The Unbound Gravel 200 is a grueling race. The past two years, upon completion, I said I would never do it again. As time passes and the worst memories fade, I find myself dreaming of the Kansas landscape and when January rolls around, I sign up again. I don’t know if it will tempt me in the future, but this year I did not get off my bike saying never again. This year, I learned something new, which has made me excited not only for this race, but for everything I will get to do in the upcoming year. I learned, and truly understood to my core, the power of mindset.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. This year I was coming in as a member of the Eliel TRLT Team, their gravel team, which meant I had more to do and more people to meet. Emporia and Lifetime put on an excellent event which includes two days prior and one day post the actual race. This year they added an evening at the Granada Theater on the Wednesday before the race for a dinner celebrating the newest inductees into the Gravel Hall of Fame and Eliel had acquired a table. This struck me as a perfect time to get into the spirit of the event and I adjusted my plans to arrive early. It was a fun event and one of the inductees was the Salsa chaise lounge which I had never actually gotten a chance to sit on in a race. I also enjoyed getting to know some of my fellow Eliel teammates; not to mention getting an extra night of sleep in Kansas prior to the race.
Thursday was perfect for visiting the Expo. I stopped by the Eliel booth to get my kit and by Merchant Cycles to pick up my bicycle. The Expo is buzzing, not only with every major vendor you can imagine, but you can barely take a step without tripping over a pro. My talents do not lie in fan-girling, so I missed a few selfie opportunities, but it was fun to brush elbows with the pros nonetheless. I was glad I had gotten to meet folks at the dinner the night before, because I was so busy all day, I couldn’t motivate myself to head back out for the meet and greet Thursday evening. I did, however, make it to the team photo in the morning … barely. (The story of my life.)
On the ride to the photo op, I realized that my front derailleur wasn’t shifting. The folks at the Shimano tent hopped right on it and had it working within a half hour, but said the derailleur was failing. Despite assurances that it would last the race, I was taking no chances. Thankfully, the wonderful folks at Merchant Cycles had a front derailleur in stock and were able to fix it on Friday. I missed the team shake out ride, but was able to hop on a later one and get a few miles in. Finally, working bike in hand, I headed back to my AirBnB for a few last minute preparations and an early bedtime.
As part of the team, I was able to avail myself of the Ordinary Epics crew service. They picked up our SAG bags late Friday afternoon, already with coolers in hand to keep our nutrition iced down. They were reassuring and full of great advice. I dropped off my bags feeling confident that everything would be available when I needed it the next day.
The official start time was 6:00 am. A slight delay led us to start at 6:05 am and half the field got caught at the train tracks three blocks from the start. It would have been more annoying if my goal had been to race this year, but back issues had led to a reduced training block and I was purely out there to finish. This year, I was planning on taking pictures, taking breaks, and making friends, so I sighed over the riders who jumped the gate to beat the train, but took this in stride.
In typical fashion, we barreled out of town at 20+ mph, slowing only a little as we turned onto the gravel a couple miles into the race. We kept up the pace for about 11 miles, then turned the corner to stare aghast at the unending line of walkers, pushing or carrying their bikes. From my experience the previous year, I was (somewhat) prepared. I had two straps that could be buckled around the head tube and the seat tube, so that I could carry the bike like a backpack. Last year taught me that pushing your bike on the sides still gathered mud and grass on your tires, so the best bet was to get the bike off the ground. According to my bike computer, this section lasted about 2.75 miles and took 1.1 hours. Because I was able to keep my bike off the ground, I was able to hop on and get riding pretty quickly once we hit the end of the mud.
The roads to the Tower hill water stop (mile 41) were clear and beautiful. We were permitted to ride through a rancher’s property, getting to see some beautiful vistas. At the stop, I changed my socks and refilled my hydration pack and was off quickly, feeling like I would have no problem getting to the SAG stops by the cut off time.
It was fun to see other Eliel TRLT kits out there. We began joking that we were part of the “Two Left Socks Club,” in reference to a printing error that put the logo on the same side of each sock. This is a tough long race and sharing some humor makes the miles go by faster.
The scenery was beautiful and I chatting with anyone who was near me until about 55 miles, when the wind picked up and the temperature increased. The chatter got quieter as the riders kept their heads down in the wind. I was so ready for the first SAG stop in Eureka (mile 79). I arrived around 1:10 pm, well before the time cutoff, but definitely feeling a little squeezed. The crew at Ordinary Epics were on the ball. They were easy to find and quick to get me whatever I needed. They cleaned my bike, refilled my bottles, and helped me switch my gear.
Despite the rising heat (93 degrees according to Garmin), I was feeling better and had starting chatting with people again. I met a woman from Boulder named Marieke. We were very similar in pace, so we fell in together talking about the day and our lives. It was warm, but pleasant, and I felt like we were picking up our pace and regaining some of the time we lost in the mud pit (so the Emporia gods decided it was time to shake things up).
