On June 4th I competed in the Dirty Kanza 200, a gravel road race that traverses the flint hills of eastcentral Kansas. The race is self-supported and notorious for its extreme conditions. If you talk to anyone who has ever competed in the race they will mention how the rocks are so sharp they can cause multiple flats, how the wind can be so strong and relentless that you feel like you aren’t moving, and that temperatures can be extremely hot with zero coverage from trees.
My first experience racing the Dirty Kanza was in 2015. It rained A LOT leading up to the race and the mud was so bad we ended up having to walk for miles and miles. It was one of the toughest races I had ever done and when I crossed the finish line I was pretty sure that the Dirty Kanza was a one time deal for me. But as time passed I found myself thinking about the race more and more and when I found out that they added a fatbike category it was a done deal. Count me in!
The fatbike category was co-ed. Naturally my goal was to beat all of the boys! Luckily I have a great coach, Andy Applegate from CTS coaching, and a great strength coach, Jason Ross ffrom Train Out Pain. Both were able to help me prepare for the race through workouts. Leading up to the race I competed in a few local gravel road races and spent some long days on my Salsa Cycles fat bike, named Skittles.
Danielle Musto's Salsa Cycles fat bike named Skittles
Before I knew it I was heading to Kansas with a bunch of my teammates from the Grand Rapids Bicycle Company and my mechanic, Ted Bentley. I was extremely nervous because I knew the race was going to be extremely hard, but I was also excited to see what I could do.
The atmosphere the day before the Dirty Kansas was electric. After packet pickup I dropped my bike off at the Salsa showroom so that it could be on display with all of my other teammates bikes. It definitely looked fat compared to the other gravel bikes it was next to! I spent the rest of the day prepping my gear for the 3 checkpoints and then it was time for bed.
My mechanic Ted Bentley from the Grand Rapids Bicycle Company stayed up way later than me making sure that my bike was in top condition. I felt like I barely closed my eyes when my alarm started going off at 4 am. I soon found myself at the start line with close to 1,000 other racers. We watched the first signs of light appear in the sky and then we were off.
Dirty Kanza 200 Start Line
I felt really good at the start but also knew that I had a really long day in the saddle. In long races like the Dirty Kanza there are so many variables that you can’t control. It’s really easy to start worry about getting flats, bonking, running out of water, having to walk 200 miles carrying a fat bike because of mud...the list goes on and on. Instead of focusing on all of the “what ifs” I focused on everything I could control. From the get go I focused on pacing myself and remaining hydrated. I knew that it was going to get extremely hot during the latter half of the day and my coach had warned me to stay hydrated at all costs.
46 miles later I was pulling into the first checkpoint. I felt great, was so happy to see my friends. I had a great pit crew and they had me in and out in no time. Onward to checkpoint #2.
Temps started to hit the mid-80’s and it felt completely shocking to me. After all, I’m from Michigan. We have snow 11 months out of the year! The wind started to pick up as well and the direction it was coming from was ominous. One of the guys I was riding with remarked that we were going to have to ride straight into the wind for the second half of the race. I sincerely hoped that he was wrong.
I was really happy to reach checkpoint #2. Once again my pit crew had me in and out in record time. It was HOT and I felt like I was melting. They gave me a few bags of ice to stuff in my jersey and I was out. I still felt pretty good. “I’m going to be done in no time,” I thought to myself.
Feeling great hitting the checkpoints
A few miles later I felt like I hit a wall. The wind had been growing stronger and was between 20-30 mph. The long grass in the fields next to me was moving like waves in a lake and the gravel road that I was riding on was heading straight into the wind as far as I could see. I tried to remain positive but there were a few times when I mentally hit a very dark place, like when I looked down at my Garmin and saw that I was only going 5-6 mph.
The wind wasn’t the only relentless element. Temperatures had risen above 90 degrees and anytime I passed a tree (there weren’t many out there) I would see a racer standing underneath it, trying to cool down in the shade. I spent the next couple of hours chanting “don’t stop” over and over in my head and eventually it worked because I made it to the final checkpoint. I was SO HAPPY to see my friends waiting with bags of ice and a fresh camelback because I was completely out of water and convinced that I was actually melting. They had me in and out in no time.
The final 46 miles (the race was actually 206 miles) passed in a blur. There were more hills and more gravel. The temperature and wind eventually started to drop which made everything easier to handle. It was obvious that I wasn’t going to beat the sun to the finish line but I was treated to an amazing sunset during my final miles.
Finally I saw spotlights in the sky and heard cheers from the crowd! Crossing the finish line is always a great feeling but after being on a bike for 15+ hours it’s the BEST FEELING in the world. While I didn’t beat all of the guys I’m happy to say that I beat all but 3 of them and finished 4th overall in the fat bike category! I was also the 6th overall female!
I can’t say enough good things about the Dirty Kanza 200. It is probably one of the hardest races I’ve ever competed in but that’s what makes crossing the finish line so great. The camaraderie and spirit of the race are unbeatable. I get so inspired by the race. Not just by the speed of the first person across the line, but by the people who push themselves way after the sun goes down.
Am I going back next year? Yes. Will I be racing on my fat bike again? Yes. Do I think I can beat the sun on my fat bike? Yes!