The sun seems to rise up from the earth in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The mist burns off in the early sunlight. Nervous energy fills the air in Emporia — anticipation of the 6 a.m. start, and coffee, of course. The Dirty Kanza 200 is the premier gravel race in the country. At 200 miles, it’s not for the faint of heart, especially this year, as rain turned the dirt roads into peanut butter mud, forcing riders to run in the scratchy prairie grass alongside the slop. The mud would claim its fair share of bikes throughout the day. One man’s fight would not end until he crossed the finish line first, after a sprint finish, and a lonely battle — both emotional and physical — on the lonely backcountry roads of the Midwest.
Yuri Hauswald left the final aid station in Cottonwood already having spent nearly 10 and a half hours in the saddle; there were 50 miles still go. Unbeknownst to him, the leader, Michael Sencenbaugh, a man 14 years his junior, was a staggering 22 minutes ahead. “I assumed I was riding for second place,” says Hauswald. But still, he chose to hunker down and enter the pain cave for the final 50, regardless of whether the top step of the podium was beyond his reach. His determination, never-give-up attitude, and strength came from within.
At 44 years old (soon to be 45), Hauswald is no young buck looking to stake his claim. As marketing manager for GU, Hauswald logs consistent 40-hour workweeks, but he is able to work from home twice a week, avoiding the long commute. “I am extremely fortunate in that GU still sees value in having me as a brand ambassador out on the front line,” Hauswald explains. Being able to work remotely has enabled Hauswald to log the long miles needed for the Dirty Kanza, whether you are competing at the front of the race or just hoping to make it to the finish.
To understand Hauswald’s strength and determination, we have to travel back four years to when his wife was diagnosed with cancer, or even back a decade when Hauswald lost his father to melanoma. Through his wife’s cancer treatments and father’s struggle with disease, Hauswald continued to ride his bike. “The bike has been a great therapist,” explains Hauswald. “It’s a place that has really allowed me to process the pain.”
Hauswald turned that pain into power and bridged the gap to the leader. After 200 miles of pure suffering, pushing his body to its absolute limits, the Dirty Kanza came down to one of the simplest, yet most leg-searing tasks in cycling, a 300-meter sprint.
Hauswald tells VeloNews, “I am a really quiet guy. There’s no need to flaunt [winning] in front of people or anything like that.” On this occasion though, Hauswald let out a roar from deep within as he crossed the line, achieving what was thought to be the unimaginable. The roar represented the sacrifice of spending countless hours on the road, training, away from his family, but it also represented the pain he felt of seeing someone close to him go through something unimaginable.
“I just remind myself that no pain I ever feel on the bike or how badly I feel for myself and how much I’m much walking in the mud can compare to what [my wife and dad] went through, and that just reminds me that I can keep going,” says Hauswald, a bit choked-up.
He hopes his ride at the Dirty Kanza 200 inspires “your ‘average joes’ who have a 40-hour week, who may want to tackle something big,” to go out and do it.
“But,” he adds, “you have to make sacrifices. I was neither the strongest or the fastest.” But he was the toughest.