The storm before the calm
A crack, a flash, the room strobes with light and something outside thumps. I sit up on the foldout bed and see the shadow of Taco do the same on his throne of an air mattress.
What the…? Is that…?
There’s the unmistakable sound of fat-bellied rain being hurled against a glass sliding door by a howler of a wind. Another flash and Taco’s features are caught in the lightning’s glow. From my bed, I pull the curtain back and peer outside to see a tree frantically waving its pom-pommed arms at me. Gimmee an F! Gimmee an L! Gimmee an E E Flee! Thunder. Lightning. I get up and go to the kitchen. Thirsty.
“This is bullshit,” I half-whisper, my voice low and grumpy as I hunt for a glass in the darkness. “What’s the weather app say?”
Taco answers from the other room. “It says…. This. Is not happening right now.”
Oh, we’re dreaming, I get it. I crawl onto the foldout and pull back the curtain to view the insanity one more time. It is wild. Boisterous. I lay back and sigh. It’s 3am.
“My bike has blown over,” I say into the darkness. Poor Pumpkin Butter. My faithful steed has fallen sideways in the ruckus and now lies gingerly against The Queen’s bike on the balcony outside.
We fall silent. The night does not. It grumbles and fidgets and nervously chews its nails. Wave after wave of warm Kansas rain pounds my wide-awake ego. Thunder again. Lightning again. It is three hours before the start of the Dirty Kanza. The dread sets in. Well, there goes my derailleur. There goes beating the sun. There goes everything. Why even bother? I close my eyes. Dirty Kanza. I hate you. Gonna be a dry year, my ass.
An hour later and I’m up. “Did you hear the storm, Ted? Didya hear it?” He fiddles with his coffee and says that no, he did not, and I’m not sure he actually believes me when I tell him that barely an hour ago the night was wild and crazy and flinging water around like a angry wet thing. How did he not hear it? Turns out that a bedroom with an air-conditioner that puts out a hum like a 747 jet engine leaves a man in a state of blissful ignorance, free to dream sweet syrupy dreams, all night long. I’m immediately jealous. I want sweet dreams. I don’t want what I have in my dread head right now—the memory from last year of glue-like mud married with the singsong sound of my derailleur shuffling off its mortal coil. Me, cold and shivering on a lonely Kansas range.
The Queen steps out of her chambers. She grins at us, eyes wide and excitable.
“Did you hear the storm, Ted? Did you hear it?”
It begins again.
NOTES: Patient exhibits symptoms of intense dread and displays a general ‘this is dumb’ attitude. Attempted to dissuade companions from competing by saying they should “just stay here,” before relenting and muttering to herself: “Let’s just get it over with.” While glimpses of wild and unusual behavior, do not see imminent danger.
Diagnosis/Treatment: Observation only.
Shoots fired. Derailleur alley.
As we approach the first turn onto gravel just out of town, I cast my gaze across the fields to the right. Huh. There must be a sign around here somewhere that says Flood Plain because that’s a plain and it appears to be covered in flood. And we’re about to ride through it. OK. The lead group has already U-Boated their way across and as we turn, the rest of us are delicately jamming to an almost-halt. Choking up the road. I build an ark and look for animals, while trying to not put a foot down in what must only be a couple of inches of water.
I Large Marge barge it.
The standing water doesn’t last for long and we ripple ahead to scurry and puddle-jump our way towards the future. It’s fast and lovely and not too scrappy as we begin to stretch out and find our rhythms in these early miles. My face and body are quickly painted brown and flecked with clods of dirt but all-in-all, conditions seem good. No peanut butter mud. It is a relief.
From above, the roads of Kansas create a haphazard gathering of mostly rectangles, with straight edges occasionally swapped out for wiggly bits to disrupt the Mondrian flow. From ground level and when it’s flat—like at the start of the Dirty Kanza—you can see a long way off. Ninety degree turns, this way and that. I sweep my eyes across the world like a human lighthouse and spy the Technicolored snake of the race well up the road. Left. Right. Leftright. Ants marching. But something is up. There’s a right-hander coming up, which leads to a spot where the flow is spluttering. Not halted, just squeezing to the sides and killing flow. A word instantly flashes across my mind screen: Mud. There must be mud.
