What follows is an abridged version of Patria’s Race Report. For the unabridged version go here.
Unbound started for me back in January of 2020, when I entered the lottery for the 2020 version of the race. Covid hit in the spring, so Unbound was cancelled that year. I chose to defer my registration to this year when I hoped Covid would be in the rear-view mirror. Ride Headquarters filled the spring with Gravel Training rides and the Gravel Panel Session (still available to watch) to help make the training happen for me and everyone who was doing early season gravel events and to share as much knowledge as possible.
The big, red Ride HQ van, my husband, Rob, and I road tripped from Boston to Emporia, Kansas, driving ~25 hours, arriving Thursday evening, with just enough time to set up camp before the gorgeous Kansas sunset.
Friday morning was casual, we cooked a huge pancake breakfast at camp. Rob came to support my ride and that involved being chef, mechanic, photographer, driver, and alarm clock!
Race Day Begins Early
The alarm went off at 2:45am. Rob was already up making coffee and breakfast. He barely slept. I took a few moments to dig myself out of bed. First order of business: eat a massive bowl of oatmeal filled with nuts and berries. Having had an early dinner the night before likely made this undertaking easier than usual.
No one looked to be awake anywhere around our campsite. Did we get the date wrong? One of my fears of staying at the fairgrounds was that it was going to be a loud party all night. Wrong. Everyone went to bed early and the noise that threatened sleep was only distant trains blowing their horns for the entire night. Ear plugs made those noises go away completely.
While digesting breakfast, I did my hair and got dressed and ready to ride. Time before an event moves faster than regular time. 1 hr 45 minutes of time felt more like 15 minutes. Regardless, Rob and I were ready and rolling to town before 5am.
My friend Elliott and I decided to start together, and the plan was to stay together if possible. We had similar strengths on training rides, but add 1,200 other riders and neither of us knew how the dynamic would shake out. We chose to start with the 14 hour pace group – everyone can start wherever feels appropriate, given one’s expected finish time. I was expecting somewhere around 16 hours, but wanted to start a bit ahead of this time just to have stronger wheels to follow, hopefully stronger=safer, too.
Once the race began, it didn’t really begin back where I stood. It was a casual rollout, a long, straight, paved road. It was more like being part of a parade with people cheering on both sides of the road.
I was gleeful to be there. It was finally happening, and I was there. I kept expecting something to derail my plans to attend. I know too many people who have recently come down with Covid and that would make racing impossible, so I’ve been paranoid about indoor meetings, have been masking up for everything for weeks. It was a relief to be here in the first mile.
I stayed to the right, seeing the road I’d pre-ridden, taking the lines I wanted. Feeling good. My legs felt great. This was an easy rollout, but even then, you never know when tired legs start by complaining. I’ve often had good rides that started with angry legs. Not today. My legs were happy to be here.
I did everything I could to follow wheels and take clean lines. I would mark those who looked like good riders who were smooth and seemed to be selecting the best lines, then I would take possession of that person’s wheel, sticking close enough to get their pebbles in my face. Some tires are nicer to the rider following than others! I pulled out my road racing experience which has been lying dormant for many years. Being in a tight pack and jockeying for position is an element of road and crit racing I secretly enjoy. The stuff I don’t like about road racing is non-existent in the gravel scene.
The very first water crossing was a slow walk very early on when there were too many people together. People were trying to keep their feet dry and it was funny to see the calculations in people’s minds. Do I have to get my feet wet? Pause. GO. I was glad to get it out of the way early so it wasn’t something to dread, but to welcome.
The next water crossing was about 2 feet deep 18 miles in. I watched someone in front of me ride through, so I went for it, and I laughed out loud as I rode through, splashing out the other side. It felt great to get through that and stay upright. That was the first of many. Most were rideable – I was careful to ride the exact lines of people who rode ahead of me so as to not get surprised by a hiding rock.
Water Oasis #1 – Texaco Hill, Mile 41
The first water oasis hit at mile 41. I was really hoping the fastest 100-mile riders would pass us before then since they were doing the same first 41 miles we did. They started an hour later than us. Peter Sagan did the 100-mile race, so I was assuming he would be passing me in this first section. Alas, he wasn’t riding World-Tour speeds, and I was keeping a relatively high pace. Darn!
I filled a water bottle. The volunteers were super helpful doing the filling while I was wiping down with the cold, wet bandanas being handed out. Clouds still blocked the sun, so it hadn’t gotten warm yet. It rained a tad here and there, but it never got rainy, never stormed on us, and the cooler temps meant a much more pleasant day! If you read other people’s accounts of their Unbound, you’ll hear a variety of stories. There was a lot of weather out there and everyone ended up with something different. I felt lucky.
