A year ago, I sat on the dorm room floor – eating a sad, cold “checkpoint” sandwich from the cooler and texted my friend, Allison Zmuda to ask her about gravel bike models for short women.  I knew that I wanted to give it another crack. Fast forward 1 year later, and I am sitting on the cold dorm floor with a different story to tell.

I mirrored the same routine as last year- 4 AM dorm breakfast.  I chatted with a rider from San Francisco and one from the UK. All of us were just ready to see what was in store!

As I rolled up from the ESU Campus to Commercial St, I looked at the finish line from the same direction as it would be at the actual finish.  I shed a tear. I really hoped that I would be riding this same stretch to the finish line.

I staged with the group of faster riders.  They are good bike handlers, and can pull you along.  Among the busy staging area, I managed to find another Chicago-area rider, Chris Drouganis (Intent Racing).  He had come to one of my training rides this year, and we both were back for some unfinished business from 2018.  Among the crowds, Justin McBride (Rochelle, IL/ Gu Energy) also found me and wished me luck.

The race started, and I stayed on Chris’ wheel for about 15 miles.  Either at a turn, or steering away from some gnarly spots, I lost Chris but had no intention to fight to find him. It is tight and fast-moving with people constantly intercepting or riding around you. I hung on with a crowd, and as I fell back, a new crowd pulled me along.  I was happy to ride the first 30 averaging 15+ mph. I knew that the wind was blowing from the south, so it was critical to ride hard, draft when I could, and make the most time possible (without blowing up).

Once mile 30 hit, we entered the Flint Hills. It suddenly gets quiet when you get in this landscape. It’s stunning.  This year, we did not ride inside any cattle property but instead the b-roads and gravel roads. I was relieved about this, but learned that the gravel roads brought massive climbs.  The sun started to peep and I started to feel it. This is not a good start. I only looked forward to seeing Brandon and Nils at the first checkpoint (mile 65).

Brandon barely made it on time, seeing that I had made great time in the first 30-40 miles.  He was ready to roll! His car was not too far from the District Bicycles tent. They helped me get my bike checked over.  

I sat on the ground next to the car and Brandon dripped the cooler ice water on my head.  It was a rush of refreshment. I needed to cool off to get some calories. I had a pickle, part of a small ham sandwich, gummy bears and a can of coke.  Brandon restocked my Camelback, my 2 tall bottles, and my bar bag with food. I would not see him for about 90 miles. It was going to be a long haul.

From looking at the DK200 course map, after the Alma Checkpoint there were 40 miles of gnarly roads.  As soon as I left Alma, we still rode on relatively smooth gravel surfaces but massive climbs. Then, we got into some b-roads and rocky surfaces. This year, I was mostly proud that I knew how to take lines, and descend much faster than last year. I had less issues in the b-roads. One in particular, I could feel my bike going not the way I wanted to, and I could foresee a crash but I let the bike go in that unwanted direction, and then I guided myself back. WOW.

From Alma (mile 65), those 40 miles felt long. It was during the most intense heat of the day.  I stopped to sit in the shade 2 times specifically to cool off and eat some food. I took bites of anything that looked good.  Around mile 80-90 a farmer had his yard open for us to hose off with the spigot and he had drinkable water. I soaked my entire head and core- that felt amazing.  I took off and battled on. I was looking forward to the 100-104 mark because I knew in my mental map of the course that was the last of the gnarly section. At mile 110 or so there was a surprise neutral water stop sponsored by EF Education First Pro Cycling.  They had ice bandanas for us to wear, and more water for soaking and for refilling bottles. This time, I dumped out one bottle of Skratch, and refilled it with plain water. It improved my mood on the bike when all I wanted to do was rinse my mouth or sprinkle myself a little.  (I had enough electrolytes in my Camelback, and my other tall bottle). Leaving the surprise water stop was all pavement, and it was a different scenery. I only had about 10 miles to the DK200 neutral water stop/ checkpoint in Alta Vista. So, those 10 miles felt long too. One last moment of questioning life choices in the shade and I pushed on.  

Once I reached Alta Vista (mile 120) I was pretty sure I lost any chance of finishing. I called Brandon to discuss the situation.  I had exactly 3 hours to ride 30 miles. If I was going at the pace I had been to get there, I really questioned this next leg. I refilled everything at the water stop, ate some food, and did everything possible to refresh myself.  I thought: “Let’s do this”. I left Alta Vista with a rider from San Diego, Rafi. He had the same attitude to just go for it, and see what happens. He was fairly taller than me, and I was drafting behind him for a while. He started to back off and I just kept going.  I never saw Rafi again. I felt refreshed and recharged from the water stop and just started to ride better. I had to stop for 1 creek crossing and to plug in the battery for my light. I approached 3 massive hills one after the other. I did everything humanly possible to ride those to the top.  No walking!! Not happening! I couldn’t believe, this time, how much faster the miles were decreasing on the Garmin. I was so close to Council Grove. As I got closer and closer, the route took me on a bike path. I knew that they are completely flat and safe to ride on. TIME TO SPRINT. Once I literally saw the light at the end of the tunnel, (lights from the checkpoint crew/ support crews/ families) I full out sprinted.  I made it with 55 seconds to spare! Brandon, and some of the crew from District was there. They were so happy for me. It was like making it to the final round of a tournament. I was ecstatic. Right behind me was Sally, from District and she made it with 1 second to spare.

Leading up to Council Grove, I knew in my head that all I needed was a second light battery backup and clear glasses.  No time to change clothes. At this point, pretty much nothing else mattered. I had peanut butter from the District Bicycles tent.  Brandon gave me a beef sandwich to take, and a can of coke. I rolled out of the checkpoint with a coke in hand saying “See you in Emporia”.

My battery power died early on, and I switched to Brandon’s back up battery.  A small group of riders came up behind me. As I rode with them, I noticed that my pace was taking me further and further away from them.  Two men stayed behind me and it seemed that they were fine sticking by. It was good to have their light power. Sally caught us, and we made a connection and rode together.  Suddenly, my light went out! No! Sally had a spare light and put it on my bike. Her and I agreed to ride together as much as possible. We were going at a similar pace and had the same goal to book it to Emporia. I had a blast riding and descending some hills in the dark.  It was one of the most epic times I’ve ever had on a bike. I considered skipping the Chase the Chaise photo but we made it VERY QUICK. Laura Haraldson (my friend from Salsa) was still there- jumping and screaming for us. Once we left the Chaise, we started to see the spotlights from downtown Emporia beaming into the sky. YES.

About 3-4 miles from town, Sally took off. She was gone.  I popped in some Cliff Bloks, stood up many times and rode into town.  Like every stop at DK200 there was a CLIMB before reaching the checkpoint or finish.  I saw a man grinding up the hill, but I stood up and passed him. Then, I rode through the ESU campus (just blocks from downtown), and later I could see the barricades in the street leading to the FINISH LINE just like in the morning.  I even considered passing the man who was in the chute, but there was no room. I finished right behind him and I was DONE. I got a hug from Jim Cummins. Brandon, my DK friend from last year Scott, Sally, and the District Bicycles crew were all there. This year, instead of sharing a DNF beer, my friend Scott and I shared a “victory” beer and champagne in the parking lot.  We did it!

Done and Dusted…for real.