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Faded Shapes

Dealing with disappointments: Unbound 2023

Whelp…to say what happened at Unbound was a disappointment would truly be the largest understatement of my year. I gave up most of my first half of the season races this year to prioritize this race. I raced on tired legs many times because of the “load the legs for Unbound” plan I was set on. I raced road events to learn better positioning tactics and get smarter. I lived in Emporia for an entire month to memorize the course and learn how the conditions of these roads change and to test my equipment. I was dialed. I had a plan. I started the race in excellent position (2nd wheel entering the mud sector) and I had hero legs on the day thanks to my coach. Even during my mechanical around mile 19, I stayed so calm and started removing parts to turn it into a single speed (thank you Lars and Garrett for these memories). I was so convinced I was going to ride single speed all the way to Eureka and then still have a good result. But, the single speed method only worked for about 3 minutes. It wasn’t until that moment that I allowed myself to realize the day was over. My heart sank and I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear from the world.

As I made my way to a pull-over near the highway, I was near several other riders who also had day-ending mechanicals. The mood was dismal to say the least when I arrived. I decided at that moment that I would do what I do best - stay positive; which meant I had to put my own emotions aside. I tried to make every person I saw laugh or smile. I used all my nutrition to clean people’s bikes - talk about an expensive drivetrain wash as I spray $50 worth of Skratch SuperFuel on people’s bikes. I helped put in 2 tubes and fix flats. I scraped mud from people’s bikes. I ran next to them as they started pedaling again to change their sense of defeat into a snap of speed and a boost to carry on when I couldn't. I took a dirt nap. I gave away all my flat repair items, my extra lube and all my nutrition - oh yes, even my prized peach rings! I spent 9 miles with my old teammate Nathan push-pedaling our bikes (lowering the seat really helps) for over an hour using our hands as a derailleur when the single speed hack would seize up as we navigated through the entire mud sector yet again. As we were out there for many hours trying to get back, we realized we gave away all our food and drink. Nathan still had his camelback and kindly offered a sip and I just tried to keep the morale high and joked about drinking from his nipple. From the outside, I appeared happy and joyous. And in those moments, I really was. I had a sense of accomplishment knowing I inspired other riders to keep riding when I couldn’t. After all, I ride and try to get podiums to inspire people to ride - so how was this any different than accomplishing my goal?

But when the dust settles and you get back to the house and leave the race weekend - this is when the processing really begins. I made a conscious decision to mute my phone, stay off Instagram and to really just avoid any reminder of the weekend. Lots of people had reached out and I just didn’t want to talk to most people. I knew I had to process this weekend on my own terms and this is what I needed to do to take care of myself. This weekend really reminded me of working in the ER and urgent care. You have so many patients to see and you have to put on a poker face and bring the best version of yourself to every room you enter - even if you just had a catastrophe occur. I became an expert in this - making most of my patients laugh and smile in their painful moments despite how miserable I personally may have been. I would go from telling a patient they were having a miscarriage or telling someone about a new mass I found on their scan that’s likely cancer to then walking into another room ready to tackle their problem with a smile. This is what I did as a healthcare provider and I reverted to that at Unbound. Helping others in that moment made me miss working in healthcare for the first time in over 6 months.

However, what I learned from working as a PA for 8 years is that you need to take time for yourself to process things. You need to have those emotions, otherwise, your risk of burnout is much higher. Bitterness and anger harvest and you start to get tired and unmotivated. I wouldn’t change the “happy face” I put on after my gut wrenching mechanical - this brought joy to others and if I’m helping other people this truly brings me joy. It just means after the fact, I am more intentional about taking some Paige time. I took some shower cries…many in fact. I kept a box of Kleenex next to me while driving the 14 hours over the subsequent days. I gave myself 2 days to pout, cry and be upset. I let it all out and didn’t stifle any of it.

I also gave myself grace on the bike. I had this immense sense of guilt while riding on Monday. My body felt horrible. But why? I didn’t even race much longer than an hour and I had the lowest volume training week for the entire year. I told myself I needed to ride more, after all, I did carbo load! As I pedaled my bike and I felt worse I had to remind myself that just because the physical effort wasn’t there it didn’t mean I was fresh. I had 2 optional recovery rides loaded into training peaks and I remember being mad thinking why am I not training more right now, I didn’t even race. But, my coach is much wiser than me and likely knew I needed these easy days still. Mentally, Unbound was more taxing than if I had a good race, especially in the following days processing things. I slept like garbage as my mind was racing through the wee hours of the night. So instead of riding more, I just turned around and threw my bikini on and went into the scenic lake that I was camping at. I told myself if I wasn’t having fun then I shouldn’t be forcing a ride but more importantly I shouldn’t feel guilty about it either. So after the swim, I grabbed my dinner and headed back to the lake and I watched the sunset there snacking on dark chocolate and some homemade cake balls for dessert. After all, it was my birthday. I smiled looking at the orange sky feeling a sense of peace as the warmth of the sun hit my body as if it was giving me a hug telling me “everything will be okay.”

I went on to arrive the next day in North Carolina since I opted to race BWR NC this upcoming weekend. BWR events are not my forte since under biking is certainly a weakness of mine, but they are always fun events. They remove the performance measure that I have since I can’t control how new I am or my lack of years of trail skill. So for me, I just want to go play bikes in the woods and remind myself that bikes are fun, regardless of results. I spent so many months preparing for Unbound that I lived and breathed my goal for that event for so long. Is that healthy? Probably not, but I think it’s often needed if you want to strive for an exceptional result. The risk: when things go poorly you can derail. Would I take that risk again? Certainly, mostly because that’s my personality and it is who I am. I also know I have a solid network of family, friends and sponsors that get me back on track when things go bad. And while I am still hungry to get a result that I feel shows my current level of fitness, I also recognize these things take time and we still have a long season ahead. It will make that moment all the sweeter when it does come.

Photo Credit: Daghan Parker for Trek Bikes

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Thanks for writing and sharing this. As someone fairly new to riding bikes (2020) and even newer to riding gravel (9 months), Unbound this year was my first major disappointment. 8 months of training and charity fundraising to get in and I missed the first checkpoint cutoff by 14 minutes, mostly by riding with a friend who was having a really bad day and DNFed himself at mile 63. I lived and breathed Unbound in a very public manner for myself and it took a solid two weeks for me to get out of that funk. Happy to hear you got out of it as well. Here's to Unbound 2024. Good luck on the rest of your race season.


Clinton Euler
Clinton Euler
Jun 08, 2023

i believe the effort you put into training and “learning” more about unbound will come to fruition soon. Maybe at BWR Nc, maybe at unbound next year. But soon. It’s the journey that matters!

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