My morning started out too early with an alarm set for 3:30 AM, so I could make it to breakfast by 4:00 AM.  I wasn’t sure if this was all a dream, and really happening until I saw the cafeteria crowded with racers having their morning meal.  The predicted night storm blew, and the winds were still howling at 5:00 AM, when I walked back to the dorm.

I took off from the student dorm a little after 5:30 AM, following the rest of the red blinking lights headed to downtown Emporia. The dorm was just a few minutes’ pedal to the start-line.  It was still dark, windy, and rainy! When I got to downtown, people were huddled under the shelter of the Granada Theater and other shelters. I texted my friend, Leslie, from Colorado about meeting up, but she quickly informed me that there was a 30 minute delay. So, I stood on the side of a building, where I was sheltered by the blowing rain and wind.  

Once we all got ready to line up, I got to say hi to another Chicago racer, Rachel Wills. She came with her husband to take on Dirty Kanza. We both agreed that it was a huge accomplishment just to make it to the starting line.  We hugged and went our own ways.

I thought it would be wise to wait in the middle staging area.   Also, for nostalgic reasons I wanted to stand in front of the famous Granada Theater.  I was staged with the same group paced to finish in 14 hours. My new friend, Casey, whom I met and rode with on the previous day showed up with her friend Jamie.  We waited together for roll-out and shared our last few giddy moments. Selfies galore! I was all set, except later I realized I forgot to apply chamois cream in my short and to use the bathroom one last time!

The nasty storm washed away the humidity and the heat from the previous day.   Roll out was smooth and I was basically pedaling enough to get pulled along by the crowds, hitting my tempo pace.  I could stay in these packs because the surface was flat and smooth. It was a little slushy from the rain. Fortunately, there were no pond-sized puddles, like in 2016 when Brandon started his DK following a heavy downpour.  

In the first 10 miles, everyone suddenly looked down at their computers because many of us heard the “off course” alert.  The organizers made a last minute decision to re-route the course, due to the early morning storm. We followed the mass of riders ahead of us and noticed the flags that were on lined up along the road.  That urge to use the bathroom to get rid of the coffee and breakfast waste was nagging in the back of my head. Once I saw a small crowd of locals and pick-up trucks parked to cheering us on, I decided to make a dive behind a parked pick-up truck and relieve myself there.  I was back in business and stoked to ride in a cool, overcast morning.

Entering the cattle pens was beautiful, exhilarating, and frustrating for me.  You cannot top the landscape with the “Irish spring” green color of the Flint Hills painted smack in the middle of overcast skies.  The Flint Hills are majestic as everyone says they are. I felt excited to finally climb hills and work my legs after the many months of training. I told myself that I put in those hours for a reason. Climb those rock hills! At the bottom of most hills, there were small boulders or piles of rocks, sometimes one track line of riding between rocks. This is where I lost my confidence and momentum because I wasn’t sure how my 35 mm tires would hold up.  I handled the descents as best as I could and came out in one piece.

Checkpoint #1: Mile 50 Madison, KS.

Getting to check point 1, my drivetrain sounded like a Tyrannosaurus Rex. After riding through some deep puddles and tacky gravel roads, my bike needed a quick rinse.  Brandon was able to track my progress by following my Quarq Qollector and him and Nils appeared up as soon as I got my time chipped. Brandon took my bike to get rinsed off while I went to use the bathroom.   Thankfully, District Bicycles (Stillwater, OK) offered their bike repair stand and got my bike back to running smoothly. I had some ham sandwich and pickles while Brandon refilled my drinks and food. This time I remembered to apply chamois cream!  Brandon warned me that the next 50 miles will put me in the strong sun and heat of the day. He filled a pair of panty hose with ice and I stuffed it under my jersey. My transition took a total of 15 minutes.

Mile 50-100 got challenging for me because the heat and wind picked up, but the ice packs helped to keep me cool.  I faced some of the 20 mph winds from the north that I knew I would have to deal with later in the day. At this point, the race became so spread out, that I was alone often.  I saw on my Garmin that I had a left turn approaching. As soon as I looked up, I saw a rider on a fat bike immediately take a left turn, and I followed him. It was a steep decline on rocks.  It was the wrong left turn! I went back up the hill to where I made the wrong turn. That took about 5-10 minutes to sort out, and I was very frustrated. About 15 miles before reaching Eureka, a rancher in a pick-up truck was offering water from an insulated water jug.   That cold water felt so good. I doused my head and chest, and carried a cup of that cold water, so I could taste that for a little while.

