Kanza stories: Facing the demons across 206 miles of gravel

EMPORIA, Kansas (VN) — Robb Finegan slumped on the hot tarmac along Commercial Street and cried. These were not tears of relief, but deep and sorrowful sobs that made his dust-covered body convulse with heavy gasps. Somewhere along Finnegan’s 206-mile bicycle ride into Eastern Kansas’s windswept flint hills, he had come face to face with a series of powerful emotions; the type of feelings that make a 50-year-old man slump over and sob in front of a hundred or so strangers. Finnegan had started the 2018 Dirty Kanza knowing that he would come to face those feelings out on the trail.

In February Finegan’s wife Joy Margheim died of cancer. Her passing marked the end of a confusing year of contradictory medical prognoses. Joy was diagnosed with colon cancer in January 2017; by August, after 12 rounds of chemotherapy, doctors pronounced her cancer-free. Then in November, Joy complained of pain in her back and said she felt tired and sluggish. A checkup revealed that the cancer had returned, and this time it had spread to her pancreas, liver, and bones. The only question was whether Joy would live to see their 25th wedding anniversary in June.

After Joy died, Finegan spent much of the spring going on long rides near the couple’s home in Lincoln, Nebraska.

“She was my best friend,” he said. “The bike has become my therapy to deal with everything. So many things can happen out there on a ride, you don’t even need to have things like this going on in your life.”

The two grew up in Nebraska and began dating in high school. They married in 1993 and spent the next decade living in Oregon and St. Louis. Robb and Joy were the outdoor, active lifestyle couple who had dogs instead of children. He had been a competitive marathon runner, and she ran for fun. Rob owned and managed his own outdoor shop, and Joy was a freelance editor who worked on books published by Universities. She edited 86 books for the University of Nebraska alone.

Finegan took Joy’s memory with him on those long, dry training rides into rural Nebraska to prepare for the race. A friend created the social media slogan #joypower during her final few weeks, and Finegan had the slogan printed onto t-shirts, which he sold to raise funds for the local humane society in her honor. Training and promoting #joypower became his focus. He found that he could push himself harder than he had in 2017, and as he readied for the Dirty Kanza, he prepared his mind for the suffering he would inevitably face out on the roads.

“The past year I realized that the human body can handle a lot more pain than we think it can — I think about the pain she was in,” Finegan said. “Every time I feel I’m getting tired, I think of her and how she fought those last couple of months. She never complained. I’ve always thought of myself as a tough guy but I don’t think I could go through what she did. I try to harness her strength.”

Robb Finegan finished the Dirty Kanza 200 in 43rd place overall. Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Facing one’s demons is an integral part of the experience at Dirty Kanza, which celebrated its 13th running this past weekend in Emporia. Across the race’s 206-mile course, participants ride through intense heat, mud, and powerful headwinds. The sharp stones littering the gravel backroads tear through rubber sidewalls and puncture the thickest treads. Even fit riders require anywhere from 13 to 20 hours to complete that distance on gravel. Everyone in the race suffers.

The blend of brutal conditions and leg-cracking length often draws extreme emotions out of its participants.

“People are pushing themselves so hard that it’s inevitable they’re going to have a spiritual moment or some type of reckoning with yourself,” says Yuri Hauswald, winner of the event in 2015. “It’s the highs and lows of the day. You’re going to unwrap some emotional shit out there.”

In his first Dirty Kanza, Hauswald made it to the finish line with relatively calm and even nerves. During the 2015 event, however, rains transformed the dirt roads into thick, sticky mud. Riders walked and dragged their bicycles through the mud for dozens of miles. The conditions sent Hauswald into a dark place. He thought about his father, who passed away in 2006 from cancer. He also relived his wife’s bout with colon cancer.

“I channeled all of these memories and it brought me to tears,” Hauswald said. “I was pedaling the last 20 miles crying. Not in a sad way, but it’s like, this is cleansing.”

Stories like this are often heard in endurance racing communities, from Ironman triathletes and ultra marathoners to 24-hour mountain bike racers. Extreme physical stress on the body, matched with the depletion of one’s energy, can create an emotional spike. The pain of overexertion sends the brain into dark places, while the joy of accomplishment boosts one’s moods to extreme highs. Some athletes seek out these moments as a type of therapy; others brace themselves for the feelings that they’re destined to encounter on the road or trail.

Riders have felt those emotional moments throughout the event’s running. Co-founder Jim Cummins launched the original Dirty Kanza in 2006 as an unsanctioned group ride, which started and finished in a hotel parking lot in Emporia. Cummins was a DNF in that inaugural year; two years later, he was able to finish. During his long ride, Cummins battled intense feelings of self-doubt. Could he even finish?

“I was amazed at not only the number of emotions I experienced but the depth of those emotions,” Cummins says. “That’s what kept me going.”

Racers don’t need to have gone through personal tragedy to have such an experience. VeloNews spoke with several dozen participants throughout the 2018 race day for a snapshot of their emotional reactions during the brutal race.

