Did you know there’s a textbook all about the Dirty Kanza? It’s called The Anatomy of the Human Body. I know this because on I read it cover-to-cover for 206 miles on June 2, 2018. There’s an entire section devoted to what the DK does to your body, with each transparent page depicting the internal workings of a human being, layer by colorful layer. Throughout, you are reduced to nothing more than a 7th-grade science experiment, with each corpuscle held up to the light to create a sun shard blood bath. Look. These are your depleted cells. See ’em? They’re garbage.
Turn the page. These are the sinews used to floss your brain at mile 157. Tightly twanging, they’ll saw your ego from its moorings at an excruciating six miles per hour. That stomach? It’ll get sugar-rushed like an exploded piñata at a 9-year-old’s birthday party. Next page. Now we see muscles laid down all crosshatched and quilt-like. Never forget—those are the very muscles that’ll cramp and spasm on every climb. They’re gonna grab that electric fence of failure and not let go.
I’m sorry, back up. Did I say the textbook was called The Anatomy of the Human Body? My mistake. It’s actually the Karma Sutra because there’s no shortage of mind fornicating positions this race will put you in. On paper—206 miles, a bunch of straight roads, 3 checkpoints—it looks missionary all the way. A cuddle afterwards, even. But nope. Dirty Kanza. Get your safe word ready.
This is off to a terrible start. I’m making it sound like the Dirty Kanza is the worst race on earth. I love this race. I hate this race. This race is awesome. This race is dumb. I’m really quite conflicted—a complex human being. I mean, did you see that textbook with all the transparencies? We’re all a mess, and I didn’t even get to the brain page.
Let’s start over.
This is a story. A story of bright and shiny humans, worn down by the belt sander of Flint Hills gravel. Unvarnished. It’s not really a turn-by-turn account. Think more Once Upon a Time in the West. Just a coupla gunslingers staring each other down on a train platform, eyes with all the dialog and the sky crushing the world.
This is a story. A story of friends. Smiling. Wincing. Surviving. Complaining. Soaring. Reminding each other of why they’re friends in the first place.
This? Eh, it’s just a story. A story told by an unreliable narrator. The Anatomy of the Human Body, the Karma Sutra, Green Eggs and Ham—they’re all the same. Words and pictures. If you never open the book, you don’t get the story.
These are just my words. Receive them how you will.
Degree 1: Bachelor of Arts in Let Go of Your Ego
I’ve said this before, but I like getting old. Not the whole body falling apart thing—that sucks—but I like that I know who I am. That I know what I like and what I don’t, and that the things that I do like, I REALLY like. I like them with fully and with intention. But one of the things I love most is that because I’ve been hanging out with my brain for so long, I know how I’m going to react to things. I know my character flaws intimately—can recognize their ugly faces when they flash before me. I know my triggers, my sticking points, my irrational reactions, and know that I own them and can wrestle them to the mat if need be.
Case in point.
A few weeks prior to Dirty Kanza, I’d been sitting eating lunch when a colleague—let’s just call him Jepson—casually mentioned that he’d heard that Jon and I were going to ride the Dirty Kanza together. I nodded that yes, this was indeed true. Jon had asked for the honor of riding with me and I’d accepted his proposal.
“He said he just wants to pull you around all day and take it easy.”
My skin prickled.
“What do you mean ‘take it easy’?” The implication that I just dawdle around back there sipping Mai Tais and blowing the fluff off dandelions enraged me. Poor Jepson. The look on his face. He’d stepped on the third rail without realizing he was anywhere near tracks. No one knew there were tracks—not even me until he’d said it.
“I don’t know what y’all think I’m doing at the back of that race, but I try REALLY hard.”
Prickle. Calm down. Get over yourself. Patch it up with Jepson (sorry Jepson!). Think. My reaction didn’t have anything to do with Jepson. It was about me suddenly recognizing I had some serious misgivings about my ability to ride the DK with Jon, and knowing that I needed to sort out why I felt that way before we got to that start line in Emporia.
Jon is fast, strong, and capable of holding his own at the pointy end of the Dirty Kanza. I am slow, stubborn, and capable of holding a séance somewhere between miles 135 and 165. The thought of spending 200 miles hating myself for holding Jon back because of my complete and utter suckiness did not fill me with rapturous anticipation. I don’t know if you know this, but DK is hard enough without having to drag around the corpse of a self-hate albatross. Those things are heavy, man.
So that was the first concern. But in typical dark and brooding Janeen fashion, I didn’t mention it to Jon.
