Shawn and Scott O’ Mara oft find themselves biking together through the Kansas countryside in search of adventure on the lightly used backroads and dried up creek beds of the Flint Hills.
Getting to do so again during last week’s Dirty Kanza XL race was more than just making a memory.
“Outside of the finish, it was probably the highlight during the ride — was just being able to share that road with my brother and really get right into the type of riding that we enjoy doing on a day-to-day basis,” Shawn said.
The duo was among the four area riders who ventured into the longest version of Emporia’s marquee race, each of whom had participated in the 200-mile course several times before, as well as last year’s trial of the 350-mile leviathan.
Yet they each came back for more. This year, the field in the second-year biking marathon nearly doubled, as almost 70 riders took large leaps forward in their understanding of the race, their bikes — and themselves.
“Last year it was quite a learning experience,” Shawn said. “(I’ve) done multiple 200s and a couple of 250(-mile) events … and even riding all night wasn’t so much new to me. What ended up being new last year was the whole aspect of riding that next day and the fatigue from all those hours on the bike starting to set in, and actually falling asleep on the bike was something new to me. Last year was the first time I’d experienced it; I was about 182 miles in, so that’s really what knocked me down from last year.”
In 2018’s inaugural run of the XL, both O’Maras and Madison’s Lyn Blubaugh found themselves falling well short of the finish, succumbing to the combination of heat, wind and struggles with initial pace while Emporia native Ryan Balkenhol was a top-10 finisher. This time around, he was 24th, even arriving back in town about 90 minutes sooner than on his first try.
“Last year I had more of a goal as far as a finishing time,” he said. “I think mostly because I wasn’t sure I would ever do it again so I thought, ‘If I’m going to do this, then I’m going to try and make the most of it.’ This year ... I felt like I didn’t have the (prerace) training that I maybe had last year. Going into it, I was more apprehensive, but more relaxed at the same time because I did not push myself to set a goal. The goal was just to finish, so I knew if I played it smart and maintained certain things that I could probably do that.”
Devil is in the details
The XL course dipped well to the south, taking a circuitous route beyond Eureka, before twisting its way back to Matfield Green.
It continued up through Cottonwood Falls, Council Grove and crested at Alma before dropping south through Eskridge back toward Emporia.
All in all, 45 of the almost 70 riders finished the race in the cutoff time of 36 hours or less. Some finished, but after the clock had been turned off. Others battled well into the course before being shut down prematurely.
Scott, who has completed the 200-mile rendition six times in eight tries, finished the XL in his second attempt, reaching the end just minutes before the cutoff. Shawn had been forced into a maintenance delay about halfway through the race and had fallen behind his brother’s pace, though he was just as determined to reach the finish. He was just crossing back into Lyon County from the north as his brother reached the finish line.
“Having the trackers each of the riders had, I could get to a town or a place where I had (phone) service and I could see how he’s doing and he could pull it up and (he could) see where I was at,” Shawn said. “It was touch- and-go for both of us as far as distance from Cottonwood (Falls). He made a little more of a push and made up some time in the middle of the night to get in there. It was pretty exciting to see him do that.”
Then Shawn came down the same chute a few hours later, but still had a small cluster of friends and family awaiting, stirring up a joyful ruckus as he rolled into downtown Emporia.
For Blubaugh, the final stretch was far less kind as the exhaustion of dealing with a second night proved costly as she struggled with nodding off as she stared into the void ahead. Well into a second consecutive night, several victims were claimed and she was no different.
“Two nights of darkness was a little overwhelming,” she said. “I couldn’t get past that. When you’re in the dark and you have your bike light, you’re in a tunnel, pretty much. It’s not like your car lights where you can see clear to the ditch. It’s just that combination of too many hours awake, you’re back in the darkness for the second night and you’ve just been awake for a long time. By the time I was picked up, I’d been awake for almost 50 hours.”
It was still a stark improvement from a year before.
“I’m so ecstatic, going 319 miles,” she said. “I’m not disappointed at all. I knew it wasn’t safe any longer, because I couldn’t stay awake, no matter what I did.”
She had completed the 200-mile version before, but the extra distance and longer time proved to make the difference.
“An extra hundred miles thrown in there is pretty powerful,” she said.
Just keep pedaling
Scott heeded advice from a friend and fellow racer before they even hit gravel: take it mile-by-mile.
“He just kept saying that (and) that’s what I kept in the back of my mind,” Scott said. “Even when I’d hit a big hill or hit a spot. I could walk it as fast as I could ride it, so I’d get off and as I was walking I’d eat or whatever, just keep moving forward.”
He did seek out a brief respite of sleep at Matfield Green, and when he realized his brother was not far behind, he waited for Shawn to join him and the two went north together, including the ride down Coin Creek Road, which cut in and out of the nearby stream.
“We weren’t just watching that clock,” Scott said. “We were out there … (having fun). We have a good time together, taking videos of each other riding through these creek crossings, things like that. We’re just out there for the adventure part of it.”
Balkenhol, too, broke things down, focusing on the smaller stretches within the long journey.
“Look at it like taking a long road trip,” he said. “When you take a super-long roadtrip, you know there’s going to be gas station stops, you know you’re going to have to stop to use the restroom, stretch your legs, get a drink — it’s much the same way. That’s kind of the difference I’m learning with the ultra-distance. It’s not so much about the race as it is more (competing) against yourself as far as just staying moving.”
Perhaps one of the most unusual, but to Scott, satisfying, moments in the race was on Saturday morning as the XL riders advanced north of Cottonwood Falls on the road to Council Grove.