We picked our way down a steep and rocky decent. At the bottom were two cyclists, one of whom had left his bicycle in the road. As I slowed to pass it, I could see he was clearly not okay and the other cyclist was trying to help him. Both Marieke and I stopped to check on them. The older cyclist had just crashed on the decent and there was clearly blood on his elbow, his helmet was dented, and he was hyperventilating. We both quickly agreed that this was in the realm of a medical professional and called 911. When I pulled his bike to the side, it was clear by the odd angle of his handlebars that it was not ridable, and closer inspection of the odd angle of his shoulder confirmed that his race was over. The emergency dispatcher wanted someone to stay on the phone with her until they arrived. Given that the cyclist was coherent and his breathing had returned to normal, she was content with staying on the phone with him and let us go. (I did contact him after the race and he made it to the hospital with a broken collarbone and some regrets about the race, but was happy that he would ride another day.)
We hopped back on our bikes and headed off again into the heat. I was concerned this might be a repeat of the heat of 2021. The Emporia gods heard my worry and answered. Within five miles, the heavens opened up and we were pelted with hard raindrops, possibly with some hail, and the temperature dropped about 25 or so degrees. It rained long enough for us both to be totally soaked. As we started climbing back to Hamilton, there was a fair amount of lightning, which was beautiful, but unsettling. We arrived at the second water stop (mile 124) to chaos. Bicycles were everywhere and cyclists were milling about in wet gear. We heard a rumor of hotdogs, which sounded like the most delicious thing ever at that point, and fresh off the grill, they were perfect. Having eaten and filled our bottles, we started paying attention to what was happening around us. People were boarding vans and trucks, abandoning the race in huge numbers. The rumor was that there were two more long muddy hike-a-bike sections.
Neither Marieke nor I were ready to throw in the towel. We both agreed that as long as we were fine and as long as our bikes worked, we would keep going. This was my epiphany moment. This wasn’t some trial that we were going through. This was an adventure! We were dodging lightning and dogs and cows, navigating difficult roads, keeping ourselves warm in the rain, and fixing our equipment on the side of the road. We weren’t slogging off into some dark tunnel, but instead we were leaping into the unknown. We chose to be here and we were going to make the absolute best of it. This was going to be fun, regardless of the conditions.
I truly have never had a moment like this where my viewpoint of the situation turned on a dime. Our conditions were exactly the same: cold, wet, dark, and muddy. But how I approached it was completely different than it had been just moments before. I knew in that instant that we would succeed and have a good time doing so.
We talked a little bit about it when we left, whether we would stay together the rest of the race. I had decided that we were having so much fun, that only a race-ending mechanical would stop us from riding in together. Marieke seemed to feel the same.
We rode on in anticipation of the upcoming mud section. As we passed riders heading back to Hamilton, I started worrying that our enthusiasm for adventure might be overdone. As it turned out, the roads were still wet enough that the mud was not sticking to the tires. Marieke unerring picked her way down the best line, with me on her wheel getting covered in splatters. We rode by a few people walking their bikes on the grass, but neither of our bikes seemed to be picking up any mud. As we completed that section, we both quietly breathed a sigh of relief, although I think neither of us was willing to comment and bring fate down on our wheels.
We were both thankful to reach the second checkpoint without having to get off our bikes. We agreed to meet at the exit and headed off to our respective crew spots. I was so thankful to see Jason and Wendi. Jason grabbed my bike to get it washed and Wendi pulled my bag and started helping me get ready for the evening. I was thankful to have a decent light and a few snacks. A few minutes later, we were heading out of Madison into the dark.
We made it nearly seven miles before we ran into the next mud patch. Hopeful from our last experience, we rode about a quarter mile into the mud. It was still fairly wet, so it was slippery and our bikes slid all over the road. We reach the top of a climb and clipped out. I wasn’t about to attempt the descent in these conditions. Resigned, I pulled out my straps and began carrying the bike. Luckily, it was only about ¾ mile and we were able to remount with only a minor stop to clean out drive chains.
Something I had eaten was not sitting in my stomach very well, but Marieke had clearly gotten a second wind and pulled us along a quite a fast clip. We crossed the Bird Bridge and knew we would make it. Like last year, the last ten miles were torturous, but it was so fun to see the spotlights and roll into Emporia. It is definitely less of a spectacle at 1:45 am than prior to midnight. Our cheerleaders were mostly drunk guys who’d decided that encouraging cyclists was more fun than going to bed. Most of the volunteers were gone, but Marieke’s sister was there to take our picture and congratulate us. A quick hug and congratulations to us and off we went to our respective cars. I drove back to the house and didn’t even take my gear out of the car. I hosed myself off outside, took a quick shower and dropped into bed, exhausted but satisfied with my effort.
I was so thankful that I was able to find a friend on course who made the whole journey a delight and so thankful to have a team that supported me through the weekend. I have read some posts complaining that the race directors should have rerouted the race around the mud sections and made the race easier. I disagree with this assessment. This trial by fire gave me a new friend. We bonded through shared suffering and accomplished a great thing together. 45% of the people who started this race did not finish, not just because of mechanicals or injury, but for many because they didn’t want to do it anymore. I feel for the folks who have unfixable mechanicals and definitely for anyone who is injured. And I understand people who don’t want to do it anymore, I have made that choice in a race before as well. But this is Unbound Gravel, one of the hardest gravel events in the world. Making it easier would change the character of the race. No one is being forced to do this race and no one is forced to continue if they are done. I learned that this race is a grand adventure, come what may, not a crucible. It is a lesson I hope to carry with me into the future whatever I face. We all live our own grand adventure – face it with hope and joy and you will cross the finish line with satisfaction you didn’t know was possible.