And then there was the whole Beat the Sun thing. My inability to hold a wheel has always meant it’s just me and the sun, battling it out. Last year, I’d came within ten minutes of it without any help from anyone. And this year I’d been training to the point of actually doing intervals. Intervals! I know, right? It must be serious. How would I feel if Jon pulled me all the way to the end this year and I did Beat the Sun? How would I feel about never knowing how much of it was me and how much of it was Jon? Would I be OK with that? I’m not entirely sure why I thought we wouldn’t be working together and that I would just sand-bag it, but self-doubt has no logic.
I didn’t mention this to Jon either. Why? Well, not to get all Zen about it, but I recognized these thoughts for what they were—complete and utter self-indulgent bullshit with a capital B. This was the grizzled husk of self-sabotage tapping on the shoulder of my ego and saying: ‘I don’t mean to bother you, but are you aware of the myriad levels of suck sludge you have layer-caked into your very existence? Just thought I’d point it out. Everyone in this building knows that Jon is going to pull you to the sun and you will have nothing to do with your success. Because we’ve all seen you ride and you are the epitome of suckage, cranked so hard to eleven the dial has broken.”
Man, the human brain—my brain—what a trip.
I am exposing all these non-flattering thoughts here here because I’m just trying to illustrate the value of getting older and knowing myself so well. Yes, there are all these fears and doubts and negatives, but it all comes back to knowing this is a situation where I need to step back and remember the kernel of me: I’m not the best. I’m not the worst. And in the end, none of it really matters because all we have is now. All I need to do is remember little Jonny Taco and the sincerity I’d heard in his voice as he’d said:
“I just want to ride it with you.” Picture a Porg face here. Taco Porg face.
Time to give myself some truth-talk. Jon Takao is more aware of how I ride than anyone on this planet. Jon Takao knows I’m frustratingly slow up hills and it has never seemed to bother him. Jon Takao knows it takes me about 70 miles to warm up on any ride and he finds that funny. Knowing all this and how my ride deficiencies would scuttle his Dirty Kanza, Jon Takao STILL wanted to ride with me. And that’s all that counts. Jon Takao is my friend, and friends let friends DK.
We are riding the DK together.
Q: What made you want to ride the Dirty Kanza with me?
A few reasons. You brought me out to RPI and DK and it changed the way I interpret and approach cycling. I’ve wanted to ride DK with you since I rode it the first time, and the only reason it didn’t happen sooner is I wanted to find out what I was capable of at DK. My big goal is a top 10 finish, but knowing what it takes to crack the top ten now is daunting. I’m not sure I’m willing to put in the work. Going 17.7mph for 11hr 40mins is hard—and I imagine it’s just going to get faster—and it’s hard to wrap my head around that. I know that beating the sun is a goal of yours and I wanted to help in any way I could. I feel like I’ve always been unprepared for DK, but have had good luck racing it and was hoping as a team I could bring the luck.
Degree 2: Phd in False Positives
Lightning. Delayed race start. Me riding stronger than I ever have before. That’s the first leg in three sentences and that’s all I’m going to say about it because there isn’t really much to say. We were crushing harder than Gallagher on a watermelon. It was juicy, fast, and deliciously fun.
Except maybe to add this. I was so caught up in our absolute awesomeness on this leg—with me feeling like a could slay flint breathing-Kansas dragons, and Jon being Mr. Fix It and The Most Cheerful Person on Course—that I kind of forgot to drink enough. But that doesn’t come into it until later. Like I said, all we have is now, so let’s look at that.
“I just gotta let you know,” said Jon, shortly after rolling out of checkpoint 1, “that I am BOTTOMLESS today.”
I looked over at him as we turned a corner and onto another straight. He was grinning wildly and extoling the virtues of our average. Things were indeed looking promising and in that moment, it was as though we were caught on some kind of contact high. As though the prairie had waved its optimism wand over our dust-frosted bodies.
“You know what I’ve called us?” he asked, his face cherubic. Expectant.
My heart sank a little as he said this. Was I complaining about my calf cramp too much? Was I being a whiny lil’ arse face already? Was I acting sad? I wasn’t sad, was I?
“Why?” I asked.
“Team Slay All Day.”
Yes! That’s more bloody like it. Slay! Slay! Slay! Buoyed by his confidence we charged on. Our average at this point was excellent. Our spirits high. Crosswinds and tailwinds could do nothing more than bow to our magnificence.
