My path to the red dirt roads of Stillwater, OK, the home of the Land Run 100, actually began in the Flint Hills of Emporia, KS, the home of the Dirty Kanza 200. In 2013 I ventured east to find out what gravel was all about. I stayed in a “gravel frat house” of sorts that belonged to Lelan Dains, the current Operations Manager of the Dirty Kanza, who was also housing a contingent of folks from Stillwater, OK, home of District Bicycles and a first year event called Land Run, the brainchild of Bobby Wintle. I had some serious butterflies flitting about when I stepped off the porch into the inky darkness on race morning, grabbed my bike, turned on my rear light, and pushed off for the prairie unknown when Bobby and his wife Crystal appeared on their tandem. We rolled down the tree lined street, the crisp midwest morning air smacking us in the face, a nervous, excited banter between us, which I distinctly remember calming my race nerves and easing my first timer fears. When we parted I was infected by their enthusiasm, uplifted by their energy, and inspired to get to know them better in the future.
Fast forward five years and I’m on a flight to Kansas City to connect with 4x Dirty Kanza winner, and Triple Crown Holder, Dan Hughes, who has graciously offered to pick me up before we make our way to Stillwater, OK. Both of us are Land Run 100 first timers, and for good reason. We’d both heard/seen the horror stories about sticky, thick red mud that ate drive trains and spit out rear derailleurs like ribs picked clean. We’ve both seen the carnage wrought by prairie peanut butter muck that forced riders to walk for extended periods of times because.This year, though, I rolled the proverbial dice and took a gamble on coming out. I hedged my weather bets by building up a Scott Addict CX as a single speed, crossed my fingers, and said a few Hail Marys.
Stillwater, OK, is located in the north eastern region of the state, in an area popularly known as “Tornado Alley”. It’s also home to Oklahoma State University and the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. But for the past six years it has played host to the Land Run 100, an endurance gravel race that’s seen meteoric growth in popularity. According to the event website, “ At the heart of this event are some of the most rugged and daunting, beautiful and memorable roads in the Oklahoma country. They take on a personality of their own. But they are also marked by the people who travel far and work hard to ride them. Making yourself part of these roads makes them part of you.” Speaking of unique personalities, Bobby Wintle, owner of District Bicycles, the host shop for the Land Run 100, is a bearded, bristle haired Energizer Bunny of gravel stoke. Who else starts a race by firing a cannon, huh?! Or makes you sing John Denver’s, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” There’s no off switch, the dude is full gas come race week, and it’s undeniable that he has a deep passion for getting people off paved roads, hence his tagline: #Unlearnpavement.
Unlike the past five years, the 2018 edition of the Land Run 100 was blessed with dry conditions, which meant that the 106 mile course was fast and dusty, and after the initial accelerations and separations, I was tucked into the back of the front group of 25 riders or so. When you play bikes in new places you make new friends, which is exactly what happened when I found myself with Andrew Strempke, a past LR100 single speed winner, and Rory Jack, a first-timer like me. We were locked wheel to wheel for the last 40 miles of the race, swapping pulls and evenly sharing the workload. And despite being in contention for 2nd, 3rd and 4th, we all agreed to stop at the Salsa Cycles chaise lounge chair to snap a quick photo. Rory fired the first shot with about 10 miles to go with a mean acceleration, and then Andrew kicked me in the teeth not too far out of town, making me frantically chase for the last four miles to ultimately end up 4th.
The Bobby Wintle finish line hug is a thing of legend. People speak of it like touching the Pope. Crossing the finish, and being wrapped in Bobby’s arms, is a collision of exhaustion and relief with passion and joy. It’s an explosion of stoke, and the most genuine, and human, way to greet, honor and respect someone who has just left everything they had out on the red dirt roads. It’s a warm embrace that makes all those miles worth it. And he meets EVERY competitor this way, no one escapes Bobby’s arms, no one escapes his infectious happiness and smile.
I’m so thankful that my chance encounter with Bobby and Crystal all those years back at the Dirty Kanza that lead me to the red deep earth roads of Stillwater, OK, and the District Bicycles tribe. I am continually amazed by this diverse community of riders that celebrates and embraces all those that #Unlearnpavement. Pursue your passions. Find adventure. Ride red dirt.