Dirty Kanza 2014: Dan Hughes

In Guest Post by Eric Benjamin Comments

I am honored to have a guest post by Dan Hughes today. Dan is a four-time Dirty Kanza Champion and a hero of mine. I have a lot of heros on the gravel. But these aren’t movie star heroes, these are “regular” guys with jobs and families that when they take to the gravel are something of legend. They motivate me and sometimes have me in awe with their abilities. So without further ado, here is Dan’s story. FYI if the images don’t have the AM watermark, they were provided by Sunflower Outdoor and Bike.

Dirty Kanza 2014. 

It’s likely a gross oversimplification, but for several years now I’ve felt that I represented the last of the “old guard” of Dirty Kanza winners. With the exception of Cameron Chambers perhaps, Steve Goetzelman, Mike Marchand, Corey Godfrey, Rusty Folger, and myself seemed to me to be more journeymen racers than elite athletes. For example, I envision Marchand cranking out the miles of training and then returning to his job at the library to recover behind a desk (I see him in my mind wearing compression socks while controlling the Dewey Decimal chaos). Or Steve doing some crazy ride or ski, and then returning to his bike shop to serve Iowa City’s cycling masses. That’s not to take anything away from the accomplishment mind you. Anyone who witnesses how deep Corey Godfrey digs at every Kanza cannot help but be impressed by his effort or that of any other finisher. It takes skill, fitness, mental toughness, and a little bit of luck to finish a Kanza, much less win one. So I hope when I say this, these great former winners will allow me to join their ranks with the understanding that I am eternally respectful of their achievements.

That said, I’m also of the feeling that we’ve just been keeping the seat warm for someone truly on another level, and it’s been my job as the last of these winners to hold out for as long as possible. The question for me has been: “when will that person come along, and who will it be?” In Denmark, I believe the phrase is “Kongen leve, kongen er død” or roughly translated: “Hail the King, the King is Dead!” As it applies to the 2014 Dirty Kanza it’s probably most appropriate to keep to the Danish at this point but more on that in a minute.

From my perspective as a bike shop owner, gravel rider, and Midwesterner, it’s immensely gratifying to see the bike industry point their attention at our little niche of the cycling market, in our little corner of the world. I have more conversations with people about gravel riding and the Kanza in particular than I do on most any other subject in my shop. Gravel riding appeals to a desire to put in longer miles in a beautiful, relatively car-free environment. And the Kanza is right at the perfect distance for those that want to race it, and the rest who hope to survive it (I think Tim Ek said that best). So it’s no wonder that more and more people would take notice of the Kanza and that some really fast people would start to pencil it in on their calendars. 2014 would bring a bumper crop of fast riders for sure.

The first of these notable riders to hit my radar was Barry Wicks, the Kona superstar. He was a guy I had heard of, and I think I even entitled an early season Strava ride as “HSBWICTTKAYBNEYH.” This is Latvian for “Holy S*** Barry Wicks Is Coming To The Kanza And You Better Not Embarrass Yourself Hughes.” Another name was brought to my attention by my “friends” at Specialized…namely one Neil Shirley. “Who’s Neil Shirley?” I asked myself, but upon extensive hours of Internet research and the beta info from folks that know both me and Neil, there was only one outcome to be drawn. I was going to be outclassed on a heavy level this year. Add to that the fact that Specialized was going to outfit Neil with the bike that I had helped spec (a little…not really enough to be called the “Dan Hughes Edition”) and get him time in their WinTunnel and I knew I had a uphill battle on my hands.

In the midst of all this I was reminded of the idiom “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t” by the inclusion of Brian Jensen’s name to the start roster. Being from Lawrence via DENMARK (hint, hint), Brian is a well-known devil in these parts…an incredibly strong and talented devil. During one of our conversations leading up to the event, Brian mentioned to me that we was unsure if he would even line up for the Kanza since it might blunt his recovery for other races on his calendar. So, in an effort to assuage his concerns I jokingly told him that I would repay his entry fee to the Kanza should he decide not to attend. You know, “so he wouldn’t feel beholden to showing up.” If only he had taken me up on the offer…

In hindsight I’ve mused about why Brian never considered the Kanza before. I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t think he could really motivate himself to race in the Flint Hills for 12 hours. In some ways, I still don’t think he wants to race for 12 hours in the Flint Hills. Better to get it over much, much quicker actually. But again, more on that later.

To round out the cast of characters was virtually every fast rider that had been there or thereabouts over the past several years. Rusty Folger was back. So too was Joe Fox and Garth Prosser. Jay Petervary was back and better prepared for what he was getting into. Jonathon Schottler (the likely winner in 2012 were it not for a slew of flats) and newcomers like Bob Cummings were also headed for Emporia. The field was the most stacked ever.

