Dirty Kanza 2017: The Comeback Kid

I don’t know where to start. This was everything I had wanted. This is everything I had obsessed about. The details were right. My body was right. And most importantly, my mind was right.

I had spent this last year with one goal: Finish the Dirty Kanza 200. I didn’t care about other riders. I didn’t care about what the course conditions were. Finish.

In the weeks leading up to the Kanza, I had Maisies Pride and one training ride in particular that made me feel ready. Being in Oklahoma, we can pretty much ride year round. Sometimes the winter wind is brutally cold, but rideable.

Here we go. June 1st.

I’m cleaning my bike. I’m waiting. It’s almost here.  My mind wandered to Olympic swimmers. They spend years training.. for something that last 30 seconds. I was thinking I had a bit more time to make a move.

My goals this year were to finish. I didn’t care about other riders. I didn’t care about what the course conditions were. FINISH.

We started packing. It was becoming real. I had put all of my clothes in one dry bag.. which made an incredible dirty clothes bag post race. I packed extra socks. I was worried about the rain. All week I had refreshed my weather app to see Madison and Emporia. 80% for Saturday. I would laugh to myself. Why would it be any different from the rest of the year? Rain isn’t so bad. It’s the mud and grit that grinds our brake pads down that’s the bad part. Land Run 100 was 38-42 degrees all day and raining. I traveled to MI for Barry Roubaix. It was the exact same. Hypothermic and loss of brakes.

I started packing my setup. It’s what I’ve used for every race so far. I’ll hear people talk about getting tired of the same old stuff. I’m routine. This is what I had:

Race Food
Race Foods

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All packed up
This is my setup. I had these little baggies divided up for each checkpoint. I had 2 Huma, Watermelon Cliff bloks (notice 2x sodium), Ginger waffles, and some GU roctane. These pies are my pick me up. Just so you know, cherry is the best. Don’t waste your time with any other flavor. Blueberry’s alright. Alright- do whatever you want.

My bike is ready. I ran 44×19 for the course. Did I think this was an okay decision? I had no idea. I knew the projected elevation profile, but that doesn’t mean anything. It could be windy. We could be walking through mud. I could get sick and not be able to push it.

I slept early that Thursday night. With so much going on that Friday, I knew I needed to be rested. I’m not great at small talk. I don’t know what to talk about with people. If I’m tired, I just listen. It’s not that I don’t want to be a part of conversation, I just want to listen. That’s enough for me. With over 2,000 riders and all of their families and support, I know I would have to get over being an introvert and say hello to people.

Friday. The 2nd.

We were 24 hours out. In 24 hours I was to line up, and try for the THRID time to have a finish at the Kanza. To say I was meticulous in detail isn’t enough. Everything I had was precise. It was thorough. It was EXACT.

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My fix kit. 

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The other half in my pack
Notice- the whole chain. Extra pads. A boot. I was going to finish.

I don’t know watts. I don’t know cadence. I just ride my bike.

My goals this year were to finish. I didn’t care about other riders. I didn’t care about what the course conditions were. FINISH.

Friday was the usual buzz that comes with this World class event. I was worried people would recognize me. I don’t want to be known as the ass-hat that crashed out. I don’t want to be interviewed about the past. I’m focused. I’m here NOW. I’m present NOW. Everything I’ve done is to be here. Now.

We arrived in Emporia around 10-11 that morning. Parked close to the party downtown, and made our way to registration. I found my friend Bailey at check in. We had been texting a bit the days leading up to this. It was evident he was nervous. We all were. There’s a lot that goes with doing a ride like this. For me, it felt overwhelming. All of this work.. just to go hurt ourselves for 14 hours.

We went to the riders meeting. I hadn’t had a beer in a week, so why not walk over to Mulready’s and relax!?

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Jeff & Bobby

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2017 Land Run DOUBLE winner, Ryan Simon

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Champion District Bicycles mechanic, Austin Turner
It was what I needed. I had two. Enough to make me feel okay with what was about to happen.

Gabbi and I got checked into our hotel around 4 and immediately started prepping some real food for the checkpoints. I cut 4 banana’s lengthwise and put PB on them, and put them in my cooler. I shelled 3 avocado’s and sprinkled salt on them. This was to be my “real food” at checkpoints. I had 2 cokes, and 3 mini ginger-ale’s in there as well.

