It’s 6 p.m. May 29, Dirty Kanza eve, when I walk into the open door of Jouko (“yoko”) Haapanen and Robin Kay’s vacation rental with three bottles of beer.
The Ontario couple is here to compete in the 200-mile bicycle race that starts and ends in Emporia, 40 miles away.
Jouko is riding, Robin is his one-woman support crew, and I am covering the race — but the next 36 hours will push us all beyond our normal limits.
Riders will be injured. Bicycles will fall apart. I will be waiting for an ambulance.
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We will all experience adversity and triumph together. Because to survive in this American outback, as the first settlers learned 160 years ago, you have to help one another and you have to be tough.
But on this night, we are fresh with anticipation.
This is Jouko and Robin’s first Dirty Kanza. The couple have ridden endurance races and gravel grinders before, but never 200 miles in one day.
But asked if they think Jouko can complete this race, where finish rates have been as low as 19 percent and never more than 70 percent, both nod their heads.
“Oh, ja, ja. Oh, ja, ja,” says Jouko, a native of Finland. “I won’t quit.”
Robin smiles at him and says, “The only way to get home is to finish the ride, because …”
Jouko interrupts: “I’m not calling you.”
Robin: “I’m not picking up — there’s no reception!”
Robin has no desire to ride a 200-mile race but it’s been on Jouko’s bucket list for a couple of years. It’s already been more of an adventure than the couple imagined.
They signed up not knowing where Kansas was. They knew it was in the Midwest, like Illinois. Then they discovered it would take three days to get there.
“The appeal of the race,” Jouko says, “is the landscape and the epic-ness of it. When you read about it on social media, you go ‘Wow.’”
A short hour-and-a-half loop around their rental home has given them a taste of the isolation they will face. “We saw one car,” Jouko says. “Literally all you hear is the crunching underneath your wheels. When you’re going upwind the wind is so loud, but when you’re going downwind it’s silent.”
Just before 6 a.m. May 30 under a grayish-lavender sky in front of the marquee lights of the Granada Theatre, local roller derby girls hoist placards to sort the riders by anticipated starting times.
Many of the nation’s elite endurance cyclists stretch across the front row behind the “12 hours” sign.
None of them will be back in 12 hours. Several, including last year’s winner, won’t even finish.
But they don’t know that yet, and the banter is light and easy.
Professional cyclist Rebecca Rusch of Ketchum, Idaho, has won the women’s division the last three years and is back to defend her title. Rusch says her first Dirty Kanza hooked her.
“It’s this really cool juxtaposition of your tribe of people that line up to go out on the same adventure with you, but also there are moments when you are completely alone, and it’s like the ‘Wizard of Oz.’ You are out in the middle of nowhere and thinking, ‘Am I ever going to get back to Emporia?’”
Some 10 yards back, Jouko is perched on his bike in the “14 hours” group, feeling relaxed. Long rides are easier in that regard, he explains. There’s no pressure to get off to a fast start like in shorter races.
Race organizer Jim Cummins stands near the broadcast booth, his smile tight when I ask about course conditions. On Memorial Day we had surveyed the first stretch of the race together; the road that would lead riders out of town was under water.
The road is open this morning, but creek crossings are high. Cummins has Jeep crews out to reroute riders in two places where the water is impassable.
“They are minor zigzags, no big deal. But the riders are going to encounter some wet and muddy conditions today.”
This is the 10th running of the race Cummins founded with a buddy in 2006 with a field of 38 riders. Today the Dirty Kanza is considered the premier gravel grinder in the world.
The race is legendary for its grueling conditions.
“Kansas is notorious for wind and heat,” Rusch says. “The wind can be soul-crushing.”
The terrain is deceptively punishing, with nearly 9,000 feet of climb and “gravel” that is really coarsely crushed rock — “small boulders” is how returning Top-10 finisher Yuri Hauswald of Petaluma, Calif., describes them.
But Hauswald, Rusch and the rest of the field of 1,500 riders who have journeyed from 45 states and five countries to ride the 200-mile course and the 100-mile “half pint” can’t get enough.
Online registration in January sold out in just over 24 hours.
At Mile 21 about an hour into the race, I huddle with freelance photographer Dave Leiker of Emporia and our volunteer driver, Bill Heins, on the south side of Heins’ red 2010 Jeep Rubicon. The north wind is blasting; it is colder than any of us dressed for.
Thinking of the riders in their thin spandex stifles any complaints, but we are growing nervous: Where are the riders? The leaders should be here by now.
Finally, another photographer shows up with an explanation. Deep mud just outside of Emporia is forcing riders to carry their bikes for up to five miles, slowing the pace tremendously.
