This is for you.
And so the mud caked you and raked you, it stuck and it clung. It formed five-pound pie plates under each foot, and you squelched and stomped, left right, left right. It weighed you down worse than a mortgage, heavier than Thor’s hammer. A carefully constructed and grotesque glue prank—set by an antagonistic and oddball god—it rode up your heels like ants ascending a sugarcoated tree. This mud, this muck, this god-forsaken goo—it set its mind to crest the cuff of your shoe and infect your carefully chosen socks with pure Kansas gunk.
You slogged and you heaved and you lamented that none of your training for the Dirty Kanza had included lugging your bike three miles through a shit pit. Carefully, quietly, you hugged fence lines and slid through soggy, agitated grass. Let barbed wire nick a knuckle once and didn’t care. You stepped over a snake that looked dead and apologetic for being there, a lone creature with the sense to die rather than continue. You scraped your sole on fence wire and grabbed sharp rocks to pick out cleats until finally you emerged to familiar, firm ground. Gravel. And then? Then, it was back on.
‘I got this,’ you thought. ‘I feel great. I feel fine. By mile 77, I will have turned this around.’ And you rode with purpose, and frenzied but calculated determination, and began the slow and steady task of picking off people who were simply better at walking through mud than you. Yes, this was all salvageable. Yes, you could get this back. Yes. Water. Mud. Slush. Whee!
You rode. Miles sloshed by. Water flew. Mud rejoiced at your passing, seeming to cheer as you battled on. You walked again, you rode again. MPH began to creep back up. And then….
There was a sound, rude and sudden. Of metal screeching through a tiny tear in the mechanical universe. A grind and crunch and this is what dreams being crushed in Fate’s fist sounds like. Instantly, you stop pedaling to brake and balance precariously before putting a foot down. It was the hopeless, pathetic cry of a derailleur twanging a spoke as it ripped your heart from its moorings in the harbor of your chest.
There was disbelief on your face as you stood and gawped at the scene. A heart is a lump of muscle that resides in your chest and thuds, four beats to the bar. That’s just anatomy. But in that moment, you discovered it also had the capacity to squeeze out of your body and dribble down, down, down to lay sad and pathetic in the mud at your feet. You looked at it. It looked back at you, ventricles weeping, as if to say:
“I am disappoint.”
You felt as though you’d just been mugged on that windswept Kansas prairie. Robbed in broad daylight. Something had been taken from you, and that something was choice. The choice to go on. The option to decide at some point, much much further in the ride, if you would continue at all. Now you will never know if you could’ve finished this. You will never know. And you will not ever get to make that choice.
Lay your burden down. Warm your hands by the devastation fire blazing in your belly. Fan the flames of that wildfire of grief. All feelings are valid in the kiln of the Kanza. Acknowledge. Accept. Free yourself from it. Take a piece of paper and write the word DISAPPOINTMENT on it in bold, firm letters. Now Viking funeral that shit. Set it ablaze and watch it incinerate. Move on.
This is for you.
And so you stood, fresh and sad-showered, just past the finish banner at the end of the chute. And you waited and waited and waited for your babies to come home. Each grimy, splattered and shattered face a reminder of joy and hope and momentous achievement of this tribe of yours. You saw it again and again and marveled at humans. At their capacity for pain and suffering in the midst of elation. They return from their battle. They return to love.
You clutched the steel barrier and leant over as each new face rolled through. Is that him, is that her? Who is that? You practiced taking photographs, of stranger after jubilant, mud-faced stranger, just so you wouldn’t screw up the finish photo that you really wanted—the one of Taco. And each time you checked an image to see if the angle was good, or a head was cut off, you saw in the camera the same moment and thought writ large on every rider’s face: relief, joy, magnificence.
It made you shiver as you waited—the anticipation of the finish. It swung around and hit you in the gut suddenly; just the remembrance of that feeling you felt yourself, just one-year prior. Of the earthquake of emotion and knowing that soon, very soon, your friends would be able to pluck it from the air and fold it into their memories forever. For one, Taco, it would be the first time. The first Kanza finish. This knowledge overwhelms you. You experience an intense influx of joy-juice, mixed with a swell of unexpected pride.
