I went into this race with very low expectations of what I could do given my lack of training. I would joke and affectionately refer to my build as the “Couch to Unbound” plan. My longest ride was just under 6 hours prior to this and I took 3 weeks off 4-6 weeks out from the race, which is the most critical part of the build. I had 2 choices on my race plan going into this. I could play it safe, sit up off the front group and play it conservatively knowing I wasn’t in good enough shape to be near the front, OR I could just go for it and race like I was in shape knowing I could implode at any part of the race. I chose the latter, not surprising if anyone reading this knows me. I figured it would give me better learning opportunities for race tactics and what the start of the race would look like at this level.
Lining up is always so chaotic at these mass start gravel races, but this year they did separate the pros at the start of the chute which made it less stressful in my opinion. I think what makes the line up process worse is when people try to weasel their way higher up from the back of the group. There needs to be a better process for lining up and I know females need a good position in the men’s pack for success, but it does add a lot of stress to the morning. I need to do a better job just ignoring those who are panic pushing and trying to get around. That was a takeaway from myself that morning,control your controllables. I find the neutral roll out helps get different positions most of the time,and at the end of the day, if someone wants to be higher up, they should line up earlier if that is important to them.
The start was chaos like normal, except a lot more crashes. It was carnage out there which I feel is becoming the norm at these large scale gravel races. I found myself sliding back in the pack because I would leave a small amount of room given all the crashes. This did save me twice, but at the same time when you leave a small gap. people move over into the line which pushes you further back. I need to get more comfortable riding closer on unpredictable terrain and do a better job finding wheels I know I can trust. I did find a male teammate’s wheel about 30 minutes into the race and felt a lot better about that and that gave me confidence to follow closer. Sadly, there was a guy who lost control and slid into the loose shoulder and rode me out of my position into the shoulder. I didn’t go down but I went into the shoulder as well and then was very far back in the pack after that. There was a light water crossing shortly after that and for some reason some people unclipped and walked through, which was baffling to me. This was the first major selection for the pack and when I got separated from the lead women. There was a massive pile up waiting so I had to unclip and wait my turn to cross. This is another reason positioning is VERY important. If you are further up, you skip out on these shenanigans.
After that, I had a solid group of maybe 6-8 riders. We picked up more riders and caught back into a larger group with more women, and this rounded out the top 15-16 riders for the females (I think) rolling into the first checkpoint. My checkpoint stop was super smooth and dialed, thanks to my team for that. I exited the checkpoint before the other women in that group I entered with and was with 5 guys who were going strong. This was a cross wind section so I knew it was a risk trying to hang with them but I was still feeling good at this point. I knew if I stayed with them, this would move me into top 10 contention given the time gaps reported and if I stayed strong the second half I would likely move up even more. This is obviously factoring in the best case scenario, which rarely happens in unpredictable gravel racing.
However, between that checkpoint exit and mile 90 I completely bonked. I remember thinking I wish I had some sort of mechanical to blame my situation on, but at the end of the day you need to just own it sometimes. I bonked hard and that’s all there is to it. In my situation I knew it was a risk (a very likely risk) knowing I hadn’t trained enough. I was desperately thinking my legs would magically reappear. I would hop on various groups rolling by but it was always the same, as soon as the effort got harder. my legs couldn’t produce power. After doing that a few times, I just decided to sit up and totally shift focus. I had an emergency PB&J that I busted out and I just soft pedaled and told myself this race is now a training ride. I love training; training means I am doing what I love and I’m on the bike. If you are training, you are healthy. These are the things I told myself to stay positive. I looked around at the scenery, something I rarely get to do while racing in an aggressive pack or high stakes race.
After I had come to accept that my race was over, I shifted focus to enjoying every possible moment on the bike for the remaining hours. As I was slow rolling in those hours, I had numerous females pass me during the course of the second 4 hours I was out there. Normally that would induce stress knowing I was placing further and further back but I was just so stoked to be out there I was literally so excited to see all these strong and powerful females. My joy was no longer grounded in performance, but rather celebrating the strong ass females out there. My favorite part was when there was a group of about 8-10 riders and 3 of the ladies were up at the front pulling some of the men. I hopped on that train for a while knowing my legs wouldn’t last long, but it filled my heart knowing these ladies were crushing it. The females of this sport are absolutely incredible and change is happening. I see this when I race and it does excite me.
From there, there was a torrential downpour for about an hour. I honestly loved this and it lifted my spirits. At that point I had already mentally reframed and was in such a good mood I remember thinking, okay now you might pluck some people off! I encountered this very muddy section through the woods and went down there after slipping out. It was basically like a mud bath, sticky mud covering my entire body. At that point, all I could do was literally laugh and soldier on. This is gravel folks.
At about mile 133ish, I honestly don’t even know what happened exactly, but I slipped out with the mud and landed onto the side of the road with the rock. The pain was bad and I definitely said some profanities. I sat down on the side of the road to see if the pain would subside. It reminded me of my crash several weeks ago, but thankfully on the nonsurgical knee. After taking a moment to check in with myself and my pain, I told myself to try walking and that went okay. I walked for a couple minutes then tried to remount the bike and ride. Unfortunately, every pedal stroke was very painful, like not sore, but legit pain. I knew I couldn’t pedal if I was being honest with myself. So I stopped at the timing mat and lied on the ground after calling for a ride. Huge shoutout to my teammate Nathan, who drove through some rough roads and cow pastures to come pick me up. Also, thank you to the guy working the timing mat, wherever you are in the world,it was nice to have company while waiting in my disgusting mud filth.
What bothered me most was after I had bonked 4.5 hrs into the race, I had moments where I wanted to quit. I had an easy out with not training enough for this. It was still so early and knowing I had probably 7+ hours of suffering awaiting me was demoralizing. But I worked hard to mentally reframe and I remember telling myself that nothing would stop me from finishing. I had been so proud that I overcame that mentally earlier in the race, so I felt robbed of the opportunity to complete that task. We like to claim that “quitting is never an option” but the reality is that it can cross your mind. These are dark places, but I find there is learning in those dark moments. Those moments make you stronger. Those moments create a fire in you to be better. Those moments fuel you for the next effort. Those moments change you.
So there you have it! My first Unbound experience, and you bet I will be back next year. I can only hope that my fitness will be in a better position. But for now, I am happy I showed up and even tried this after everything I went through recently. It’s been a battle. I also know that I have a long season, my last race is in November so I have plenty of time to come back stronger the second half of the season. Huge shout out to my family, particularly my sisters, who have been my rock over the last several weeks leading into this race. I know this is about a race recap, but in my dark moments I couldn’t stop thinking of my sisters and how much they do for me to support and encourage me on this journey.
Unbound 2022 Stats:
Distance: 200 miles (I DNF’ed at 137mi)
Strava Link: https://www.strava.com/activities/7255401519
Location: Emporia, KS
Starting Temp: 57 at start, up to 75. An hour of pouring rain
Bike: Ventum GS1
Tire: Specialized Pathfinder Pro 42’s