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Photos by: Kris Hull, Will Tracy, Ben Delaney, Alejandro Mallea, Will Matthews
“We’re not getting out of here dry,” I mumbled to a few riders nearby as we crested a hill just past the infamous Cattle Pens at Unbound XL this year. We were only about an hour into our 350-mile adventure across the Flint Hills, and we were staring straight at our first major challenge of the race.
Dark clouds were building in the distance. The bright and warm afternoon quickly turned into an eerie evening, and we were headed straight toward the darkest part of the sky. Just outside of Cottonwood Falls – our first resupply stop of this self-supported gravel race – the sky opened up and unleashed a powerful but short downpour.
“Well, here we go,” I thought to myself. “The adventure part of this adventure race is just beginning. Time to get to work.” We pedaled on into the rain, getting drenched but enjoying a moment of coolness after a hot and humid start to the race. For most of us, the rain was an expected challenge we knew we’d have to face at some point over the next 24ish hours. But I don’t think many of us could have imagined what havoc this storm was causing miles ahead, that this was just the beginning of what would go down as one of the craziest, most extreme, most challenging years that Unbound has seen in a long time.
I first raced Unbound back in 2013 and reluctantly fell in love with this grueling and unforgiving event over the next decade. It’s been a bit of a love-hate relationship throughout the years, with some incredible highs and the lowest of lows. I’ve stood on the podium multiped times in the 200 and XL but have also cried tears of disappointment as I’ve dropped out of the race on multiple occasions. Yep, that’s Unbound. You can love it and hate it all at the same time.
More recently, though, I’ve found a new appreciation for Unbound through coaching athletes as they take on this great event. Helping riders prepare for Unbound of any distance and seeing the transition from a new or unsure rider to someone ready to tackle anything the Flint Hills can throw is truly special.
I mention all of this because, as a coach, I spend countless hours in the weeks and months leading up to Unbound talking through race strategy, pacing plans, and equipment prep with each athlete. We zero in on goals, talk about ways to stay on target out there, and even how to readjust when things don’t go quite to plan. We talk about all the stuff that could happen, but hope doesn’t happen.
Like my athletes, I spent weeks and months preparing for Unbound XL. My goal was to win, and I knew it would take immense focus, a solid plan, and a whole lot of luck to accomplish this. I studied the XL course map and visited the various convenience stores we’d rely on for food and drinks along the way. I created detailed timetables for each segment, predicting just how long each section would take and then decided what to buy at each stop to ensure I had enough calories and fluids until the next stop. Was I being a little obsessive about it all? Yeah, probably. But it helped me get to the start line feeling 100% dialed, and I hit the first 100 miles pretty much exactly on target and feeling great.
Then, all hell broke loose.
As the small group I was riding in rounded a corner just as the sun was setting, the light brown dirt and gravel road turned darker. The ground got softer, tire tracks appeared ahead of us, and the silhouette of a lone rider stood out ahead as they bent over their bike, trying to fix something on the side of the road. Mud. We hit mud.
Those of you who raced Unbound this year or in 2015 know what Flint Hills mud can do. It stops you in your tracks. It jams up your wheels and coats anything and everything in its peanut buttery gooiness. This mud is no joke, and you better be ready to walk if you hit it.
Checking my Garmin map, I saw we had about a mile or mile and a half until our next turn. That meant the likelihood that we’d be walking for a mile+ was high. So, I quickly cleaned off any mud from my bike, moved to the grassy side of the road, and started pushing my bike down the road. And that’s when my finely laid plan with precise timelines and calorie counts went flying out the window. It was time to rely on intuition and experience.
I’ve raced Unbound enough times and coached at enough camps to know that fighting the mud will only make things worse. I’ve seen countless derailleur hangers ripped off mid-race, and I’ve seen people melt down on the side of the road after pushing their bike for miles. I’ve watched people try and ride, get stuck in the mud, and try and ride again just to go through the process over and over without making forward progress. I knew it was surrender to the mud and just walk.
And so, we did. All of us. We walked and walked and walked. We pushed our bikes. We carried them. We wiped off mud and tried to ride on dryer stretches of road. We searched for grass on the side of the road and tripoded our way along slippery terrain. We rode what we could. But, for many hours and many miles that night, we walked.
“OK,” I thought to myself, “this is where the adventure really beings.” Funny how a trivial little rainstorm hours before felt like a big deal, a game changer, something that would mark this year’s Unbound XL as epic. I guess it did, in a way, just not the way we were all expecting.
