It had only been a couple weeks since the harrowing experience of breaking into my own house of years. My monster had filed for divorce for defying him saying, “I had to do something drastic to show you pushed me too far. I had to show you that you can’t disobey me like this. I didn’t mean it and I don’t really want a divorce but you made me do it.” He then begged me to come sit down and talk it out with him and said he would call it off the following morning. In a moment of clarity and with fear gripping me, I told him no. The following morning I went to a lawyers office and counter filed. After that day, I went back to that house just once to retrieve my things only to find he had changed the locks. I broke in, I collected a lifetime of items in less than 2 hours, and I walked out the door feeling like I’d committed some horrible crime. My mother wrapped her arms around me and said, “I’m so sorry he’s made you feel this way. We have done nothing wrong here”.
Two weeks later and I was curled up on the couch alone, sad, miserable, existing. The door opened and two of my friends walked in saying, “Get up! Shower! We are going out.” Begrudgingly, I did as they asked and before I knew it, I found myself walking through downtown Emporia, KS. The roads were blocked off, street vendors lined the sidewalks, and people were everywhere. Wondering what we had stumbled into, we made our way to the center of all the hubbub and I found myself at a finish line. I stood there watching cyclist after cyclist coming in dirty and covered in mud with huge smiles on their faces as their names were exclaimed over the loud speakers and the crowd cheered.
The Dirty Kanza. A solo, self-supported, non-stop, bicycling endurance challenge on the gravel and dirt roads of the Flint Hills region in east-central Kansas. Riders can choose anywhere between a fun ride of 25 miles to an astonishing feat of 200 miles. (Now upped to 350.)
With the crowd roaring around me and the jostle of passersby and the palpable feeling of something special in the air, I watched enamored and a wave of feeling came over me and I knew I had to do this. I had dabbled in cycling here and there but nothing of consequence and I thought of 15 miles as quite an accomplishment. And yet, every bone in my body whirred with excitement at the prospect and each cyclist that passed through that finish line solidified my sudden need to become a part of it too. It was something greater than myself.
I turned to my friends and said, “I have to do this.” They both looked at me dumbfounded. More sternly, I said, “I’m going to do this.” They both grinned and with half-believing faces they said, “Well, you’re absolutely insane and we aren’t about to do it but we will be standing here at the finish line when you do”. It was utterly insane. I didn’t care. I’d made up my mind.
Three years later, after an incredibly ugly divorce that drug out almost just as long and after countless hours with lawyers, in courts, judgment, and sorrow. And after slowly rebuilding not only my life but my own self: mentally, physically, spiritually. After constantly thinking, “I can’t” but still showing myself that I could. After failing and falling and hurting and crying. After laughing and growing and enduring and smiling. After all this, I signed up for the Dirty Kanza 100 mile, solo, self-supported, non-stop, bicycling endurance challenge that takes place off road on dirt and gravel.
I was nuts.
I spent six solid months training. Working around my children and adulting and responsibilities and jobs and weather and sickness and life happenings, I trained. I trained with every extra hour I had and honestly, it wasn’t enough. I literally do not know how people do it. I think they must eat, breathe, sleep cycling and/or not have small children and full-time jobs. But I definitely did what I could.
I joined a crossfit gym for the six months for strength training. I put up a roller trainer in my doorway. I rode my bike to work or to run any errand I could as often as possible. I meal prepped for optimal energy. I attempted to ride at least 20-30 miles per day and then did long rides on weekends. Mapping out a course that would get me to the goal I set for myself. I would ride to neighboring towns, zigzagging on back roads and trails and attempting to avoid heavily trafficked areas while also finding the most “off road” situations I could. I figured out what to carry on my bike and what to carry on my back. I logged countless miles on two wheels. I trained.
The first 4 months of this were on a $120 Walmart bike. Beggars can’t be choosers, right? It’s what I had and it’s what I knew and I definitely didn’t have the moolah to splurge on a better bike. I’d said I was going to do this race and I was going to do it with what I had. But I know that anyone that cycles even a little bit seriously has to be cringing at this thought. Believe me, I cringed a lot too but I’m a stubborn gal when I set my mind to something. I remember trying to work my way up a particularly slanted hill or through a more difficult impass and thinking, “I think this bike is working against me”. I had no idea how correct I was. But I also know that it made me that much tougher too.
Two months out from June 1st and getting in line with hundred of other “crazies” like myself, my father (have I mentioned how amazing this man is?) surprised me with one of the best gifts I have ever received. A modified Trek Xcalibur 7 with 29″ rims, shocks, multiple handles, and bontrager tires. It had been created specifically for the Dirty Kanza by a die hard cyclist and was sold when he was sponsored by a different bike brand. My dad scored the deal of a lifetime. This aluminum beauty was a stark difference to my steel Walmart cheap-o. On my first test ride out, I was shocked at the ease and speed and lightness of the bike and shaved a good minute plus off my usual mile time. Gah bless my daddy!
