Third Time’s The Muddy Charm

Dirty Kanza 2015. What a race. I love this race. That love was still there this year.

This would be my third year attempting the Kanza, and I was very excited. 2015 was the first year I started working with a coach, and it's been great. 2015 is also the first year I am riding for Salsa Cycles. It is a year of changes for me. I felt ready, but trying to stay calm all the way to the start line would be the real challenge though.

I arrived in Emporia on Thursday night. This gave me plenty of time to settle into the town and relax for a whole Friday. I typically never do that for races, but it was mostly trying to add to my mini vacation weekend. I was ready physically and mentally, but actually preparing for this race was tough. I am still car-less and that makes traveling the most difficult part of my race weekends. I had rented a car to take myself to Emporia, but once I arrived and dropped off the car I am pretty much searching for rides and ways to get around the whole weekend. It is not my favorite thing to do. I am forever grateful for every open car seat and bed that I have been offered over the last three years of racing.

I was excited for this year. Going into this race this year with a solid background of what to expect was a game-changer. I was excited for the change in the checkpoints and the neutral water stops were a welcome addition. The checkpoints just seemed to line up with my style of riding. I was familiar with the course, and knew that route changes would be well marked and obvious on the cue-sheets. My bike was dialed. Better than it has ever been previously. The Salsa Warbird is easily the most comfortable and confidence boosting bike I have ridden on gravel…and I have ridden lots of gravel. I was set up tubeless with HED Ardennes Plus wheels and Bontrager tires. The HED wheels transform an already wonderful bike into the bike of my dreams. Pair that with a carbon seatpost and handlebars and my gear was ready. You can read a little more about my set up here! 

Over the years my gear has been refined and perfected, but nutrition is always a constant test of learning from mistakes and experimenting during training rides. For the most part I stick to real food and get extra help from the fluids I take in. Overall I was very happy with how I handled my nutrition this year. I have been enjoying Clif Bar nutrition and Gu Roctane drink mixes. Beyond that I eat lots of snacks; countless Snickers, ham sandwiches, mashed potatoes, and my personal favorite, the cheesy-peanut-butter cracker. A staple.

To the start of the race…

Early 5:30 or so on Saturday morning I was prepped and ready. The start of a race is my time to mentally chill out. I take some time to reassess where everything is and meet some new faces at the start. Then we are off! The start was quick. People eagerly awaiting the gravel road that lay ahead and trying to work out the early morning kinks. Luckily I ended up riding with a solid group of friends; Carrie from Iowa City, Jamie and Colin, Allison and Bailey on their tandem. I felt safe. We were moving quickly, ducking and dodging patches of loose gravel and slower riders.

My pace was familiar and I was excited for the large groups to slowly dissolve and to settle into a rhythm. Before any of that excitement could come to fruition we were met with mud. I laughed as the Allison/Bailey tandem threw mud all over me. So much for staying clean! 2015 has been the year of the mud. Every single race I have toed the line for has been muddy…all of them. The walking began. Literally just walking. It's not very exciting and it hurts more than riding. Somewhere within this two-or-so-mile slog I found Karen. I had ridden with Karen for all of Gravel Worlds last year and I was stoked to see her. Jumping into conversation I realized just how much I had learned about her last year. I also remembered that she is fast. I knew I wanted to stick on her wheel.

Karen and I exited the muddy mess together and proceeded to "ride" through some more messy roads. When the riding was fast we were gunning it. I kept on Karen's tail. She is much better at picking a line through the mud and I tried my best to follow. Maybe an hour down the road her bike stopped working. We stopped together and I asked if she wanted me to wait for her. The last thing I heard Karen say was, "Don't stop, you just go." That has stuck with me. I later heard Karen had to pull due to her bike shutting down. That lady has taught me more about racing than I bet she or I know.

I was alone now, some 50 miles or so into the race and starting to wonder where the checkpoint was. I really liked the distance between the new checkpoint set-ups. 70 miles is an ideal distance for me both mentally and physically. When I arrived at the first checkpoint it was chaos…but the beautiful kind of chaos; people cheering, support everywhere, smiles. I was overwhelmed. Luckily I know some of the loudest people in the bike industry and was lead to the neutral support by Adam Blake. The SRAM guy cleaned up my bike while I filled my Camelbak to full again. Adam mentioned that I may be in either fourth or fifth place. That got my brain going. I wanted to finish top five this year. I was fith last year and wasn't going for less than that! With that thought turning over in my head, I hopped on my bike and headed out, probably in less than five minutes or so. Cruising up the hill out of this checkpoint I was feeling confident, like I was possibly getting the hang of this gravel racing. It had only taken me three years, but I had also only gone 70 miles.