The group of people I rode with into the oasis broke up there, because everyone took more or less time. I found some people I liked riding with, but who knows where everyone was at this point. I didn’t waste time getting back on the bike.
Groups came and went. I met all kinds of people out there throughout the day. I can’t emphasize enough how nice everyone was. I was riding with many guys who looked much stronger than me, but they were happy to have me ride with them, many spoke and said hello. We often exchanged where we were from. I met a man from the Philippines, a first timer. He came the furthest of those I met.
In one group I was riding with, after a lot of quiet on a long, gradual hill, one guy said: “Someone say something, please!” So I replied, “What a fun hill, let’s hope we get more of these!” I think he regretted that request.
My strategy was to ride easy, eat, and do things that are harder to deal with when people are around when I was alone. I’d get ready and be head’s up enough to jump on any group who was passing assuming they weren’t passing at break-neck speeds. This way, I saved my energy and was with people for probably all but ~3 hours of the day.
The group I enjoyed the most was one that was comprised of teammates from Ontario, around mile ~90-100. They were wearing the same clothes so I knew they would be trying to stay together. I jumped on.
We rode through a lot of technical sections together and they offered easy wheels to follow, taking fast, good lines. They were trying to Beat the Sun (so finish before the sunset). This is a fast pace. One of their guys started cramping. I convinced him it was in his head. He started feeling better moments later. After awhile, I remembered I had Untapped maple shots in my bag so I passed him one figuring he was probably low on calories too. His chain was squeaking. A squeaking chain is a slower bike, but it is also enough to usher someone to a dark place.
We had a bit of conversation about coming from cold climates and not being heat acclimated. At this point in the day, the sun was coming out and it was heating up quite a bit. I did some heat acclimatization at home via a sauna blanket and I’m convinced it helped.
Everyone goes into a dark place on rides at some point. I’ve been there, I know what it feels like. A lot of riders visit one or more dark places during Unbound. I really, really wanted to enjoy the ride and was hoping not to have any pain – physical or mental, to put a damper on the day, not that going to a dark place is anything that leaves a bad taste or anything. But still…
This soundtrack “Hello Darkness My Old Friend” started playing in my head about 2 hours into the day. Listen to it if you really want to get into my head while I was drinking in the beautiful green rolling hills of Kansas and pushing on the pedals all the while moving closer to the finish line.
One of my goals of the ride was to not get into a dark place, however impossible it might be to avoid. Around every corner, I was looking for it. Where are you? Are you coming to visit me today? Watching for the darkness was like watching for Peter Sagan. I missed them both.
My legs felt great all day. My brain was in this game – after 50 miles in, I had 150 miles left and I had confidence doing 150 miles since I’d done the 150-mile RHQ Training Ride. I also had the confidence from people I’ve been riding with in the back of my head. Others believe I can do this and I really want to do this. I counted down the miles in terms I know, comparing with rides I’ve done of the distance remaining. I have done rides of all of these remaining miles and I have often felt more tired at the start of rides I help organize than I was feeling 8 hours into Unbound. 100 miles in, only another 100 to go. No problem. I can do this.
Eating and Drinking
Using a hydration pack with 2 liters of water was a life saver. I drank a lot and nearly constantly. It takes so much less energy to drink out of the hydration bladder than reaching down for a bottle. The little things matter during such a big day.
I was properly hydrated all day. For the first time in my cycling life, I think I have figured it out. I also have come to realize how much I have ridden dehydrated in the past and have had harder/slower rides as a result.
Eating was more of a challenge. I started with a Clif Bar at the beginning when I wasn’t working too hard and figured solid calories would be fine. It took me hours to get that one bar down. Giving up on that, I enjoyed a few pieces of Maple Hardtack (our homemade more enjoyable-to-eat maple syrup version of peanut butter brittle). These are easy to eat and are instant leg-saving calories. After a while, I could taste too much of the butter (taste buds change weirdly during a long day) and my teeth got super sensitive (felt like getting an electrical shock in my molars when I bit down…no idea where that came from!) so that made it not enough fun to eat. I switched to leaning extensively on SIS gels and Skratch Superfuel water bottles. Each bottle had 400 calories so if I kept this up, I’d be properly fueled. The SIS gels went down easily ALL day, along with the Skratch water bottles.
The water in my hydration always had electrolytes with a few calories in it, so I didn’t drink plain water all day.
