Thursday, August 30, 2018

Grit Gravel Grind - El Dorado, KS

This is the story of a short trip up to Kansas for a new gravel event called Grit Gravel Grind. Coordinated by the Timer Guys (historically a running and triathlon event production company), this race was based out of El Dorado State Park in El Dorado, Kansas. That's just slightly south and west of Dirty Kanza territory for those familiar with the Flint Hills region.

We drove from Oklahoma to El Dorado on Friday evening after securing a few last minute essentials (kombucha, potato chips, and a new Spur Cycles bell 😂) and set up camp in a section of the park just around the corner from where rider check-in would be in the morning. Despite temps in the 80s on paper, the humidity and bugs turned our two-person tent into somewhat of a sauna. The 5am alarm also turned out not to be super necessary, as a (fortunately brief) thunder and lightning storm cropped up right around then.

After much forgetting-of-things we were (mostly) in business with bikes, gear, and fuel. I was loaded up with a Camelbak and two liter-sized bottles of water and Sword drink mix. There were a whopping 8 or so water tables throughout the course, but I prefer to stop less frequently and to self-support as much as possible. Plus, strength training. A curious number of TT bikes and folks in swimsuits were wandering around the packet pickup parking lot...turns out there was also a triathlon happening in the park on the same day. After a very brief identity crisis I headed in the direction of the gravel roads :) For the record, swimsuit and running shoes were both in the car though.

There was a refreshing mix of folks on the start line, likely due in part to a variety of distances for the day - 25, 50, 75, or 100 miles. Or 103 miles including an optional detour to Teter Rock for beer by the local Walnut River Brewing Co. After a horn or a gun or a bell or something, we rolled out onto the first few miles of pavement within the State Park.
Photo credit Scott Drevicky

A couple miles out of the park and we were already on gravel. The crunch under my Vittoria Tereno's felt good. They're heavy-ish, but Flint Hills bomb-proof. One long gravel road took us directly east of El Dorado for the first 10-ish miles before the course turned north. The morning rain had left a few tacky spots but nothing overtly flooded, and after all of the Iowa dust I inhaled 3 weeks ago, I was perfectly happy for some tamped-down roads. As per usual, I spent the first 25 miles waiting for my legs to remember how to ride. Coming straight off a week of ICU nights likely didn't do me any favors, but some quiet Kansas gravel and flint was the best medicine.

A short section of those first ten miles was "blocked off" by a road detour sign. The major obstacle seemed to be a rutted-out area, which my Salsa Cutthroat with 42mm tires could easily tackle. It ended up being an emergency-stop, however, when a woman crashed directly in front of a group of six or so of us (she was fine, and a pile-up was somehow avoided).

This was just a blip in an otherwise peaceful morning of riding. The Flint Hills were showing off with full summer greenery, open plains, rolling valleys, and scattered free-range cattle.

Photo credit Scott Drevicky
The Cutthroat tackled a winding, flint-laced double track descent with aplomb, reminiscent of the best parts of the Dirty Kanza course.  The legs came alive and we sped into mile 25, where the field thinned out even more as the 50 milers made their turn-around.

Photo credit Scott Drevicky
The beautiful scenery kept coming in the next 25 miles, and we were treated to a mix of hard-pack, dirt, and some loose new chunky gravel, with a few pretty good sections of rollers thrown in. At mile 48, the turn for Teter Rock was marked with two signs: "←Beer" and "No Beer→". I stopped briefly here and contemplated my desire to see Teter and ride a few extra miles versus the unlikelihood of celiac-friendly beer. I ended up riding briefly in the direction of Teter and then turning back to the rest of the course. My partner in crime made the trip out, took this super cool bicycle-against-a-rock photo, and said the beer was A+. I'm putting in a request for bourbon next year.
Photo (and bike) credit Scott Drevicky
Which brings us to roughly the halfway point, and a water table at mile 51. I stopped to refill Camelbak and bottles having burnt through about 4 liters of fluids in the heat already, and made a right-hand turn. The back half of the course would take us south and west back to El Dorado. Straight into the south wind. WHOOMPH. That's the sound/feeling of getting smacked in the face with sustained winds in the 20s. After a sub-3 hour first 50, the second 50 looked like it would be much slower.

After about 10 miles of fighting the wind, my brain figured out that this was not going to stop, and it was time to embrace the suck. There is something to sitting with the suffering, pedaling and pedaling as you edge your way forward and fight not to blow over in crosswind gusts, that is strangely calming. Maybe this is just me, though. Around mile 65 I finally spotted another human being - a gentleman with a rad beard who was suffering mightily, and I was at least able to offer him a pull for a few miles. 

Not long after I found the wheel of a strong Chamois Butter rider who was catching up after making the beer stop at Teter Rock. We stopped at a manned aid station 25 miles out for some watermelon and liquids. The remainder of the route would be the same as the opening 25 miles, but in reverse. I headed back out alone to tackle my favorite stretch of rocky flint, but this time uphill and into the wind. It was one of the most rewarding and scenic and slowest long climbs I've done...wish I had pictures. With 15 miles to go I popped back out onto the pavement in Rosalia...my least favorite stretch. Being on a big paved road with a strong head/crosswind that blows you around and makes it difficult to hear traffic led to a lot of neurotic over-the-shoulder checking for cars. This was fortunately a low-traffic road, despite its highway-like appearance, and only one vehicle passed me the entire few miles. My new Chamois Butter friend also opportunely caught me again here, and we rolled in and out of Rosalia together and back onto the gravel for the partially-sheltered last 12 miles in. We passed a church that is a frequent stopping point for riders on the Trans Am route, and briefly kept the company of a swarm of dragonflies, which I learned were migrating for the summer. I had been smacked in the face by quite a few of those suckers on the route out, and had wondered what the heck those buggers were up to. Some good company and conversation helped the remaining miles fly by, and we made the last turn back into El Dorado park. Turns out we were a little too busy chatting about nerdy science things, former running careers, tales of Dirty Kanza past, and gut microbiomes (totally normal end-of-race conversation), as we managed to completely miss the turn into the finish line. One last bonus mile ride through the state park, back out onto the course, and then into the finish chute!
Photo credit TimerGuys
 Garmin had just enough juice in it to inform me of my 7:05 moving time. Wind added on a good hour and ten to the second half relative to the first, and my legs were the most toasted they'd been from a century in a good while. Pleasantly smoked is a good way to describe it. As in, just enough left to wander around aimlessly eating potato chips and wondering where the boy was because I wanted the car keys. We were handed finisher medals (a sign of TimerGuys' triathlon/running roots???)  and pointed towards the food. There were a handful of 75 milers and a good deal of 100 milers still out on course, and as riders trickled in, people congregated under the pavilion for pancakes, beer, and gravel stories (apparently I missed a family of raccoons somewhere around mile 45. But at least I managed to not run over any tiny rattlers this time.) I managed to peel my butt off a bench for the attractive photo below. Overall category winners were gifted a photo of the course, we think somewhere between miles 30 and 40. The whole route was spot-on, so this was a nice touch from this first year event (and check out that sweet teal City Cycles jersey!) 

Photo credit TimerGuys

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