May 22, 2015

EMPORIA, Kan. (AP) Rick Becker rode away from the starting line outside the historic Granada Theater at 6 a.m., the day just beginning to break in the scenic Flint Hills. By the time he crossed the finish line some 17 hours later, night had fallen hard on Commercial Street.

Along with hundreds of others, Becker had ridden his bike through everything rural Kansas could offer: tear-inducing wind, rutted gravel roads, flat tires too numerous to count.

But he had survived. Becker had made it.

Just barely.

''When I rolled across the finish line that night,'' Becker recalled, ''I told one of the race organizers, `This is the last time I'm ever doing this.'''

Except he's back again for another try.

For the last 10 years, the hardiest of cyclists have been flocking to some of the country's most remote roads on their squishy seats and with legs of steel to tackle 200 miles of gravel. The single-day race is called Dirty Kanza, a test of mental endurance as much as physical, and part of an explosion of extreme distance events testing the limits of the human body.

''Now, everybody's grandmother runs a marathon,'' said Rebecca Rusch, a professional cyclist whose affinity for extreme-distance races has earned her the nickname, ''The Queen of Pain.''

''I really think the point of endurance cycling is sort of that craving for a little bit of adventure,'' she said. ''We work too much. We have family, commitments, kids. I sort of look at the extreme sports as a way for us to get outside our normal, everyday boring lives.''

Rusch, who's won the women's category of Dirty Kanza three straight years, is not alone in that thinking. What began as a lark with 34 riders in 2006 has grown into a spectacle with nearly 2,000 for this year's event, scheduled for May 30. Along the way, organizers have added 100-, 50- and 20-mile options for those who may not be prepared for a full dose of punishment.

It is hardly the only ultra-distance event going these days.

For runners who think 26.2 miles is hardly enough, there are events such as the Marathon des Sables, a six-day, 154-mile run through the Sahara Desert in Morocco.

Swimmers who want to go the extra mile - or several, for that matter - can sign up for the Ohrid Lake Swimming Marathon, a nearly 20-mile open-water swim in Macedonia.

For the two-wheeled crowd, there is the Race Across America, a transcontinental road race that ends on the East Coast. Or the Leadville 100, a mountain bike competition in the Rocky Mountains that has drawn Lance Armstrong, among others. Or the numerous ''double centuries,'' a 200-mile ride over pavement that pushes recreational cyclists to their max.

Or the Dirty Kanza, which sends riders 200 miles over gravel.

The last few years, registration has opened for it the second Saturday of January. This year, the full route and 100-mile events were sold out by the following evening.

Some are like Rusch, professionals who get paid by sponsors to ride in these extreme events (Dirty Kanza awards no prize money, but winners get a blinging belt buckle). Others are like Nathan Woolard, a business professor at Emporia State University who rides just for fun.

''It's the ultimate endurance race,'' said Woolard, who is doing the 100-mile ride this year with his eye on the 200 next year. ''As silly as it sounds, when those guys finish the 200, they get this little sticker to slap on their car, and it's a point of pride. Like, `Hey, I did it.'''

That kind of response is exactly what Jim Cummins had in mind when he first dreamed it up.

Along with his buddy, Joel Dyke, Cummins wanted to put together a fun ride through the Flint Hills that would test his own limits. Five years later, it had grown to the point where he could no longer ride - he was too busy handling registration, sponsorships and other aspects of it.

''It's more about providing people an opportunity to challenge themselves, and to allow them to discover that they're capable of achieving more than they give themselves credit for,'' said Cummins, who still serves as executive director. ''Once you've met that challenge, I think people get a sense of satisfaction that they can't get from the more typical race.''

The rules for Dirty Kanza are quite simple: Riders must pedal on their own, carry everything they need, and their only help they can receive coming from support teams at a few checkpoints.

Flat tire? Fix it yourself. Broken chain? Ditto.

The ride is remote, too. There is little vehicle traffic. Much of the course travels through one of the world's last remaining tallgrass prairies. The roadbed can turn into a quagmire if it rains, or a dust storm if it's hot and sunny. And for people who think Kansas is flat, riders will have climbed more than 10,000 feet by the finish.

But once there, the party begins. Thousands of people line the streets of Emporia from about 4 p.m., when the winners will cross the line, to 2 a.m., when the stragglers finally come home.

The event has become such a boon for Emporia, a town of about 25,000 nestled in southeastern Kansas, that every hotel room is booked months in advance. Restaurants are full. The economic impact is in the millions, said Casey Woods, who runs a civic organization called Emporia Main Street.

''What sets Dirty Kanza apart is the way our community embraces it,'' he explained. ''When people finish, we have 8,000 people ringing cowbells, and they feel like a rock star.''

Assuming they finish, of course. Many do not, the heat or rain or loneliness having exacted their toll. Even those who do finish have often been put through such a mental and physical ringer that they immediately vow that they will never do it again.

Most of them, like Becker, begin preparing for next year a few days later.

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