When the first riders finally appear, mud is caked on their shoes and bikes. Heins shouts out place positions: “You’re fourth … you’re fifth …”
As gaps open up, riders ask, “How many minutes?”
Heins estimates their lag time behind the rider in front of them, “About three.”
When the rider count gets up in the 20s, Heins stops shouting placement and offers words of encouragement instead. The photographers and I follow suit. “Good job!” we call out to each laboring rider.
Often, the words produce a smile or a thumbs-up gesture and a “Thank you!”
All day long the mud and rocks tear at the bikes.
Derailleurs snap off and sidewalls rip open. Riders help one another make repairs or share extra tire tubes.
Out on the course, cut off from cell service, it does not feel like we writers, photographers, drivers and athletes are playing distinct roles; it feels like we are pulling together on the same strenuous but thrilling journey.
That point is brought home most sharply at a creek crossing at Mile 27. A cyclist, seeing we were in a Jeep, calls out, “There’s a rider down a half mile back; he’s hurt pretty bad.”
We drive back to find the rider, who has taken a hard fall, sitting in shock at the side of the road, bleeding. A rancher who has volunteered to take the injured rider’s bike tells us an ambulance is on the way.
Bill, our driver, got a jacket out of his Jeep to wrap around the shivering rider, and Dave, the photographer, sat on the cold ground next to him. We agree to wait until the ambulance arrives.
As the ambulance pulls up, we watch a different rider fly into a barbed wire fence 20 yards away; he hit a mud puddle coming down a hill that caused his brakes to fail at the bend in the road.
I jog down to help him pick his jersey free from the barbs and examine his cuts. They aren’t deep, but one of the ambulance crew, who also witnessed the crash, runs over as well to check on him.
The second rider continues on; the first is transported to a hospital. (He contacted us the next day to thank us for waiting and let us know he only needed stitches).
In the checkpoint towns and Emporia, organizers, volunteers and business owners also stretched themselves to the breaking point over the course of the very long day.
Bryan Williams of Emporia, manager of the Granada Theatre where the race began, opened the historic building shortly after 5 a.m. to let people use the bathrooms.
Williams stayed at the theater until the last of the spectators were clearing out around 2 a.m. the next day, then drove to Wal-Mart to buy food to cook for the breakfast crowd at a restaurant he and his wife recently opened in Cottonwood Falls, Keller Feed and Wine.
At the finish line in Emporia, spectators ringing cowbells lined the finish chute three deep cheering on the first wave of finishers. At midnight when I left, several dozen were still ringing in the stragglers.
Rusch says that fan support sets Emporia apart and means the world to the riders. “At a lot of races you come in after a long time and it’s just crickets, and you have to pat your own back.”
Haapanen said hearing the cowbells gave him goosebumps. “It’s goofy, but it really matters.”
Organizer Cummins has also forged cooperative relationships with ranchers who own the pastures along the course.
“Last year I got a call in the middle of the race from a spotter saying there had been a stampede and some cattle broke through a fence,” he said.
The following day, Cummins drove to the site, found the ranch foreman with a half-dozen cowboys sorting cattle from different herds that had gotten mixed up. Cummins introduced himself, apologized and wrote a check to pay the cowboys’ wages and the cost of repairing the fence.
His good will paid off. This year, for the first time, the course included a few miles of private road.
As we intersect the course at Mile 50, the first water station, on our way to our next stop, several cyclists are sitting on broken bicycles. Their faces are creased with fatigue and streaked with brick-colored mud. Others call out, “Are you with the organizers? I need to be picked up.” Even the ones still on their feet looked dazed as they trudged through peanut butter-thick muck with their bikes on their shoulders.
I try to text Richard Pool, a rider from Lenexa I had interviewed two weeks earlier. I had planned to catch him and Haapanen at Mile 101, at the top of a steep uphill S-curve. No service.
After the race I learned that Pool, who abandoned the race last year because of severe diarrhea at Mile 125, was forced out of the race at almost exactly the same number of miles because of a tactical error.
Pool did not pick up lights from his crew at the first checkpoint in Madison, thinking he would get to the second checkpoint before dark and get lights there.
But a second section of mud and having to carry the bike after Madison was like a “punch in the face” after thinking he was done with the mud after Leg 1.
That delay combined with a 20-minute tire repair and a long wait for volunteers to replenish empty water jugs at the second watering station meant he wouldn’t be able to get to the second checkpoint in daylight.
“There was no way I was going to ride an hour and a half in the dark in who-knows-what conditions,” Pool said.
Even though he failed to finish, Pool said, “I’m super not bummed about it, because I don’t feel like my body let me down this year. It was a poor decision not to pick up lights ... but it was a great day, even though I didn’t finish.”
