In which the unbelievable becomes real

The first part of this story left off at 2:00 AM and, by mileage, not quite half way through the race. Betsy and I are still riding together, and I’m starting to feel sluggish. Not particularly sleepy but more like I’m running out of gas to keep my legs turning over. This might have been because I hadn’t been able to eat a lot for the past couple of hours. My stomach had been cranky, and I’d been giving it some space to settle down. But I knew it was time to keep eating, and I started working on my bottle of iced tea in earnest. Not only would it provide calories and sugar, it would also bring my first real hit of caffeine. I had glanced down at my watch at 2:06 AM when Betsy remarked it was only a few hours to first light. I then rode for maybe 30min when I checked the time again, only to feel like I was in some sort of time warp when it read 2:14AM. Apparently my 30min had been only 8. But eventually the dirt turned to pavement and we knew we were approaching out third gas station at mile 180.

Organizing snacks outside the gas station while Sarah pays for her food inside

We pulled up to three guys sitting on the curb eating pizza. PIZZA!! Never has gas station pizza sounded so appealing. I beelined it into the store to find a beautiful slice of hot cheese pizza and a package of fig bars, along with a very kind woman to ring me up. I also (finally) pee (the one and only time the whole race 🤷‍♀️) and apply a little extra Chamois Butt’r.

Here we met up again with Sarah, the woman we had ridden with yesterday afternoon, and Max, who had been riding with her through much of the night. They were just a couple minutes behind us, and so we agreed to head out as a group. It’s now roughly 4:30 AM, and not more than five minutes after we left Betsy slammed on her brakes and we go every which way. Betsy and Max end up colliding and falling, and Sarah and I skid around on either side. Turns out there was a skunk on the side of the road, tail up and not very happy with us disturbing its evening. Everyone was fine (and happy not to be sprayed) and we rode on. Just after 5:15AM we started to see the first bits of sky turning light. And by 5:45AM the sunrise was in full effect, and we were all in awe of the colors after a very dark night.

From L to R – Max, Sarah, and Betsy ride into the sunrise

The day ultimately breaks into a dull light and a cloudy sky. Max starts talking excitedly about finishing before dinner. He’s done more ultra rides than I have, but I tell him it’s way too early to start making finish line plans. We pass some cyclists and a couple catch up to us and join our group, including Betsy’s friend Austin who’d been helping the cyclist who was injured and waiting for the ambulance. Apparently the ambulance took well over an hour to arrive but the cyclist was eventually taken to get treatment. Austin was riding strong, and our group broke up a little here as different riders found their pace. Sarah pushed hard ahead with Austin, Max fell a bit behind, and the rest of us stretched out in the middle. My legs started to fell like dead weight here. The worst they had felt all ride. It was now inching closer to 8AM but we still had another 120 miles to go.

Betsy rides in front on good gravel roads with skies starting to turn gray

Betsy and I found ourselves together again, kinda trudging along to our next gas station stop at mile 240. About 3 or 4 miles out it starts to lightly sprinkle, and I cross my fingers that it won’t get worse. And then, just before town, I suddenly can’t shift. I’m using electronic shifting and running a 1x set up, and I can’t shift up or down. Luckily I’m in a middle gear so I’m able to easily pedal the last couple of miles into town. I’m hoping it’s just my battery, and feeling very grateful I have a spare. I arrive at the gas station and immediately set to work on the bike. My spare battery is at the bottom of my gear bag, so I need to remove a lot of other things to get to it. I finally dig it out, attach it to the bike, and hop on and pedal around the parking lot. SUCCESS! Phew. I repack the bag and go into grab some more snacks (another fig bar, a Nutri-Grain bar, and (finally) a 6-pack of Oreos). Betsy and Austin have moved quickly through this stop, and they set off together. While a tiny part of me is sad to see our group break (and wishes I’d been faster getting my stuff together), I know this is a race. I hurry to get going myself, and see Sarah is almost ready. We roll out together, waving goodbye to Max who needs more time, and the rain continues to sprinkle.