Making the turn I realize that this right here—this is this year’s Derailleur Alley and I must immediately pray to the Hanger Gods if I wish to proceed. The mud, while on the cusp of being truly sticky, is not quite on a par with last year but unruly enough to make the field scatter left and right as little derailleur bombs are set off. Bikes and riders mushroom up into single-speed conversation stations. I observe someone working a chain breaker, and attempt to not draw the ire of the Hanger God as I pick my way through.
Don’t draw attention to yourself, Janeen. Just ride conservatively. Don’t change gear right now. Easy on the throttle. I wrinkle up my face in a ‘please don’t break, please don’t break’ grimace and throw one more measly prayer on the great and powerful Hangar God’s altar. There is no other God but you, oh benevolent one. See my offering? I’m prepared this year! I have a chain breaker AND a spare hanger and I’ve got a Magic Bag if you’re into that kinda stuff. Oh, but wait a second. I left the hanger back in Emporia. OK, look. I DO have the chain breaker and I’m ready to use it should you wish to punish me for my indiscretions. I mean I even watched a youtube video on how to do it. Just this one time, just let me slip on through the crowd and…
And then I’m through. I don’t question it. I don’t look back. I just marvel at the road and feel like I’ve somehow gotten away with something. It get’s drier and drier as the miles tick by. It gets dry. I get feisty.
As we hit last year’s Derailleur Alley I rewind my mind to that memory. This is the place where we all put on our bird’s nest shoes and trekked through the mire for three whole miles. Look at that fence over there. Last year I was struggling along beside it, trying to mitigate disaster by tiptoeing on the grass instead of in the middle of the gloop stream. Last year I caught my knuckle on the barbed wire and ripped a chunk of skin off. Last year I slipped around and put a grumpy dent in my shoulder while schlepping my mud-heavy bike through the thick, Kansas paste. Last year was a shit show.
Not this year. This is different. Taco and I had worked out an average the night prior. The average I needed to beat the sun. 14.2mph. Now, finishing before sunset (8:42pm) wasn’t my original goal—I just wanted to get to the end in one piece—but in this moment the Race the Sun mascot donned its little sun suit and rushed to the sidelines of my mind. I watched it jump up and down, waving its little golden arms at me. It looked so happy.
“There’s no reason why I can’t go for you, little Sunny,” I said it, smiling. “Run. Go on! I’ll chase you!” Off it goes.
The gravel cheers beneath my tires. I feel a tingle in my tummy. They have a word for the feeling that’s cuddling against my ribs. I believe they call it chutzpah.
NOTES: Patient teeter-totters between barely contained panic and dizzying elation. Was only slightly worried about this development, until she exclaimed to her bicycle that they were going to “Ride the lightning!” all the way to the finish. Now I’m terribly concerned. Could this be an early sign of multi-personality disorder? Perhaps even Ice Sock Fever? In addition, patient has unrealistic expectations and general misinterpretation of how the world works. But that’s neither here nor there.
Diagnosis/Treatment: Concerned current state of mind is dangerous for wellbeing, but will continue to monitor closely. Searching Medical Journals for mention of something called a “Magic Bag” to verify its legality.
It rubs the lotion on its skin
Checkpoint 1. I have already made it further than last year. Grady calls out my name and waves me over. I’m grinning like a lunatic.
For some reason, I’m deliriously happy. Things are going great. My current average is 14.5mph and even though I know is going to drop while I’m at the checkpoint, it should be easy enough to get back up, right?
“I’ve laid out all your stuff here,” says Grady, point to the regimented display of gels and a PB&J sandwich. Nice presentation. I give it a 10. “Any problems with the bike?”
“Nope.” I begin to nibble on the sandwich while he lubes my chain.
“Taco is CRUSHING it,” he says, switching tasks and filling my bottles. I check my text alerts. Taco came through an hour ago. Yes. Crushing it. Spying a bottle of sunscreen on the table I squirt some in my palm and rub it on my face, realizing my mistake immediately. My face is covered with mud.