Rule #8 gabillion in cycling, DO NOT CHANGE OUT YOUR BIKE SO CLOSE TO AN EVENT! But really, did I have a choice? And so began the final two months of my training on a bike that rode smooth as butter and made me giddy with excitement except… that seat. Ouch! I had become accustomed to my wide, cushy Walmart seat and the standard saddle for real cyclists was not created equal. But with some minor adjustments and an extra pair of cushioned bicycle pants (and lets be honest, sometimes two extra), I became accustomed to my sweet ride.
I cycled through cold weather wearing tons of layers. I cycled through blistering heat stripping them off. I cycled through a sudden severe thunderstorm where I made it to shelter only after the hail began pelting me. I cycled through days I wanted to cry and sometimes I did. I cycled through days I laughed with wonder at what I was able to do. I cycled when I didn’t want to. I cycled when it hurt. I cycled.
All of this alone. It’s not easy to find other people who won’t look at you like you’re utterly insane for spending 2-8 hours on a bike daily. I rode through pastures, on back roads, on paved roads, on busy streets, on winding paths, on rocks, and then some. I listened to music or books on tape to keep me company. Often times I enjoyed the sounds of nature and quiet around me. I’d pray. I’d cry. I’d sing. I’d laugh. I’d always call out to the cows, “Hi guys! Hope you’re having a great day!” It was really a one-woman show.
But even in saying that I feel guilty because there were a lot of people in the background cheering me on. My parents for the gift of the bike, my sisters for being present on race day, my friends for all the encouraging messages, my besties for the ready made meals and help with my kids and one-of-a-kind shirt, cyclists whose brains I picked, and so on. I also reached out to all sorts of loved ones and asked them to choose one song and I made a playlist that I didn’t listen to until the day of the race. It was awesome hearing each persons choice come on and served to motivate or make me laugh or just be a good distraction as the miles wore on. I had a lot of help!
And on June 1st, I cycled. It was four years after my world had completely turned upside down. Four years after I had lain on the ground for months sobbing and dying and shattering and breaking. Four years since I had become so emaciated, unhealthy, and lost. And it was three years since finding the courage to leave my monster and start a new life with almost nothing. Three years since watching the finish line in awe and feeling deep in my gut that it was something I must pursue.
My once abused body had become lithe and strong. Muscles lined my legs, back, arms, and belly. A healthy glow shown on my skin. My once drab hair shiny and smooth again. My eyes alight with courage and strength. And I felt powerful.
I won’t even pretend the ride was easy that day. The first fifty miles went smoothly and I found myself at the checkpoint smiling and limber and ready to take on the next fifty. The second half, however, proved to be difficult. My crossfit strength training paid off as I had to carry my bike on my back and walk through at least 3 miles of unpassable terrain. The beautiful weather of the morning gave way to harsh sunlight and the meanest Kansas head wind. From miles 60-75, I spent every moment in my head at war with myself. “You can quit. Just stop. No! You cannot quit! You have people counting on you. You have worked hard for this. Aw, just go ahead and give up. No, dammit! Keep going!” An inner monologue of “I can’t do this/Yes, I can”. Me vs. Me. At mile 80, I knew I had it. That didn’t make it much easier but the inner battle eased and I was determined to cross that finish line. To hear my name over those loud speakers. To see the crowd and take in their cheers. To finish this.
The Dirty Kanza 100 mile, off road, endurance challenge became an integral piece of my healing. It was an emotional rollercoaster of self-discovery, passion, proving to myself that I was so much more, proving to others that I was so much more, conquering fears, and fulfilling a dream that was born suddenly while in a very dark place. I had taken a world that condemned me and broke me and turned it around into a world I could fit myself into. I had found a strength inside that I now know can never be taken from me. I’ve shown my children that not only can their momma do anything, but that great sadness was not the ending to my story nor theirs. And as I neared that finish line, I wept. I wept with all the emotions of the years and the thankfulness that I had not only survived but become healthy and sound. And then I began to laugh. Joy exploded from within and radiated from my body and I crossed that finish line with a giant smile on my face. I did it. I finished. My shirt read, “She Who Dares”… and I mostly certainly do.
Today, I thank those rocks, muddy passageways, the gravel, and ever-changing weather for challenging me. I thank those two wheels on an aluminum frame for holding me. I thank my legs and this body for its strength and never giving up. I thank my parents and grandparents and family for my gumption. I thank my laughter and also my heartache for fueling me. I thank my heavenly father for guiding me. I thank my mind for never giving up on me. And I thank the Dirty Kanza for making me more than an athlete. For giving me the gift of an outlet, a medal of accomplishment, and one hell of an adventure.