A little background about the Shearers, Jason and Wendi. They first met at a mountain bike race in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where they discovered their mutual love of all things cycling. You can pretty imagine where the tale goes from here. They spent their honeymoon on a Mountain and Gravel biking tour in Argentina, climbing and descending old volcanoes. In addition to their adventures, they also promote the Mississippi Gravel Cup, a second-year series of four gravel races starting on January 12, 2020 and ending on February 23, 2020.
DK 2019 – Faith Shattered, Faith Restored – Wendi
To give DK2019 the context it deserves, I have to go back to the beginning.
We discovered Dirty Kanza on a visit to see family in Kansas City in late 2014. Jason’s brother casually mentioned this 200-mile long gravel race in Emporia, and Jason heard “new challenge”. I am used to Jason’s thirst for conquering new opportunities, and I agreed to be his support in addition to participating in the 25-mile fun ride. For me, this was just another fun weekend.
The morning of the 2015 race changed all of that. It was still dark when the 200 riders were lining up, and I had never seen so many bikes and riders in one place. The energy was electric. There had to be twice as many supporters as there were riders. Everyone was hugging, taking pictures, ringing cowbells… kids were holding up posters saying, “Good Luck, Dad!” or “You’ve got this Mom!”. I was amazed. I had never seen a community this large get up so early to see off a bike race. I will never forget watching Jason and thousands of others take off and thinking, “I wish I was going with them”. I wanted what they had.
When we took off for our 25-mile fun ride, we received (almost) the same fanfare as the other distances. People were standing on the sides of the road for miles, waving and holding up signs of support. The weather was perfect (cold and rainy, but it still felt perfect to me), the distance was perfect, I loved the company I was with and I fell in love with gravel. Jason had a great race despite the muddy conditions, and we knew that we had to somehow bottle this community vibe and bring it home to Mississippi.
Since then, I have attended three Dirty Kanza Camps (2016, 2018 and 2019), finished the 100 miler and twice attempted the DK200. I have progressed from having no business being anywhere near camp (thank you Kristi, for sweeping me, and only me, so graciously that first year, and to Crystal for giving me my very own tour of the Murder Ordained route because I couldn’t keep up with the rest of the campers), to having the DK crew cheer me on with positive words as they saw my progress each year.
Let me stop here and say that one of the most inspiring relationships that have come from this journey is the one I have with Kristi Mohn. Looking back had she not been so patient with me during that first camp in 2016, I wouldn’t be riding gravel today. I had no idea that I was surrounded by past DK winners – professional cyclists – and that the others there with me had trained hard so they would get the most out of the opportunity to learn from those ride leaders. Had I known just how far off the mark I was, had she criticized my lack of fitness or hinted that I wasn’t strong enough to be out there, I would have hung that bike up and never looked at it again.
She allowed me to be ignorant of the level of riders I was surrounded by, and she filled our time with her stories of growth on the bike and encouraging words and suggestions. She made me believe that you didn’t have to be a lifetime athlete to be a part of this event. You just had to put in the work. It wasn’t until several months later that I understood the opportunity that weekend offered and the grace shown by Kristi and the rest of the DK team by not pointing out that I was a fish out of water. Oh, and that the guy who was wearing the Yeti kit that one day was the overall winner of the previous year’s DK200 – the guy who was in all the podcasts I had been listening to.
2018 was my first attempt for the 200. I attended camp again that April and Kristi was less forgiving, letting me know I wasn’t riding to my potential while educating me on how I could make improvements (when she wasn’t doing single leg drills in front of me). This was exactly what I needed from her, minus the drills.
2018 was a failure that could have been prevented. I had a flat at mile 132, and I had not practiced tubing flats enough to be able to change one when I was on course and exhausted. Also, I had a stoppage of over THREE hours (!!). Because of these two things, the sweeper jeep caught me up in its wake. I was crushed. I vowed to never let a flat kill my ride again. The lingering sadness I felt the weeks after surprised me. I was more emotionally invested than I cared to admit.