‘I’m going to cry when he turns up,’ you thought, and you could feel the sting in the back of your throat already. The welling. You were fine with it. And then you heard the announcer call the King, and Mothra’s muddy visage flew by you and you were relieved and excited and turned to see him promptly swallowed up in the frenzy of the finish. He made it. He survived, muddied and battle worn. One down, two to go.
You waited, camera clutched tightly in your hands. Firm. Any minute now. The clock ticked, red numbers flashing over and over and time dribbling away. And then, yes, now, here he comes! He was coming down the chute, towards the finish, all grin-swept and interesting. He was coming down the chute and you raised the camera purposefully and carefully to your face, to your eye. ‘This is important,’ you thought. This is the moment. You want him to relish it. To soak it up. He will need this photo. He will live it now, and relive it later.
Once it clicks and the memory is committed to pixels, you rush madly to the end of the chute and giddy-up jump, and you’re squealing and jumping up and down like a little girl and wow, you don’t think you’ve ever really done that before in your life but you’re just so damn happy and proud and then he’s in front of you and you hug the shit out of his muddy form and congratulate him and he’s smiling, still smiling, always smiling. World’s most cheerful award, that’s Taco.
“You did amazing, you came 28th!”
“I think you’re 3rd in your age group!”
“You beat the sun.”
You walked with him as he slowly wheeled his bike over to rack it beside Mothra’s inside the Sunflower popup store, and the joy was just so all-encompassing and blanket-warm you simply stood back and watched as Mothra and Taco talked and congratulated and shared tales. And it was as though you were watching a film called “Most Happiest Superfun Joy Gleetime Movie” and you snapped some photos and were glad to just to be near them in this moment. You basked in it. Attempted to bathe. Hoped it would wash you clean. You stood in awe of these souls and what they had achieved.
But there. A small crack opened at the bottom of your joy screen and a sliver of jealousy blinded you in an unexpected flash. They will always have this, these two. They will always have this year—this most epic of years—that they finished and you did not. That you allowed this thought to interrupt the Most Happiest Superfun Joy Gleetime Movie shames you, and the shame creeps through your cheeks as the crack tries to pry itself wider. But you reach out and you SLAM THAT SHUTTER DOWN. THIS IS NOT THE TIME NOR THE PLACE. You breathe and let the feeling pass, and slowly coax the happy back to the space. As you walk to find something to eat with Taco, you hear the announcer call The Queen home. Three. Three of three are home. There is much rejoicing.
Lay your burden down. Your joy and pride for your friends’ triumph is intense and pure and true, but you must acknowledge you picked idly at the festering sore of jealousy, and you let it, you know, kinda infect you a little. Look it square in the eye. This feeling is valid, but ultimately, destructive. Let it flow through you, as water in a stream through the mountains of your mind, out out and away. Confess it to those you love, if you must. Acknowledge that to ignore it gives it power to consume you. Now write it—JEALOUSY—on a boisterous and cheerfully inflated balloon. Write it on a few balloons. Now take those balloons out into the woods or a field and dispatch your jealousy in an explosion of air and balloon brain matter. BOOM! Move on.
This is for you.
And so you don’t feel like you deserve to wear the shirt, or to even talk about any part of your ride, short as it was. Those are your feelings and you can’t help them, though you suspect they are somewhat irrational. You avoid people in hallways on your first day back at work. Those who know what your dreams were. Those who know it didn’t go to plan. The mopey face pulls at the hem of your consciousness, picking at threads and flicking bits to the floor. You unravel a little, and your frayed edge shows. An intense sadness infects your brain and you hem and haw and don’t make eye contact. You feel like a fraud, and you know it’s stupid to feel this way.
