We kept a nice tailwind from the north as we rolled toward Eureka. Some of the last few miles into town were even downhill, which felt great. By Eureka, the crowd had thinned, and I found my wife-slash-support crew easily this time. My chain was in dire need of lube by this point, so after the usual refills and a quick application of lube to the drivetrain I was on my way. Very uneventful stop.
Miles 100 through 120-ish were OK. I was riding either with the same tailwind we’d had all morning, or I was riding with a brisk but tolerable left-to-right crosswind. But the heat was starting to rise; blue mirages started to appear on the roads ahead. I actually saw a vulture circling. The heat and dry wind started to take their toll on my hydration somewhere around mile 120. That was about when I peed for the last time all day. Somewhere around mile 140 I took my last drink of Skratch (from a water bottle) or water (from my hydration pack). Then I entered a dark place. A dark, cotton-mouthed place. A wrestling match with a bicycle in a field of heated talcum powder. My tires rolled over a flattened, dry snake carcass. I was temporarily relieved by a four-wheeler driving dude hanging out water bottles at about mile 143. He limited me to one bottle, which was reasonable, and I poured it into my own bottle, thanked him profusely (I may have offered him a kidney. Things get fuzzy here), and took advantage of a descent eastward.
I descended a couple hundred vertical feet and drank half my bottle in one long pull. Then a river crossing came with advice from some volunteers who suggested that I ride through the foot or so of water instead of walking. I did as they said, and the cold water splashing up against my feet and legs felt incredible. It felt so good that I briefly considered stopping and sitting in it, but I didn’t like the idea of a wet-diaper chamois for the next two hours, so I pedaled on. Foolishly, maybe, I ate a melted Snickers bar and drank the rest of my charity water in the next mile or so.
It was about here that the cramps suddenly worsened. I had felt a familiar twinge in my right calf a couple of times, but it hadn’t progressed into a full-on cramp. I can’t explain the timing, since I’d just had some water, but once my dehydration intersected at just the right place with my muscle fatigue, and once I had spent some time going into the wind, a cramp seized my right inner thigh, then the left. I’ve done enough distance cycling to know this feeling. Stopping does not help. Stopping may make the cramping worse. There is something therapeutic about the forced circular motion of your feet. I embraced the therapy and kept turning the pedals.
Somewhere in through here I passed a guy in a green Salsa kit. Having forgotten the exact location of Checkpoint Three, I asked him where to look for it, mileage-wise. He good-naturedly told me mile 161 (we were at about mile 150 at this point), and I thanked him and moved on. My cramps spread into both calves. I became sufficiently desperate for water that when I saw one of the hundreds of inadvertently jettisoned water bottles on the route, I stopped, reversed course for 100 feet, and picked it up. Finding only ~10 ml of sticky, red, backwash-laced liquid inside, I sighed, dropped the bottle, and turned back north into the wind. By the way, a big shout-out to King cages here. The ability of everyday aluminum or composite cages to hold on to bottles in such bumpy conditions is overestimated, because in races such as this you see hundreds of bottles on the road or trail in the first ten miles, let alone the remaining 195. The most dramatic places are at the bottoms of hills, where full bottles have been bounced from cages. So Kudos to King cages.
Anyway: I was tired and thirsty and crampy. I wanted a drink of water. I rode by a restored foursquare house with outbuildings, a well-maintained flower garden, and some cattle pens. I turned into the driveway, laid down the Ritchey, and knocked on the door. No answer. I walked toward the outbuildings and called out. No response. About then, the guy with the Salsa kit followed me into the yard. I told him I didn’t think anyone was home. We agreed that the homeowners surely wouldn’t mind us using an outside hydrant. But we tried two, with no luck. The water was shut off to both. I cursed, rode toward a stock tank to make sure I wasn’t missing a hydrant, and failing to find one, rode on.
The dehydration and cramping, combined with forced physical exertion, had the effect of inducing an attitude of introspection and retrospection. Introspection regarding the choices I have made. Have I spent my days meaningfully? Have I wasted them? Have I taken my days for granted, or as a gift? This is not the thought of a dying or starving person. This wasn't a Jack London short story or the Revenant; my cell phone was in my empty hydration pack, after all, on airplane mode. Even though the cell coverage in rural Kansas is spotty, I could surely have thrown down a pin and had help within an hour or so. Retrospection for past bicycle-related follies, like the time I was stuck above 11,000 feet outside Angel Fire, New Mexico, out of water, with a wrecked bike, and forced to drink from a stock tank out of desperation, my reward of moisture having outweighed my risk of diarrhea from a mountain stream pathogen. I wasn't there yet.
A couple miles up the road I came across another farmhouse, and after following the same procedure as with house, number one, with largely the same results, I found a hydrant that yielded a trickle. I filled a bottle, dropped it, and spilled ~90 percent of the water, filled it again, dropped it again and spilled ~50%, and gave up. Mi amigo en Salsa was waiting for me to finish. I rolled back onto the road, back into the dust, back into the routine of pedaling and breathing, cramping and pedaling. The solitude of the Dirty Kanza is surprising. Nine hundred riders start, and for the first 50 miles you feel like you’re part of a swarm of ants. Then the group gets spread out, and by the time you hit the third checkpoint, there are times you can’t see another rider. It’s just you and the grass and the rocks and the sun and the wind.
A word on the people of Emporia, Madison, Eureka, and the surrounding areas of Greenwood, Chase, and Lyon counties: they have embraced this event. When I started spending a reasonable amount of time on the roads on bikes in the early 1990s, cycling, even mountain biking, carried a bit of a trashy, conceited euro patina that seemed to turn outsiders off. And this was right after LeMond won the Tour de France for the third time. I can’t imagine what the atmosphere in small towns was like before “LeMan” made cycling more familiar to a mainstream audience. Maybe it’s the gravel scene itself or maybe it’s a move toward everyone, rural, urban, athlete, or otherwise, being more accepting of cyclists in general, but I encountered nothing but smiles, waves, and courtesy in my fifteen-plus hours and 200-plus miles of the DK. On two separate occasions, a diesel truck--long the natural enemy of the cyclist--passed me with an outstretched arm ringing a cowbell.
With the encouragement of the locals I rolled on into Eureka, caked in salt, feeling completely fatigued. I used the lawn chair my wife had brought for the first time all day. I aired up the tires on my trusty Ritchey and sat both of us in the shade. I plugged in the external battery to my Garmin just in time to avoid it going completely dead, and I sat. Then I sat some more. I didn't keep time, but looking at the splits on my race, I suspect I was there for at least 30 minutes. I eventually resigned myself to needing to get back on the bike. I checked my hydration pack and my two bottles. I felt through the left pocket of my jersey to confirm it was full of goo and stroopwafels, and I rolled out. Slowly.