 

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The Scarlet Speedster
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There after we went with Gabbi’s parents to what I have dubbed “Pizza trough”. Which is basically a pizza buffet there close to our hotel. It had 4 stars? Seemed good enough for me. It was good enough that when Gabbi was going for a re-up, some kid threw pizza sauce on her.

That night we went to bed early. Like, I’m 7 again and am going to camp tomorrow early. 8 p.m.

That night I dreamt of the race. What I’m about to tell you all is crazy, but it happened. I dreamt the race was between RedBull rider Addison Zawada and myself. With him beating me in my dream.

We hadn’t officially met, but I knew who he was and him- me because of social media. That’s how things these days work.

Saturday the 3rd. Race day.

rollout

This is the lineup. They get you divided up into timed sections: 12, 14, 16, 18, and 20 hour sections. You’re to “self seed” your placement.

I’m telling you, I lined up at let’s say the 13 hour mark. I was close enough to the front that I can see myself in some of the call up photos. Leading the charge were former winners. Gravel Worlds winners. People that were qualified to be up there.

I’m just me. I like to think I’m fast. Fast enough for this general region. Then there were the people who shouldn’t be up there. This guy on slicks, and wearing a triathlon outfit with an aero helmet was there. I just looked down.

Focus.

I’m not here for other riders.

Now, I keep saying that. I would stop if someone needed something. To extrapolate, what I mean is I’m not here to COMPARE myself to other riders. My first race of the season all I could think about was where “he” was, or how fast is “so and so” going to go. That race fell apart for me. I need to focus. Ride my own ride. I know what I’m capable of. I’m here to find out what I’m MADE of.

I’m not here for other riders.

The countdown had started. I looked around.

SHIT. I hadn’t started my garmin. We were rolling. I was waiting on it to turn on. Loading.. Loading..

FINALLY. I didn’t realize until 20 miles later I hadn’t pressed start. So, with that- I was off by about 20 miles all day.

That first 50 was incredibly fast. All of us SS riders were together for a large part of the back end of that 50. We rode together. We talked shit to each other, we laughed. We had a crew. It was early on. We all had dreams for the day. We were working through the nerves, I think. Either way, boys. It was great riding with you.

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Myself, Jake, Nico, Bailey, and Andrew
All seasoned riders. Andrew has won Worlds, Land Run and is pretty much ALWAYS on the podium. Jake won Land Run this year. Nico is a hella fast courier and also rides for RedBull. Bailey has done Tour Divide on his single speed. He’s beaten me at every race this year. So I don’t feel like it’s too much to say when I was riding with a bunch of bad boys.

Jake has serious technical skill. I just like going fast. I saw him huck a rock early on. I took his line.. and I’m pretty sure that’s the most air I’ve ever gotten. A few weeks earlier I had jumped a fallen tree at Maisies. Yes, this was even higher. Thanks for making me pee myself.

Coming into that 1st checkpoint, things were frantic. I saw Bobby. I asked where Orange was. See, there’s so many riders that each checkpoint is then divided into sections. He said he didn’t know. Maybe it was the race high, maybe it was something else. I yelled “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU DON’T KNOW?!” I’m sorry, my dude. I found Gabbi’s parents right away. Her dad Ken took my bike. I slammed a gingerale and PB banana. I refilled my food, and shot back out. I saw race director Lelan Dains, and gave him a speedy low five on the way out.

I remembered this next section. It was a B road. Not super technical, but enough to slow a lot of riders down. I caught a couple of people here, and noticed my front wheel had sealant coming out of it.

I kept rolling. Please seal. Not now.

It did.

The next thing I know, we’re starting a climb called the “Bitch”. Their words, not mine. I found Nico holding a broken chain. I thought, “Shit.” I asked him if he was alright, and he said he had a chain breaker in his pack. Okay. I looked up this bitch. Andrew was walking. I started to laugh, and said “I’m coming for you!!”. I think I saw a smirk. Andrew is strong. Like, really strong. I was able to ride up to where he was.. and then I said, “Okay, that’s all I’ve got.” and laughed it off while I was jogging with him.

I took this time to eat and drink a little bit, but before I knew it, he was already up the road a bit. I ran and jumped on and was off.

I remember us riding together for a minute, and then he dropped off. I just remember looking back and not seeing him. I hope you were alright out there.

We were starting to be out in the hills again. We were almost where it all happened. We were almost where.. I had been reborn. Then it appeared.

