Lightning and a spirit animal From issue 80 • Interview by Brad Roe w/images from Myke Hermsmeyer

Yuri, tell us why you decided to do the Dirty Kanza XL gravel race? Well, to be totally honest, I was scared shitless when I got the invite, which meant I instantly texted Rebecca Rusch and Jay Petervary, knowing that they were on the invite list too, to see what they thought about it. They both immediately responded with a resounding “Hell, yes, we’re doing it,” and then, simultaneously, they asked, “Are you?” I told them both that I wasn’t sure and had to think about it for a bit. What led me to an eventual “yes” were a few factors, the main one being that I wanted to honor [Dirty Kanza organizer] Jim Cummins’ invitation. Knowing that I’m a relative newcomer to the gravel scene, and that there are plenty of hardened gravel riders out there with way more long-distance experience than me, I thought it would be disrespectful, in a way, to turn down this opportunity. There’s also a part of me that enjoys being frightened by an event. While fear can be a really good motivator, it also gives us an opportunity to push through any perceived physical/mental/emotional limits and to learn what we are truly capable of accomplishing.

Walk us through your feelings at the start and how you mentally paced your emotions…. Surprisingly, I was really calm at the start. It helped that my wife and four dear friends pedaled with me to the start, surrounding me in support and encouragement, which helped take my mind off what I was about to attempt. The ride started in a back alley off the main street at the expo, and it was packed with people; wall-to-wall excitement surrounded us as we hid from the afternoon heat awaiting the countdown. Emotionally, I was buoyed by the camaraderie of the nervous riders around me, by the fact that we were all about to step into the prairie unknown, that we’d be the first to tackle this behemoth of a ride. Having had heat stroke a few times that’s put me in the hospital meant that the 94-degree heat and oppressive humidity were at the forefront of my thoughts when we rolled out of town. As far as my emotional pacing went, I knew it was going to be a long day on the bike, and that there were going to be some emotional highs and lows, so I tried to not get distracted by the negative self-talk that can crop up during an event like this. This may sound corny, but I really tried to stay in the present moment and be positive, to not get caught up in what was coming next—what hill or mud patch lay waiting for me—but be with what was happening.

At what point did you start hallucinating and what did you see, hear or feel? I never hallucinated that I’m aware of, but I would say that I went into a very focused, Zen-like state, where I tried to listen to my breathing, my body, my bike and my thoughts. As far as sights and sounds, there was an incredible firefly show all night that lit up the fields around me, their intermittent flashes of light distracting me from the heat and humidity and the endless miles of gravel. An enormous crimson moon watched over us all night and then, at about 3 a.m., there was an amazing electrical storm that erupted on the horizon, illuminating the prairie with bolts of lightning that crackled across the sky. The winds picked up significantly, the temperature dropped by close to 20 degrees, and I swear you could feel the air around you get more electrified as the storm got closer. At 4 a.m. the skies opened up and it began to viciously hail and rain, a brief respite from the heat and humidity that had wrapped us in its warm embrace to that point; and then my spirit animal, a bobcat, ran across the road in front of me. See, the day my dad died, I had an encounter with a bobcat within minutes of his passing and since that day 13 years ago I’ve had over a dozen bobcat sightings, some almost as if I’ve conjured them. Seeing one right as the storm hit was huge motivation for me, like my dad was trying to tell me to keep pedaling, which I happily did.

How did you keep going when you wanted to stop? Ever since my 24-hour-solo days, I’ve had the ability to shut off all non-essential emotional functions when I race for long periods of time, much like turning off the back light or other features on your Garmin to save battery life. I become very robotic: eat, drink, pedal. Not to get too dark, but I also have some macabre experiences with cancer—lost my father to melanoma and my wife is a stage 4-cancer survivor—that motivate me when I start feeling sorry for myself on the bike. Watching my father get eaten alive, literally, by an aggressive form of melanoma and then seeing my wife endure chemo/radiation and some really aggressive life-altering surgeries, I remind myself that no pain I feel on the bike can compare to what they went through, which leaves me with no option but to keep going. When you have memories like this that motivate/haunt you, there is no quit. And I would be lying if I said there weren’t a few tears shed on the prairie that day.

Do you feel like you crossed a mental and physical threshold as a result of finishing? Do you now look at a big day, 100 miles or so, as not a big deal? The funny thing is, and I say this with all humility, but the physical was the “easy” part of the DKXL for me. I worked closely with my coach, Adam Pulford, to create a plan that would have me as physically prepared as possible for this event; the fact that I logged just over 6,000 miles since late December 2017 is a testament to that. So, yes, riding a hundred miles for me is not that big of a deal. What I wasn’t expecting to be so hard was the emotional/mental aspect of riding 350 miles and the toll that this event took on me in that regard. The days after the event, I had a hard time formulating coherent thoughts and for a few weeks following the ride I experienced an emotional low, almost a depressed state, where I wasn’t myself and felt completely flat. It kind of freaked me out a bit to be totally honest.

Now that you’ve had time to reflect, are you glad you did it? I am glad that I did it, because I proved to myself that I’m capable of more than I thought I was. The DKXL forced me to rethink my training, my nutrition and my gear choices, which made the journey more interesting. Fear can be a great motivator and teach us a lot about ourselves and what we are truly capable of, both physically and mentally.

What was the recovery process like? What did you eat in the days following and how much? Could you sleep? I was dented by the DKXL in ways that I never expected, which means that my recovery was much longer than I had anticipated. I wasn’t myself, both physically or mentally, for nearly a month, and I was in a caloric black hole for weeks, eating anything/everything in sight. I didn’t have trouble sleeping; in fact, on the drive home, I had to pull over suddenly at one point because I was so overwhelmed with exhaustion and just slumped over in the seat for a 20-minute nap. My wife claims I began snoring immediately.

Words of wisdom for those of us about to set out on huge adventures? Do your homework. Do the necessary training. Test your gear and your nutrition. But, most of all, dream big knowing that you are capable of more than you think.