Checkpoint #2: Mile 100 Eureka, KS.

Brandon took my bike and Camelback then started to re-stock.   He told me there was no time to waste now and to focus on what I needed to do:  1) change into a new short 3) switch to my second Garmin. I was not in any kind of heat exhaustion so I didn’t need to sit down or overhaul from the heat.  This year, Checkpoint #2 was not in downtown Eureka, it was at the local high school. I was happy to use a bathroom to change into a fresh short, but quickly frustrated to learn that I had to walk across the school to get to the bathroom. It felt like an eternity following the DK volunteer there and back, but I changed into my second pair of shorts. After I came out, I was ready to go since Brandon had my bike and gear ready for me once again.  He even slathered sunscreen on my arms and legs while I put my gloves on. What a guy! I was out again with a fresh ice pack and a fresh mindset to face the next 60 miles. All year and all day I kept talking to myself about this moment. Anything after 100 miles could be a very, very dark place, and I had to be ready for that. I said my Hail Mary’s and I was off.

Miles 100-160

The storm from the morning brought afternoon winds that came from the north reaching 20-25 mph.  Once I left Eureka, the course was directed north for the next 100 miles. I remember riding in to 20 mph headwinds in the 2016 version of Almanzo 100. It will nearly stop you dead in your tracks. Wind is part of our lives in Illinois, so for me it was not mentally challenging.  I was frustrated that this was killing my speed. I did my best, put my head down, and grinded away. To my surprise, as the hot sun went down, I was feeling better and better. “This is not how these things go!” I was glad to feel fresh as the afternoon went on. I was still climbing hills when I needed to, and grinding when there was a tailwind or flat section.  I kept eating what was easy for me to eat and still it digesting well.

I reached the creek crossing, but it was so deep, and even deeper to the right of me.  “Am I going to get washed away down this creek?” One rider offered to carry my bike and walk in front me, so I could gauge the depth of the water. I still carried my bike, and then almost slipped when the surface changed because I couldn’t see my feet.   After the creek crossing, I joined up with Scott from Kansas. He was going at a good speed, and not wasting any time. We rode together around the time the sun finally set, and it was time to turn on lights. At one point, he started to walk some hills. I didn’t have time for that, and kept on riding.  Scott kept up with me, and 2 other men joined us. The three of us rode together, and eventually Scott disappeared. I rode with the other 2 men, thinking that riding as a group in the dark would be beneficial. Soon enough, I went on my own. I had a text message from Brandon “Pick up the pace!” I was using my light at high intensity and it was going to cost me battery power, but I knew that Brandon had a backup waiting for me in Madison.  I still had the ice pack pantyhose underneath my jersey, which was now just wet and making me cold. To not have to stop and waste time, I kept it and pedaled harder. The stars were so bright against the black sky--like nothing I have ever seen before. The night critters were making the most curious sounds! I saw an armadillo scurry across the road in front me. Finally, I saw my first sign of civilization – a cell phone tower light blinking, then a house, and sure enough the pavement to town!  


 

Checkpoint #3: Mile 160 Madison, KS.

As usual, Brandon was at the chip timing tent waiting for me, but he had a sad look on his face.  He told me I was 12 minutes past the cut off. A DK volunteer was tearing down the tent, and he told me it was indeed shut down.   I put my head down on my handlebars and started sobbing. All of the adrenaline, effort, and emotions hit hard at that very moment.   I knew I was close in time, but I was not able to stop and check my phone to confirm all of the details. I followed Brandon to where he parked the car, and I saw Scott with his family / support crew who came from Michigan. We talked about that last leg in the dark, congratulated each other, and he offered me a beer.   I still had the pantyhose hanging from my jersey and really wanted to use the bathroom, but hung out and laughed with Scott and his family. You still make the best memories even when things don’t go to plan!

I learned many lessons from this experience, and hopefully I will have the chance to return and complete some unfinished business!  Never discount what you do to get yourself there. In the end it is a learning lesson and one step closer to success.

-Isabel

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