DK 200 Starting LIne-001

Starting Line Leaders

As I told my friend Rebecca Rusch in March: “It’s highly unlikely that I will defend my title. With that in mind I can think of nothing better than riding with you and helping you win your third title.” She agreed at the time, but had different thoughts on race day.

So I headed into the Flint Hills with modest expectations. Mostly I just wanted to be near the front so I could have a good view of the fireworks that were about to happen.

Our lead-up to the Kanza were the traditional festivities at Sunflower with Rebecca (shake-out pre-ride with about 40 folks, a motivational talk for almost 70 more), and then loading up the car and motoring down to Emporia for the pre-race meeting and other engagements. This year we had a full complement of bikes on the car as three executives from Specialized were also toeing the line with us. Given the expense of the assembled carbon, we contemplated posting a guard or two when we went in to buy supplies on the way down!I like to call my Volvo “Swedish Steel” but in this case there was probably more carbon on it than steel in it.

Rebecca Rusch at Dirty Kanza

Riders joined Rebecca on a shake-out ride of 25 miles or so.

Race day dawned cool and foggy and Reba and I fiddled with our Garmins on the ride from the hotel down to the start. We lined up right at the front of the field (using some license from our previous results) and got ready to pedal out. Lots of folks asked me how I felt or if I was ready, and my answer was always the same: “I’m sure they’ve done studies on the mental state of condemned men at some point. That’s what I think I feel like.”

dan hughes dirty kanza

Taking a long, hard look at the gallows just before the start

Emporia Police Department leads the race to the edge of town

Emporia Police Department leads the race to the edge of town

Jim Cummins got us started off the line and we rolled quickly to the gravel. The race was pretty uneventful for the first several miles although a highlight was watching Barry Wicks take in the beauty of the Flint Hills and remark on how incredible they were. I chatted a bit with Rusty Folger and Yuri Hauswald and settled in to a groove. Looking around I noticed lots of folks hydrating early and thinking it a good idea decided to follow suit. No sooner had I begun to drink than I caught a hole with my rear wheel and pinch flatted. At mile 18. With the leaders at full warp speed.

It’s tough to find a good side in flatting like that, but the chorus of voices from my peers sharing my disappointment was a small comfort I’ll admit. I tore into the SWAT box on my Crux and made as quick a change as I could while remaining calm. Once underway again I picked my way through some riding buddies that were doing the Half-Pint and then up through the ranks of the 200. I caught Chris Carmichael and his crew, my longtime riding compatriot James Grooms (thanks for the navigational aid James!) and even Garth Prosser who had flatted himself. I passed Neil Shirley who appeared to be working on his chain, and Barry Wicks who was sussing out a tire problem (and was quickly passed right back by him!). “This is the year of the mishap, for sure” I thought.

The low water crossing before Madison

Low water crossing before Madison

Reaching Madison I found myself in 32nd place and had Collin refill the supplies I had burned through changing the flat and my nutritionals the food I had scarfed down so far in the day. I rode out with Rusty Folger and not long after found a good group of folks I knew like fellow Sunflower staffer Paul Heimbach and Specialized legend Don Langley (who had crashed and looked to have dislocated a thumb).

dan hughes dirty kanza

Pit man to the stars Collin Earhart attends to my bike needs at the first checkpoint in Madison while I stuff my face some more.

And I found Rebecca Rusch. “There you are!” I said, “let’s ride together!” This seemed to me to be karma fulfilling my thoughts from March.

“Don’t you dare ride with me” she replied, “the race is up the road. Neil Shirley is out. Barry Wicks is tweeting every hour from the seat of his bike. The leaders are only minutes ahead. GO!” Effectively I was being told by one of my best friends on the bike to get lost, although in an encouraging, upbeat way…I think.

So I left. Not in a grandiose “attack off the front” way, but in a “I’m just going to keep rolling” sort of way. That resulted in my leaving Reba and my other pals behind, but allowed me to reel in other folks like perennial strongman Joe Fox (who looked to have crashed), the always stylish and supple (the French call it “souplesse”) Andy Chocha, and my main Yeti, Yuri Hauswald of GU Energy. We were all going as quickly as our equipment and bodies would allow, each toiling with the effort.

I flatted again at mile 90 or so, just as I was about to join a strong-looking group of four and took my time changing the flat before riding up Battle Creek Hill and rolling on into Cassoday.

Refilling on supplies again, slightly out on my feet, I left Cassoday as quickly as I came and started slogging my way east towards what I knew was the Teterville drop and the turn towards Bazaar and eventually Cottonwood Falls. Mike Riemer from Salsa was out taking pictures on that road and I could swear I heard him say “you’re in 11th.” As it would turn out that was not exactly accurate, but as I write this I realize I might have hallucinated that Mike was there at all. The stretch to that turn appears to be about 10 miles, but I know for a fact that the actual distance is closer to 437 miles. At least it sure felt that way.