CheckPoint #1 – Eureka, Mile 77
This is the first time I got to see Rob and the HQ van. The van was easy to spot and being greeted by Leanna who told me where to find the van was so pleasant! It was a quick stop, I felt good so just needed to get new water bottles since the ones I had were covered with mud. I finished that darned Clif Bar, used the portable toilet we brought in the van, and just took a moment to be sure I wasn’t forgetting anything. In the meantime, Rob lubed the chain and changed the battery – all preventative to be sure the next leg would be smooth. Indeed, it was.
Oasis #2 – Hamilton, Mile 115
I got a fresh bottle of water for safety but didn’t need it. They had a hose and I asked them to spray down my arm screens. Ooooh nice. My stomach was starting to get grumpy with me and I couldn’t let it turn over. Once that happens, it’s really hard to get it to work again and at mile 115, there is too far to go.
There was a cute little general store with old fashioned soda fountain at this oasis. I hadn’t planned on visiting the store, but sure am glad I did. I asked for a root beer float. They only had chocolate ice cream left. Fine! You said the magic words: ice cream. And they had some pretzels with southwest seasoning that I would never touch on a normal day. Had a nice conversation with them, thanked them profusely, then went outside to enjoy the chocolate ice cream float.
The cyclist standing beside me didn’t have money, but needed a sandwich. The local guy standing there who happened to be at the store offered to pay, didn’t hesitate to offer.
All of this food hit the spot, it was just what my stomach needed. I set up the pretzels, so they were easy to access in my jersey pocket. Note that I had to use fingers to get at pretzels. This means that if I ended up getting dirty hands, I’m eating these pretzels with whatever is on my hands.
Wrath of the Kansas Mud
At this point, I’d already written most of this blog post in my head while riding. It was an easy Unbound, no stories to tell, not sure what the fuss is all about blah blah blah…
Time to rewrite the story…
There was a mile of DEEP muddy bog (can’t call that thing a road), it was impassible, and here we are now in the heat of the sun and a slippery road with mud that clings like the jaws of death to every surface of my bike that it can find.
Naturally, I felt like I was the only one with a muddy bike that I couldn’t figure out how to move. I’d brought a brush and hard plastic tool meant for cleaning bikes. It just got so muddy too. I resorted to using my fingers to get the mud off. This was the worst and heaviest mud I have ever seen in my life. It was hard to manage especially because of all of the extra weight; I’d already put a substantial amount of stuff in my saddle bag and had three full water bottles going into this section. Add 20+ pounds of mud to a bike for a tired cyclist with weak arms and that’s a new sport that I didn’t train for!
It wasn’t just me. It was everyone. There was a woman on a fat bike trying to get through it. Her bike had to weigh 60 pounds with the mud on it. She was staying cheery and offering me encouraging words. We all cracked a lot of jokes.
“Remember we paid for this!”
“It really would have been a boring day without this.”
And the best: “I just found a worm on my bike…No! Make that TWO!”
One guy was laughing/bemoaning just purchasing some super light cycling shoes that felt like lead weights on his feet with the mud refusing to let go.
At the top of this road, we were all glad to have clawed our way this far, there were a bunch of locals basically laughing at us (it was totally friendly). Meanwhile the race was sponsoring some sort of disc golf challenge. What?! How about a hose to wash off our bikes? Oh – right, disc golf might be a better sport than cycling. It is a big deal in Emporia.
I didn’t hear anyone get upset. Even the guy who fell over off of his bike getting completely covered as we rode into the section, no prob – he was apologizing to me for whatever reason I can’t comprehend. He didn’t come close to taking me down, maybe he splattered me with mud? I assured him all was well. I’ve since read so many IG/FB stories of people saying they loved that section. It killed my time by over an hour. Alas, it hurt everyone’s time by a lot.
Unbound brings out the best in people and brings out people who like to get dirty. It’s so darn cool.
Then there was the bike wash party in the river which was basically the best thing I’d seen and experienced all day. The water felt great, and the bike worked well after this washing.
Impressively, the bike made no noises after all of that. I’d used the plain water in my 3rd bottle to wash out the brake pads and rotors. There were a lot of bikes out there that hadn’t weathered the mud as well with screeching chains and loudly knocking bottom brackets.
With the mud, my stomach had had plenty of time to recover with the chocolate ice cream working well in my system, and I felt great to keep going. There weren’t any groups around, so the next stretch was where I ended up riding alone for longer periods of time. Time seemed to tick by properly quickly, and I enjoyed some of the terrain in this section. It’s a bit of a blur now, but there were trees, and I love trees. There were also some fun climbs.
