A String of Conversations along the Dirty Kanza XL
In the last week of May, Lael Wilcox rode 650 miles from PEARL iZUMi headquarters in Louisville, Colorado to Emporia, Kansas with Dylan Morton. She rested for 2 days before starting the DKXL, a 339 mile self-supported gravel race through the Kansas Flint Hills. This is the second year of the race.
Seventy-eight of us ride through a quarter mile tunnel of cheers and waves at three in the afternoon for the neutral start of the DKXL.
We ride together for four and a half miles on pavement until we turn onto our first bit of dirt and the race starts in earnest.
Drafting is allowed and small groups form. You just have to watch out for the ruts.
I’m running on a 2.1” tire on a drop bar Specialized Epic Hardtail with a Lauf fork because I’ve heard this ride is rough and I don’t want to slow down on the descents. Most everyone is on true gravel bikes. There are a couple of other rigid hardtails in the mix.
The leaders push out hard and I’m flying– there’s nothing like feeling fresh. I have my mind levels set not to burn up my legs or lungs too quickly. The terrain is rolling and the pace is fast– 17-23 miles per hour. I’m in the mix with a group of six– all men probably in their thirties or forties. One guy in USA socks is hammering the climbs and then coasting over the top. I’m confused until I realize he’s single-speed. His calves look like wood blocks.
Another guy asks about my ride from Colorado. He wanted to meet me on the ride to Emporia, but it didn’t work out.
“Well, we get to ride together now!” I’m excited and I surge forward.
Another guy is giving me tips.
“There are five or six water crossings coming up. You better slow down. There are sharp rocks underneath and everyone gets flats.”
On the second water crossing, he pulls right ahead of me and splashes muddy water in my face and over my bike.
He asks my first name.
“I’m Matthew. I have four daughters. Thank you for being a role model for them.”
He’s a nice guy. We’re all jumpy.
“We’re riding a good pace. We’ll catch those guys burning up the front.”
We cruise past the Salsa chaise longe. I wave to Kellie Nelson, but I’m not ready to sit down for a photo. At this point, there are at least fifteen or twenty racers ahead of us.
We pass a guy in a white jersey fixing a flat. A couple of miles later Neil Beltchenko is fixing one too.
“Hey,” he calls out with a tire lever between his teeth.
“We’ll see you up there!”
USA single-speeder is drafting all the descents tight. The rest of us are taking turns up front. Forty-five miles in we hit the first gas station, a Casey’s General Store. I’m dead certain that I’m the only one who is going to stop. Everyone stops.
I prop my bike up against the building and lube my chain. I take my two water bottles inside and head straight for the restroom. It’s occupied. I chug a bottle and a half of water, fill up from the sink and by that time, the restroom’s available. I pee quick and rush back out, past a line of guys waiting to pay for drinks and snacks.
I’m back on the road feeling like a million bucks. I ride the next ten miles solo. It’s late afternoon and cooling down, a pleasant 70F. I maintain the pace.
“That was a hard catch!” Morgan the coach and Mike USA pedal up to me and we pick it up to catch the next guy. The four of us ride rollers through the evening to the next Casey’s at mile 99. It’s a pink and orange sunset. Every few miles, there’s someone out there to take our picture. Mike loses a couple of water bottles and Morgan shares water with him. We’re all in this together.
“Lael, how about a ten minute at the gas station.”
“I’m going to try and get in and out there as quick as I can. I have few things to do, so it might take a minute, but you guys’ll catch me.”
At the next Casey’s, there’s a small crowd of fans in IRC t-shirts and at least ten riders with bikes piled up on the side of the building.
Some dude calls out, “Hey Lael! You’re hanging with the big boys.” Or maybe he said big dogs.
I prop up my bike, lube my chain, turn on my lights and go inside with my water bottles. I buy the last slice of pizza, three liters of water and a pint of chocolate milk. Back outside, I fill my bottles and chug as much water as it can. There are so many eyes and cameras. They get closer when I drink the chocolate milk.
I throw out my trash and leave the remainder of the water next to the building.
“You ready, Lael?”
“Yeah, I just have to put on my light.”
That’s the last I see Morgan and Mike and any of the other guys I was riding with.
It’s dark and warm. I pedal a couple miles of pavement and catch a flashing light ahead of me.
“Hey! It’s beautiful out here!”
“Yeah. Mind if I ride with you?” He asks.
It’s Andrew from Kansas City. He’s on a single-speed, riding really strong. We get to talking. He and his wife toured the Great Divide last summer. He asks about my ride from Colorado and my plans for Kyrgyzstan this summer. He tells me that they’ve been really inspired by what I’ve done and it’s encouraged their riding. This gives me so much heart.