This gets us to 2019. This year. 2019 was going to be my year. I worked hard on my bike, the gravel community now thriving in my hometown was there to help me get miles in, and I had a tightknit group of gravel family who trained with me for their own DK ride.
My LandRun experience was amazing, leaving me feeling strong both physically and mentally. If I could replicate that at DK, it was in the bag. My bike was at its best and had been upgraded with a Lauf fork to smooth out the rough terrain. I had seen Jason off for the DKXL the day before, I had a good night’s sleep and I was ready to take on that chunky, hilly course.
One of the best things about the lineup is reuniting with those you’ve met in previous years or at other gravel races. Everyone is so encouraging and excited to ride! The street was alive with anticipation and excitement, and we took off with cheers of support and good luck. I was grateful to be a part of what I expected to be a long, challenging and rewarding day (and night). The course was beautiful, the group I was with was friendly and fun – this was my year!
Mile 13.5 – I hear a noise come from my derailleur, and a guy behind me yelling something I couldn’t understand. He ended it with “you better pull over”. I looked down thinking I must have caught something on my chain but saw nothing so assumed it fell out on its own.
Mile 14.2 – I can’t pedal. The chain won’t move. I pull over and inspect my bike, but I can’t see anything missing or stuck in the chain. I pick up the bike wheel and try to move the crank, and the whole derailleur pulls back against the back wheel. After a few more tries, I see that the bottom jockey wheel isn’t spinning. It’s frozen. I take the back wheel off and try to clean the frozen piece with my fingernails, try to make it spin, but no dice. I decide to take it off the bike to work on it some more, and as soon as I do it disintegrates into pieces in my hand. My ride is over an hour and a half after it started.
Not everyone bikes or participates in endurance sports, so just substitute anything you have worked hard for – poured your heart and soul into – for years, sacrificed other things to train in cold and in the heat, only to be sidelined by something out of your control. It’s devastating. I know I’m not the only one who experienced loss out there, and I’m fortunate not to have been cut short by injury. Standing there realizing that my effort was over almost before it started, though, made my heart break. In the end, all my hard work hadn’t mattered. I was crushed, and I was done with gravel.
As I was dealing with this realization, two of my Mississippi friends doing the 100 rode by and saw me. Frank looked at my bike and expressed sympathy before he took off again, and Michelle offered me her bike (and I knew she meant it.).
My beautiful friend Sharon came to get me and helped me through the initial feelings, and then all I wanted to do was go back to the dorm and sleep. To wallow in my loss. I’m so thankful I didn’t. Had I done that, I would have missed out on an amazing day, and what I was ultimately there to learn.
I would have missed the opportunity to be at the checkpoint with Sharon for Kate (who also offered me her bike!), helping her get back out on course so she could finish the ride we started together.
I would have missed seeing Jes, a fellow camper, at the checkpoint and giving her a hug of support.
I would have missed seeing my Kansas City family and friends support each other as they took on the heat of the day after that first checkpoint.
I would have missed seeing FIVE of my Mississippi crew finish the 100! I was able to be at the finish chute to see each one of them come in, their faces glowing with tears in their eyes as they said in a proud voice, “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done!”
I would have missed seeing my amazing husband shed the weight of insecurity he was carrying because of his rough start to the 2019 season, coming down that chute smiling and slaying the DKXL in 28.5 hours (!!).
I would have missed seeing my Brother-in-law Jared come through the finish chute, overcoming a knee issue that plagued him for most of his ride.
I also would have missed the opportunity to experience what it’s like to have this community of amazing people validate my loss and understand my grief. Being vulnerable and taking the risk of failing in front of others is a tough one for me. Having the very thing I feared – failing to finish the race that was four years in the making – crushed me. I wanted to curl up inside myself – I was embarrassed that it had happened AGAIN, and embarrassed that I couldn’t control my emotions about it. What I came to understand is that this was the best place I could be that day. Rather than hearing judgment, or sympathy, or ways I could have made the ride still happen, I received hugs of support, had others cry with me, and was reassured that this was a fix that couldn’t happen on course. Tina Kahn, that hug in Mulready’s Sunday Morning was the best hug ever! I still feel that love. The very community that made me fall in love with gravel in 2015 showed up again for me four years later, when I needed it most.