Checkpoint #2 – Madison, Mile 160
This was the second and last time to see support crews before the finish line. I had heard the last 40 miles were a cake walk, so I was feeling very good about finishing at this point in the day. It was probably around 8pm. I let this stop take longer. I knew I’d finish; it was a question of how comfortable I’d be doing it. I’d heard how nice it is to change shoes and socks. I was mostly into it due to getting out the gravel that was starting to cause blisters in my shoes, so I changed both and ate vanilla ice cream directly out of the quart-size container. Leanna had bought pizza (what a great surprise!) and that looked pretty tasty, so I had a slice, and topped it all off with a pickle. My stomach was loving it all! I wasn’t in a deficit, but not having to rely on more calories in the water and gels was a bit of insurance.
It was fun to hang out, talk about the race so far, enjoy the evening air… Now looking back, had I kept my checkpoint and oasis stops to the same time as the pros spent at these, I would have been close to making it to the finish by sunset! While I wanted to do my best/fastest on the bike, rushing time here seemed like it would be missing some of the experience. I knew I had plenty of time to make it by the cut-off, so it was okay to doddle a bit.
I’d be remiss not to mention just how long of a day support people have. They didn’t sleep either but don’t get the adrenaline of riding a bike. They get to see their riders for too little time for the hours they stand around waiting and prepping for those few precious moments. And they are left with a total mess to clean up once the rider rolls out!
The Last 40 Miles
The next 10-15 miles after the checkpoint were a lot solo. There was another muddy section, but I had learned better, and that went quickly since I picked the bike up and walked it, not risking what might get caught in it. I think the front wheel got gummed up a little, so I just took it off, bailed the mud, and continued.
There were free range cows on these roads, where we had to yell while approaching to get them to move off the middle of the road. They were smallish, nothing bothersome, cool to see for sure.
During this solo time, I saw what I had been most looking forward to, the sunset on the Flint Hills. It was beautiful. Peaceful. Calm. I really love nightriding, and this was special time.
The People of Kansas
Throughout the entire day, people were standing in the rain/sun/dark cheering for us! They’d been out there ALL day! And they weren’t just clapping or saying “yay go” – they were jumping up and down, yelling, making a lot of noise. SO MANY PEOPLE. Yes, this cheering also goes straight to the legs propelling the bike forward and with less effort. The people everywhere were really big-hearted, happy to have us there, totally into it. Special.
For the miles I was alone in the dark, there was always the light of a rider behind me or a cheer squad, so there wasn’t actual alone time. Had I been completely alone, I wouldn’t have been afraid, nothing and no one is out there. I must have seen a total of 2 cars not associated with the race all day long.
At some point I think it was approximately 25 miles to go, a faster guy passed me. I looked down at my computer and with it telling me I was close to the end, I burned a match to catch back up to him and lock onto his rear wheel. I stayed there. There were two other guys who we connected with who were going quickly and the four of us stayed together. We flew. We hit holes in the road hard – easy to miss in the dark, getting a little careless. I worked harder than I felt like I had since much earlier in the day. I could now spend the energy I was saving because no matter what happened at that point, I was finishing.
The evening air was comfortable. I stopped eating at some point because it wasn’t necessary. It was also flat and aside from many turns, it was a welcome change to turn off my brain and only think about what it was going to be like to cross the finish line. Not long before the end, there was a freight train that took at least 5 minutes to pass. That was a short train for Kansas. We passed a single speed fat bike rider who was going to finish just a few minutes after us. How amazing is that?!
I finished feeling complete satisfaction. I had done something new, rode the biggest day on the bike I’ve ever had in my life, feeling a whole lot of relief that everything had come together, nothing had managed to get in the way. This big, scary thing ended up being such a remarkable day on the bike and simply a great day to be a human sharing a human experience with fellow riders and the good people of Kansas.
Yes, that is one tough day on the bike. Physically, that was the toughest. I have had harder days on the bike though. I could have made it harder on myself by pushing harder, digging deeper, carrying less and risking more to do better. I could have been empty at the end. Proper preparation both mental and physical paid off in so many ways for my Unbound ride to achieve the goals I set for myself this year. This is the race I wanted, and I executed on a well-formed plan.
I’m convinced the “coulda-wouldas” are why people return. Had I done this or that differently, how much time could I have shaved off? For reference: I came in after a total time of 16 hrs and 45 minutes for an 11.7 mph average. Moving time was 14 hours 37 minutes (stopped times were spent at rest stops and that mud!) Moving average speed was 13.7 mph.
I learned so much before going to Kansas, and I learned the intangibles by being there, feeling it, breathing it, touching the mud, and ingesting it.
Would I do it again? In a heart beat. I said this at the finish Saturday night.
Not sure if I will right away due to so many other events in the world that I would like to experience, but yes, I highly recommend the Unbound experience to everyone, no matter who you are.
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