The Kansas backroads that make up the Dirty Kanza 200 course would be eating bikes for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and midnight snacks. A 200-mile smorgasbord, this course wanted to munch on the riders, too. The third major gravel race of 2011 for John Williams, I knew he was ready as far as fitness and mental strength. He had already placed 8th at CIRREM, tied for 7th at Trans-Iowa, and continued to train well for the last few weeks leading up to the DK200. He wanted another top 10 finish, preferably improving on his previous positions and my job was to get him there. My two main concerns were the upcoming heat that most of us aren't used to yet, and mechanical issues.
As a coach, the day couldn't have gone much better. John was up front at the start and ready to roll. The 23rd rider in at Checkpoint 1, he was chatty and told us about the two flats he fixed. I replaced his bottles of energy drink while his wife Sarah filled his Camelbak, then he was back out on the course. I wasn't too worried about his position so early in the race, still about 150 miles to go. Midway through the second section, he called Sarah asking for pickle juice and ibuprofen when he arrived. Uh oh. Cramps were setting in, and they were setting in very early. We set up camp at CP2, laid out our plan and hoped for the best. Finally, he came sailing in looking strong and announced, "I'm having the ride of my life!" Quite a relief after worrying for the past couple of hours. He was halfway through and still in the race. Again he chatted with his kids, then finally sat down for a couple of minutes to eat some fruit. He organized his Camelbak as I checked his seatbag for CO2 cartridges and mixed two bottles of sports drink. It turned out that the cramps were minor and he worked through them, as he often does. A few minutes later he was hopping on his bike with a smile on his face, ready to tackle section 3.
|John is all smiles at the start of the DK200.|
(Click photos to enlarge)
At the checkpoints, support crews were checking in with each other and making sure everyone had what they needed. Knowing this area as I do, I could answer questions as to where to get more water, ice, and other supplies. It was a little bit like grade school as we got out our own snacks or lunch while waiting on our riders, everyone opening their coolers and swapping goodies. We had our riders to take care of, but this sort of sharing and comeraderie enabled us to relax just a bit so as to do a better job when our riders arrived. A race of this type brings on quite a bit of concern when there is report after report of riders dropping out, and seeing riders in bad shape who would not continue.
We had a bit more time as this section was 65 miles. It was also the hottest part of the day, topping out at 99 according to my Android weather app. John was running low on CO2 at the second checkpoint, so I walked down to the lumber yard and bought a box of cartridges. Had a nice chat with some new "neighbors," listening to stories of their travels to Kansas and the riders they're supporting. Sarah arrived with the kids who set up John's camp chair, going about their little readying routine. As some unfriendly looking clouds moved in from the Southwest, John pulled in. We knew that the storm could do some damage to this amazing day he had been having, so he checked in quickly while I parked his bike. We had him back on the road in a matter of minutes, knowing he would probably have to ride through part of the storm. The third rider to leave CP3, John would generally be moving away from the storm but would still have to contend with it at some point, with 44 miles to the finish line. Sarah and I hustled to break camp and get the kids buckled in. Then the Sheriff showed up to let us know that hail, lightning, and high winds were on the way. The high winds had already arrived. Support crew were handed maps by the DK200 directors, a no-no during the earlier sections of the race, and gave us permission to be on the course but only to shelter our rider if they wanted to wait out the storm. I suggested to Sarah that we go to a particular corner and wait for John there. She let me know that she wasn't terribly confident with maps, would I be able to lead? I've been driving and riding these gravel roads since I was a kid, especially the roads surrounding Lake Kahola, so I knew where we were going. And I'm pretty good with maps.
We headed for Kahola via pavement through Dunlap, then gravel over to Rd. 400 and sat on the corner to wait. It had already rained fairly hard and the wind gusts were sending rocks into the air. Free dermabrasion beauty treatment, Kansas style. The skies were black and wicked, but clearing towards Emporia. It wasn't long before John rode by. He thought the race had been called off. We told him we were allowed to follow for safety. He never stopped pedaling as we quickly relayed the information.
Back into our Subarus, Sarah and I headed down the road and onto some rather primitive areas. Sarah called me and asked if we'd be driving this for very long, that she was worried about getting stuck. I told her we're OK and that I wouldn't take her through anything crazy. About 2 minutes later, I took her through something a little bit crazy. Fortunately the rain had stopped, but this road took a dip and there was a low water crossing. Knowing my "Subaroo" as I do, this wouldn't be a problem, especially since I could see the fairly flat rocks under the water. I forged through it and hoped that Sarah would follow my line. She drove like a champ and we made another crossing about a minute later, which was actually several smaller crossings. I wondered which bad names she might be calling me as she stuck with me through all of this. I got her on the phone and asked how she was doing. She was a real sport! We were less than 2 miles to pavement, then smooth sailing into Emporia.
|Still smiling at Checkpoint 3: Council Grove, KS|
Photo by Tim Greene
The lead riders were out of the storm. I thought of the other riders, many of them my friends, who would get caught in those high winds and lightning and hoped they would come through it safely. When we left John out on the prairie, he was still third rider and moving well. I knew he had the ability to at least maintain his position, and I hoped that the myriad of things that could go wrong wouldn't. But, as luck would have it, he was slowed by a flat. A total of four flats for the day including a sidewall tear.
The finish area was brimming with excitement. The first two riders crossed the line and the crowd celebrated with each. When the third rider was announced as making his way to downtown Emporia, Sarah, the kids, and I were on pins and needles until the rider came into view. It wasn't John. Two riders crossed the line together as we all cheered. Then more waiting, tension building. Two riders appeared at the end of Commercial Street. John and Joshua were in a dead sprint for the line! After more than 14 hours on 200 miles of gravel they sprinted full throttle, John edging out Joshua in the home stretch. Cheers for all, and a huge sigh of relief for Team John Williams.
John prepared well, carrying out his training with Life Balance Sports perfectly and bringing his top-notch attitude to the unforgiving Kansas backroads. At the end of this long, hot, windy, stormy day, he tasted the sweet fruits of his labor and smiled on the podium.
1st Dan Hughes, Lawrence KS - 13:09
2nd Kevin Thomas, Salida CO - 13:39
3rd Jason Gaikowski, Apple Valley MN - 14:09
4th Bruce Martens, St. Paul MN - 14:09
5th John Williams, Kansas City MO - 14:21
Read John's own account of his inspiring performance at The Seated Climb.