“This was probably a dumb idea.” Grady looks up at my comment and tries to stifle a laugh when he takes in the full majesty of my visage. He shuffles off to go get me a wet towel so I can clean the mess off my face and the sunscreen from my eye. Note to self: when you rub pristine white sunscreen into a dirty brown facial canvas, you’ll create brown paste that both protects your skin from harmful rays and exfoliates. The wet towel hits the reset button. Lather up. Go.
“I’m going to maintain 14.5mph, Grady!”
“Yes you are!” he says.
Swing leg over. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Off I go to the claps of encouraging strangers.
NOTES: Patient is obviously delirious. Please advise.
Eat the system
The Flint Hills make their presence known on this leg. They have sharp teeth and ragged fingernails. They snap and jump up at me, chewing my glorious average and I watch it slowly drop. Whatever. When my average hits 13.6mph, my brain reaches to the back of itself and pulls a book from a shelf. It is the “Positivity Pep-U-Up Phrasebook” by A meh Life Coach. Hmm. I don’t think I’ve read this one?
The first page has one white word on a black background. It uses a poncy font. It simply says Believe. Issue one: that is not a phrase. That is a word. Issue two: It’s too vague. Believe what? The hype? The negativity? The next page shows a picture of a hand giving the thumbs up. Beneath that it says: “You’ve got this, Sport.”
What trite marketing garbage. I hurl it from my mind onto the rippling plains. Believe. You know what I believe in? Unicorns. I remember at this very moment I’m wearing unicorn socks. The unicorn is farting a rainbow. I think everyone can agree that it’s symbolically very powerful, in any language. That book was right. I HAVE got this, Sport. I’ve totally got this. I can get that average back in no time. Another up. Down. Up. I swirl around duckin’ and divin’, wheelin’ and dealin’. It’s gonna happen this year. I will beat the sun. It’s a given.
The Kansas rollers are ankle tapping me in an attempt to trip me up, but it’s OK. From rougher open range roads to smoother, more well-maintained gravel we go. I hit it. I crank the throttle. I fly.
“Do you race for Specialized?” I look over at the guy who’s rolled up next to me and make a sound that can only be described as a guffaw. No.
“I just don’t see a lot of Specialized kits around here,” he explains, and I think back to my rationale for choosing this year’s S-Racing kit for the Kanza. In my mind, I wanted to feel legitimate. Like I was better than I know myself to be. I thought it would be a little boost on the day. Thinking on it now, I realize it does just that: makes me look better than I know myself to be.
“I do work for Specialized,” I say, shedding light on the situation. He brightens a little at that and asks if I by chance write? Yes.
“What’s your name?”
While it’s a surprise to be called out on the open range of Kansas, I’m quite buoyed by the recognition. Warran gives me a few compliments about something I wrote two years earlier and his words are a sudden injection of rocket fuel to my ego. I set myself back to the task of getting my mph up. There’s a tailwind now and I’m clawing my way back, bit by glorious bit. This is in the damn bag. Haha! Screw you, Kanza! I’m filled with girlish glee all the way into Checkpoint 2.
“You snuck up on me,” says Grady when I get there, running over to direct me to where he’s set up the work stand and laid out all my stuff. It’s getting pretty hot now and I stand back a little in the shade, noting that when Grady set this station up he was probably also in the shade. He throws Pumpkin Butter in the stand.
“You want a coke?”
“I’m gonna slam a Redbull,” I say and the minute he hands it to me, I do. He points out my snacks and a bottle he’s pre-filled for me and kept cold. I chew on part of another PB&J before stashing half of it in my pocket and planning my hydration strategy for the next leg. It’s nice being fussed over—and anyone who’s ever been crewed by the folks of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike knows, you really do get treated like you’re a superstar.
“This is the longest section, right? 58 miles?”
I stuff an extra bottle into my jersey pocket. 4 bottles should be enough.
“Do you want an ice sock?”
