By: Yuri Hauswald Photos: Eric Benjamin/Adventure Monkey
When you set a late May race goal in early December, it almost doesn’t seem real. It’s easy to commit to something when it is but a speck on the horizon, but having the determination, dedication and focus to make the necessary life sacrifices, to make the necessary changes to your training that might put you in a place fitness wise to make a legitimate run at the Dirty Kanza 200 podium, considered by many to be the toughest one day gravel race in the United States, is a completely different story.
Well, I did make the life sacrifices in the past six months, just ask my wife. I began working with a coach, and power, to see what changes I could do to my training that might allow me to perform at my physical peak (even at the ripe YOUNG age of 44), and give me a shot at the top step of the podium (not that I totally believed that was possible due to the talented competition). I began logging very long miles, piling on 15 to 18 hour weeks, all while trying to hold down a full time job with GU Energy Labs as their Marketing Manager: Cycling. I also partnered with InsideTracker, a personalized health analytics company founded by leading scientists, physicians, nutritionists and exercise physiologists from MIT, Harvard and Tufts University, to find ways that I could optimize my nutrition so that I could be at my physical best.
Let’s just say that things got VERY real at this year’s Dirty Kanza, REAL quick.
We hit the first patch of prairie peanut butter mud at around mile 10 of the Dirty Kanza 200, and it just decimated the field. Riders bowling pinned through the rutted guck, bikes becoming immoveable, heavy objects. Some riders were lucky and somehow punched their way through, but most weren’t as lucky. And the even unluckier ones lost rear derailleurs and hangers, their day over before the hostilities even really began.
I knew that this pit of despair was going to smack us in the face with a hard dose of prairie pain, and it still caught me out and brought my bike to a gritty stand still, rear stays completely plugged. My stomach sank, and tightened at the thought of having to struggle this hard, this early in the race. My resolve became not so steely for a moment, but then I remembered why I was racing and that there was no such thing as quitting.
It wasn’t until I stumbled out of the sloppy slog through a really long, and vicious, mud pit around mile 85/90 that I realized I might have a good shot at the podium. I’d been in “robot mode” until this point, plodding my way along in the top ten and getting really lucky that I hadn’t suffered a flat or even worse fate. “Robot mode” is a state I perfected back in my solo 24 hr racing days, a state that allows me to turn off thinking and pain, and just push/pedal my way forward, no matter how difficult, which was perfect because the conditions were apocalyptic. I remember looking down on the mud snowshoe-esque boots I was wearing, as I stumbled between the ruts, and thinking that this was f#$!ing ridiculous.
When I exited the last aid station in Cottonwood Falls at mile 150, I had consumed 13 GU and Roctane gels, 2 bottles of 2 x strength Tropical Roctane drink, 5 PB&Honey mini-bun sandwiches, 20 Branch Chain Amino Acid capsules (top secret blend we’re testing) and 2x 50oz Camelbak’s of H2o. Oh, and I also slammed a ½ COKE. I’m glad no one told me that I was 22 minutes down on Michael Sencenbaugh, the rider who’d been leading the race for MOST of the day, because it probably would’ve crushed my soul a bit, and undermined my resolve.
Speaking of resolve, I’ve been working with a coach this season-long time friend Dan Harting-which is something new for this “old dog”. Dan and I began laying out my training plan back in December. I had to learn how to ride slow to ride fast, which seemed so counter intuitive to me and was a far cry from my past “training” practices of riding quantity but not quality miles. I also began training in very specific power zones, ones designed to conquer the rolling prairie of the Flint Hills, and went complete “Monk” when it came to following my training plan. All of these factors came together in the last 50 miles and allowed me to enter “diesel” mode for the remaining roller coaster ride to Emporia. All of these factors put me in a position to win the race.
For the record, I was plenty happy riding to 2nd place. Having my two previous years be derailed by flats, I was riding high that I’d been mechanical free all day. And for full disclosure, I was not the fastest or strongest rider out there by any stretch of the imagination. When I caught Sencenbaugh with two miles remaining, and confirmed that he was indeed the leader, my first thought was “F#$@!!, it’s going to come down to a sprint. This is going to really, REALLY hurt!”
People often ask me why/how I push myself like I do. When I’m on the bike, you’d have to kill me to stop me. I’ve always been that kind of guy and I’ve been training hard for this race, so there’s that. But there’s also my wife, who battled stage-four colon cancer four years ago and has endured pain far worse than I ever could on a bike. I was riding partially for her. I mean, how can I quit, or not give it my all, when she’s endured so much? That motivates me. I also watched my father, who was this really strong and vibrant man, pass away ten years ago from cancer…I watched him wither away from the disease. I guess was riding for a lot of things and a lot of people, tapping into a deep well of personal pain to motivate myself to push my physical limits.
To have a 200 mile race settled in a drag race down the main boulevard lined with thousands of family, friends, locals, and my wife (who had flown out and surprised me), was an electrifying experience, and one that I will cherish forever. Chapeau to Michael for an amazing ride and for fighting till the bitter end. To take the win at the #decadeofdirty Dirty Kanza, which saw the race’s worst weather in its ten year history, is a true honor, and I’ve been humbled by the outpouring of love from the cycling community. This race is hard, it’s definitely the pinnacle of my race career so far, but life can be harder. In a way, you’re trying to honor that out there on the bike.