For anyone who says that the gravel vibe is changing for the worse as it grows –you are 100% wrong. The generous heart of this tribe is still beating strong. I take back what I said out on course Saturday. I’m not done. This community reminded me that failure is part of the journey and that quitting is not.
Original article can be seen HERE. Re-printed with permission by the Shearers.
Double Dose of Kanza – Jason
Well… almost double, kind of a rounding error, right?
I completed DK200 for the first time in 2015 and again last year, but when the DK team announced the larger version in 2018 dubbed DKXL, I immediately knew I wanted to tackle this event. 2019 would be the second year for the 350 mile event and the organizers required you to submit an application of sorts listing out your experience with longer format races. I was pretty humbled, stoked, and nervous when I received my invite on December 15, 2018.
So then… I had five and a half months to prepare. No biggie, right?
About the time that DKXL email came out, Wendi and I, along with the help of our local race organizers, were in the throes of preparing and driving registration for the second year of our local gravel series, the Mississippi Gravel Cup. I had initially planned on tackling the AZTR750 and Land Run 100 in the Spring, but the demand and stress of putting on four races in two months, in addition to my day job, started to expose cracks in my physical and emotional capacity for this schedule. We were also adding an event to the Ordinary Epics portfolio with a new partner in late April called the Greenwood Gravel Grind. I shed my 2019 dreams of getting back out to Arizona to make some space. Ultimately, I reconciled this by knowing that investing and growing our local gravel community was a more important goal.
A few other setbacks including a crash requiring some stitches in my knee and a 24-hour bug that kept me away from the Land Run start line, began to shake my confidence in being ready for DKXL. Working with my coach Lynda, I simplified my training plan to focus on riding with people during the week to keep my spirits high and banging out long weekend blocks. About a month out from the event, we worked a three day, six-hour block into the calendar which I blew the doors off of, drastically boosting my confidence. Everything through the rest of May was just maintenance and a bit of intensity.
In previous years of Dirty Kanza, Wendi and I would make it a pretty whirlwind trip getting to Emporia on Thursday night, then bolting out first thing on Sunday. This really limited our time to get settled and relaxed as well as not leaving a lot of space to invest in old and new friendships.
This year, we planned to arrive on Tuesday and not depart until Sunday afternoon. This gave us time to get a few days of pre-riding in with local friends in Emporia and lots of time to chill with our gravel family.
On Wednesday we rode the route out of Council Grove with Kate, Tanya and Michelle, which gave us a taste of some of the more aggressive terrain north of Emporia. With the amount of rain and subsequent flooding in the midwest, there was a lot of concern about very poor course conditions for the weekend’s race. These rides squashed all of those fears. I made a little video you can find HERE which talks about my predictions for the best and fastest conditions ever at Kanza, which was ultimately validated by the first ever sub-10 hour DK200 finish by Colin Strickland on Saturday.
Thursday, Scott Blubaugh and I headed to the tiny housing community of Neal, Kansas to ride the southernmost portion of the DKXL route. These are roads that have been on previous editions of Dirty Kanza but would only be touched by the 350 riders this year. Wide grades and gentle rollers were on tap until we came over a rise and looked down upon flooded farmland backed up by waters from Toronto Lake to the east. Riding down to the water’s edge, we estimated it was somewhere between five to six feet deep based on the fence posts that disappeared on the right side of the road. We took photos and forwarded them along to the race organizers, but I secretly hoped that it would not be pulled from the route. Ultimately, this road and five other sections including the amazing Camp Creek Road would be rerouted leaving us with a slightly shortened 339-mile course.