“What’s an ice sock?” I sort of know—Dan Hughes has lovingly described them to me before—but I’ve never seen one in its flesh-colored glory.
Thirty seconds later and Grady walks towards me with a fat section of women’s panty hose, stuffed with ice. He tells me to turn around, before stuffing it up under my jersey and I presume under my bib straps. I have no idea how it stays there, but it does. I turn and smile. Make a shivery ‘ooo’ sound.
“You know you’re my favorite, right?” I say, grabbing my bike and preparing to roll out. “Don’t tell Dan.”
There is laughter. Off and out of town I go. The ice begins to melt. Slowly. The temperature increases and it melts deliciously down, soaking my kit. Since Grady put it in a little to the left, it’s running mostly down my left butt check and down my leg. Dribbling. Magical. Cool.
“I must look like I’m peeing myself,” I think and promptly don’t care. All hail the ice sock. The ice sock is the best sock in the world. Better than a sockeye salmon. Better than Christmas stocking filled with socks. All of them. The hotter it gets, the faster it melts. I dread the moment when it will be gone from my life.
Sidebar: When I was a kid, there was this whole brouhaha about how we held our pencils. I always held mine with my thumb in the usual place, and both index and middle finger on top, using those two to focus all my energies on drawing or getting my cursive perfectly flowy. The faceless pencil purists—for I never really knew who they were, but teachers were their voice—said I was wrong to do that. That it should be thumb with index finger only on top. What a dainty bullshit directive. It was a rort of course. Pretty sure it was just to sell these little triangular gummy-like things that slid onto the pencil and forced you to hold it correctly. While I accepted the rubbery thing on my pencil and complied, the whole business didn’t sit well with me. That little gummy-like triangular thingy really ripped my knitting. So I did the only thing an 8-year old could think of under the circumstances.
I ate it.
Not all at once you understand, and not even all of it. But I definitely ingested great chunks of it just to get it to a state where someone would tell me to ‘throw that thing away.’ I tell you this now because sometimes to beat the system, you must eat the system. Slowly. Bit by bit. The Kanza is no different.
Eat the wind. Eat the scenery. Eat the gravel—sometimes literally because it will be thrown at you by other people’s tires. Eat the sky and the heat and the dust and dirt. Eat your grumpiness and your dread and your pain and your sweat. Why? Because something’s gotta come out the other end of this, and at the end of 200 miles, it might as well be you.
I roll on. I eat the system.
NOTES: Cocky little shit syndrome making itself known. Also fear nibbling at conscience. She is very…interesting. Delusions of grandeur, plus all the classic signs of ice sock fever. It came on very quickly and I was a little alarmed by that. Litigation is imminent as she may say I should have caught it earlier. I’ve only been in front of the review board 3 times, and of those 3 I was exonerated and cleared of all wrongdoing. (Thank you Mary).
Diagnosis/Treatment: Sports legs, another ice sock at next checkpoint. Slip her a note that says: “If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him.” I think that will be a fun experiment.
Things fall apart.
“Man, you are so bad at this.”
There is no need to say this aloud, but I do so anyway. There’s no one around. I am alone. My mph has fallen off the edge of the earth. The endless roll of hills and heat acts like a concussive burst of soul-crushing grenades. I am falling behind.
Did my confidence jumper snag on the bike stand at Checkpoint 2 or something? It has been slowly unraveling from the bottom up and is now nothing more than a woolly crop top. And I know it’s made of wool because it’s hot as hell right now.
I stop to swap the bottle from the third bottle mount under my bike to the top position. As I do so, a guy I’d passed earlier asks me if I’m ok. Yes, thanks. My smile is genuine, but I’m kicking myself a bit. All that work to pass all those people, and there they go. I should ride with them. The stubborn part of me says ‘no’. I’m not feeling social. Just want to ride and talk my brain through this. I’m much better alone in this moment. I push on. The heat rises. It’s way hotter than the forecast 85F. It drags and drags and drags. Bodies begin to appear in the tiny blobs of shade under trees. Whenever I see one, lying there with eyes closed and soaking up the coolness of the shade, I actually feel better. I pep up a little. This headwind is nothing. Simply nothing. Ignore it.
