Not long into the ride, I’d accumulated a crust of Flint mud over my shoes, shins, and face. The group had been mellower than anticipated, if nervous after the morning gale and with the stealth (but not unnoticed) addition of names like Nys and Voigt.
A left turn took us into a series of rollers and corollary escalations in pace. The Flint Hills offered little obstruction to the sideways, post-storm winds, and the repeated efforts quickly had me anaerobic and throwing my entire being at a single goal: stay connected.
Before long, I could see no other women and behind us, the carnage of a splintered field. For a second I thought, maybe it’s too early--I should drop back.
No way. I was here to give it all, and maybe, just maybe, sticking this out would be the deciding moment of the race. Whether in my favor or not, I wanted my deciding moment to be one of charging forward, not one of hesitation.
I dug deeper to stay on wheels, until I couldn’t stay on wheels. I imploded in what felt like slow motion as riders began to pass me. Undeterred, I fought to minimize the damage. I saw Kaitie Keough pass me, then Alison Tetrick. I stayed with Tetrick for a while, then hopped onto a passing wheel that boxed me moments later and put me in no man’s land.
I was still in third and not far back. We’d already hit the first few water crossings, which I’d cleared easily, so I sent it over another.
And ate it.
I was hyper aware of the crash. My front wheel hit something big, and I went over the bars. Sensing an objectionable trajectory, I corrected and threw myself sideways. Descriptions of the infamous Flint Hills gravel as razor-like are not exaggerated.
Behind me, Amanda Nauman was coming up with a group and called out, Take your time getting up from that one!
Sage advice. I got up and assessed: shifter crooked, handlebars sideways, kit torn, skin abraded, head fine, balance fine. I checked my helmet: not a scratch. I slammed the shifter back into place, grabbed my Unior multitool, and straightened the bars.
I was back in it.
The next water crossing led into a steeper pitch, and as I shifted, the derailleur threw the chain over into the spokes, stopping me dead. The crash had bent the hanger. So much for back in it.
Eons passed as I extracted the chain. I knew better than to hurry; a broken derailleur would cost far more than a little patience. I had to use most of one of my bottles to rinse away enough mud to re-seat the chain.
But I was back in it.
I had five gears, and not the easy ones. I passed groups that had passed me, working with others to pick off placings until I could see the main group ahead of me.
Only meters away from them and closing, I hit rim over a rock and lost too much air to keep rolling. (Did I mention how brutal the flint gravel is?) I stopped to add a few blasts of CO2, gave the wheel a good spin, and thanks to Mavic UST tire sealant, got on my way again.
Back in it!
Sven Nys passed me with two other riders. My spirits lifted. I latched on and found a good rhythm. My legs felt GOOD. I could still be in this thing. I only had four working gears, more than enough for most of the rollers. But we hit a steep one, and stomping out a snappy cadence of about 30, I watched my three companions spin away from me.
I found my rhythm again on the flats and did my best to keep them in sight. I’d called David in the pit to tell him my bike and I would both need repairs. He had already recruited help to address the mechanical issues once I got there. Finally, after a brutal overgeared slog up the climb into Madison, I rolled in for the first pit stop.
David had everything ready, including a full crew of what seemed like ten or more people. Before I knew what was happening, my bike was in the stand being repaired. I grabbed a full Thule hydration pack and stuffed my pockets with Clif Bloks. A group of complete strangers helped me rinse the blood off from everything and out of my wounds. I grabbed a wet cloth and scrubbed the gravel out of my skin, slathered on ointment, and my bike was ready to go. As I jumped on, David and our new friends told me I had all the gears except the easiest one. Ten gears were better than four. I couldn’t have been happier.
Back in it!
I resumed picking off wheels. On one endless stretch of white dusted gravel, I jumped onto the wheel of a passing rider and noticed his Mike Nosco Memorial Ride water bottles.
Nice bottles, I said, and thus began a bike-borne friendship with Jason, with whom it turned out I shared a long list of mutual friends. We happily traded pulls and admiration for all of the people on that ever-growing list.
We made our way over the long rolling stretch to Eureka, keeping a steady pace. We passed a lot of people, and at least ten women by my count. I had moved up into the top ten, with more than half the race to go. A podium could yet be within reach.
We stopped to help a stranded rider with a spare CO2 cartridge. A group of three flew by us as we did. Soon after, those three took a wrong turn, putting Jason and me well ahead of them again. It seemed like a nice karmic nod to our good deed.
After a brutal headwind, we hit the steepest climb on the course. By this time, I’d realized I couldn’t reliably stay in my easiest gears without the chain skipping. My Unior multi included a chain tool, but I didn’t want to have to use it.
Jason, just go.
I churned out that 30 cadence again. A woman spun by me with words of encouragement. I thanked her and returned the kudos, imagining what it must have taken for her to grind through that headwind alone to bridge up to us. Respect.
Then began a long, difficult lonely sector. I swung between a crisp tempo and a crunchy trudge. David’s voice thankfully played a prominent role: this is a long race; anything can happen; I’m still in the hunt. I imagined where he would be in the pit, how encouraging it would be just to see him, how there would be ice.
Two riders blew by me, and with a surge of adrenaline I jumped on their draft. I could barely hang, but Eureka was close. Also, my computer had stopped giving me navigation prompts, so I was scared of getting lost on my own.
We were coming up on Jason, and I yelled out to him so he wouldn’t miss the train. The four of us traded pulls into town. Jason and I high fived as we crossed the timing mat. I was glad for that moment. It felt like the right bookend for the long effort we’d put in over the last fifty miles. Thanks friend.