We’re back and forth for hours through the night. Rabbits, small and large, dart in front of our lights. We catch up with Joe Fox for a bit and ride a super rutted and overgrown B-Road together. I am so grateful that the mud has dried out. Joe drops off the back and we catch Ben Doom from Minnesota. He’s raced the Iditarod and the Dirty Kanza several times. His friend raced the Trans Am last year and got hit and killed by a car. It’s a reality I wish weren’t true.
Around 2am I see a “Gravel Ends” sign. The road literally becomes a river bed with several stream crossings. Ben’s in front and Andrew is behind. Little stretches like these slow the pace down for 15-20 minutes as you just have to get through them. For the most part, the riding is chunky, but you’re hardly off your bike.
Soon after, Ben tells me it was nice talking and takes off. Andrew catches up shortly.
“The way I see it, is that this race is broken up into three parts. We had a hundred miles of day riding to the gas station. We’ll have a hundred miles through night. And by morning, we just have a hundred forty miles to get to the end.”
I like how he’s thinking.
Just after three in the morning, Andrew says we might make it to the gas station before they open at 4. I really just want to get some water. He drops me on a climb, but I see him again fifteen minutes later on the side of the road. He’s pumping up his tire.
“Yeah, it’s just a slow leak.”
He hops back on his bike and we ride into town together.
“Jake Wells is up there and he’s all blown up. He says he had a hard time eating.”
“Jake Wells?” In the dark, my eyebrows are raised to my hairline. Jake Wells went out like a rocket. I was really hoping he’d do well, maybe even get the win. I know he really wants it.
We find Jake at the Casey’s at Cottonwood Falls just before 4am. The gas station is closed. A woman and a girl are sitting out front in fold out camping chairs.
“Hi Lael!” He’s smiling big, but definitely in a daze.
“Looks like the gas station is closed.”
“Yeah, but I heard there’s a bakery somewhere around here.”
“No, that was in Eureka, a hundred miles ago.” Andrew says.
I say, “cool seeing you here.” to the woman and the girl.
The woman responds, “cool seeing you here.”
Rue tells me later that that was Jake’s wife and daughter. I guess we were all pretty out of it.
I see an employee inside and the lights are on. I’m about to knock on the door and ask for some water when Andrew says there’s a park on the route around the corner, maybe they’ll have water. I step back on my bike.
Jake says, “do it to it.” And we round the corner to the park.
The main restrooms are locked, but I find a single door open with a toilet and a faucet. It’s the little things that lift your spirits. I fill up and down a whole bottle. Andrew swaps in and does the same. We alternate back and forth filling and chugging water for three minutes and we’re out of there. Two hours until sunrise.
The sun comes up a piercing orange-red perfect circle. We ride through the morning mist. It’s like a strange dream and it’s beautiful. The countryside is wide open. Ribbons of limestone road cut through green grass, dipping into creeks and climbing onto ridges. Trees populate farmhouses; cows and horses populate farm fields. It’s humid and lush. Rue finds me to take photos. Andrew pulls ahead, but I catch him at the gas station in Council Grove.
I buy a ham and egg breakfast sandwich, a slice of pepperoni pizza, two Paydays and a quart of chocolate milk. I lube my chain, turn off my lights, fill up my water bottles and throw out my trash. I down a caffeine pill with the chocolate milk and chug as much of it as I can, tossing the bottle with the remaining sips into the garbage can. It hits my stomach hard, but I know my legs need it. Jeff Kerkove pulls up.
“Hey Jeff! How are you doing?”
“I’m finally getting my shit together.” He smiles and sets his bike against the wall. He takes off his shoes and asks himself, “What do I need?”
Less than a minute later, he’s back out with a liter of Sprite. Jeff is not rushing. He’s simply efficient.
“There’s another woman not too far back.” He warns.
I ride away. I catch up with Andrew and we ride Little Egypt together. It’s rocky and steep and he’s impressive on the single-speed. I love this terrain and I’m so glad I’ve got big tires.
We’re anticipating seeing Dirty Kanza 200 riders, but it’s not another hour until we start crossing paths. And then we pedal against the current, crossing over a thousand riders over fifteen endless miles of leg cookers– steep, punchy climbs and descents. The riders have worn in powdery single-tracks into the gravel. Face to face, we cheer for each other. They’re on their path to 200 miles and we’re on ours to 340. They call out our names and encouragement from the seats of their bicycles. There are so many familiar faces. It’s heartening.