They met a number of southbound cyclists, the lead group of the DK100 was coming south along the same road as they prepared to turn back toward Emporia on their last stretch.
“(There were) people riding by cheering you on and you get to cheer them on,” he said. “It actually made that section go quicker for me.”
It was a unique few miles, where two journeys intersected, both going different directions yet with the same destination still ahead.
“Our ultimate goal is to push ourselves to finish,” Scott said. “No matter how long it takes.”
Eyes on the prize
While the finish line was the ultimate goal for all four, the destination wasn’t solely on Commercial Street.
It was partially embedded in the journey itself.
“Even though it is a timed event, if you want to make it that, I would encourage anybody … just be sure to look up and see what’s there,” Scott said. “You’re (potentially) missing some good stuff.”
Traveling across the hilly terrain, as grueling as it can be, provides many opportunities that may be considered once-in-a-lifetime.
“We went places your (typical) car couldn’t go,” Blubaugh said. “So that’s an experience. You get to experience things you normally wouldn’t see on a drive.”
“You get to see a lot of cool, beautiful country,” Scott said. “From Council Grove to Eskridge, I knew what we had in store for us because I’ve ridden up there a lot, but it was pretty relentless there for awhile.”
The mental anguish of battling with the backcountry at times can even be far more imposing than any physical fatigue. Blubaugh fought through an hour of the desire to quit before her body demanded it. As Balkenhol pulled out of Eskridge, he described his physical feeling as “death warmed over.”
He pondered making a call that would end the misery and get a free ride back home. Yet he also thought back to the endless number of friends and family that had expressed encouragement and motivation for his preparation for the day.
That created a different kind of adrenaline.
“I didn’t want to continue, just the aches and pains and the way the heat got to me,” he said. “I was ... in the middle of nowhere (and) I had stopped and I was thinking about things. I thought I could take the easy button, just stop and call for a ride. I (was) at a point where it would be easy (for someone) to get to me. But I knew all those people — they wouldn’t look down on me for not finishing, not at all and I know that — but to me, if I finish this, then the people that support me finished (too). So it makes it harder for me to quit.”
Well ahead of his brother at that point, Scott crossed Highway 56 on his final run to Emporia in the middle of the night. His tempo had slowed, but an unexpected encounter helped him pick up the pace.
“I came over a hill and there was a van coming at me,” he said. “They pulled over to the side of the road and I thought that was awful nice of them ... to totally dust me … when I was riding by, some people got out and started cheering me on. And this is at 1:30 in the morning. That gets your adrenaline going a little bit. I start looking at my Garmin trying to calculate this and that. I really started pushing hard. I know I’m going to finish, that’s all I really wanted. Once I got within five to seven miles, I (realized) I’m not that far away, I think I could do it. After that, I cut out all the pain and just started going.
“I surprised myself. Either way, it was going to be a finish how I wanted to do it. If I made the cut, it was cool, if not, I still made it.”
He made the cut, crossing the finish 35 hours, 53 minutes and 51 seconds later. He was the final rider of the XL to beat the 36-hour cutoff.
Timed or not, after surviving the hilly landscape of Greenwood, Chase, Morris and Wabaunsee Counties, it left one goal for all: to get back home.
“The key that I discovered, especially for this year, was that it was all part of the adventure,” Shawn said. “(The races are) all going to have some highs and lows to them. You enjoy the highs while you’re riding them and when you hit those lows, you just know that (they’re) part of the adventure. Even the fatigue factor, it was kind of my go-to mantra … it was all part of the adventure. If there came a time I was feeling beat down mentally, (I determined) beforehand that everything’s part of the adventure. It was key for me to push through it. You left Emporia. The goal is to ride yourself back to Emporia; there was no question other than that.”
Blubaugh wants to continue racing, including finding perhaps a 300-mile trek that will start earlier on day one to avoid the potential of facing a dual-night ride. She said she’ll likely return to the DK200 next summer, wanting to absorb more of the surroundings than only the road itself.
“I think there’s more things out there for me; I just would like to enjoy Dirty Kanza a little bit more,” she said. “You miss out on a lot when you’re in the XL. You have to leave Friday afternoon and if you’re lucky, you get back Sunday really early in the morning. I just want to get back to experiencing what Dirty Kanza offers, (such as) the finish line.”
Even coming about 30 miles shy of getting to the end of the course, she also expressed her desire to inspire.
“I just wanted to show that an average woman can do this,” she said. “I’m not super-athletic. You just have to put the time in, get out there and try. You have to try things that are uncomfortable. Women are coming a long way in the sport and in our town.
“That was probably — was what I wanted to get out of it the most, was just to show other girls, young girls, older women — we can do anything.”
The O’Mara brothers are also uncertain of exactly what their roles in next year’s Dirty Kanza events will hold, but both expressed a distinct desire to continue pursuing challenges in the world of bicycling.
Balkenhol said he hears from people, including fellow racers, who laud his efforts in the XL, and he frequently deflects the praise. While he understands the achievement, he believes whether it’s in bike racing, or nearly any other aspect of life, too many people spend more time as uncertain spectators rather than putting their own mettle to the test.
“People can do a lot more than they think they can do,” he said. “I think they give themselves a wall to walk up to instead of the infinite (opportunities) of what (they) could actually achieve. That’s how you’ve got to look at these rides — don’t worry about what you can’t do, just go see what you can do. It’s really like that with anything in life. This is a hobby for most people and they’re just in it for the adventure part to see where they can push themselves. Don’t give yourself a wall, just go.”