Texaco.  66.6 miles.

For those of you just tuning in, I wrecked here. I was attempting to smash the fixed gear record. I had no brakes. My chain broke, and I tried to stop myself. The next thing I knew I was being held down on the side of the road. I couldn’t form words. I could think, but I couldn’t speak.

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The scene at 2016. People huddled around me.
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They told me I had been out for almost 30 minutes. I had a seizure from the impact. I was concussed. I pulled a tooth out right there on the road. And I threw up.

Now I’m going to tell you about dying. I’m going to lay my experience before you, and let you decide what happened.

I’m not scared of a lot of things. In fact, I’m the one who would pick a fight with the biggest guy in the room. I’m scared of Grizzly bears. But my biggest fear, is death.

Why? Death is natural. It is inevitable. There is not cheat code, no magic potion that can stave it off.

I felt warm all over. I felt at ease. I felt–ready. Maybe it was the sun on my eyelids. Maybe it was the sweat on my body, or my own vomit I was laying in. All I know was it was peaceful.

Then it started. I feel weightless. “Those reporting NDEs often describe a profound psychological event that is mystical, transcendental, or even spiritual in nature; where the boundaries between space, time, and normal perceptual awareness become blurred.”

Then the fight came. I wasn’t ready. I might never be ready.

To quote the late Albus Dumbledore

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

Flashforward.

I’m screaming down Texaco hill.

Bailey behind me, giving me some room, and I never saw him again. I’m nervous. I hear the chatter of the flint. I feel it beneath my tires. This link is from Chris Nichols. He captured my descent.

http://www.christophernicholsphotography.com/2017-Dirty-Kanza/i-G96fDwq/A

I put it behind me. This is the furthest I’ve ever gone. I still have the task at hand. I made a promise to myself, and to everyone who has helped me along this past year.

Finish. I didn’t care about other riders. I didn’t care about what the course conditions were. FINISH.

I rolled into the 2nd checkpoint with rider Watts Dixon. Another single speeder. He told me we were in 2nd, 3rd, respectively. He also told me Addison went off the front and is still there.

I remembered my dreams. Weird.

Now this is where the race really starts. Mile 100-160 is the hardest riding you will ever do. You question yourself. You question everything. Is my skewer coming undone? Do I have enough water? Is my body going to hold up at this pace? Everything.

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I hear people yelling my name into the checkpoint. I held my composure and left the checkpoint into known territory. I’ve ridden 150 miles before. This is going to be what it’s going to be. We’ve made our way to the most southern point of the course.

NOPE. We turned south several more times after that. I remember there being more minimum maintence roads, and really trying to rail it through there. I knew the riders that were up front knew what they were doing. I should at least act like I can make some ground up here. I did.

Watts had made it out before me. I was chasing. I could always see him, but couldn’t ever bridge the gap. How in the hell are you guys so fast out of the checkpoints? I’m there for MAYBE 2 minutes. I’ll learn.

Around mile 140 we hit the best water crossing of the day. It was starting to be humid, and that really cooled my down. There were farmers throughout the day that were giving neutral support. Ice cold water bottles. I snatched three on different occasions not even to drink them. It was hot out, but my the muscles in my legs were overheating. They could cramp soon if I didn’t get their temperature down. I would open the bottles with my teeth and dump it on my legs. Whatever was left was meant to cool my core. I had my own water. This was bonus.

About 155, I find Watts. He’s asking me how I’m feeling. I don’t want to say, “Well, I probably feel about how everyone else is.” I move to the front of our group and everyone gets behind me.

Shit. Rookie mistake. I’m starting to feel the drag. I had my music in, but there’s only so much pumping up Yellowcard can do. I motioned “I could use some help up here!!!”, and I thought I heard someone saying something. But it didn’t matter. We were all in the cave. I looked up.

Holy. SHIT.

There on the left line was Dan Hughes. 4 Time winner of the Dirty Kanza. 2017 Trans Iowa winner. I think he’s got a World champion jersey hanging up somewhere too. I couldn’t believe it. Gabbi and I are nerds. Closet nerds, but nerds. Maybe I’m dragging her down. I’m a nerd. We talk about these riders sometimes like they’re myths. Like it’s a “Boss Character”. And then there are the mini bosses. Well known racers, but none of quite measure up to the results he’s had.