Dead turtle. Crushed armadillo. A buzzard up ahead, pulling at the gizzards of some road kill. “Carrion my wayward son…” The stupid earworm that had jumped into my head two days ago while riding in Lawrence comes back. Kansas. Of course it would be Kansas.
There are more people under trees and I think, no. Never. I have plenty of water and a belly full of self-loathing. I can make this. I can make it. The sudden appearance of pavement catches me off-guard. “Oh wow,” I think, “I must be close to Madison. Relief. Joy. Excitement. It is nearly done. This stretch is nearly over. I’m going to find something else to eat at the checkpoint and I’m going to have a coke and I’m going to swap one of these bottles for just water and I’m going to cuddle another ice sock and I’m going to hug a stranger and I’m going to sit down and did I mention the coke? That coke is going to be the best thing I’ve had all day.
I am back onto dirt. What? My Garmin tells me the good news—Madison is still 15 miles away. Argghh, Kanza!
It’s OK. It’s OK. Just break the distance into a lunch ride at work. 15 miles. That’s the Willow Loop, right? You can do that. You do that all the time. You’re just doing the Willow Loop on a shit hot day. Now 11 miles. You’re just doing the Llagas loop now. It’s fine. You’re nearly done. Llagas is easy.
Bodies under trees. Wind shoving at our shoulders, trying to pick a fight. For the first time I think I might quit when I get to Madison, I just feel so sick. So beaten. Don’t want to eat. Don’t want to drink. This is stupid. The heat is making me frown and part of me wants to melt while the other part wants to be blown away. To be lifted by the Kansas wind, twisted and wrung of life until I explode to ashes and am gone.
There’s no way I can beat the sun now, I think. I pick up the pace. The wider the spigot, the faster the drips.
NOTES: !!! They are not paying me enough.
Diagnosis/Treatment: Your guess is as good as mine. This might have been covered in the final semester at community college, but I dropped out before then.
All the pretty Sunflowers
Everyone knows that sunflowers turn toward a light source. They lift their heads in expectation of a glorious feed of warmth and life. As I roll into Checkpoint 3, all the little sunflowers of Sunflower Outdoor and Bike turn my way. They have been crewing for multiple people all day and I am the last piece of business. In this moment, I see the advantage of being their final rider—everyone will spoil me. All eyes on me. I am the light! I am the power!
“I have fallen apart!” I say as I pull up and swing my leg off the bike. Grady takes it.
I sit in the shade and someone gives me a Coke.
“Ice sock?” My eyes go wide and I beg for it to be laid across my burning shoulders. Shivering with coke-laced delight, I stare off into space. I hear that Ted has won. I wonder if Taco has finished. They tell me everyone was hurting at this checkpoint. I stare off into space some more, until I become aware of Grady walking towards me carrying a plastic baggie containing a PB&J sandwich. I’d packed that thing myself, just last night. It was fresh then. Cold. This was the last of three.
“Get that thing away from me,” I mutter and he stops in his tracks. Makes a face. Lowers it.
“What do you need?” he asks. “What can I get you?”
He frowns. They don’t have watermelon. “What about pickle juice? I’ve got pickle juice.”
“I hate pickles,” I say, probably a little too forcefully judging by the apologetic look he gives. Anyone who knows me well knows my feelings on the nature of pickles and how I believe they molest sandwiches with their evil juices. Grady is only just being made aware of this hate.*
“You have to eat something,” he says, disappearing out of view. He returns with some sort of cold burrito and I watch as he peels the foil off one end of it before handing it to me.
“I don’t think I can eat that,” I say, but I put down my coke and begin to nibble. Stare into space. A couple of slow and thoughtful bites and I hand it back.
“Would you like me to clean your glasses,” asks Sara B and I say yes, somewhat delighted that someone would do that.
Stare into space.
“I’m just going to lube the shit out of your chain.” OK Grady. OK.
Stare into space.
Moments later here he comes again. Walking towards me again, this time holding something that makes my eyes go wide.
