A Case for Suffering: The never-ending math equation (that is Dirty Kanza)

When alone and beaten down by the wind and the Flint Hills, a constant stream of calculations keeps a rider moving toward 205 miles

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EMPORIA, Kan. (VN) — If it weren’t for math, I might be dead — dusty and rotting in a roadside ditch in Midwest America.

But I summoned a great ally — algebra — along the route of the Dirty Kanza 200, a grueling, absurd, fantastic, arduous race across the Flint Hills of Kansas last weekend. And now I am alive.

My body isn’t built for 13.5-hour rides; my body isn’t fond of 204.5 miles in the saddle. I know this because after that many hours spinning my legs in circles, climbing some 11,852 feet in small doses, consuming innumerable bits of a variety of food items in a plethora of textures and consistencies and gallons of water mixed with gritty powders of assorted flavors, and spending half of a day in a state of lonely, self-inflicted torture, I could feel, with an acute intensity, that my body had stopped having any kind of fun.

My mind? In all that time and distance, I didn’t go anywhere, though I traveled far and wide. I expended many calories, crawled over many hills, churned circles in incalculable numbers; when I was done, I was right back where I started, in Emporia, Kansas. But my mind was not the same; it had broken new ground, solved new problems, calculated the path to salvation … or at least how long it would take to finish the damn race.

I knew before I started that I was built for racing of a different kind; in the past few years, cyclocross has converged with my physiological construct most appropriately. With its anaerobic accelerations and stabbing intensity, it felt like the best that cross-country running had to offer — my match in high school — only better, because it involved a bike. But lately I’ve been drifting from that familiar space, exploring new territory, physical and mental, by trying to go — what for me is — long. Can my physical and biological mechanics adapt to the rigors of going long, even if my brain continues to yearn for anaerobic attacks on every climb?

I chose to find out by riding the Dirty Kanza because it’s a true monster. Take a ’cross race, deflate the intensity factor just a little, but multiply the duration by 12 to 21, and, presto, you find yourself racing across the rolling AstroTurf of a vivid green Kansas in early summer, hurting and heaving in the midday sun, in the wind, and in your own mind.

The town of Emporia, where the journey begins and ends, pulsates in the early morning hours of dawn; riders are making last minute preparations to themselves and their rigs, and loved ones are wishing them well — it would be nearly a day until some of them saw each other again. How many collective miles had been ridden by the 638 gathered at the start to prepare for what lay ahead? It was the first, difficult calculation of the day, but certainly not the last. For my part, I rode one century with lots of climbing, one century with lots of wind, and one gravel grinder that was as hard as diamonds, but months ago.

People kept telling me I would do well, that I had a shot at a podium finish, but they didn’t know how many “tree-tipping” rides I had taken in between. Ever since I started running competitively in the sixth grade, training was my enemy. I was a picky eater; by high school, I was malnourished and emaciated, surviving on an artificially orange flow of semi-liquid cheese known as Easy Cheese, squirted from a metal silo onto vapid, Ritz wafers. Somehow, I managed to be a pretty good runner, and I loved racing. But it was the training that I despised. On our team’s long training runs, near the thick stands of deciduous trees of Haley Farm State Park, there was plenty of time to get lost in the woods, pretend like I was training, and tip trees that were on the verge of rotting to the ground. Shake a tree back and forth near its base, in frequency with the arc and curl of the trunk, making certain not to induce the tip to break prematurely from the torque and spear you through the back, and the tree was tipped. Hours of unadulterated fun.

My preparation for Kansas had included too many tree-tipping rides. It didn’t take a mathematician to decipher the inadequacies of my preparation. I knew full well, but still thought that I might be able to rely on pure grit to hurtle myself through the tube of suffering in which I was to be encased, out the other side, and impress the three fans that knew the whole truth about what I had just done. My computations were incorrect.

The opening miles of this year’s Dirty Kanza were, to be frank, maniacal. It was unsustainably fast, and more like a road race than any endurance event I’m familiar with; riders drifted off the front solo, whispers of “matches are burning” echoed through the hollows, but for the most part it was high-speed pacelines and little chatter. Two and a half hours later we were at the first checkpoint, mile 50. I knew this lead group was going faster than could be continued; I also knew that I wanted to benefit from their big bodies being in front of me heading into the northwesterly wind that would peg us for the next 125 miles, so I held on. I lasted 40 more.

Suddenly, at mile 90, in the final four of the lead group (which included then three-time, now four-time, winner Dan Hughes), my stomach, esophagus, and mouth all ganged up on me; apparently they didn’t like what I had put in them. I had to stop and watch those three remaining riders drift away, like a cruise ship passing by a castaway on a deserted island. I was the castaway, and I heaved like I had just eaten the only remaining slugs from the upturned rotten log.

I was all alone. There were no trees in site for me to tip, only vibrant green grass, the speckled glare of a flinty, sun-drenched track, and Q-tip clouds soaring across the sky. But I didn’t really notice that at the time, because my mind had turned into an abacus, and was adrift, calculating on and on about one thing or another. Like a practice SAT question that won’t leave your head the night before the big test, the algebra kept flooding my thoughts. If I had 37 miles to go to the next checkpoint, and could average 17 miles per hour, how long would it take to get there? If I had only 43 minutes before 13 hours came and went, how fast would I have to ride to finish the next 15 miles? If I had been trying to sleep, I wouldn’t have. If I had been taking a test, I would have been fidgeting in my seat. At Dirty Kanza, with a numb brain and hours to waste, I toiled over meaningless math problems just to pass the time — and because I couldn’t stop. It’s all I had out there — numbers would bring me home.

I rode alone for many anonymous miles; when I did get caught, or did some catching, it felt like an intrusion into my solitude. Even knowing that I could go faster with the aid of another engine, it was easier to ride my own race — now that I had burned my whole box of matches keeping pace in the first 90 miles — and let the others drift away. The struggle to hold a wheel was a struggle I didn’t prefer — the struggle inside my own mind was a marginally more comfortable place to be.

At last, at mile 175, I had a tailwind. At last, I had aid. And now new calculations could begin because average speed was being re-tabulated with every pedal stroke, to the positive. What once seemed undeterminable was now resolute — the finish was not far away and the finish time was a manageable algebraic equation that even a fifth grader could compute. I rode into the empty streets on the outskirts of Emporia, having come full circle, then slid into the corridor of cheering fans that only cheered for me and across the line; problem solved.

Unfortunately, the numbers continue to tick through my mind. Only 359 days and counting until the next never-ending math problem of Dirty Kanza.

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