The skies continue to be dark and threatening, but only light sprinkles are coming down

We celebrate hitting 250 miles, knowing now we’re finally counting down in double digits. The air is blissfully cool and the riding fairly easy. We aren’t going particularly fast, but we’re making decent time. We know there’s a “bonus” stop just over 30 miles from here — the second “water oasis” for the 200 mile riders. There’s a tiny convenience store that’s open but we can also access the plain water that’s set out for the 200 mile riders if we want. This is also where we join up with the last ~third of the 200 mile course, which we’ll follow all the way back to Emporia (eventually connecting with the end of the 100 mile course as well). I’m anxious to get there, and I’m getting my third (thirteenth?) wind and feeling pretty strong. My GPS is still being finicky, and I’m hoping I’m going the right way because, other than Sarah, I don’t see a single other rider anywhere. As we go through a rolling section just before the oasis I start to put a bit of time on Sarah. I’m mentally calculating the amount of food I have with me (including some drink mix) and the number of miles left. I’m pretty sure all I need to do is get water at this stop, and then I can skip the final gas station at mile 315 in favor of making up some time. I decide this next stop will be my last before pushing the final 80 miles to the finish.

I roll in and see a bunch of folks waiting for the 200 mile riders to come through. They aren’t too far back, so I know they’ll likely catch us in the next hour. I see Jeff’s wife, and she shares that the hit Jeff took to his tire waaaay back at 2AM has caused him some serious trouble. He’s going to finish, but it’s taken him a lot of time to fix it over the past few hours. I’m happy to hear he’s still pushing hard, but sad that he’s having mechanicals. You never know what will happen on a course this long.

I fill both bottles and add some GU to them, fill my bladder with plain water, and put all my remaining snacks in my gas tank. I’ve done loads of 80 mile rides with just this set up, and I’m confident I can ride to the finish without any additional aid (assuming nothing goes wrong, of course…). As I’m wrapping up I see Sarah roll up behind me. She quickly starts organizing her stuff and refilling bottles. I think briefly about rolling out, but we’ve come this far together and it’s nice to have company (though I’m a little antsy because I’m not sure how close anyone behind us is).

So, once again, we roll out. It’s now about 11AM and we don’t see anyone. No Betsy or Austin ahead, and no one behind us. In fact, we roll along for so long without seeing anyone or anything I actually stop and pull out my phone to check RideWithGPS. My GPS has been so finicky that I had a bit of mild panic that we’d somehow gone off course, and I figured 30 seconds to check our location would be worth it to avoid pedaling miles in the wrong direction. But, we are still on track so we pedal on. We roll through a long stretch of muddy low land area where I turn to Sarah and say, “If the skies open up this area is going to be one big mud pile”. It does, in fact, begin to rain a bit harder but luckily we escape with few issues (the riders behind us would not be so lucky).

Small puddles starting to form from the light rain while more moisture threatens in the distance.

We’re soon caught by the lead 200 mile cyclists who go flying past us like we’re standing still. They are all incredibly considerate. They cheer us on as they pass, and move over without complaint when we aren’t quick enough to give them the better line. It gives us some energy seeing other people out with us!

Not long after the sky opens up. It goes from a steady rain to an all out downpour in moments. One of those summer rainstorms that is nearly blinding. We’re still pedaling (up a hill, in fact) but we’re soaked. Everything is wet. I rip off my sunglasses to try and see better, but the rain is in my eyes. We’re descending now, down a rocky section, and I can’t see. Sarah’s mountain biking skills have her cruising a bit in front of me, and I’m crossing my fingers that the bike stays upright. I have nothing dry to wipe my face with and my hands are so wet can’t open my food. But I’ve got my giant bag of gummy bears open, and it’s the only thing I can get to. I’m shoving wet handfuls of gummy bears into my mouth (must. keep. eating.) while trying to blink away the rain drops.

Eventually, the storm moves on (or we pedal out of it) and we’re back into basic drizzle. But I can see there’s more rain coming. I’m now getting cold – the combo of 60-65 degree temps, rain, pedaling for almost 24 hours, and being up all night. I turn to Sarah and tell her I need to put my jacket on. It feels ridiculous given that I’m completely soaked already, but I know it will give me the chance to warm up. I should have done it earlier, but this is the next best thing. I also pull out my clear glasses to try to make it easier to see (the sunglasses are both dark and now covered in splattered mud). Sarah opts to skip adding hers, but as the skies open again she opts to also stop and add a layer.

We continue on, bombing through massive puddles that feel like mini lakes. We see more 200 mile riders coming along in various states — some look like they are chasing strong while others are clearly having a bad day. I try to take some more pictures, but everything is so wet I can’t even get my phone to open. Forget it.

Sarah is starting to feel a bit tired, and I offer to pull for the next several miles. I’m feeling like I’ve got energy and I want to keep moving. I’m happy to ride in front, and am definitely planning on skipping the final gas station. That was Sarah’s plan too, but she’s having some issues with her bike computer. We agree to split at the gas station and I wave goodbye to her there. Unbeknownst to me, Paul is actually at this gas station! He has finished his volunteer shift, and stopped on his way back to Emporia to cheer me on. I hear cheers as I pass, which I appreciate, but I’m heads down and ready to once again make up some time.

