I'm starting to fine tune the process of getting out of hotel rooms quickly. This morning was 7 minutes and 52 seconds from wake up, and I had pushed start on the Wahoo. The trick I learned was a few things- first, not unpacking much the night before at the hotel- only the necessities, and second, eating your breakfast while you repack electronics and slip on your kit. There's really not much else to do! My best weapon was efficiency, and while my legs continued to grow tired I hoped that I could continue to play this card over the next few days.
Kansas miles weren't very memorable, but I do recall starting my ride at a certain time to arrive in Ness City for when a breakfast restaurant was opening. No sense in getting up earlier and missing a hot meal. You'd be surprised at how early some of these small town restaurants open. The restaurant in Ness City opened at 5:30am! Jason Oestreicher and I scored an even earlier one in the middle of nowhere Kentucky.
A big breakfast was actually becoming a critical part of my days. I found that when I could get a hearty sit down breakfast in me, it would set me up for a very productive day of riding. Conversely, in those first few days when I would skip real meals and try and use gas station fare solely, I would feel sluggish and run down. It was a trade-off for sure; sitting down and waiting for your food did feel like wasted time, but I had to remind myself of the value... and to be efficient with the time spent there. These small restaurants also afforded a (relatively) nice bathroom, which I'll tell you is magical when you are essentially homeless on two wheels.
From Ness City I rode casually into Rush Center with a belly full of eggs and pancakes. At Rush Center, the route veered south, and that's when it hit. The mid morning humidity. We had dropped below the 2,000 foot marker on the course, and it was starting to become apparent. It was only 9 am, but you could feel the moisture starting to stick to your skin and clothes. If it was this sticky at 9am, I dare not guess what the next few hours would be like.
The stretches from town to town today weren't as long and barren as yesterday, but still pretty straight and quiet. Rush Center to Larned was another 35 miles or so, and would be a nice place to grab some lunch. There was a small storm brewing to the south, and I started to become concerned about riding right into it. I came into the outskirts of Larned, the road becoming littered with used car dealerships and small town businesses. I started scanning for places that looked good for a quick bite. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a small billow of smoke over some buildings. As I pedaled up, it was a smoker set up outside an old self-serve car wash. BBQ, Hell yeah! I pulled up and ordered a few pulled pork sandwiches and 3 bottles of water. They had some old restaurant booths set up inside one of the old carwash ports, and I had a chance to sit down and eat, chatting with the gentlemen about the course and upcoming towns. I'm glad I stopped here as it was another quiet stretch over to Nickerson.
The storm in the distance didn't seem to be doing much, so I decided to keep trekking on towards Nickerson. The route turned back towards the east out of Larned, where I found a faint helping breeze from the distance storm at my back. The skies were eerie and the road around me quiet. I needed some company today, so I decided to plug in the headphones and call some friends. I'm not sure why I waited this long to do this- I had the headphones from the start of the race. Maybe I thought cell service would never be good enough for a consistent conversation. Maybe I had been entranced my music and the environment around me. Today I needed some human interaction, even if it was virtual. I called Sean, a close friend back home in GA. I called my parents to check in. I just asked them to talk to me. Tell me anything that was going on in their day. I wanted to listen, maybe talk a little bit, but mostly just to listen. The cell service was decent, but started to get choppy the further East I went. I remember this started to frustrate me, and that meant one thing- something bad was coming. Frustration on a bicycle for me is the inevitable sign of a downward spiral- overheating, exhaustion or a good ol' fashion bonk.
The heat was now blazing. What had started out as a nice pedal from Larned was starting to become a hot chore. I do like the heat, but man, I was not ready for it today. It was coming on so strong in the moment, my body having no time to adjust or prepare. Soon I found myself in a very dark place, both physically and mentally. I started looking for a piece of shade on the side of the road to rest for a minute, which I had only done once prior on day 2 in Oregon. I was now stopping constantly to collect myself, form thoughts, find a positive outlook and recheck distance to the next town. I was cooking internally, depleted on calories and water. I remember a few days later Simone Bailey having a rough go in this section as well, but she found the magic running spigot that is somewhere out on this stretch. Damn!
I rolled into Nickerson a hot mess. While it doesn't look it on a map, that was honestly one of the hardest stretches on the course. Timing is everything, and I hit that stretch at the wrong time.
I found a small restaurant in Nickerson that had a few touring bikes parked outside. I needed some company as well as some A/C. The restaurant was so cold, it felt like heaven in the moment. The two tourers were from Brazil, and we had a chance to share war stories over some delicious burgers and cold Cokes. It was a struggle to pick myself up out of that restaurant, to head back into the blazing heat but I needed to make it to Newton that night. It was still mid afternoon and stepping out of that restaurant was about a 50 degree temperature swing.
Only 20 miles into riding again, my body signaled for another break. I peeled off the route in Buhler to find a convenience store, and gladly consumed anything that was in the refrigerated section. The chocolate milk in this area of the country was phenomenal. I can't remember the brand, but it was something regional. This had been a troubling last few hours of riding, needing to stop consistently to get my shit together. It seemed like it was the start of the turn for me, that my body had finally decided to give in the ghost and was beckoning me to pull back the daily volume. This was the first day of heat and humidity, and I was not acclimated. Riding out of Buhler, I had one hand on the bars, the other guzzling chocolate milk. Frothy brown liquid pouring out the sides of the container onto my beard as I couldn't get it me fast enough.
I had found a small amount of energy to get my ass back on route and slog my way to Newton. The miles were getting slower. I couldn't get my power up and my motivation was low. This middle section of Kansas had literally destroyed me.
I knew they were expecting me at Newton Bike Shop. I knew there was a shower, food, a place to sleep and and opportunity to fix my bike (it was still having issues). That alone was what kept me moving that afternoon, instead of finding a tree in a nearby park to pass out under. Rolling into Newton was a fun experience- the crew at NBS was out with cameras, waiving you in off the main drag. In a race where you are solo for 99% of it, it was nice to know people were actually watching. The team at NBS welcomed me with open arms, and I quickly had a beer in my hand, and a shower waiting for me. James took my bike to the back and planned to work on it over night, and I had an opportunity to chat with Lauren Micheal and her crew, a group of tourers heading west. I remember we were watching the trackleaders board to see what Jason Oestreicher was going to do for the rest of the day, as he had been hot on my heels all day- only 30 miles behind. James mentioned that Jason was having a rough afternoon as well and wasn't sure he was going to make it to the shop that night. In the moment, this gave me a little relief that it wasn't just a bad day for me, and that it was truly brutal conditions out there.
Jason decided to call it a little bit before Newton, thus I was the only racer at the shop that night. I crashed early and set an alarm for 4am. I didn't take a single picture this day. Kansas had definitely won the day, and I needed to regroup.