Photo: Brad Kaminski | VeloNews.com

Watts Dixon cracked at mile 170, just as the course pointed north, directly into the wind. Dixon felt the efforts he had made earlier in the race to stay with the front group aboard his single speed. This was Dixon’s fourth Dirty Kanza, and he had yet to stave off the reflex to go too hard in the race. As he pushed into the headwind, Dixon entered what he called his “dark place.”

“I usually think about how I need to ride into a ditch and then never come out,” he said. “And how I always disappoint the people in my life that I care about.”

Dixon’s story has a happy ending. In the final 20 miles, he came across local Emporia residents who were handing out chilled beverages to riders. By that point, Dixon was unable to stomach the riding food he had packed along. Instead, Dixon drank ice cold beers that the locals handed him.

Jack Howard Potter trained for the Dirty Kanza in New York City, and that meant countless laps around Central Park and 100-mile rides up to Bear Mountain and back. It also meant sacrificing time with his family. Memories of those training rides and sacrifice came back to Potter early in the race, and at mile 21 he was overwhelmed by the feelings.

“At mile 21 I was in tears,” Potter said. “I had been working on this for so long, and wanting to do it for years. I was in the middle of it and I broke down I was just so overcome.”

Potter sped along through the first 100 miles and enjoyed the tailwind. On the slog back to Emporia, his pace slowed to a crawl. The sun went down, and Potter rode the final 25 miles in the dark, crossing the line around 11 p.m., nearly 17 hours after starting.

Ali Bronsdon’s low moment came somewhere between miles 100 and 150. Bronsdon set out to ride alongside her training partner Ivy Pederson — the two had traveled from Bozeman, Montana to try the race for the first time. Staying together proved to be a challenge in the chaotic first 50 miles, but the pair always made it into the same groups together. As Bronsdon pedaled along in one group, however, she looked up and saw that Pederson was nowhere to be seen. Pederson had overlapped wheels and crashed.

The situation created an important decision: should Bronsdon stay in the shelter of the group or stop for her friend and pedal the remaining 70 or so miles in the wind? She chose the latter.

“I was on the ground and Ali had to turn around and come and get me,” Pederson said. “I told her to wait for me like 5,000 times and she always did and then we hammered it home together.”

Janie Hayes conjured up memories of Serena Williams in order to overcome her negative thoughts, which began to scream “This is hell! This is hell!” into her mind as she rode into the headwind. Ryan Currie fixated on those training days he skipped when it was cold — was that to blame for his exhaustion as he pedaled along in a pace line? Jolene Holland was hurting by mile 100, and she admitted she was not having a great day. To keep her mind off of the pain, she just looked at the green rolling hills of Kansas as a distraction.

Geoff Kabush wondered if he could hold onto the pace line at mile 150. Kate Dewey thought about a dear friend, whose daughter recently died in a car crash.

Defending champion Alison Tetrick thought about what she would tell friends and media about her race when it became evident that Kaitie Keough was going to win. She hit an armadillo shell and cramped, and then she suffered a flat tire.

“I had made this whole story in my head about fairy tales not having a happy ending — I was thinking about what I’d tweet, what I’d say, and then I had an unfortunate mechanical and it was like ‘I guess I’m going to get third,’” Tetrick said. “You just have to accept the ending that the race has for you.”

Ryan Currie had a long day in the saddle during the 2018 Dirty Kanza 200. Photo credit: Fred Dreier

Robb Finegan sped through the first 25 miles alongside some of the fastest riders in the field. He felt strong, the pace manageable. As the group pedaled up a hill he looked on the side of the road and saw a teammate pull off with a flat tire. Finegan decided to stop and help. The delay slowed his pace, but he didn’t care — it meant more to him to be a good teammate. He entered the first checkpoint in 339th place and continued to ride with members of his team, pulling them into the crosswinds.

At the halfway point, Finegan decided to up the pace and bid farewell to his friends. He pushed a huge gear into the soaring headwind.

Finegan took up cycling back in 2013, and Joy had encouraged him to pursue his new passion. The riding helped Finegan drop 40 pounds and overcome the stress of business ownership. He had missed the feeling of competition, which he hadn’t felt since he gave up running more than a decade before.

“She was excited because I hadn’t been doing anything for many years and work had taken over my life,” he said. “She was just happy that I’d found a new outlet. She was the greatest.”

Finegan sped past groups of riders who were all struggling in the headwinds. The efforts and the heat tore at his legs, and when he entered the final feed zone, Finegan slumped over his bicycle as his crews replaced his water bottles and checked his bicycle. Finegan pulled his bike shorts away from his body — his crew dumped ice cubes into his shorts.

Finegan suffered headwinds just like everyone else and linked up with a small group of riders to share the work. He was surprised when, in the final 10 miles, his legs gained strength. Finegan stood out of his bicycle and pedaled hard as he spun through the college campus of Emporia State University and headed for the finish line, where the efforts from the day — and the last year — simply took over his emotions.

“I’ve done so many races before and I’ve never had this type of feeling come over me,” he said. “I don’t know how to explain it.”

No explanation was needed.