I thought I'd give a synopsis on the fun I ride completed a few weeks ago. I decided to partake in the 5th edition of the Cannonball 550 bikepacking race, which is a big old 550 mile loop that starts/finishes in Emporia, KS. The self-supported route traversed portions of the Flint Hills, the edge of the Arkansas River valley, McPherson Lowlands, the Smoky Hills, the Kansas River floodplain, and the glaciated region. The roads varied from paved to groomed rail-trail/bike path (about 50 miles of the total route) to gravel, which comprised the remaining 500 miles. The gravel roads ranged from very smooth and fast to rocky 4x4 two-tracks through the prairie to sandbox (unrideable).
About 25 riders rolled out of Emporia at 7:00 a.m. sharp. I started about 25 min. late because I received my rented Spot satellite tracker right at the start and still needed to put batteries in it. I dropped the darned screw that holds the battery plate on and spent 15 min. looking for the damned thing. Off to a slow start, but there was plenty of time. Anyway, I moseyed out of Emporia and eventually caught up with Her Awesomeness (Dr. Adrienne Taren) and rode and chatted with her for an hour or two. Eventually I rolled on up the road headed towards Cassoday.
Mile 30 through 130 are my "homefield," where I do lots and lots of training, so I barely remember riding it because I've ridden these roads so many times. Many of these roads are part of former Unbound (Dirty Kanza) routes, so some of these stretches are (in)famous. We had an ever-increasing SW headwind for the first 60 miles. I caught Zak Hall at the Cassoday convenience store, but rolled out before him after a quick refill of water and junk food. This meant I was now in first place. More headwind to my hometown of El Dorado, but otherwise totally uneventful.
At El Dorado I lollygagged at the grocery store, ran an errand at the post office, and stocked up with enough food to get me through the next 150+ miles (Salina or beyond). I was so slow in El Dorado that several people passed me back. As I headed to the next town (Potwin), I rolled up on Nicholas Quinn and we rode together for a while. He's from Minnesota and is a Fire Chief at a station in Minneapolis. Really good guy. Newton was next, then on to Lindsborg. Knowing the roads were sandy between McPherson State Fishing Lake/Maxwell Preserve and Lindsborg, AND the fact that it was 180 miles in, it was getting cold, and I was feeling sleepy, I made the wise decision to stop at McPherson SFL and sleep for 5 hours. I got to hear elk bugling and owls screaming at each other, which was much more soothing than it would seem as I write this.
I got up before dawn and it was 42F. Glad I brought a full sleeping kit, as I was never shivering during the night (nor was I toasty warm, however). The next twenty miles were tough, with loose sand for long long stretches. I saw some burrowing owls, which was cool. They normally aren’t this far east in KS. I was able to ride long sand sections that I'm sure would have been hike-a-bike at night, as I could pick good lines. I was in fifth place at this point, as four riders had passed by me while I was sleeping. I could tell they had walked long stretches that I was riding (footprints), but I didn’t get excited and just kept riding my own pace/race.
I stopped way too long in the next town of Lindsborg, but I was feeling really flat, still a bit cold, and realized I was probably under-fueled. I ate a ton, sat for 30 min. or so, checked the weather forecast again, then rolled out. As the day went on, I made sure to eat more than I thought I needed. It got really tiresome eating and drinking so much, but it was my strategy. I got stronger and stronger as the day went on. I knew that Sunday was supposed to be 90-100F. and a headwind the last 100+ miles, so I hyper-hydrated. Curt Shelman- remember the Flint Hills Pee Ride? It was like that.
Next was Abilene (hometown of Eisenhower), and then I rolled up on Nicholas Quinn again. We talked and rode side-by-side for an hour or so, and then I went on up the road towards Junction City. This meant I was now in third place. I got there before sundown and then waited 20 min. for the A&W to make me a single freaking cheeseburger (had I known, I'd have just eaten another blasted frozen burrito). The next stretch was extremely hilly and rough, and mostly in the dark. Many of these roads have been featured in the last two editions of Unbound Gravel, so I knew what I was in for.
