For many riders, Dirty Kanza is a milestone. It may be the longest ride they’ve taken on, or their first large, organized cycling event. It can be an intimidating experience, but one that’s completely do-able with proper preparation. We asked four riders with DK experience for their physical and mental race-day advice. These tips will help you ready yourself for any Dirty Kanza ride, whether you’re taking on the DK25 or the DK200.
Ride your own race
For me, this is a huge piece of the Dirty Kanza puzzle. I need to place myself at the right part of the starting line and then watch my pace. The rate at which everyone else starts, what they do, and how they ride cannot dictate my race. I need to trust my training and ride my own ride.
Nutrition and hydration
This is so important and difficult to stay on top of. After getting dehydrated at DK last year I now have a timer set on my Garmin. Every 15 minutes it chirps and I drink like Pavlov’s dog! Also, don’t try to copy someone else’s nutrition plan on race day. For me, real food is the only thing that works. I’ve tested it at home and no matter how good something sounds on race day, I will stick with my proven methods.
Pick your head up and look around
You will be riding in a special part of the U.S.—take time to enjoy it. This day will go by quickly and you’ve trained for it for months. Enjoy the ride!
Nutrition, nutrition, nutrition
This is critical to survival, and perhaps it’s Gravel Endurance 101, but take heed! I’ve seen so many good, experienced riders bonk because at one point they were feeling “so good” and skipped some nutrition or hydration. I did it to myself with 40 miles to go at one event last year; you won’t make it 40 miles without fuel! Replace that H2O with electrolytes. A good rule of thumb is to take in 100% of your body weight in calories every hour you’re riding, and do it on the hour. You can break it up and do 50% every half-hour if it gives you something to look forward to or think about. Just don’t forget to fuel yourself, because once you’re behind, you may never come back.
Plan for a long day
Think about spending an entire day in the saddle, and how amazing that can be. Meditate on it, dream about it. You never know what the terrain, the weather or the new route will bring. I find it always best to “plan for the best, prepare for the worst,” and this actually taps into your mindset. Be thinking positively about the longest day possible. Smile at the thought of stripping a derailleur hanger clean off—and what you’ll do in that scenario. Shine in the face of rain and mud all over you. Get goosebumps at the thought of 100-degree sun or a 50-degree rain shower. Break your day into quadrants, whether it’s by checkpoint or by distance. What games will you play with your mind? What photos will you capture along the way? When will you allow yourself the treat of music or your favorite food? How will you pace yourself during each section (hint: resist the urge to go out too fast in the first quarter; push yourself harder in the third)? What I’m really saying is: think about the event in advance, then troubleshoot for the unpredictable.
Always be looking up
Regardless of the weather, the time of day, or the terrain—look up! Firstly, Kansas is shockingly beautiful for those unfamiliar. It’s green and lush. The birds are singing. The cattle moo. It smells of the great outdoors. It’s pastoral. Secondly, looking up will help you stretch that neck, which will inevitably be sore if this is a long ride for you (however you define “long”). And most important, finishing Dirty Kanza is 80 percent mental, maybe more. Stay positive. Think to yourself, “I see the top of that hill…I can get there.” Each time. There is actually science behind this; neuro-specialists suggest that by looking up and to the left, you are tapping into your left prefrontal cortex, which (put REALLY simply by a non-scientist) is a positivity zone. Whatever your experience on June 1, Dirty Kanza is an adventure. Sometimes the worst days are the most memorable, so embrace your DK, whatever that looks like. Be safe, and best of luck!
Break the ride up
A long ride can seem daunting if you think about riding it all in one straight shot. I like to split the distance up into chunks, planning at what mileage I’ll stop or eat, so that it helps break the ride up into more manageable sections. In the DK200, for instance, each checkpoint is 50–80 miles apart, and most riders in that event at least have rides of those distances under their belts. I like to think of longer rides as a handful of separate rides; the slate is wiped clean each time I snack or grab some stuff out of my drop bag. It doesn’t matter how the last few miles went or how I was feeling, but a checkpoint means it’s time to re-group, re-charge, and re-focus. Roll out of that checkpoint with some positivity and it’ll carry you to the next stop!
Create easy wins to keep moving forward
I’m the type of person who makes a checklist with some easy tasks that gradually increase in difficulty as the list goes on because I like checking off things that I accomplish, even if they’re small. The small victories give me something to smile about and it helps keep my attitude in line. (Remember, we all signed up for this!) Riding long distances is as much about the mental game as it is about the pedaling. It’s really easy to get into a dark place when pushing your body hard, so I also say cheery things out loud to trick my brain into thinking more positively. When pedaling up a big hill, I’ll hoot and holler, or I’ll yell, “We got this!” into the wind. I don’t allow myself to say anything negative out loud until I finish. I will literally put “wake up early and get to race start” on my mental checklist, so no matter how painful it might get out on the course, I always have that to fall back on as a reminder that the little accomplishments will all add up to the big thing on my list: finishing!
Cheer on the other riders out there
I have heard so many times that my cheering or bell dinging has helped another rider dig out of a hole, and other riders and volunteers have made me smile thousands of times during races, saving my experience and giving me another burst of energy. That’s one of the reasons I love racing so much! In an endurance event like DK, we have the checkpoints, locals, and volunteers out there to help keep us safe, but between the checkpoints we have each other. Racing is great because it challenges us; we can go as fast as we want and make it a goal to podium. It’s also great because there’s always someone out there who shares our love of riding, and we get to ride and laugh together, bonding and building an amazing gravel community! Whatever your reason for riding out there, remember that everyone’s goals are different, but that we’re all there for the experience and to make it as far as we can: hopefully to the finish.
Stay in your comfort zone
When you’re uncomfortable, remember that it’s a normal feeling for a 100- or 200-mile day (or however far you’re riding). Find things that keep you happy when everything is working against you. Comfort doesn’t always mean feeling good in the present; it’s comforting to think that you can always look back and remember when you decided not to quit.
Make a friend, whether it’s the guy up ahead of you, the lady next to you, or yourself. Don’t force it—Introduce yourself to people you want to talk to, and ride together. The rest will happen naturally. Don’t worry if you move ahead or fall behind—it was probably supposed to happen. Remember to respect other riders; sometimes people want to be alone when they are trying to ride all day.
Don’t forget the support crews
Dirty Kanza gives you the opportunity to connect with fellow riders and support crews on the course. Support crews put in a heck of a lot of work! I’ve been to a checkpoint where a crew peeled me an orange and let me dig through their food bins while they filled my water bottles and lubed my chain. I have also met riders on the course who shared their flat kits, support vans and ibuprofen when I needed help. Remember that outside support is only allowed at the specified checkpoints.
You’re on the road to a successful effort at Dirty Kanza; remember to eat and drink regularly, break the ride up into more mentally-manageable parts, and look up every once in a while to enjoy the scenery. While these tips are meant to guide you, don’t hesitate to stick with what works best for you on race day. Never forget that simply finishing a DK event is a monumental achievement. Take pride in your ride—you’ve got this.
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I’m a jack-of-all, master-of-none sort when it comes to the outdoors. Riding, climbing, paddling, skiing or hiking—everything has its own appeal. All that matters are the effort and the solitude. I’m not competitive but I enjoy a good challenge, and I’ll say “yes” to anything that puts me in over my head or involves type 2 fun, as that’s where life’s spicier moments seem to live.