In order to tell this story forward, I first must go backward.
It’s the first weekend of June 2015. My mother-in-law is terminally ill and I am planning her Celebration of Life party. It’s a Friday and I feel like if ever I was going to have a mental meltdown, this is it.
Most of the day is spent running around, decorating the hall, getting the keg and wine (it was a party) and organizing the team of people who are helping with the event. I run home to change before the event starts and I find myself standing in front of our bike shed, with the door open, feeling emotion for the first time all day. In the shed sits my bikes, collecting dust, the wheels silent and unmoving. I close the shed door and walk upstairs. Instead of getting into the shower I discover I’m having a hard time breathing, and suddenly I find myself on all fours, the hardwood floor of our bedroom on my knees.
Please, please, please, please, please.
Please is a cry for help, it’s a prayer. Please don’t let Karen die, please don’t let my business fail while I ignore it, please don’t let my marriage shatter under the weight of this loss. Please give me time to ride my bike. Please help me feel joy again.
The events of that weekend and the weeks (and months) that followed are well documented here on what my friend Mat calls “my virtual diary”. Time passed, we were sad, but we kept moving.
Late fall I began riding again, and I began dreaming again. What would I do in 2016 that would be huge and scary? Karen’s death was a reminder of the fragility of life, reprioritizing the things I had indicated as “someday”, and looking hard at the dreams and wishes my life. I started searching for bike events in 2016 and in my search I found it: Dirty Kanza 200.
Many of the people I train with inquired why not do Ironman if I was going to bite off something sizable, and I considered it. After some pondering I realized I didn’t have the desire to put together Ironman training, and I realized Ironman didn’t sing to me. Ride my bike through 200 miles of Kansas’s farmland? Sign me up.
So I did.
I began a six-month campaign of the largest volume training of my life. As I’d indicated in an earlier blog, I held steady with triathlon training the first three months, training approximately ten hours a week. As I added volume I cut out running and then swimming, down to exclusively riding. I crept up over fifteen hours a week, then twenty hours. I maxed out at thirty hours a week, but had only three of those weeks in the entire cycle of training. I became irritable, but the results were undeniable. Focusing exclusively on riding had made me solid on the saddle in a way I hadn’t been before. Pleased by the adaptation I built up to my three largest rides: a single day 190km effort, and a three-day 430km effort.
I went to Kansas convinced that the only thing that would keep me from the finish line was a catastrophic accident. Of all the mental training I did in preparation (preparing for the hurt, preparing for the discomfort and eventually pain, preparing to battle through the desire to quit, preparing for being extremely hot, preparing for being extremely cold, preparing to change flats, preparing break a chain, preparing to be sick to my stomach, preparing for night riding) never did I contemplate preparing myself not to finish.
I’m a Higgins/ Bird – two proud and tough families. Not quitters. Hard workers.
We sure as hell aren’t sissies; a reminder I think of often, thanks to Grandpa Higgins.
Our transit and arrival to Emporia was smooth. I was able to meet Stina, whom since meeting I have affectionately been referring to as “my American twin”, having connected via twitter some months earlier through via Dirty Kanza tweeting (isn’t that cool?). Meeting her and her family (all there to either ride or crew) would be one of the highlights of my weekend. I sat through the rider meeting; Jon and I pre-rode a small section of the course, I ate properly, slept fitfully and arrived at the start line excited, nervous and ready.
I flatted for the first time about ninety minutes into the race. For lack of desire to tell the story in its entirety and insert my whining, my sprinting, my begging random strangers for tubes, the loss of my tire levers, and my rising panic, I will instead note I flatted five times on stage one (50 miles). I arrived at checkpoint one nearly an hour behind schedule in a blind panic.
In a few minutes I was back out on the road, new tire and tube on my rear wheel, three new tubes tucked in my pack. I was behind, but I wasn’t out. The next ten miles I worked on regaining control of my mind, convincing myself that finishing was possible and all I had to do was stay calm, pedal steady and deal with any issues as they came up.
Here’s the part where I say I flatted three times in relatively quick succession, twice shearing off my presta valve and once getting a gash so gnarly no patch kit would fix it. On my ninth and final flat, I glanced down at my bike computer.
75 miles completed, 7:30:00 running time of the event, 26 miles to go until the next checkpoint.
Opened my cell, no service. It’s 34 C outside and I am all by myself. I am out of tubes, out of patches, out of options. It’s been hours since I have seen a cyclist. I am alone with the cows, the sun and the rocky farm road that will later on hand me my first DNF of my athletic career.
So on I ride.
I ignore the nagging voice in my head that reminds me that 26 miles is an entire f*cking marathon Holly and I pedal as fast as a deflated rear wheel will allow. I could have cared less about damaging the wheel. I had ten hours to get to the checkpoint and while I felt it was likely impossible, I refused to stop riding. I wouldn’t give up.
So I rode. I rode until my clock passed 10:30:00 on the race clock. I knew checkpoint closed. I rode until 11:00:00, and about ten miles from town a woman in a jeep picked me up and drove me in. The entire checkpoint had packed up, leaving only a few cars and a few straggling humans waiting including Jon and Doug, my race crew.
Sitting in the van on the way back to town I spoke the first words I could think of.
I failed, I said out loud, to no one in particular.
The twenty-four hours that followed were miserable ones. I allowed myself to bask in a sea of self-pity and negativity. I cried at random intervals and woke up the next morning with my eyes swollen almost shut. I cried all the way back to Wichita, I cried every time a text came through asking me how it went, or what happened.
I felt humiliated, I felt defeated, and I felt deflated.
The days passed and I retold the story a number of times. The more I listened to myself tell the story the more convinced I became that I’d made an error (poor equipment choices) and had some bad luck (8 times bad luck, I think) but this didn’t make me less of a woman, a person, an athlete. As in sport, so in life. I didn’t complete this BHAG I set out to, but I will. I’ll slay future events and one day I’m going to return to Dirty Kanza 200 and perform the way I know I am capable of.
I walk away from Dirty Kanza with a new respect for the course, for gravel riders, for gravel bikes. I walk away a little smarter as an athlete. DNF stings, and I loathe that my first one was in a massive bike race (and not a local short triathlon, a 5km, or anything less consequential) but this is my life: spectacular risk, spectacular failure.
One day I will come back to Dirty Kanza 200 and punch it in the face.