While I’m excited to pass this last milestone, I know I still have 35 miles to go. A couple hours on a good day, but probably more like 2.5 at the pace I’m going. I need to keep eating and drinking. I’m also getting hot. It looks like the rain has finally stopped and the clouds are parting!

Sun!

I debate leaving on my jacket to the finish, but I realize that it’s not worth overheating to save two minutes. I pull over on the side of the road and quickly try to get the damp jacket off. It’s a bit like trying to take off wet jeans – everything sticking to everything else. As I do I hear a cheer as three riders pass by – Betsy, Austin, and another woman. Wait, what!? I’m so confused until I realize they must have stopped at the final gas station while I rode by. I don’t know who this other woman is (another XL rider who finally caught up to us?), and I wonder if I can catch them. It takes me another minute to struggle with my jacket before I’m back on the pedals pushing hard to catch up. I soon realize this third woman is definitely not riding with them, she just happened to pass at the same time, and I think she must be a 100 mile rider as our courses have all now joined together. I actually, briefly, push somewhere around threshold power to catch up when I realize there’s no way I can keep that up. I settle back down knowing a lot can happen in a couple hours.

And then, at mile 320 and about 24 hours into the race, I hit the mud. I see the first section of it as we head up a little hill, and I manage to stay on my bike. “On your left, on your left” I cry, as I try to weave through cyclists without putting my feet down. But then, I crest over a little hill and realize everything is about to get much worse.

Not going anywhere fast.

As I crest the hill the mud turns into a nightmare. This isn’t just your plain old dark watery kinda mud. This is wheel sucking, derailleur breaking, chain stopping mud. Thick, clumpy, infamous Kansas mud. I don’t even have the chance to try to ride through this as my wheels immediately jam up with mud. I’m running 700×40 tires on my bike, and I have clearance for 700×45 so there’s some run between the tires and the frame. But not THAT much room. The mud has jammed up in those spaces, has clumped onto my chain knocking it off, and piled onto my wheels. I dig out my paint stick, the one I’ve carried in my backpack for 320 miles desperately hoping I wouldn’t need, and start scraping. I clear off enough to get moving again, only to get stuck again less than 20ft down the hill. I clear things again and then slide nearly into Betsy and Austin who have also gotten stuck. They are having similarly bad luck getting moving. I try to get over to the grass, but now I just have grass sticking to the mud and I’m still not going anywhere. I try to carry the bike, but the mud has made it wildly heavy. Scrap, roll, stuck. Scrap, roll, stuck. I’m equal parts frustrated and amused. It’s ridiculously funny to watch all these cyclists sliding and falling in the mud, and also infuriating to be this far into the race and so very stuck. Other folks have better luck than me, and managed to get back on their bikes and keep their wheels turning. I still can’t get mine clear enough to ride, and I’m now clawing at the mud with my hands and covering my bike in it. I see Sarah come up behind me – she’s caught me – and with better clearance she’s able to get back on her bike much faster. Oof.

Everything is mud.

Finally I find a tiny muddy stream and manage to ride my bike along it. That’s enough to keep the pedals turning until I can get out of the worst of it. And just a bit further there’s a true rushing river where I tell myself I have no more than three minutes to make my bike ridable. I want to balance getting enough mud off not to break anything, but not get stuck trying to get my bike perfectly clean. It only needs to go 30 miles. In just over two minutes I’m back on the bike and quickly trying to catch up to Sarah.

I soon catch her on the hills and we wave hello before I continue to push forward. All told, the whole section cost me about 25min with about 3/4 of that time spent not riding. I’m also feeling a little worried – my bottle caps have mud on them, as does my hydration pack valve. I’m pretty sure there’s a fair amount of cow poop in that mud. I think about not drinking until I get to the finish, but I’m well aware I’m still two hours away. The temps are warming quickly and that’s clearly not an option. I have to opt for the risk of Giardia instead of a guarantee of dehydration. I do my best to wipe the valve and a cap and cross my fingers. I dig around in my gas tank for food options and come up with… more gummy bears. I do not want more gummy bears. I am very sick of gummy bears. But, I need to eat and they have a good amount of calories and carbs, so gummy bears by the wet, muddy handful it is. I pedal on.