The plan on Friday was to chill and get as much rest as possible as I was still feeling pretty run down from a bout of bronchitis I had been fighting off for the past couple of weeks. I slept in as late as I could, woke up feeling pretty crappy and headed over to the ESU union for breakfast. The mood was tense as people talked about tire pressure and nutrition. I headed back to the dorms to nap for a few hours, feeling much better when I woke to have lunch with my brother at the union. I think we talked mostly about his race and other non-Kanza stuff. I showed him the work I had done to our sprinter van and did some last minute bike prep like chain lube and tire pressure (you can find a video of my bike setup HERE). We hugged, parted ways, and I dressed out and pedaled downtown around 2pm.
Damn man! There were a ton of people that came down to Mechanic Street to see all of us off. There was not a lot of order to where and how to line up, but more of a loose crowd of people and bikes. In my experience, it doesn’t much matter who is where in a race this long and with such a small field. I was overwhelmed with gratitude as friends I hadn’t seen in a while or that I only knew from social media came to say hello and take photos. I used this memory a number of times during my ride as motivation to push through a couple of dark spots.
About five minutes out from 3pm, you could faintly hear Jim Cummins talking over a PA telling us about the route, that we were on our own, and that we were all probably crazy. Between conversations and crowd noise I really didn’t pick up much of what he said. At some point he said “GO!” and we all started rolling pretty slowly behind a lead vehicle south on K-99 out of town. This neutral rollout seemed really long with the first of six flooding reroutes but once we hit gravel and the lead car pulled away it ramped up pretty quickly. We stayed with the lead group for 12 miles, then about a dozen of us dropped off a bit. With fresh legs and nerves, I pulled out of the chase group and caught up to the back of about six riders in the front.
I popped off the back of this group at Road D to find my race pace. Eventually, I found Jimmy and Steve who I worked with really well into Madison. I executed a really quick refill on Gatorade and headed out the door. Jimmy and Steve were taking a little more time so I rolled out with Kristin Legan and Dan Hughes, hoping to see them again so we could set our solid rhythm.
Madison to Eureka
My stomach was a little soured from a Snickers, so I dropped off of Kristin & Dan’s wheels and soft-pedaled a bit to let my stomach settle. I watched a beautiful sunset, called Wendi, and made it into Eureka hours ahead of time. I went into yet another Casey’s to reload on food to make the 100-mile push to Cottonwood Falls, grabbing a bean burrito to eat on the sidewalk outside for some much-needed energy. I learned the magic of burritos a few years ago during the Arizona Trail Race. You can pop a frozen burrito in your pack or jersey pocket and within a few hours, it is ready to eat! I chatted with Jason Ebberts a bit as he was taking photos of riders rolling in and out and then I pedaled into the night.
Eureka to Cottonwood Falls
This was the 100 miles of the route that I was most looking forward to. Riding solo into a beautiful night with a crystal clear sky and no moon made for an incredibly dark and serene backdrop. The miles were clicking off pretty easy with the relatively flat terrain making it into the small railroad community of Matfield Green around 2am… still a couple of hours ahead of my race plan schedule. I topped off water and changed headlamp batteries at a spigot I found on the route. Bikepacking experience told me that there would be some source of water on this 100-mile stretch that would keep me from lugging around extra liters. I packed some aquamira tablets to sanitize any wild water I might have to pull from, but ultimately I did not them.
About 15 miles outside of Matfield I rolled up to a right turn that I had been anticipating since Lyn mentioned it earlier in the week. Coyne Creek Road… such an amazing trip! It reminded me of Hatchet Creek Road on the Trans North Georgia route. Like… WTF is this road here? Who uses it? Why all the piles of dirt and rock? Why is the road covered in really loose shale rather than the typical flint and limestone? So many water crossings, so many questions. I loved this road more than anything on the route.
I passed a few riders through the night with mechanicals and other broken bits. A few that were pulling over to put on a layer but I was feeling fantastic. Every hour or so I would stop to shove some food in my mouth, turn all of my lights off, and look up at the most amazing starfield. No light pollution from the moon or cities. Breathtaking. Turning my lights back on seemed to constantly catch the reflecting eyes of mostly cattle, but every once in a while a coyote, skunk, or deer.
