Dirty Kanza started 12 years ago as little more than a bike ride with a fun name.
Only 36 riders rode.
Nobody thinks Dirty Kanza is just a fun name now.
The brutal, 200-mile Flint Hills endurance race now provides an estimated $2.2 million in economic boost every spring for Emporia, a city of 25,000 in the lightly populated prairie of a flyover state.
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They did it, organizers say, by weaving bicycle culture, love of family, beer, cowbells and Flint Hills beauty into a symphony of attraction.
Dirty Kanza, named after the crunchy Flint Hills gravel the race is run on (and how dirty the racers look when they finish), will start 2,500 competitors at 6 a.m. this Saturday. Racers include 153 men and women from Wichita and its neighboring cities. Also there will be world champion endurance racer Rebecca Rusch, and competitors from 10 countries and 46 states.
It will feature 8,000 people cheering at the finish line, many banging cowbells. It will feature Dirty Kanza Kolsch, an ale-lager hybrid beer with a name inspired by the race.
Maybe part of the reason the locals yell so happily in that finish line crowd, as they will on Saturday, is that those thousands of visitors and riders fill thousands of hotel rooms and restaurants for miles around, and for most of a week.
“We created a cycling culture in the Flint Hills,” said Kristi Mohn, a racer, Realtor and race organizer. “In doing that, we captured lighting in a bottle.”
Dirty Kanza is a world unto its own: part family, part cowbell, part masochistic torture.
The 200-mile race (there are also 100-, 50- and 25-mile races) is so hard to complete that only 50 percent of all starters finish, said Casey Wood, an organizer. Racers like that.
Only 20 percent finish if rain turns the gravel roads of the Flint Hills into slippery, suck-you-down yellow mud.
“Some of the riders do what we call ‘hike-a-bike’ if it rains,” said 200-mile race veteran Kent Tuxhorn of Wichita. “We get off, throw the bike on our back, and walk.”
People have crashed and fractured clavicles on loose-gravel turns. Kansas racers make fun of out-of-staters’ stunned reaction to the relentless Kansas wind. But the wind exhausts Kansans, too, along with the steep Flint Hills climbs: Riders climb as much as 12,000 feet over 200 miles through the long grades.
Experienced racers like Rusch and Tuxhorn carry as much as nine pounds of water, in bottles and CamelBaks. They carry spare parts, including tire tubes, pumps.
They carry food. Organizers plant supply stations every 50 miles. But even with those stations, riders have been known to lose seven to 10 pounds of body weight from calorie burn alone. So racers carry energy bars, and cheese — to compensate for the sugary energy bars — and pickles, because the vinegar in pickles works as a remedy against muscle cramps.
Racing 200 miles in one day can be done in 10 to 11 hours by an athlete like Rusch, or in 13 or more hours by a well-trained 54-year-old guy with a hip replacement, like Tuxhorn. The racers all start at 6 a.m. Some don’t finish until 3 a.m. on the following day.
Training means riding 180-mile weekends, Tuxhorn said, with 50- and 80-mile training days during the week.
Because the pain is so intense, Tuxhorn spends weeks putting himself into a Dirty Kanza mental state.
It’s about finding an emotional groove, no matter if it rains. Or the wind blows. Or your bottom hurts.
“If your thighs are burning like crazy, you know that they’ll finally stop hurting … and then some other thing hurts just as bad.”
“There’s a euphoria in running this race that gives me goose bumps now just talking about it,” said Tuxhorn, a zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo who will compete in his fourth 200-mile Dirty Kanza on Saturday.
“I got addicted. The euphoria starts miles before the finish line, when you finally know that you’re going to make it to the end. And then all those people cheering at the end.
“The euphoria lasts for days, for weeks, for months after.”
Organizers, recognizing that, turned the finish line into a big, cheering party, complete with cowbells banging.
“I’ve seen more tears shed by more adults at the Dirty Kanza finish line than I’ve seen in any other event in life,” Mohn said.
“The race is so intense, and then at the end you’ve got thousands of people yelling for you. We figured out how to have best damned finish-line party in the world, hands down, cowbells ringing and 8,000 people cheering, with the announcer calling out your name as you arrive. It’s a hugely emotional experience.”
“I never thought to come to Kansas, and got pushed into doing it by a sponsor,” said Rusch, a seven-time world champion extreme-sports athlete. “But six years later, I’m still coming to Kansas.”
Beer and family
There is beer.
Lots of it.
“We thought in the first years that bicycle endurance riders were all health nuts,” Wood said. “But endurance races burn so many calories that it turns out the racers all have this thing about taking in calories – and beer has calories. So endurance riders have a saying that goes either, ‘Ride bikes, drink beer,’ or ‘Drink beer, ride bikes.’ ”
Mohn, Wood and other Emporia organizers realized soon after starting to promote not only beer and food but children’s games and a family atmosphere at the finish line, where those thousands gather to cheer.
“International cycling has huge events like the Tour de France, but not even the Tour de France can replicate the beauty of the Flint Hills,” Mohn said. “We figured that out early on.”
Competitors this year come from nine foreign nations: Australia, Canada, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, Germany, the United Kingdom and Switzerland.
Beauty and friendship bring Rusch year after year. She’s won mountain endurance race championships all over the world, and once spent a month biking the entire 1,200-mile Vietnam War-era Ho Chi Minh Trail, in Vietnam and Laos, dodging sites where unexploded bombs still lay on the trail.
Ho Chi Minh is beautiful, she said. But she loves Dirty Kanza as much as any race.
“I thought it would be all brown and dull, but it is so green and lush, it looks almost like Scotland,” she said. “There are pretty little water crossings, and here and there one house, one car – and pretty little towns with brick streets and a church.
“And the solitude – to be in a race of 2,000 people and to suddenly, many times, find yourself all alone among those miles of beautiful green hills.”
It’s sublime, Tuxhorn said. “I can hardly describe it.”
“There was one year, toward the end, where I suddenly looked around in the dark, in one section of the trail – and I was surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of fireflies,” Tuxhorn said.
“That was intense. And then you look ahead, and you see a line of little red blinky lights – other bicycles ahead of you. And you look behind, and see a line of little white blinky lights.
“And then it’s over.
“And you want to do it all again.”
Dirty Kanza 200
Time: Starts at 6 a.m. Saturday; some will finish by 4 p.m.
Where: Start and finish line is at 807 Commercial Street, Emporia.
Special screenings of a film, “Blood Road,” by endurance racer Rebecca Rusch, chronicling how she rode the 1,200 miles of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Vietnam and Laos in 2015, are set for 4 p.m. Friday and 11 a.m. Sunday at the same location.