heart attack and nearly dying in December 2012 – at the relatively young age of 41.

The heart attack was a wake-up call to make some important life changes. I stopped smoking immediately. I have never touched a cigarette since the day of my heart attack. I also began exercising regularly and fell in love with cycling in the months following the heart attack. And, as a result of being in a coma for a week after my heart attack, I dropped a significant amount of weight in a very short period of time.

Unfortunately, my challenges with weight did not come to an end at that point. I continued to struggle with making appropriate eating decisions. As a result, despite increasing levels of physical activity, the weight did not really come off. In fact, when winter rolled around, I began to gain weight. This cycle continued for a couple of years until it became clear that the weight gain was interfering with my ability to continue recreational activities like cycling. I eventually got up to 300 pounds and was becoming increasingly lethargic. So, I made up my mind that I needed to do something to take care of the weight gain once and for all.

FINDING MOTIVATION TO TACKLE MY INNER DEMONS

After some deep soul-searching, I determined that the root cause of my problem was lapsed motivation throughout the winter months – when daylight hours were short and the weather was not conducive to outdoor activity. So, in my search for a source of motivation, I heard about a 200 mile gravel road race in Kansas, called the Dirty Kanza 200. The event is held the first weekend in June. This would be my motivation. The most I had ridden up to that point was 124 miles (mostly paved). So racing 200 miles of gravel roads was a big, hairy, audacious goal for me. I would have to stay active and watch my diet throughout the winter (otherwise it would be impossible for me to complete the race).

DIRTY KANZA – MY FIRST ATTEMPT

So, I signed up to race the Dirty Kanza 200 in 2017. And, it worked. I stuck to my diet, and I continued to increase my levels of physical activity. As a result, I dropped 90 pounds, and I was riding distances of 150+ miles. I felt that I was physically ready for Kanza in 2017. Unfortunately, due to a series of mechanical problems followed by an isolated rain storm that left the southern end of the course muddy and virtually unrideable, I was unable to complete the race in 2017.

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FAILURE DRIVES RENEWED DETERMINATION

But, rather than give up on the goal, that disappointment provided me with renewed determination. Following the 2017 event, I began to make adjustments to my equipment to minimize opportunities to repeat the same mechanical failures. And, I continued to work on improving my physical fitness and endurance. I went on to do more bike rides that year in the range of 250+ miles up to 600 km.

Last fall, I even participated in a qualifying event for the Race Across America (RAAM), called the Natchez Trace 444, which is a challenge to ride all 444 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway from Nashville, Tennessee, to Natchez, Mississippi, in 44 hours or less. After doing that event, I am proud to say that I am now an official RAAM qualifier (i.e., I am qualified to participate in the Race Across America, as a solo racer, if I choose to do so).

All of this, however, was done in an effort to make sure that if and when I returned to Dirty Kanza, I would finish.

RETURN TO KANZA

At first, it was unclear whether I would get the opportunity to return. For 2018, due to overwhelming demand, Dirty Kanza switched to a lottery entry, and I did not know whether my name would be selected. Fortunately, I was lucky enough to have my name drawn. So, throughout this past winter, I continued to work on improving my speed on the bike and my strength on hills. And, throughout the spring, I worked on regaining my endurance from last season. As a result of these preparations, I came into the 2018 Dirty Kanza better prepared – both in terms of my equipment and my physical fitness.

Going into Dirty Kanza, forecasts were for highs in the mid- to upper-90s. With a late Spring and very little acclimation to riding in hot weather, that level of heat would have been really dangerous. Fortunately, a last-minute cold front from the Northwest brought cooler temps (highs in the upper 80s to low 90s). Unfortunately, that same front also brought a thunderstorm that delayed the start of the race and provided plenty of mud for the first few dozen miles. It also brought strong winds that we had to fight throughout the second half of the day, as we made our way Northward back to the start.

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RACE DAY – LEG 1

One of the attractions of Dirty Kanza is its picturesque scenery. During the first leg, we rolled through open range on the tall grass prairie, alongside grazing cattle (not fenced in) who watched us with a degree of curiosity and nervousness.

Another attraction of Dirty Kanza is the challenging terrain. It throws at you just about every type of gravel road surface you can imagine. From flat pristine, hard-pack gravel roads that roll fast and smooth to rutted out minimum maintenance roads that are barely passable by 4×4 jeeps, let alone by bicycles.