More fast, miles into Cottonwood Falls with a beautiful sunrise blazing into my eyes.
Cottonwood Falls to Alma
Gas station number… um, who knows. I ducked in and grabbed yet more orange or purple Gatorade bottles along with a few doughnuts and a coffee. I knew that hot nectar from the gods would get things moving so I made it a really quick stop and didn’t snag any food as I planned on taking a nature break a few miles up the road in Council Grove. Hopped back on the bike fueled by sunshine and chocolate frosting to tackle the 30-some miles into Council Grove where we had pre-ridden just a few days prior. I knew what was to come with the push past Council Grove into Alma so I attempted to soak up the easy miles and good vibes. The grades up to K-177 were pretty shallow and then almost entirely descended into the city.
A second breakfast of a burrito and iced coffee was on tap. Loaded up with many snacks. Popped in my earbuds in for the first time with a mix of Metallica + Matt & Kim. The grades heading north were pretty wide and rolly. I spent a good bit of time on the tops of my bars jamming out the miles until I made a right onto the fabled Little Egypt Road. I had heard the legend of this road but I don’t believe I had ever ridden it. The first half mile or so wasn’t that bad…just a little chunk. Maybe the stories had been blown out of proportion. Then the road bent to the south and BAM! Chunky rock (not gravel) motherlode! I had noticed some cars when I turned off of Bluestem Road and didn’t really think much of it till I saw what seemed like a dozen photographers on the side of the trail (note… trail, not road) turn towards me and start shooting. Damn! That was pretty awesome of them to come all the way up here to catch images of DKXL riders coming though the gnar. Oh wait… is that Colin Strickland riding towards me in the opposite direction? Why yes it was… slightly sketch pass with a quiet hello well executed. My sleep deprived brain put 2+2 together and prepared for an oncoming onslaught of chasing groups followed by a peloton of dust.
It was really cool to see all of these guys, but the anxiety of popping over a roller and being met by totally gassed riders rolling three to four abreast was a little much. It did keep things interesting and made some of these tough miles roll by a little quicker. I was able to see a number of friends in the lead group of the 200 and it was uplifting to have them scream out and cheer me on. One thing that was notable was that nearly every rider that I crossed said “hello”, “good job”, “keep it up”, or some other words of encouragement. What was most special were those riders that realized that I was an XL rider and gave me an extra “woohoo!”. At some point, I passed by Yuri Hauswald in a small pack of riders and I wondered if it gave him reflection on his DKXL ride last year. I remembered reading his account of the ride, and it was motivating to hear how much he dedicated himself to training for what was his longest bike race ever.
The heat of the day was starting to get to me and my legs were slowing on the climbs. Luckily there were a lot of winding turns to keep things interesting. Somewhere there was an EF sponsored neutral water stop which looked to be head and shoulders better than the neutral stop in 2015 but I passed on by both because I really just wanted to get to Alma and I don’t believe we were allowed to accept race provided support. Those cold bandanas looked pretty nice though…
Alma was a nice oasis where I stopped for a bit to cool off drinking a big styrofoam cup full of ice water and filling two bottles for the short 22 miles to Eskridge.
Alma to Eskridge
Whoops… Alma to Eskridge was easily the hardest part of the entire race. The guidebook failed to mention that it had nearly 2000’ of gain and some of the steepest climbs in the entire route. They were wearing my ass out. There were a few that I walked over the top. I worked hard to carry as much momentum as I could until my legs would give out in the last hundred feet. There was at least one water crossing where I stopped to soak my legs for a minute and cover my sun sleeves with cool water. Finally about two and a half hours later, I made it to the tiny convenience store that was nothing like a Casey’s. I kindly asked the lady at the counter if I could stay inside to cool off and eat a few breakfast sandwiches. She obliged.
Filled with real food and ice water I started to come back to life. I bought a few more snacks and loaded up on fluids for the final 40-mile push to the finish in Emporia. There were a few moments where I considered breaking here for a while to let my stomach settle down and wait for the heat of the day to pass, but I just wanted to keep moving forward.