The Scarlet Speedster and the Mothra.

I dropped him. I still can’t believe it.

Into the last checkpoint I was frantic. 2nd. I can’t believe this. 2nd.

Yuri was in 2nd in 2015. He  was behind 30 minutes. He came back to win the Kanza with a sprint finish. Was I capable of that?

I thought about my dream from the night before.

“Where is Gabbi?” I asked. Her parents told me she was about an hour behind me. I couldn’t believe that either. She was killing it.

I ran. I jumped on my bike. This was it. 44 miles to the finish. Never before seen territory. It was then I knew I could finish. I tried as hard as I could that last bit. I was in the drops for a lot of it. I felt my momentum on the descents. One more B road later and we had 20 miles left.

I started to dwadle.

Pay attention. You can’t flat now. You can’t have any mistakes right now. You’ve worked for this. You lived. You made a promise.

I’m crying. No. There’s still more to do.

I looked at my Garmin. It read 180. I kept kicking myself that I had started it late. 200 miles in. 6 more to go.

We hit pavement. I could see the silo’s of Emporia. A part of me could hear the crowd. A part of me could feel that energy.

I’m crying. No. There’s still more to do.

I’m at 186. Burying myself in the drops. My head is down. I ate when I could. I drank when I could. I’m still not there. I must have started my Garmin at 22 in.

Then it’s over. I’m under I35. I’m climbing into campus. I can hear the music. I can smell the town. Someone in a parked car started yelling “YOU’VE DONE IT! You’re almost there!!”

I’m crying. No. There’s still more to do.

I’m crying. Yes. There’s nothing more to do.

Welling up, I see the cones leading me home. Leading me through the chute. I take my hands off the bars. All I can do is scream. I’m alive. I’m not ready. I did it.

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I don’t know how to describe how I felt. How part of me still feels. I’ve been obsessed with my comeback to the Kanza. I never dreamed I would have the result that I did.

12 hours 35 minutes. 2nd Single Speed.

Thank you to my love, Gabbi. For holding me accountable. For loving me. For giving me a home and family. You’re my best friend. I love you.

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She won the first ladies Single Speed category Dirty Kanza had.

To my incredible sponsors, there is NO way I can afford to race without you all. You each have given me so much. Some of you aren’t my actual sponsors, but I love you enough to give you that recognition. You have helped meld me and put me on this path to racing at the highest level on the biggest gravel stage.

J.B. Camera Designs

Scissortail Cycles

OKluma

District Bicycles

Ken & Tiny Shelton- I remember talking with you a month or so before race day. I said we had a chance to win our categories if we had you on our side. I think we got pretty darn close. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without y’all.

To Jim, Krist, Lelan, Tim, Adam, and everyone else that belongs to Gravel City and the Dirty Kanza promotion team. I’ve thought of you every time I’ve gone out to train. You know where I was a year ago today.

To everyone who wished me well, and has given me support for my dreams- Thank you.

I never saw this path for myself. I wanted to coach tennis. I wanted to run a tennis complex. Now I’m a woodworker who’s alter ego is an endurance cyclist. But this is life. Sometimes the path we choose isn’t the one we’re meant to be on. I’m happy. As a matter of fact, I’m the happiest in this moment I have ever been.

Happiness is a choice. Fear is a choice.

“Courageous, self-sacrificing people. Setting examples for all of us. Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they’ll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there’s a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride, even though sometimes we have to be steady, and give up the thing we want the most. Even our dreams.”

Believe in the speedster. Believe in yourself. Believe in your dreams.

Fight for them. Things don’t happen when you’re sitting and thinking about them. Know what you want from life. It’s short. Take what you want. Give enough back. The only thing that will stop you from that dream is your fear of failure.

You have a choice.

Thank you all for your time.

This was my comeback story.

Keep riding,

-Thomas

 

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All photo credit to Chris Nichols, Gravel Cyclist, and Sally Bousquet, Bailey Newbrey, & Tessa Burris

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3 thoughts on “Dirty Kanza 2017: The Comeback Kid

  1. Beautiful story, well written, emotional, I’m a bit lost for words and totally moved by your prose. Congratulations and a big thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Awesome write up and congrats on your finish/comeback! I rode past you shortly after your crash in 2016 – didn’t look good then and the follow up picture is worse. It’s a real inspiration to see you follow your dream and come back to finish in such spectacular fashion!

    Like

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