RACE DAY – LEG 2

One of the most challenging sections of the course comes during the second leg (between the first and second checkpoints), which features the oil fields. The roads in this area were designed to be accessed by heavy equipment. So, they are covered mainly by railroad ballast (think baseball-sized gravel), and they often feature deep ruts, steep climbs and exposed bedrock.

It was on one of the several steep descents in this section – around mile 75 – that I failed to pick a proper line and lost control, going down in the gravel. My hip suffered a little road rash. I hit my head on a rock (fortunately, my helmet took the impact, but I now need to get a new helmet). But, the most painful part of the entire ordeal was what felt like a bruised rib. Fortunately, however, nothing on my person or bicycle appeared to be broken, so after I regained my composure, I was able to continue riding.

I met up with several friends at the second checkpoint, took enough time to pull myself back together after a very tough second leg, watched my friends depart the checkpoint while I stayed behind, and finally set out for the final 103 miles – alone and into what promised to be a very challenging north headwind. I continued to trudge along.

RACE DAY – LEG 3

It was during this third leg that I got to experience the warmth and hospitality of the locals. First, I came across a rancher who was spending his day by the road with a garden hose, offering much-needed water to the passing racers. (I gratefully accepted). Then, as we approached a water crossing, there were volunteers handing out ice-cold water bottles that were also much needed. Finally, when we are about seven miles from the third checkpoint, we came across one last family, standing at the edge of their driveway, also handing out bottled water. We chatted with them for a moment, thanked them for this much-needed respite, then set off for the third and final checkpoint.

A sense of relief began to set in when we reached the third checkpoint. It was becoming clear that I would likely finish this race. We had two hours until the checkpoint closed, and I knew I could be out of here in well under an hour. So, there was plenty of time buffer, and only about 45 miles left to go. Since temperatures were dropping, I put on a dry jersey and jacket that I had brought along. Made sure my lights were fully charged. Grabbed some food, refilled water bottles. And, finally set off for the fourth and final leg of the journey.

RACE DAY – LEG 4

A highlight of this final leg was that I had the opportunity to ride it with a friend – Rob Van Pelt – whom I met earlier in the year (through some other gravel races). We met up along the course late in the third stage, and as darkness approached, we made the decision to stick together, both for safety and for the needed psychological uplift that comes from having someone to share the pain of those final miles with. We alternated between chatting about nothing in particular and riding in silence. But, regardless of whether words were being changed, the company and camaraderie were uplifting and greatly appreciated in those final miles.

This was also the leg where Salsa cycles placed their chaise lounge for riders to have their portraits taken as they approach the finish. It is great fun, and it had provided me with something to look forward to at a different event earlier in the year. For some reason, I had completely forgotten about it during this extremely long day. Even so, it was still a very welcome sight. They say that if you can reach the chaise, you can reach the finish. So, I knew the ride would get easier from this point onward, and it did!

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THE FINISH

As I left the gravel and turned into Emporia, Kansas, an overwhelming feeling of joy began to bubble up from within. There is one final hill that must be climbed at this point before hitting the finish line, and my renewed energy made it feel almost easy. We rolled through the campus of Emporia State University and onto Commercial Street, which is the final approach to the finish line. I could no longer contain myself. Although we were approaching 2:30 am, I found myself shouting loudly and saying nothing in particular. I simply needed an outlet for the joy that was bubbling over from within. At the finish, after 19 hours and 59 minutes of riding my bike, I received a brief but glorious hug and “welcome home” from race promoter, Lelan Dains. And, then it was all over.

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FINAL THOUGHTS

Dirty Kanza is an experience that will stick with me for many years to come. I may return some day. But, I will not decide that now. I need to get some distance before I make any more decisions. Regardless of what I may do, however, I will be forever grateful to the Dirty Kanza crew. They provided me with the motivation I needed – at a time when that motivation was missing and sorely needed – to make some important life changes. I will always struggle with my weight, but I finally have it back under control, and I am enjoying a much higher quality of life as a result of my improved fitness. Now, on to the next challenge!”

-Mike N.

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Jim

Cup O'Dirt Admin

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