Jon tells me later that he thinks it was psychological and that when I lost the Advils and the Hammer salt tablets on this leg—they jumped out of my top tube bag on a downhill—I psyched myself out and let my calf cramp dictate my fate. It’s kind of hard not to when every time you hit a roller and go up, it spasms. But I’m jumping ahead. At this point of the race, the cramp was just an annoying niggle that would put its hand up every now and again. I had no idea that cramp was going to last for 100 miles. I had no idea I would be slain by the fatted, cramping calf.
Green, green hills everywhere. Rocks and water crossings rolled under our wheels. Jon would spin up to roadside mechanicals and help anybody who needed it, yelling to me as I passed: “I’ll catch up.” He seemed happy as a clam—a man of the people. My calf tingled, but didn’t cripple. Texaco Hill came and went. The wind, whipping over the prairie, holding the dreams of everyone in its firm embrace, blew us this way and that. In mostly positive directions.
Team SAD was still having fun and taking advantage of the tailwind sections. On a long straight with the wind at my back I threw my hands in the air and felt like I was flying.
As we rolled into the second checkpoint, there was only one thought in my mind.
We are absolutely crushing it!
Q: What did you think after the first 100miles?
We’ve got this in the bag—most chill DK ever!
Degree 3: Advanced Degree in Applied Self-loathing (Honors)
For most of my adult life, I’ve had the same recurring dream. The location has changed over the years, but the gist of it is the same. I fly—in my dreams—I can fly.
In my 20s, I could actually get quite a bit of lift, soaring over fields and towns just being in the sky. Like I belonged there. I don’t think it was ever important what I’d fly over it was more about the feeling. I’d never really encounter anyone either—it would just be me, hanging out in the sky, looking at things. Oh, look. There’s Janeen. Sky gal.
But as the years have gone by, I’ve noticed that I’ve become more self-conscious in the dream about how high I am off the ground. I’ve also become aware of people watching me. As a consequence, I now hover barely an inch or two off the ground, and putt-putt around as though the commander of some sad, invisible Segway. It’s incredibly frustrating.
What the actual does this have to do with anything? Well, all through the third, shitty leg of the DK, I putt-putted around the Flint Hills of Kansas as though piloting some invisible Segway, never catching enough lift to fly.
It started off ok—the headwind was a pain but we were booking it along the still-wide and well-groomed gravel. But then I spied something I’d completely forgotten about up the road ahead and my heart sank. The rollers. Slightly un-groomed. Add a 20–30 mph headwind to the equation, plus the oppressive heat and the longest leg of the day, and you’ve got what Rachel Ray would call the perfect recipe for “Janeen Falls Apart at the Seams While Jon Watches On” stew. It’s super hearty. I wouldn’t try it if you’re on a low-sodium diet.
Jon was a machine, of course. We bombed downhills together, jumping and hollerin’ and having a blast, because if there’s anything that the Santa Cruz hills have taught us, it’s how to descend rough stuff. But then we’d hit an uphill and he’d shoot off into space like some kind of Taco rocketship and I’d struggle bus it. Calf cramping and mewling and up and up and up. And down, whee! And up, waah! My brain went into a dark and depressing place. It seethed like a bit of black soul tar, bubbling and popping the ego farts of death into the air. I’d dug myself into a hydration deficit early on, and was still playing catchup. Every bit of food I had with me, I hated with the fierceness of a dying star.
Of all the mistakes I made in the third leg, I think leaving our average up on my computer screen was the biggest. We’d maintain and maintain and then every so often it would depressingly tick down a notch. I was trying not to look but failing, miserably. Three OTHER things were happening simultaneously, and none of them were very Lifetime Movie inspiring.
- The Spanish Harlem Incident
- The apology rehearsals
- The cramp
Bob Dylan hurt me, which is a sentence I never thought I would say, because I love Bob Dylan. But in the third leg of the 2018 Dirty Kanza, Bob Dylan sidled on up to me in some stovepipe jeans and implanted a fat and dusty earworm right in my defenseless brain. But not the whole thing, just one line of one song. A song I know well—correction—a song I normally know well. But at that moment, at that time it might as well have been a Nickelback song, because I didn’t know it AT ALL. And there was a word missing.
Over and over it twisted in my brain.
“I am ______ come and take me.”
Homeless? Was the word homeless? Pedal, pedal, pedal. Earworm onslaught. I am powerless against it. How does the rest of the song go? Commence brain wracking. “Gypsy gal….something something something.” Ugh. Lonely? Is it lonely? The rhythm of it matches the grind of my pedals. I am_____? Weary? Is it weary? I am weary come and take me? No word seems to fit, but I decide with an air of finality that it’s weary. It just HAS to be.
