Whatever it takes

Words: Janeen McCrae


ee the man. There he sits, eyes moored firmly to the ground at his feet. Head bowed, shoulders slightly slumped, and hands in loose repose,the left clasping a cold, bullet-like can of colored fizz. Periodically he sips. This man is not a professional athlete. He’s not being paid to subject himself to this brute of a race. And the Dirty Kanza 200 is a brute. A horrendous physical assault on mind, and body, and bike. Two-hundred hot,windy, and dusty miles of belligerent, unforgiving gravel in the Flint Hills ofKansas. He is a self-described ‘journeyman racer’. He doesn’t have to race here, and yet…

The man stares at the ground, lost in thought. He is Dan Hughes, four-time winner of the Dirty Kanza, and he has broken his one cardinal rule for rest stops.

“Don’t ever f@*king sit down.”

Later, when looking back at this photograph and being asked why this one time he sat, when on so many other occasions he’s forbade even the presence of chairs at rest stops, his answer comes simply. Honestly.

He doesn’t pull the punch.

“It was sit down or fall down. And sitting down was closer,” he says. “I mean I was done. In all my years of racing the Kanza, I’ve never been that close to quitting. Ever. I was just empty. An Existential Crisis in Cottonwood Falls,” he says, laughing.

But empty as he was, Dan did get out of that chair. He then proceeded to go almost half-an-hour faster than his winning time last year,(which snared him 7th this year, in the fastest Kanza on record). But it begs the question. What does it take for the journeyman racer—a father, a husband, a guy with a day job and a business to run—what does it take to come back year after year and do this when there’s no paycheck, and no reward but the memory of beating the sun, a pint glass, and if you’re lucky, no gravel rash.

What does it take to get out of that chair?

For this journeyman racer, training for something like the Dirty Kanza is a delicate thing.

“It’s tough to balance the need to go train with what is, honestly, really more important. And that’s family. I always think that family, and Sunflower [Dan and his wife Karla have owned Sunflower Outdoor and Bike in Lawrence for 13 years], and riding my bike are the only three things I do. It’s a balancing act to get all that in.”

“It results in some, what I call ‘stupid rides’. Things like I’ll get up at 4 a.m., eat breakfast, ride to my shop to drop off my bag, then go ride 100 miles. I’ll get back to the shop before 11:30 a.m., so that I can get my work done, then go pick up the kids from school and make dinner. All that sort of stuff. So it’s just stupid rides. It’s shoehorning training in around a myriad of other responsibilities. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve ridden to a relative’s house because I need to get the miles in. It’s just standard operating procedure. If you’re going to have a holiday function at your house I will need to use your shower because I’m going to ride there.”

When it comes to balancing the need to race and the desire to keep on going during the race itself, well, that’s a battle of mind and body. It’s where the real mind games kick in, and it’s this process that drew Dan to endurance events in the first place.

“There are times where everything is clicking—the bike’s going great, the legs are feeling good, everything is hitting on all cylinders—but then 30 miles later you’re in the deepest suck cave there is and just looking for any excuse for a giant rock to jump up and break your bike so you can have a legitimate excuse to quit. But that doesn’t last forever, so you kind of go through the highs and lows in a long event. You can’t really get that in a short race.”

“Between miles 120 and 160—that’s always the crux of the Kanza for me. Because you’re tired at that point, but it’s still a long way to the finish and you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet. So any excuse from 120 to 160 is a pretty poignant excuse. Anything will do.”

And that’s when the mind games start. For example:

“It’s bad, when you reach down for the (empty) bottle for the fourth time and think ‘well, maybe, maybe I was wrong before? Maybe there’s just a tiny little bit of water left in the bottom of that bottle? Maybe I got near to finishing that bottle and just moved on to the next bottle, but nowI’ll go back this fourth time and now it’ll have a little bit of water left init. Yes, I know it will be that way.’ And then you open it—I mean you unscrew the lid and look down in it to see if there’s any moisture in there…”

He trails off, the still empty state of that bottle evident in his tone.

“But hey,” he continues. “That’s what you signed up for. That’s what you wanted to do and knowing that those dark periods will give way to something better down the road, that’s a good motivator. But keeping the voices at bay is a challenge.

“And you know what? The beauty of it is in those ‘better down the road’ moments. Simple things like that fourth handful of M&M’s, or the ice sock shoved down your back at the rest stop. You know, weird things that to other people would seem really strange. I mean if you were to say: ‘Oh yeah, what you do is you take a knee-high pantyhose and you put ice in it and you shove it down your back, and the water drips down your hindquarters and down the backs of your legs and it is AMAZING.’ People can’t wrap their minds around that. Unless you’re a rider and know what that is, it doesn’t mean anything. Those little things in that moment are just huge. They loom incredibly large for their restorative properties.”

Which brings us back to that chair. To that man in the chair. To Dan’s Existential Crisis in Cottonwood Falls.

“In that moment,” he says. “I’m just contemplating life. Just empty and very close to quitting. Then I look around and somewhere internally I think to myself: You have to finish it. Because if you don’t, then the sacrifices that you and your family have made will be for nothing. You’ve got to finish because if you don’t then you just wasted all that time when you could have been a better father and a better husband and a better business man.”

Later, we talk about the Kanza and its hold over Dan. About why he races it, and will continue to for as long as he can—with nine years of Kanzas, he has finished seven—but mostly about what he thinks it means to be a journeyman racer.

“You know,” he says. “Some riders are just genetically gifted. I don’t feel that way. I don’t really think I have any gifts and there’s nothing special about what I do on a gravel bike. I feel like I’m just a guy who’s been doing it for a long, long time and who’s suffered through a whole bunch of mistakes and slowly, very slowly, figured out how to not make those mistakes again. I’ve gotten lucky, numerous times, and that’s it. That’s what a journeyman racer is to me. It’s somebody who doesn’t have a special skill set, but tries really f@*king hard.”

See the man. There he sits in quiet contemplation. The air is thick with heat and his arms and legs shimmer in a dusty mirage of resting effort. What the body betrays in that moment, with filthy limbs and beading moisture, the expression does not. This journeyman racer will always find new ways to dig deep. For as long as the Kanza lets him.

“I love the Kanza,” he says. “I have to come back.”


Words by Janeen McCrae, photos by Andy O. White

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