For Haapanen, the rolling hills around Mile 175 were the toughest part of the race. “My knees and hips were getting quite sore. I love rollers … but when you are fatigued they can take the mojo out of you. Every time you get to the top you think, ‘I hope this is the last one,’ and then you see another one and it’s ‘Oh, crap, here we go again.’”
Robin Kay had just as long and stressful a day, logging 310 miles in her car driving between the rental home to pick up supplies and the checkpoints.
“It’s much harder being the support crew than racing,” she said.
By Leg 3, Rebecca Rusch was in third place and knew she would not be able to defend her crown. She had no problems with her bike, but her body was not in top form after an illness on a recent trip to Asia.
Her back was aching. “To be honest I thought a few times, ‘If times if my bike would just break, I could stop’” she recalled.
But it was Yuri Hauswald that gutted it out the hardest.
Leaving Checkpoint 2 in Cottonwood Falls, Hauswald knew he was in second place but did not know the leader, Michael Sencenbaugh, was 22 minutes ahead of him with just 50 miles left.
“I’m glad I didn’t know that because it would have been demoralizing. It would have seemed impossible,” Hauswald said.
On a hill 25 miles outside Emporia, a photographer shouted out, “He’s got 10 minutes on you,” Hauswald recalled. “I didn’t know I was gaining ground on him so quickly.”
By that point, Hauswald was passing 100-mile cyclists, congratulating them as he went around. But two miles outside Emporia, he saw a figure that did not look like a 100-mile racer.
“I rolled up next to him and said, ‘You’re in the 200 right?’ He said, ‘Yup.’ I said, ‘You’re the leader, right?’ and he was like ‘Yup.’”
When the two turned onto the campus of Emporia State University just less than a mile from the finish line, Hauswald made his move, opening a gap, but Sencenbaugh was able to close it.
“I was bummed. I thought I had burned my last match,” Hauswald said. “You don’t know if your body is going to give you anything else.”
The finish electrified the crowd: Hauswald turned into the chute one wheel ahead of Sencenbaugh and the two sprinted to a photo finish. Hauswald won by half a second.
“Michael deserves all accolades for his performance, but Yuri was unbelievable,” race organizer Cummins said. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a cyclist dig as deep as he did coming down Commercial Street at the finish.”
Hauswald credits his wife, Vanessa, who flew out from California to surprise him the night before the race, with giving him the extra motivation he needed.
“My wife is four years out from battling Stage 4 colon cancer and has been through a tremendous amount. No pain that I’ve ever endured on the bike can compare to the pain that she’s had to deal with,” he said.
He was also cheered on by a stranger he met three days before in Emporia.
A group of locals were fishing on a bridge and one of them approached Hauswald, who was scoping out the flooding, and asked if he were one of the Dirty Kanza riders. They chatted for 10 minutes.
“That same dude was at the finish line, he looked like a farmer, maybe 60, his hands were beat up and arthritic and he was nearly in tears. He brought his girlfriend over and was so excited for me and I didn’t even know him,” he said.
The next several hours were a bonfire of joy as cyclists rolled across after 14, 15, 16, 17 hours of struggle. Finishers climbed a ladder to sign the finishers wall on legs that wobbled like a newborn calf’s.
A tall male rider with the US Military Adventures team hugged a petite young woman from Golden, Colo. The pair had started the race as strangers and formed a bond of friendship along the route: “It was great swamping with you!” “Thanks for keeping me going when I wanted to quit.”
The crowd erupted into the loudest cheers of the night when local hero and four-time champion Dan Hughes of Lawrence came in sixth.
Young kids wearing bicycle helmets stretched over the top of barricades trying to high-five Rebecca Rusch when she cruised down the finish chute to claim third place in the women’s division.
“It was so emotional,” she said. “My back was hurting, and all these people wanted a picture and I felt like I was going to fall over, but if they are gonna wait for me, it would be wrong to not share that moment.”
Rusch said she was proud just to have finished, especially when some of the top men in the field didn’t, and happy that the sport is drawing more strong women competitors.
Asked if she’ll be back next year, she joked that she’ll have to forget some of the pain first, then said she and Hughes talked about riding a tandem next year.
Haapanen, who was the top non-American finisher and eighth in his age group, said his biggest challenge after the race was walking. “Robin wanted to take the bike but I wanted to use it to lean on,” he said.
Moments later, he collapsed into the car, and asked to go to McDonald’s, where he ordered a Big Mac, two large fries and a Coke.
“Not my proudest meal. I was out of my head,” he said.
I had my own euphoric moment when Leiker turned his camera around and showed me the shot he captured at the finish line: Hauswald wide-eyed and screaming in disbelief. The tension I had felt all day chasing the story snapped and I blurted “Shut up!”
Because that’s how the Dirty Kanza makes you feel.