I eventually made the turn and entered the oil field roads that are renowned for their toughness. The hike-a-bike section around the 15-foot deep culvert was a nice addition this year but after a while I made it up to the plateau and reeled in 4-5 folks along the way, buddies David Haase and Jay Petervary among them. I caught up with Wayne Strohman from Texas and we traded some pulls over to the outskirts of Cottonwood Falls.

Just outside the third checkpoint, just before the pavement into town, the wheels came off my wagon in a big way and I had to let Wayne soldier on by himself. I limped into the check on the little ring and the biggest cog I could find in the back. I don’t if it was burning matches chasing all day, or a nutritional error or what. All I knew was that I was as close to quitting as I have ever been in a Kanza.

Dan racing with a slight tailwind on Sharps Creek Road

Dan racing with a slight tailwind on Sharps Creek Road

Heading towards Bazaar on Sharps Creek Road

Heading towards Bazaar on Sharps Creek Road

I got to Collin and broke my cardinal rule of support stops…I sat down. There was no other option. I inhaled a few cokes, several handfuls of M&Ms and doused my self with copious amounts of water. Collin reloaded my essentials and shoved what I feel was the piece de resistance down the back of my jersey…the ice sock. I don’t care if the proper folks of central Kansas feel it’s scandalous to load a nude colored knee-high nylon with ice and place down the back of a lycra-clad wussie cyclist…it was the only thing that got me out of that chair and back on my bike.

dan hughes dirty kanza

Breaking my cardinal rule of never sitting down at a checkpoint. Also contemplating the meaning of existence in Cottonwood Falls

I bolted for the finish (as much as I could “bolt”) and managed to catch Josh Johnson as he stopped at Hwy US50 to work out some cramps. I did practice my race-technique of asking him if he was okay or needed anything, but only after I was well past him and out of earshot of his reply. That way I feel like I asked, but I wasn’t going to stop unless he was in dire need. Like “dying” dire need.

The push around Lake Kahola was aided by the still present tailwind, and I quickly started heading south to the finish. I picked up some Half-Pint riders along the way and suffered through the interminable last few miles to the ESU campus. There I saw Specialized Executive VP Bob Margevicus and his wife cheering people on after Bob finished his 110-miler and before I knew it I was in the finishing chute of Commercial St.


With two flats, my time of 11:37 was 26 minutes faster than my winning time on the same course last year, and 19 minutes faster than the record I set with Rusty Folger in 2012. My moving average was 18.0mph, and I cranked through over 8700 kilojoules/calories of work. And it was only good for 7th overall. Ha! Things are a changing at the Kanza.

Brian Jensen was true to his level and crushed the record in a jaw-dropping 10:42 and change. Prior to Saturday there had been only three people that had EVER gone sub-12 at DK and now that number was blown out to 10! And Brian at sub-11?? Amazing. And a clear indication that the “new guard” of the Kanza had arrived in full-force.

And oddly enough, I was completely okay with that.

Even though I was no longer the “King of the Kanza,” and no longer the record holder… (just the fast-ish old guy in the 45-49 division seemingly), I was having as much fun as if I’d won for a 5th time. Greeting Rebecca as she won an incredible third women’s title was amazing. Seeing Don Langley cross the line with his dislocated thumb and shredded skin from a crash at mile 25 was inspiring. Embracing Janeen McCrae and Darren Klish as they completed their Kanza journey under the stars instead of the sun was bittersweet but gratifying nonetheless. And I was dumbstruck when Neil Shirley rolled across the line, 15 hours after we had left Emporia together. Neil, who had rigged his bike as a single-speed after another racer’s front wheel ripped his rear derailleur from his bike and gingerly pedaled at below 200 watts for the remaining 180 miles to make the finish…incredible.

These individual victories coalesced Under under the Sunflower tent as I watched my fellow staffer Paul become physically ill try to recover from his incredible effort, such was the incredible effort of his beating the sun and finishing his first Kanza. While he was not as successful in keeping his roiling stomach under control, it didn’t seem to matter. And when I told him how proud I was of his effort, there were literal tears in his eyes. His accomplishment was as important as any of my successes in Emporia. To him and to me.

paul Heimbach dirty kanza

Fellow staffer Paul Heimbach plumbing the depths of his reserves to finish before the sun

Every year, I say I’m never coming back. After this year, witnessing the personal triumphs of my fellow riders, I realize that’s not true. I’ll ALWAYS come back to the Kanza.

The King is dead, long live the King!