The next 70 miles were a blur. Even my personal diary about this race is confusing. I just kept one thought in my mind: the more I push the pedals the closer to the finish line I get. Dirty Kanza had become a death march. I just wanted to finish. I rode with a couple of friends to keep me happy. Joe Stiller, Jeremy Kershaw, and Nickel Potter seemed to pop up when I needed them most. A nice headwind started up and I tried desperately to ride with others. It seemed like everyone was trying to work together but our paces just never lined up. I was always within eyeshot of someone. It was torturous. Nearing the halfway point I was a little worse for the wear. I almost missed the turn to go up "The Bitch." Darn. Realizing 100 feet down the road that I needed to turn around was a little bit of a wake-up call. Stay on the route, eat some nutrition, keep pedaling.

After cresting that god-forsaken hill I was in a better mood. It doesn't take long in these races for my mood to go from bad to good and vice-versa. I always remind myself that the bad won't last…but sometimes neither does the good though! Anyways, 100 miles down, 100 to go. The roads were not getting much better. There were stretches of a mile or two marred with sticky mud and one line to ride. I had chosen to disregard all of the mud. While people were standing around picking mud out of brakes and shoes, I just kept riding. Granted I could have had a sharp piece of flint somewhere in that mud clinging to my bike ready to end my day, but hopefully I would notice it before it ruined everything. Plus there were enough low water crossing to wash most of it off. I just keep pedaling.

Rolling into the second checkpoint I was still in good spirits. 140 miles down and all I wanted were the mashed potatoes in my drop bag. This year I got the chance to utilize the organized support provided by Dirty Kanza. They were great. I honestly have a weird time using support because I tend to try and carry everything I need and have a desire to go to gas stations. I blame Iowa for this. I probably spent ten minutes total at this second checkpoint. Swapping out my bottles and eating the sandwiches and mashed potatoes I had. Also the only person I remember seeing was Tim Ek's wife, Amy. There may have been just as much cheering at this checkpoint as there was as the first, but my brain was fuzzy at this point. I told Amy I had to keep going and left for the last 60 miles.

Only 60 miles to go and I was still in the zone…which I am pretty sure was just still, “DON'T STOP PEDALING”. If I stopped pedaling I was done. There were a couple of course changes in the last 60 miles but it was familiar for the most part. I wasn't worried about beating the sun anymore, just getting to that finish line. The last bit of Dirty Kanza included another new hill, but with a view. A nice big lake calmed me down just as the sun set. After riding the last little bit of sketchy B-roads I knew I was home free. The last 20 miles of the race was lots of straight, flat roads.

I freaking gunned it.

I just wanted to be done. I quickly found a group of people to ride with and we were charging to the finish line. The group included familiar faces too. Don Buttram and at least five others I knew. Pushing 20-plus mph. Pointing out potholes and loose gravel to each other. I could feel the energy between all of us. I was smiling, surprisingly. I bet the others were smiling too. Seeing the Emporia water tower I let out a little squeal. We. Were. There. Turning off the gravel I let the group pull ahead of me. I needed to give myself some time. Take some deep breaths. I wasn't going to cry anymore like I was 80 miles before. I had run through nearly every emotion possible since 6 AM that morning. I didn't have to worry about anything.

Crossing the line I was greeted by the town of Emporia. It really does feel like the whole town is there. A hug from Kristi and Jim. My bike was rolled off to the sidelines. I answered some questions for Salsa Cycles and probably said some silly things. My favorite part of the race? The end.

This post filed under topics: Andrea Cohen Dirty Kanza 200 Gravel Sponsored Riders Ultra Racing Warbird

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Andrea Cohen

Andrea Cohen

I live, work, and play in Iowa City, Iowa. Iowa may not have epic mountains or vast skylines, but it boasts hundreds of miles of gravel. That is where I found my true calling. In 2012 I attempted my first Trans-Iowa, got lost, and was instantly hooked. I have been there every year since. I am constantly looking for that next adventure to keep me teetering on the line between insanity and clarity. Bring it on! [url=""][/url].


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