Because I AM weary. Come and take me. For real. Please. Just let this be over.
Mixed in with my Bob Dylan torture session—also a sentence I never thought I would say—were a series of relentless apology rehearsals that would occur every time I had to climb a hill. I’d see Jon up ahead, soaring eagle-like and unstoppable, then clear my brain’s throat and begin.
“Jon. I’m so sorry. I am single-handedly destroying our chances to beat the sun.”
“Jon. I’m so sorry. I suck.”
“Jon. I’m sorry, I am the worst rider on the planet.”
“Jon. I am so sorry I’m the slowest climber in the world.”
Stripped of any kind of polish, raw against the Kansas wind, my apology tour is firing on all four cylinders. Flyers are up, it’s a sold-out show. There are no groupies, and all the back-stage pass gets you is entry to a sad sack depression room. There are no-name brand M&M-like candies, minus all the green ones. All the roadies hate me, and the PA is on the fritz. There are no refunds.
While climbing a hill and practicing the latest “sorry I”, Jon well in front, I stop the apology mid-thought. No. I’m not going to do that anymore.
The day prior, I’d been on the Dirty Kanza Women’s Panel, talking some talk about how we need to make the comment section great again. To stop tearing each other down on social with dumb comments about ‘your saddle’s too high’ or ‘you’re doing it wrong’, and suddenly it hit me. We need to start somewhere else first—we need to start with the comment sections of our own minds.
Here I am climbing a dumb hill that ends very quickly. And there’s Jon slowing down so I can catch up and he doesn’t give a shit about having to do that. Because he WANTED to ride with me. And the only person that thinks I suck in this moment is me. So, hey, why don’t I cut myself some slack?
Stop focusing on the fact that you can’t get off the ground. You’re still levitating, dumbass. You’re still moving. You’re still a human-powered object ratcheting across the plane of the earth and that is incredible.You are flying. Focus on the feeling. You have defeated this feeling before. You shall defeat this feeling again. Feel the lift and the draft. Fly. Be free.
Q: I fell apart in the third leg. Thoughts? How’d you feel?
Feelings by numbers:
- Leg 1: Average Speed: 15mph – We got this
- Leg 2: Average Speed: 14.5mph – Totally doable!
- Leg 3: Average Speed: 14mph – This is going to be close
- Leg 4: Average Speed: 13.7mph. Fuck, math is so hard right now…. shit. This is going to be down to the wire.
Degree 4: Masters Degree in Silver Linings
Coming out of the 3rd checkpoint I couldn’t work out if the Beat the Sun dream was dead, yet, but I think I knew. Instinctively. The average we’d have to maintain sounded reasonable as it clotheslined through our ears, but even me, a math-dummy of the highest order, knew the writing was wall-bound. I sat there, gnawing lifelessly on cold pizza as the headwind gusted in the periphery. Mentally, I was preparing a dead-dream acceptance speech. And the winner is….
We rolled out without really discussing it. As a person who loves words, I’m pretty good at recognizing when you don’t need any. A lull settled. There is a familiarity to the last leg, so I simply focused on tackling the craptastic D roads and their dumb, beat-up climbs. I focused on just making it past those so that I could focus on the glory of hustling for the finish on long, smooth straights with Jon by my side. Or in front of me. Whatever.
I don’t know how far we went before I dared to broach the subject.
“Jon,” I say, feeling a weight lift off my heart just at the anticipation of releasing us from this burden. “I think it’s pretty obvious we’re not going to beat the sun. Let’s just focus on winning Most Fun.”
He smiled at me. OK. It was on.
If you don’t know, Most Fun is a prize anyone can go for. Competing is easy—just let go of your ego and submit to the moment of being where you are, with the people you’re with. Most Fun is hard fought, and battled on the fields of ‘fuck it, we’re rad for even doing this’. Honestly, many people get caught up in the suffering and disappointment of knowing they’re not going to hit their goal and forget that Most Fun is even a podium finish. News reports never mention the Most Fun winners, but I’m here to tell you it can be yours if you dream it.
At mile 180-ish, we saw the Chase the Chaise up ahead and I smiled—we’d been wondering where it was and there was no way we weren’t going to stop. I sat down awkwardly, slouching, and didn’t even have to fake a tired and gritty grimace. Jon effortlessly looked like a million dollars. When I look at that photo, there is such casual randomness to the scene that it makes feel all gooey. Content. I don’t like to spend a second thinking about the sweat embedded in the fibers of that thing. Of all our efforts mingling together in the fabric of a velvety lounge. We are one big sweat canvas. “Still Life with Clay” Artist, Flint Hills, 2018.