Jeff Kerkove catches us at the gas station in Alma. I go to the ladies’ room, soak my t-shirt in the sink, ring it out over my head and put it back on. I walk out to a short line of bewildered faces.
“Oh dear. Have a fun ride.”
We’re 290 miles in. Jeff, Andrew and I roll out together into the scorching sun.
Jeff growls, “Hills. I’m spinning triangles back here.” and drops back. Andrew pulls away on the single-speed and I don’t see him again.
Abandoned water bottles and GU packets and every kind of sports nutrition litter the rocky roads and I imagine thousands of riders yard sailing through in tight packs. You could literally resupply from the road nutrition. I’m solo.
I make a final stop for chilled water and PayDays in Eskridge.
A man and a lady stand the Rush In gas station register.
“How much farther you got?”
“40 miles or so, I think.”
“The last guy said it was 39.”
“I think that’s right.”
“How long will you need to rest after this?”
“Just a few days, I hope.”
“Have a safe ride out there.”
I’m out with a couple liters of water when Jeff rolls up, shoes off and he’s inside. I finish off my warm water, fill my bottles with cold water and pour the rest over my head and shirt. The difference from the heat of the day makes me shiver and shake with cold, but it’s so refreshing. I see Jeff and the locals laughing inside and I’m laughing too. Then, I’m back on my bike.
Jeff catches me in under ten minutes. He’s really good at that.
“Your friend on the mountain bike should be coming up.”
“Oh Dylan! That would be great!”
“Yeah, I was riding with him back there and he was hauling ass.”
“Hey, I never got a chance to ask you about your Arizona Trail Race.”
“It was horrible. I don’t even want to talk about it.”
I think I pissed him off so bad that I actually fueled his burst.
I step it up for the final thirty miles. I’m finishing strong. There’s a B-Road in the mix, but it’s pretty straight forward. Farmers are sitting on fold out chairs in their lawns.
“You’re almost there!”
“Great job! You’re almost there!”
I can’t imagine how many hours they sit out cheering on riders. It’s so encouraging.
Twenty miles to go. Can I finish in under twenty-four hours? Hell yeah, I can! Seventeen miles to go. My feet are burning in my shoes, but I’m almost there. I keep the pace strong. Fourteen miles to go, then ten, then seven, then I start seeing riders, then we turn onto pavement and I’m pushing the pedals in my aerobars, then we turn into the university and there’s a hill and some people are walking.
A lady next to me turns her head in exasperation, “I’m at mile 104.”
I keep charging little turns through town and I see the finish shoot and hear the cheers.
“From Anchorage, Alaska, it’s Lael Wilcox. The first female finisher of the DKXL.”
I’m into the shoot. The first person I see is Kristi Mohn. Her smile is huge and she gives me a hearty hug.
“You did it!! How do you feel?”
“Good.” And at that moment, I feel like I could keep riding double the distance.
She puts a finisher’s lanyard over my head.
“Well, that’s all you’re really going to get.” She smiles and we both laugh hard.
My finishing time is 23 hours, 51 minutes, 37 seconds.
Then I see Rue with her camera and we hug. She walks me to the Chamois Buttr tent on a bench in the shade. Jeff’s there and we high-five, big smiles. I take off my shoes and socks and my feet are completely white. They’ve been wet inside my shoes since the stream crossings the previous night.
A guy from Ergon asks if he can take a photo of them.
Kara from Chamois Buttr asks if I need to take any pictures with my dirty legs before she cleans them.
“You’re going to clean my legs?!”
She treats me with so much kindness. Spraying down my legs and carefully wiping them with a cold, damp cloth. She gets me a bottle of chilled water. Bridgette and Celia from GU get me a vanilla recovery shake. They’re pumped. It’s awesome. I can’t really celebrate because I feel like toast and it’s hot. Rue walks me over to her e-bike, so we can ride back to Kristi’s house to shower. I nearly blackout and have to sit on the curb in the shade, pulling it together. I was so focused on finishing, I didn’t even realize I was cooked.
Five minutes later, I’m on the e-bike, Rue’s riding mine. Then we’re back to Kristi’s, showered and in bed. Two hours later I’m at a press conference in an air-conditioned room in downtown Emporia.
“Yeah, so this is actually a pretty short race for me. I typically race at least 1,000 miles. I rode here from Colorado, took two days off, was the keynote speaker for the Dirty Kanza Women’s Forum, and then raced the DKXL. It’s all training for the Tour Divide, a 2,750 mile self-supported mountain bike race through The Rockies from Canada to Mexico. My race starts in two weeks on June 14.”
That was fun.