All through the night, we would go from perfectly dry, smooth, wonderful hardpack gravel to mind-melting mud every few miles. Just when you’d find a good rhythm, just as your bike was finally shifting properly and everything was cruising along, we’d hit more mud and start the whole process over again: walk, walk, walk, scrape mud, try riding again. We walked for at least 11 miles total throughout the night. It was wild. And through it all, I had an absolute blast out there. Yeah, I know, ridiculous but true.
For sure, the mud was a headache at times, but it also created an entirely new challenge. Unbound XL was no longer a carefully choreographed race against the other riders to see who was fastest. It wasn’t about following this perfect pacing strategy and eating and drinking exactly what we’d planned. Now, it was a competition of self-preservation and bike-preservation. A race against the course, the conditions, the terrain itself. It was a free-for-all. And that was exciting.
Of the many, many hours I spent riding alone during Unbound XL, I reflected on the conversations I’d had with athletes in the weeks leading up to the race. Mostly, I thought about the strategies we had developed for dealing with problems as they arose. The first step, always, is to take a deep breath, then eat something, and only then set to work and make a “final fix” – meaning don’t half-ass things, take the time to fix your mechanical or flat the best way you can so it doesn’t happen over and over again. This advice proved to be easier said than done.
I often reminded myself of this strategy throughout the race as I dealt with various mechanicals from the mud. Sometimes I followed through with the final fix, feeling that adrenaline rush you get when everything starts working correctly again. Other times, well, let’s just say the coach within me wasn’t impressed.
I bent my rear derailleur hanger at some point during the first section of mud, and I kept shifting into my spokes. Instead of swapping
the hanger for my spare, I just decided I could ride without shifting into my biggest cog, and that would prevent the chain from over-shifting into the spokes—great solution, I know.
I also accidentally pulled my Di2 wire out of my rear derailleur while fixing something else. I thought I’d damaged the wire because it wouldn’t plug back in, so I convinced myself I could ride the next 200 miles with just my front shifting working. I made it about an hour before deciding to try plugging things back in again and taking the time to really investigate the problem. Turns out, there was mud stuck in the wire head, duh, and it just needed a little cleaning out.
There were plenty of other little mishaps and mechanicals, but nothing that took me out of the race, thankfully. And so, for the rest of the ride, I focused on keeping my bike working “good enough.” And that’s all I was asking for. Good enough to get me through the next mud section. Good enough to make it over this climb. Good enough to get to the next convenience store where I’d wash off as much mud as possible and give everything a once-over to ensure I could finish. Enough.
After an arduous night of mud and more mud, I made it to the 225-mile mark and the town of Eureka, which marked an important turning point in the race. Not only was it morning, with the energy of the day and shimmering light rising over the horizon. But it was also the point where the XL left all the mud behind. I was back on familiar roads – the same course as Unbound 200, which I knew well from racing last year. And I was back to my race plan, albeit 3 or 4 hours behind what I’d expected.
At this point of the race, I was sitting in about 4th place overall and was leading the women’s field by a good margin. It was surreal to be racing amongst some of the top men, even if I didn’t really see others out there except for an occasional flyby at the convivence stores. I’d be just arriving, and the guy ahead would be just leaving. Or I’d be filling up bottles with ice and stashing sour patch kids in my pockets as I rolled out of the parking lot while the duo just behind me showed up and we exchanged encouragement.
And that’s how it stayed for the next 100 miles or so. It was a long, solo day out there on Saturday. We’d been racing for over 22 hours before the XL course finally overlapped with the Unbound 100 route and another hour or two before the lead Unbound 200 riders went zooming by. We only had about 40 miles to go, but the camaraderie and energy of the other riders boosted my mood and energy to a new level. I had a great time cheering for riders as I went past, was hooting and hollering as we crested the final significant climbs of the day, enjoyed a crazy tailwind section heading back into town, and even embraced the sudden downpour that hit us with just a few miles to go.
Finally, finally rolling back into Emporia, the gravity of this race started to set in. Not only was I about to win Unbound XL, but I’d won in a year with so many extraordinary challenges and wild conditions. It was a year that pushed riders to the absolute limit and then pushed some more.
For me, it was a perfect day out there. Not because everything went smoothly but because it didn’t. Because I found a way through the muck and mess, figured out how to keep moving, and embraced the chaos. It was a perfect day to throw out the race plan, the strategy, the preparations, and just ride. And sometimes, just sometimes, it’s the lack of a plan that allows us to see just what’s possible.
Written by Kristen Legan, Rambleur Coaching