Vibrating with raw energy, enthusiasm and excitement, the registrants for the Dirty Kanza 200 pack into The Granada in Emporia. This is the World’s Premier Gravel Grinder bicycle race right here in my hometown with over 1200 riders from 45 states and 7 countries. After my first half hour as a Gravel Groupie Volunteer, it is time for the riders’ meeting. There is a documentary video/slide show feeding more inspiration into the theater occupants. After all the photos and descriptions of riders grinding over 200 miles of gravel, the show ends with three words across a Flint Hills panorama, “It changes you.” Tears fill my eyes just imagining it. If exploring the Flint Hills by car can change me as a teenager, how wonderful would it be out there on a bike? But, I can’t really imagine the experience of grinding bike tires up and down the gravel hills.
The day of the race is my first time even as a spectator. I have no idea what to expect. I just show up, report in and wait for instructions. There are more than enough volunteers at the Hospitality Tent, so Kristi asks me to help out with the banner signing. Holding a sharpie to give to the riders sounds boring, which is why I opted for the Hospitality Tent. When I realize that involves cutting up oranges, bananas and pouring water, the banner position suddenly seems more interesting.
For the next five hours I have a front row spot behind the directors tent at the end of the finish line. In many cases I am one of the first people to shake a finishers hand, give a high five, pat on the back, congratulate them, help them find their finish time on the computer, direct them to the refreshments and ask them to sign the banner, pointing to the Sharpie hanging on the pole ties.
I snap a few pictures from my iPhone of the first few finishers, but as the numbers increase I am busy greeting and directing riders or their crew. Some riders are a bit dazed, some are overwhelmingly exhausted and the EMTs are nearby. Some look almost euphoric; others burst into tears or are trembling as they try to regain their land legs. Some arrive with calm smiles as if it’s just another great ride through the Flint Hills of Kansas. Others ride past looking for the closest piece of shaded grass to rest. If a rider is too exhausted I follow their crewmembers to direct them to the refreshments and ask them to be sure their rider signs the banner after they’ve recovered.
I get some of the sweatiest, grimy handshakes of my lifetime, and it doesn’t even bother me. It feels wonderful to be a part of something monumental in these riders’ lives. I get to hear comments to the Race Directors as riders finish and many say, “Thank you, this is the best course I’ve ever done.” One rider says, “This is the greatest achievement of my life!” I say, “Congratulations! Good work!” Time after time the riders thank me for my hard work, for being there, for being a Gravel Groupie. I mirror it back, “Thank you for your hard work. Without you we wouldn’t be here. You’re welcome.” I know they aren’t thanking me personally, because all I did was show up the day before the race. They are thanking the Race Directors, all the support staff, the entire community of Emporia, the surrounding communities that participate and all the ranchers whose front and back yards they travelled. Our contact creates a bond of sweaty gray-dirt gratitude and inspiration. So as a last minute volunteer, I am honored to receive a multitude of gratitude. It changes you.
Simply to show up and be of service in any way I can, to help people do what they are passionate about. How does it get any better than this? It changes you. I don’t even own a bike right now. The last time a rode one was in Japan 2011 when I wanted to prove I could ride a bike after I recovered from three years of disability. Now I’m thinking about buying a bike to try grinding a bit of gravel in my back yard of beloved Flint Hills. Maybe I could start and work up to the DK Lite course and see how it goes. I could get a bike rack for my car and drive out into the Flint Hills and do short rides on the roads I drove as a teenager.
Standing at the 9th Annual DK200 finish line, I remember the three years when even a few minutes vertical was totally exhausting and all I could think was, “I’ve got to lie down, NOW.” I watched the finish line time clock tick away the minutes and hours and I could stand strong, all because I daily practice a simple system of stress/trauma release that has healed my life. If I can use it to recover from illness, I can use it to achieve new levels of exercise and achievement. Whether or not I get on a bike again, what I must say about the Dirty Kanza 200 is, “It changes me!” I’ll be back, even as a Gravel Groupie, I know what spot I want. — © Copyright B. Grace Jones 2014 All Rights Reserved.
Dirty Kanza 200 Website: http://www.dirtykanza200.com/