The sun continues to shine as I hit the final stretch of rollers towards Emporia. I’m starting to count down the miles — I’m at 330 miles, that’s less than a marathon left! I’m at 335 miles, I could walk my bike to the finish line if I have to! I’m at 340 miles, and unless I get knocked unconscious I’m going to FINISH this thing. I’m not going very fast now, but with the 200 and 100 mile courses together my spirits are lifted by all the other riders. I also now start to see folks on the side of the road offering snacks. I’m desperate for something besides gummy bears, but I’m not stopping for anything now. I’m nearly there, but I’m also realizing that this race is going to be slightly longer than 350 miles. With the detour at mile 55, I have no idea exactly what the finish line mileage is. Still, when I hit 350 I’m elated.

350 miles DONE!

And then I’m rolling up the final climb into town and I can hear the finish line. I’m in disbelief as I roll through the final chute to the finish line – I see my RDC teammates on one side and Paul on the other. I’m so shocked to ACTUALLY BE FINISHING that I don’t even realize exactly where the finish line mats are to give a finish line fist bump.

I finished – 353 miles in 26 hours and 35 minutes!

I rolled through the finish line to find the nice folks at Chamois Butt’r giving me a cool, damp towel to wipe the mud, sweat, sunscreen, and whatever else off my face. Kara, from Chamois Butt’r, is the first person to see me and gives me a big hug despite the mud all over me. Moments later a radio station asks to interview me. I find this kinda hilarious but agree. I answer a bunch of questions while realizing I’m really in need of some water!

Interview under the Chamois But’r tent

I also spotted Steve Mathews, founder of Chamois Butt’r and friend from BaseCamp. I stop over to profusely thank him for making their Ultra balm – it had just come out right before Unbound and I took a gamble on using it. It worked so well, and he, Paul, and I had a great chat. I also found Betsy (who finished five minutes in front of me) and Sarah (who finished a few minutes behind me) and we exchanged hugs and goodbyes. And just as I was heading out I caught Amber Neben, BaseCamp coach, who had just finished the 200 mile race. It was great to finally meet her in person.

And then, finally, I headed out of of the finish chute to see Paul. He had brought me a donut (by request!) and I also finally got a bottle of water and a bottle of recovery mix.

Obligatory finish photo (with donut!)

After a few photos we hopped in line for the complementary Muc-Off bike wash. Given the conditions, everyone was in line for the bike wash. We had been waiting a while when I did a very silly thing. I can’t remember what I was trying to do, but I know my goal was to let go of my plastic water bottle and hold onto the glass stein I’d just gotten as an XL finisher. But what actually happened was I let go of the stein and held the water bottle, thereby breaking the stein in the middle of line of people rolling their bikes to the bike wash 🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️🤦‍♀️ Paul was kind enough to scrounge up a broom from a local shop and we got the glass cleaned up before (hopefully) any bikes managed to roll through. But a kind man saw I’d dropped the mug and offered me his 200 mile finisher pint glass – he didn’t need it he said! Minutes later he ended up knocking over his full cup of beer he’d been so excited to get, and I was at least able to give him my beer ticket in return (because there was no way I was up for a beer at that point!).

Maybe 40 minutes later I had a clean bike, and we grabbed some quesadillas from a food truck with my food token before heading to the car. I wanted to stay for the festivities, but I also knew I really needed more food and a shower. We picked up some pizza on the way back to the hotel where a hot shower awaited. And sometime around 10PM, fed, warm, and clean(er) I passed out into a deep sleep.

The alarm went off at 6:45 AM the next morning because I wanted to go to the award ceremony. I knew there was a decent chance I’d gotten 5th, and since podiums at Unbound go 5 deep I didn’t want to miss it. I also know timing and unofficial race results can be finicky, and I wasn’t 100% convinced I’d be on the podium. After sitting through the awards for the 100 mile race (which were supposed to be the day before but had to be delayed due to chip timing issues), they called up the XL riders.

Women’s XL podium

It felt pretty awesome to get to walk up on stage with four other incredible riders. Betsy had come in fourth, Andrea (another Boulder rider) third, Scotti Lechuga second, and Cynthia Frazier, who tied for 4th last year, came in first. Also, apparently I got the memo for wearing coral colored pants 😅 We got these very pretty red mulberry awards, a native tree to Kansas, and I think I’ll treasure mine for a long time.

Getting 5th place was my ultimate stretch goal – kind of unreal to see it happen!

There’s a lot to unpack around learnings from this event. I didn’t have a life changing epiphany out there or anything, but I did have a wild and grand adventure that I don’t think I’ll forget for a long time. Forever grateful for the many folks who helped me get to achieve a big goal. This was a good one.

Author: cartwheelsandcake

Cyclist, climber, hiker, trail runner, back country skier, dabbling mountaineer Lover of cake, chocolate, brownies, and sweets. Excellent napper.

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