By Hillary Allen

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into for Dirty Kanza. I knew the race was on gravel roads – I had a gravel bike. I knew the race was 200 miles – I had done a 150 mile training ride. I knew the race had 11,000 feet of climbing – I had done that before in training. I knew how to eat and fuel well for long distances – I am a professional endurance athlete after all. My team at Skratch Labs had even put me through an accelerated bike program, teaching me about everything from saddle sore prevention to bike handling skills, drafting, and nutrition. I thought I was prepared, but honestly, Dirty Kanza was nothing I could have prepared for.

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I say this in the most positive way, because a 200-mile race isn’t just a race. It’s a journey. It’s a vision quest. It’s a deliberate decision to keep pushing into the unknown and finding out if you have what it takes to finish it, no matter what problems are thrown your way. I had an incredible team helping me along the way. Allen Lim, co-founder of Skratch Labs and Urielle Carlson, a nutritionist, helped me with all the fueling leading up to race day and during the big event. They made me a healthy dinner the night before and kept me going with rice cakes (from Allen’s “Feed Zone Portables"), Skratch Labs Energy Chews, Sports Hydration Mix, and Anytime Energy Bars. Throughout the entire 200 miles I consumed 4 packs of Energy Chews (all Matcha flavored!) 1 Anytime Bar, 9 rice cake portables and I drank 12 bottles (6 of which had Hydration Mix and the other 6 were just plain water).  All of this fuel kept me happy and smiling all day. I kept my energy even all day and didn’t suffer from any extreme energy bonk. I had fun out there, even though it was the most technical bike ride I have ever been on.

Photo: Greg Erwin

Photo: Greg Erwin

Now, nutrition can easily get messed up in a race, you can easily fall behind or forget to fuel if you are in a low spot – but it was one of the few things I was actually prepared for in Dirty Kanza. I had practiced nutrition many times while running mountain races for hours on end, so I knew how to fuel, however I wasn’t prepared to fuel on such a technical course where I couldn’t take my hands off the bike – because I didn’t want to crash! So, I had to be strategic and take advantage of flat sections or aid stations to make sure I stayed on top of everything.

That brings me to my next experience of Dirty Kanza, how extremely technical and steep it was! The gravel roads in Kansas are nothing like the ones I trained on in Colorado. In Kansas the roads are more like crushed rock than gravel. They are sharp rocks, sometimes pretty big rocks in fact. There were nice-looking sections of gravel roads, but when you were on them with your bike, even those sections were rough, so riders had to find their way to the side of the road where it was a bit smother and less chunky. There were also some extremely rugged and infrequently traveled tractor roads that we had to navigate, with deep ruts (about a foot deep), river crossings, holes, loose, squirrely gravel and more chunks of rock. There were mountain bikes and fat bikes doing this race too, and it seemed like everyone was getting flat tires. I had 38 mm tires on my bike and at times, I felt like they were too skinny. But, even with my limited bike handling experience, remember this was my very first bike race, and I had only been riding gravel for 2 months – somehow, I found a way to get through the technical terrain. I kept telling myself to ‘be loose’ to ‘relax’ and, most importantly I told myself to ‘keep breathing.’

The most important part of this bike race for me was to have fun. I didn’t want to injure myself (that’s how I started riding in the first place) or to hate riding bikes at the end of the event. I wanted to enjoy it, to learn and to challenge myself in a new way. Dirty Kanza had an incredible community. In many ways, the gravel bike community reminded me of the ultra-running community. Everyone was so encouraging, helpful and excited for the event. The whole town of Emporia came out to support the event and every aid station or checkpoint I came through; the people were electric. It was impossible to quit when there was so much energy around me. I even got a flat tire during the race (again, the rocks were brutal) and I got the chance to change my first flat, ever – putting in a tire boot to repair the slash, then throwing in a tube to hold the pressure. It held too, for the remainder of the race.

Photo: Greg Erwin

Photo: Greg Erwin

I learned so much about bikes during the Dirty Kanza. But I also learned so much about myself. I was reminded of the power of the human spirit and the ability to surpass limits – limits you put on yourself, and those that can be overcome if you’re willing to try your best no matter the outcome. I learned to push outside my comfort zone and to keep showing up in uncomfortable situations and give it my best effort. There’s beauty in trying something new, something scary and something challenging. It’s through these opportunities when you figure out what you’re made of, and it’s one of the most satisfying experiences to finish something you didn’t know you could do. Dirty Kanza was my first bike race, and it was so much more than a race. It was an experience; one I hope to have many more of - through racing bikes, running or trying something new that challenges me, forcing me to bring out my best and to teach me what I’m capable of. I encourage you to search for those experiences that do the same.