“You want this?” He’s grinning.
Magic Bag! It’s the one I’ve had stashed in my top tube bag ALL DAY LONG! The one I’d forgotten about, which is the Magic Bag’s secret power.
A handful of gummy worms, Swedish fish, and Sour Patch Kids are unceremoniously shoved into my freaked out gob by my own crusty hand. I chew. I rest. The order of all this is probably wrong, but I’m telling you everything because at some point I remember I am me. I stand up.
“Ok,” I say, smiling. “I’m back!”
Lights on, Garmin charging on the mount, I roll out for the last leg. My dreams of chasing Sunny are long gone, which makes it easier in a way. I can just push for the sake of pushing. This is going to be fun.
NOTES: I read something that some patients with Ice Sock Fever are capable of performing certain activities while not fully awake. Sleep-driving, making food, dialing ex-boyfriends etc. I think we have veered into this territory. Not sure what to do. Left a message on Dr. Oz’s service.
Diagnosis/Treatment: More cowbell? All the medications I’ve seen cause excitability, and I think that’s the last thing we need.
Things are difficult. Do difficult things
I could talk about the last few steep and stabby climbs here, and how I said to myself “I didn’t come to Kansas to walk up hills” and made sure I stuck to that. I could talk of how the heat slowly ratcheted down and the wind got a little more reasonable. It would be easy to lament my inability to get that Race the Sun print, and to tell you that the lifting of that ‘race for it’ burden made me settle into a steady tempo and just ride. That it was lovely to let that go. Buh-bye, Sunny! I could describe the creek I wanted to lie down in (though I didn’t), and how trees were still claiming bodies with their shade nets (but not mine). Of how small alliances formed to get the dead-Garmin people to the finish. The finish, with its beer and bourbon and hugs and sudden realization that oh yeah, my legs do actually hurt. I could talk about all those things. And I guess I just did, but…
The Kanza is a shape-shifter of the highest order. You do your best to predict its mood and train, and plan, and plot, and count things out on tables, and be as absolutely prepared for it as you can be. But the Kanza will do what the Kanza wants with you. On the day. You can’t control that. The only thing you can control is how you’re going to handle it. It is a 200-mile ride inside your own mind and sometimes you won’t like what you find. There’ll be questions and answers. Love and hate. You’ll swing wildly from mood to mood and from truth to lies and back to truth again. You’ll walk to the edge of want and maybe you’ll decide that it’s not worth it that year, and that’s OK. And sometimes you won’t even get to decide—the Kanza will say “I am the decider!” and break your bike in an attempt to break your spirit and that’s another test entirely. Does it piss you off? Does it make you cry? Does it make you feel like the tallest person on earth? Who are you? Did you find yourself out here?
I think what I love most about the Dirty Kanza is that it accepts that my definition of racing is simply to race against myself. To see what I can do. I want to walk to the edge of DNF and say NFW. I want to see what the tipping point of me is. Where my raggedy edges are. It would be easy to go ride 200 miles where I live (although easy is maybe not the right word), but I won’t get the loud and ego-boosting spectacle of the finish chute in downtown Emporia. I won’t experience the feeling I get from the goddawfully shittastic, wonderfully magnificent, terribly dreadful, gut-bustingly thrilling, Dirty-frickin’ Kanza. The Kanza throws curve balls and fast balls. It dips you in mud like a choc top. It blows you around like an insignificant bit of fluff on the prairie. I love it. I hate it.
See you next year, you majestic bastard.
NOTES: What a kook. I gave up my spot at the symposium on Disaffected Dissonance in Introverted Megalomaniacs for this?
Diagnosis/Treatment: Patient obviously has Stockholm Syndrome. This race is nuts. They have created a monster by allowing her on the podium. She should be committed. Extraction teams note—you can lure her into the van with an ice sock, if the conditions are right.
* After learning of my pickle prejudice, Grady hid a pickle in the console of my rental car. Unfortunately, Collin cleaned it out before I saw it. But I just want to acknowledge the joke. Because that’s a good one.