In honor of the 2019 Dirty Kanza, we tapped Allie Mariano, writer and cyclist from New Orleans, LA for her take on training for the most epic 200-mile gravel race in the country. Now that she's attempted her second DK200 and completed it for the first time, we asked for her story. What happens when you're out in the Kansan wilderness for 200 miles?
Dirty Kanza: We Meet Again
Words and Photos by Allie Mariano
“Elyse is in an ambulance.”
“What?!” I said, biting into a turkey and cheese sandwich.
Sara, Emily, and I had just arrived at the first rest stop in close succession. I was the third to arrive, and I had assumed Elyse was less than a mile behind me.
I pulled out my phone while our support crew, Boedi and Stacia, updated me, refilled my bottles, and got out my food. Out on the gravel, I didn’t have service; now my phone buzzed repeatedly. The group message, ten people deep, caught up on the last twenty minutes. Elyse was conscious and she was in an ambulance. That was all we knew.
Shit, I thought. Elyse is done? My stomach turned. It didn’t compute. Last year, Elyse and I had attempted Dirty Kanza with our friend Kristina. Mechanicals set us back later and later; when the two of us rolled into checkpoint 3, well after dark, we were done. We had attempted the insane and made it pretty far. Kristina finished, and we all celebrated.
Today, though, we had 140 miles ahead. I texted her: Fuck I’m so sorry. We were supposed to finish together. I felt guilty for not being right next to her, and I wanted to keep going. Was I being selfish?
Meanwhile, our support team rallied. Meaghan would meet Elyse at the hospital in Topeka. The rest of the crew would meet at Council Grove to support Katherine and Joan in the 100, then wait for the rest of us to arrive. The logistics were handled, and I had to keep pedaling.
Sara and I rolled out, subdued. My legs felt good. The climbing grew harder, and the breezy morning gave way to hot midday. Sara rolled ahead, and I settled into my solo pace.
20 miles later, I crested a hill and was met with shouts: “Stay right! Stay right! Cyclist down!”
I slow-rolled down the rocky hill. Ahead, several riders crowded around someone. I saw blood on the ground, and I saw my friend. My stomach turned for the second time. Sara had crashed.
I let the crowd know that I was with her. I called 911 – miraculously got service – and they were on their way. The other riders cleared away, and Emily arrived with the same confusion I had experienced. Sara was talking and cognizant, but her helmet was smashed, and her head was bleeding. A lovely woman-cyclist-doctor helped us to get her into the shade while we all waited for the ambulance together.
“Goshdarnit,” Sara said. “I was doing so well.”
“You were!” Emily told her.
“Ugh, I’m so sorry,” I said. It seemed good that she was talking and sitting up, but there was so much blood.
“Goshdarnit,” she said again.
The ambulance maneuvered up the hill to our tree. The EMTs proved to be two of the best on the planet: one EMT talked Sara through the head trauma tests, the other figured out how to get her bike in the ambulance.
“You can take the bike?” I asked, amazed. Emily and I had been trying to figure out how to get it to the crew. Or to get the crew to come here. Or… none of the options seemed good.
“Shhh,” she said. “I did the 100 a couple years ago, I know about the relationship between a woman and her bike.” I physically hugged her.
With Sara loaded up and the ambulance headed to the same hospital as Elyse, Emily and I set off together. It was hot, and we were only at mile 80.
“120 to go,” Emily intoned.
After the 100-mile water oasis, Emily pulled ahead, and I was left to my thoughts.
It’s hard to say what exactly one thinks about while riding a bike that long. Sometimes I think I’ll dedicate myself to solving some problem in my life. Usually, I abandon this immediately, and my thoughts bounce between moment-to-moment awareness of my surroundings, annoying songs, and the occasional writing idea.
It’s hard to say where my thoughts really were for those 60 miles. Mostly water and food, the rest was a jumble of emotions, which I know paled in comparison to the jumble of emotions that Elyse and Sara were experiencing. It didn’t seem fair that they had crashed, and I felt some guilt for continuing. At the same time, I wanted more than anything to finish, so I’d never, ever “have” to attempt Dirty Kanza again.
The two miles to the last rest stop were a tree-lined bike path. It was still daylight, and I gunned it for the high school. Pizza is motivating.
I rolled into the parking lot and heard my name. Joan and Katherine had finished the 100 without major incident! They cheered, along with my sister Carolyn, and directed me to the car. I knew then that I could finish. There was daylight to spare. For the first time that day, I was giddy.
Carolyn helped me change socks and handed me pizza. I heard about Joan and Katherine’s race. They updated me on Sara and Elyse. Elyse had a broken shoulder, and Sara had a concussion. They were in rough shape, but they would recover.
Emily had come and gone, so I got back on my bike alone, ready to finish the damn thing. A little while later, I watched the sun set over the Flint Hills. Riding in the dark was a welcome relief. I took the final descents slowly, sometimes walking. I knew how dangerous they were, and at that point, my only goal was to finish.
At the finish, Kristi Mohn gave me a big hug. I heard Carolyn, Joan, and Katherine cheering. I hadn’t made it before midnight, but I had finished the hardest physical thing I had ever done. Emily and I hugged, celebrated, chatted, all in minor disbelief.
My sister handed me a note from Elyse. Congrats! You did it! it read. I nearly cried at her ability to celebrate for me, despite her disappointment. I hated that she and Sara weren’t with us, but I was too tired to process it. I was at the intersection of elated, delirious, and exhausted.
For my friends, there’s another year to try, and they’ve made it clear they will be back. And, while I spent most of the day swearing I’d never attempt this race again, I am not sure I am done. I proved to myself that I could do it. Now, there’s a time to beat, and good friends to ride with.