I rolled around the school and saw David. Just seeing him was relief and motivation. Again, he’d recruited friends to help, and my bike was on the stand before I knew it. I grabbed a fresh Thule hydration pack, stuffed my pockets with more Clif Bloks and some ice. My beautiful Athlos kit had hardened into stiff panels of blood-soaked lycra, and scabs were forming. I’d deal with that mess later.
I was the 7th woman to roll out of the pit, forming a group of four with Anna Grace Christiansen and two guys, all of us trading pulls. After a few rollers of the guys surging, I moved to the side to let Anna Grace through, saying I don’t need to surge like that. She laughed. Me neither!
So we rode a strong steady pace together, talking about life and bike racing and the existential repercussions thereof. It was glorious and fun, and we took in the views and flew down the hills, eventually catching one of the guys from the surging group.
But alarm bells were sounding. The two deepest gashes from the crash were on my elbow and on my knee, and over a certain level of torque, I felt pain in my knee. I know the difference between pain through which you can push, and pain through which you most definitely should not push. This was the latter, and it scared me.
I needed to back off, and Anna Grace needed to go. When you ride as much as we do, you can tell these things. I said so. She understood and waved and said See you later. I really hoped so.
I pedaled easier and easier, hoping to alleviate the pain in my knee without actually stopping.
It’s a long race. Anything can happen.
We had done everything to give me the best opportunity to do well here. David, my coach, my sponsors—they had all pitched in to support me in this effort. I was on one of the most beautiful bikes I’ve owned: a sparkling new Cannondale SuperX rolling Mavic AllRoad UST wheels, custom built by my trusted friends at Storrs Center Cycle, to whom everything had shipped thanks to Bikeflights.com. On my back a Thule hydration pack rested comfortably over my custom Athlos kit, which despite being a little worse-for-wear, felt weightless and airy and carried my favorite treats, the Watermelon Clif Bloks I could eat forever, and my ride-saving Unior multi-tool. My body had acclimated to the heat of the exposed Flint Hills grasslands thanks to training in the heat chamber of the Korey Stringer Institute at UConn, where grad students Courteney Mincey and Yasuki Sekiguchi had overseen and encouraged me through every session. Even the guys David had met in the pit stops had jumped on board to help us fix my bike and get me through the stop as fast as possible. I literally carried with me the efforts and support of all of them.
I had to give absolutely everything.
I kept moving in hopes that, like the coming and going of other uncomfortable sensations, the knee pain would subside.
Jason passed me.
I told you you’d see me again! he called out cheerfully. It was good to see him, and I yelled encouragement back as he went by me. I wished I could have hopped onto his wheel, but my knee could barely handle soft-pedaling. I had told Anna Grace if she found a guy named Jason, he was a good wheel that wouldn’t surge. I hoped they’d get to ride together.
My knee was swelling.
A woman came by me. I introduced myself and helped pull where I could. We came to the big water crossing. The water was flowing and opaque. We waded in carrying our bikes, and I tried not to think about the opaque water in my bleeding, open wounds. I shrugged and thought: self-inoculation. Nothing gets stronger without challenge, including immune systems.
David called a few miles later to tell me where he’d set up in the pit. Everything I’d been holding together came apart and tumbled out: this pain wasn’t just discomfort.
He listened and told me: I’m here. If you want to ride to Madison, we can reassess at the pit. If it’s too bad to continue, I’ll come get you. Either way, I’m proud of you. Either way, I’m here for you. Either way, I love you.
I knew the answer, but my legs were good. Really good. I kept going. I just needed my knee to be okay, and I could come back from all of this, make up ground, and maybe even finish respectably. It would make a great story: to have crashed, to have persevered, to cross the line bloodied and bruised but having triumphed nonetheless. I wanted that story, but I also know the difference between HTFU and JPS (Just Plain Stupid).
I dialed David. No service.
My knee became puffier with each passing vista, and every pedal stroke reinforced my decision. I finally reached an elevation high enough for cell service.
Please come get me.
He knew how badly I did not want to make this call. I’m proud of you. I’ll be right there.
One hundred and thirty-eight miles into the ride, I lay down on the gravel in the sun to wait for him, stretching my leg out to relieve my swollen knee. A young man hoping to snap photos of his rider in action offered me a lift to Madison. I thanked him and told him my ride was already coming to get me. He asked how it had been for me.
I could have answered with any of the thousands of things that had happened over the course of my ride, but what came to mind wasn’t anything to do with my ride, or crash, or position, or even the looming DNF.
I am blown away by how kind everyone is, I said.
Complete strangers on and off the bike had not only helped me, but had also helped others and each other out on course and through every pit--everyone helping everyone.
He grinned. Isn’t it great?
Then, after pausing thoughtfully, he added, I think everyone is aware how quickly things can go wrong out here, so it would take a special kind of jerk NOT to be nice.
I hardly had the energy to do so, but I laughed.
David arrived with pizza. I emptied my pockets and removed my beautiful muddied Mavic shoes and leaned back in the front seat of the rental car.
In that moment, I knew without doubt I had given everything I had on those flint gravel roads. I had pushed through everything that demanded courage, including pushing through the conviction to finish with the courage to stop when it was the right thing to do.
Thank you to all of my sponsors for their help before, during, and after DK. Their belief and support helped me to take the start with joy and confidence. I thank them especially for their patience and understanding as I took time after the race to heal. To Cannondale, Mavic, Storrs Center Cycle, Athlos Sports, Bikeflights.com, Thule, Clif, Unior, and the Korey Stringer Institute, thank you for your support of me and for making empowering experiences like this possible for countless others. Thank you to all of the wonderful people who make Dirty Kanza possible and special. Thanks to my coach, Corey Hart, for ensuring I had good legs on the day. Most of all, thank you David for being my rock through it all.
Congratulations to all of those who took the start that day, and to my fellow Cannondale athletes Kaitie Keough and Ted King on being crowned Dirty Kanza royalty!