All packed up and ready to roll, I saw a couple of riders out of the corner of my eye. It was Nick Legan and Jake Wells. I cannot remember which of them asked if I would be willing to wait for a few minutes for them to resupply and ride with them. I didn’t hesitate to say yes, as 250 miles solo left me longing for a little company.
Rolling out with these guys was pretty awesome. Chatting about the sections we thought were tough. Me telling them that there were no more hills (not true). Nick telling us there were no more B-roads (also not true). Fanny pack jokes. Talking about TransIowa. A lot of lighthearted conversation that made the easy miles just fly by. 20 miles of really gentle rollers and then 20 miles of mostly flat to downtown, and in no time we were joined up with 200 milers that were ready to be done with their ride as well. The last big climb up into the ESU campus and then it was home free. Jake joked about a sprint finish (I wasn’t so sure he was joking) and ultimately those two sat back to finish together after riding 140 miles as a duo while I finished slightly ahead of them.
The Dirty Kanza finish line has been said to be the best and most exhilarating finish line experience of any race of its kind. A chute nearly a quarter mile long lined with locals and other racers ringing cowbells. This was my third time down that cone and barricade lined path but this one was a little more special. Typically ultra races do not have that much fanfare at the finish line (or the start for that matter). You might end in a park or downtown area at a totally random time of day and quite possibly alone or with another racer if you are lucky. This was very different and very special. Kudos to the DK team for taking that same finish line experience you have built a brand around and offering it to riders that have battled the Flint Hills for over 24 hours.
The first person I saw when I crossed the timing mat was Kristi Mohn, who gave me a hug and put a finisher lanyard over my head. The next person I saw was my wife, Wendi, which was very unexpected as she should have still been out on course but there was no one else I would have rather seen. Fueled by stoke and a few beers, we stayed up until about 3am cheering friends and other riders on down the Kanza finish chute in what is the greatest show on gravel.
Live in the present, pedal now – I cannot remember if it was Jay Petervary or someone else who said that feelings only last so long. If you are riding a high, savor it because it won’t last forever. If you are in a dark place, eat some food because it will soon pass. Investing in a meditation practice to better understand thoughts and feelings over the past year has helped me with this in my daily life. DKXL was the first time I was able to exercise that practice on the bike and I can tell you that it kept me in an amazing headspace.
Be patient, make new friends – For rides/races like this I am rarely at the front and I do it more to experience a new landscape (or rediscover an old one in a new way), to challenge myself physically and mentally, and maybe most importantly to inspire other people to do things they may not think possible. I only rode the first 50 miles and the last 40 with other humans. There was a 250 mile stretch in there where I was solo, which I enjoyed a great deal but could have made it better with other riders. I don’t know the precise answer to this but will be thinking more about it.
Everyone hurts, we are all human – I will save names in respect of my fellow riders but I saw a lot of pain and heartbreak this weekend. Whether it is a mechanical, a crash, or a physical problem that challenges us…we all struggle. My friend and spirit animal Bobby Wintle said it best during his LR100 rider meeting this year… we all have pain. Regardless of your station in life or experience as a cyclist, no one is immune to the blows that 339 miles of Flint Hills can dole out. To me what is special about this is that it level sets us as humans.
Long miles on gravel binds us – I was fortunate to ride with Jake Wells and Nick Legan in the last stretch into Emporia. I knew Nick but had never heard of Jake, and I certainly had no idea of his accomplishments until I got home and Googled him. In those 40 miles…Nick, Jake, and I were just three dudes on bikes. This is the purity I believe gravel offers us if we are willing to accept it.
Special Thanks To:
Wendi Shearer – Without you, none of this would be possible.
My Mississippi Gravel Family – Thank you for hopping on this paceline with us. Kanza is what inspired us to bring this home.
Lynda Wallenfels – You are not only my coach but my mentor and guru. On the bike and off, you make me better.
The Lauf Family – Gudberg, Oli and team. An amazing bike with ZERO DKXL mechanicals.
Original article can be seen HERE. Re-printed with permission by the Shearers.