As the sun sank lower and lower and with my dream well and truly scotched, all I could do is marvel at the beauty of it sinking lower and lower, a yolk into the earth. “See you next year, asshole,” I said, flipping it the bird. We powered on. This is the chatty leg. Riders in groups of twos and threes noodled by, but from time-to-time, a lone rider would stick for a while, chat and release. Jon did most of the talking. I was in survival mode, and just sat there, not really on anyone’s wheel. Just riding. Listening. Recovering.
I love this leg of the DK. All the people who come out and especially the little kids rushing to hand you a bottle of cold water. A guy offered a can of beer and was surprised when Jon took it, but I wasn’t. I heard the snap and hiss of the can as he popped it open, taking a swig as he rolled along. He was so happy in this moment, and it’s the relentless joy of Jon that keeps me going. I am so glad for his presence. I am so glad that he is here.
The sun slunk off, embarrassed, and while I was a little bummed at this I was also pretty stoked. The end was in sight—literally—as I spied the search lights indicating the exact location of the finish downtown. We chugged toward it, then frustratingly away, then toward it again.
Hills are dumb. There, I said it.
There is one last one before you turn and roll down towards the finish. It’s a tiny little thing, with a turn at the top. We rolled towards it and I stood up out of the saddle with a plan of powering up. Instantly, both quads seized. I made an odd sound and I immediately sat back down. Pedaling slowly, Jon seemed very close next to me in that moment, and I remember thinking to myself, “If he puts his hand on me to push me up this hill, I’m going to turn around and punch him in the damn face.” He told me later that his hand was hovering right at my back, but he somehow sensed impending danger to his visage and so held back.
“What are we going to do at the finish for our photo?” I asked, after we’d crested. “Because I think if I try a victory salute with both hands off the bars, there’s a fair chance I will crash.” We settled on a fist bump at the line, and moments later, there we were, screaming on down the finish chute and into the arms of this race’s creators.
I think the whole day can be summed up in this one image by Linda Guerrette.
Jon, rollin’ into the finish like a total boss.
Me, over his shoulder, looking very confused by the whole situation. Where are we? Stick a fork in me, I’m done.
Later, walking back to the apartment with Colin and Duncan (our support crew), I mindlessly called out everything that was dumb in my world.
Stairs are dumb. Our apartment is on the top floor.
Bodies are dumb. Mine hurts to get up from a chair and I groan doing it.
Bikes are dumb. They’re not really, but sometimes, they are.
Friends? Well they’re just awesome. And while Jon Takao is 100% not dumb, I will say him letting me use the shower first and taking the chance that I would sit down in it and never be able to get up again was risky on his part. But much appreciated. (And never fear, I was able to get up again). What a day. Dear Jon. While I hope you get top ten one day, I’ll ride with you any time. There is no one I’d rather not beat the sun with.
Q: What did you think about the last leg?
After we left Madison I knew we weren’t going to beat the sun, but my hopeless optimism kept saying, “You never know, maybe the wind will switch!” I was beat, low on fluids, and once the stress of Beating the Sun set, I really started to enjoy myself again. We Chased the Chaise; I had one of the best road sodas of my life; and riding down that finishing chute with you was the best!
Degree 5: Certificate of Participation
Every year since the first ride report, I’ve debated about whether I needed to do another race report on my Dirty Kanza. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said before, particularly by me? How can I write something that brings a new perspective to it? Why would anyone want to read the same old story from the same old person about the same old race? Well, maybe I can’t, and you might be sick of all these words over the years, but I can’t stop writing about it, just like I can’t stop doing it. Every year is different, and it still catches me off-guard. I can’t believe it still has the capacity to do that.
I started off by joking about Dirty Kanza being a book, but I’m not really joking because it sort of is. And it’s the best kind of book. The Dirty Kanza is a book that, once you’ve picked it up, you can’t put down. Even if you say you have put it down, I guarantee you still think about it every year when the sign up comes around, wondering, “Hmm, maybe I should read that again?” It’s a book with dog-eared corners and endearingly sincere marginalia. You never know how the Dirty Kanza book is going to end, and you can’t just flip to the last page and see—every year you have to read the whole thing to find out.
Best of all, in this book, you get to always have the last word. The last word on the experience and the pain and what you overcame and what made it special. This is my last word. My word is:
Q: What did you like about your experience with this year’s DK compared with previous years?
I really liked the lack of stress and expectation. I liked helping people as we rode. What I liked the most was that I was able to concentrate on us as a team and not be in my own head the entire race.