There is a 30 mile stretch with no houses...just breathtaking Flint Hills tallgrass prairie as far as you can see. I passed Matt Battiston about an hour before the next town on the route. I thought he knew I was coming because of the 500+lumen headlights, but I startled him as I passed on an extremely rough two-track baby-head-rock ranch road. I felt terrible, and I'm really glad he's a good bike handler and didn't crash. I was trying to make it to Alma before the only store closed at 10:30 p.m. I made it, but Battison didn't. I tried buying a gallon of water for him, but all they had was distilled water (?!). After I was 15 min. out of town and the store was closed, I was kicking myself for not buying Gatorade and junkfood and leaving it in front of the store for him. I apologize profusely for that. My brain was just too single-tracked I guess.
The next stop was Wamego at about midnight. I was feeling awake, so I decided to push on into the night and just ride until I was tired and then take a ditch nap. I was in the lead at this point, as the others stopped for a hotel rest in Wamego. I asked myself, "What would Jay Petervary do?" I decided Jay would just keep riding until he was really tired, and then take catnaps the rest of the ride. So that's what I did. I didn't ever need a nap though. It was extremely hilly from Junction City to the finish, so I just concentrated on riding with smooth power (minimizing spikes), staying fueled and hydrated, and being smart about the heat that would arrive soon. The last 50 miles were into winds gusting 40+mph, and the temperature was 95 in the shade according to Garmin. My phone had crapped out on me, so I didn't know how much Zak Hall was closing on me, but I figured with the heat and wind, no one was riding super fast at this stage. I took short breaks if I felt too hot, drank plenty, refilled and soaked my hair/clothes at a ranch house spigot when the rancher asked if I needed anything, and rode on into Emporia. I will say that I was cursing the Lyon County road dept. with all of their freshly laid gravel, which made progress that much tougher.
I felt great the last hour, as the temp had dipped below 90F. and I hammered it on in. I finished the 560 miles in first place. It took me 2 days, 11 hours, and 55 minutes. Even though Kansas is “flat,” there was 26,000 feet of climbing along the way. I set a new course record by several hours in the process.
More details for you: occasionally along the route there were trail angels offering aid and good cheers. That was unexpected and made me smile. I also enjoyed meeting folks in the towns and stores. Most gave me the proper social distancing (probably because I smelled worse than a ‘squatch) and were very friendly, though often befuddled as to why a person would do such a crazy thing. I was without a phone for the last day, but I had a functional Garmin AND paper maps/cue sheets just in case. My bike was flawless the whole way. I packed a 26,500mAh cache battery that weighs a pound. I barely tapped it. I always had too much water too, but that's probably okay. I used copious amounts of Chamois Butt'r, which literally saved my hide. I mean lots of it! I have been riding with the Chamois Butt'r team since its inception in 2008, and there's not a better collection of bike racers anywhere. Truly the best.
I should also add that I've worked with Adam Mills at Source Endurance Coaching for quite a while now. Though I didn't do super-specific preparation for this event other than some long rides with lots of extra weight on the bike, the years under his guidance have given me some of that “old-man-strength” (I am 55 years old) that I otherwise might not have. He has helped me succeed in events as short as 9 minute hill climbs all the way to 200+ mile gravel races. If you're ever looking for a coach, the Source Endurance folks are as good as they get. In case you're curious, I weigh about 67kg. I was at 182W NP at the 380 mile mark, at which point my power meter quit working. I worked really hard on keeping it in the 180W range the whole ride up to that point, as that is a power I can pretty much manage indefinitely (assuming I'm not bonking or dehydrated).
Every single one of the starters put themselves out there. This was no small feat, and I tip my hat (helmet) to all of us. Thanks Zak Hall and Matthew Battison and Nicholas Quinn and the rest for helping inspire me to push onwards. Also a huge thanks to Matt Slater for organizing this thing. It may not happen without his presence. Thanks Matt.
I can't believe I rode 380 miles in 36 hours on no sleep the day after riding 180 tough miles in the Flint Hills, but I did. Seems weird looking back at it. I am fully recovered and starting to train in earnest again. I have had time to reflect, and I'm left to conclude that it was one of the most memorable and rewarding bike events I've ever done. I'm looking forward to doing more events like this in the future, as it taps into the brain in ways that shorter events cannot. I think the 2022 Tour Divide is beckoning me. We shall see.
Thanks for reading, and until next time,