“Lucky I didn’t train at all for it at all,” you say, deciding this will be the joke you make to anyone who asks. But you also hear the sadness and the anger in your voice and it makes you feel petty and small and ashamed of your reaction. You pick up your gear to go ride at lunch and someone asks to ride with you and you say, No. Sorry. You want to ride alone. You’re aware of how that looks. That it’s a dead giveaway that you’re being childish and a sad trombone and ‘it’s not fair’ and call the wambulance. But that’s exactly why you go by yourself and you can’t stop the avalanche. It’s half-way down the mountain.
You ride and you don’t remember it, your legs a whirlwind of anger and just thinking the whole thing over in your mind is like a match to tinder. No closure. You have no closure. Your legs are full of energy and power and you have nowhere to let it out. What a waste of fitness. What a waste. You plan your revenge as a seething pit of indignity bubbles away. You plot how you will take that race by the scruff of its neck next year and fillet it and lay it down prior to dancing upon its flinty corpse.
“Are you angry with me?” Taco asks, days later, and you are instantly and deeply ashamed that for even one second, he thinks this. That he somehow worries his glorious achievement offends you in some way.
“What?!, No!” you fluster, and explain that in the process of exploring your mind space you are admitting your emotional weaknesses and it shames you, but is no reflection on anyone but yourself. You can’t explain your pride in him for finishing, and that you’re secretly taking immense pleasure in the knowledge that you introduced him to this secret and unbelievably amazing cult of the Kanza. One that you hope he’ll forever be a part of, now that he’s experienced it.
No. Your anger is more a reflection on weakness of self, you think. After all, it was you who left the chain breaker on the TV cabinet the night before the race. You’re probably partly to blame for the derailleur breaking,though that section did look totally rideable and you’d no doubt ride it again, given the choice. But perhaps next time you’d stop and clean the chain before continuing? And it was 100% you and your very strutty ego that’d pre-written the Kanza script in your head before you’d even lined up on race day. The perfect end to close the loop. How could you be so stupid to think you had any control as to how the day played out?
“I’m angry at a lot of things,” you tell him. “And all of them are me.”
Lay your burden down. Touch the cheek of your anger and feel the surge and the thrum of it beneath the skin. Let it murmur hot and heavy through your brain and veins to flush and inflame. Acknowledge its presence—this feeling is valid. Now make a batch of sugar cookies, using only the letters A and N and G and E and R. Decorate. Eat your ANGER. Eat it all up. Every last crumb. Invite others to eat bits of it too. “But won’t I have a stomach of anger?” Yes. And at DK200 2016, you will unleash it on the prairie. But for now, move on.
And all you know are words. All you know are words and how you feel and so you share them with everybody because you’re fascinated at your reaction to this—your first ever DNF. You are raw and exposed and you share how you feel, wrong as that instinct may be, with everyone. You confess your jealousy, your anger, your disappointment, because no-one ever talks about it and you want to know how people cope. You’re selfish and pushy. You are a toddler kicking on the floor of the K-Mart as your bemused parent watches on. But I want to ride the donkey. You promised me!
And all you know are words. Words and riding your bike. So you do both. The words you choose come slowly, and you are careful about how they are placed next to each other in a line. As you write, you realize the story you thought you were denied—your glorious and epic Dirty Kanza tale—was there all along. That what you first thought was small and insignificant gave you a great gift. Not just of being at the finish to experience that field of humanity who made it through the battlefield that day, but the gift of acceptance. What happened was always—will always be—the story. What happened was Life reminding you that you are a cork on the ocean. Life is a series of events that happen, and the only thing you can control is how you choose to respond to them.
You ride it to a logical conclusion. You do it alone. On a Saturday morning, before the sun comes up, you head out and ride. You ride all day and into the night and you feel fine. You ride to let it go. To suffer and to ponder. To reconnect with yourself. You find your closure. And it may be selfish, and it may be stupid, but it is yours.
We are selfish people, capable of great things. We are capable of forgiveness and love and of withstanding great pain. For those who finished the Kanza this year, I am in awe of you. I raise my glass, I doff my hat. I revel in the glory of you. Yours is a monumental achievement no one can take away from you. I wanted it. I shall have it again. But for now, I shall humbly lay my burden down in front of you.
This was for me.