UnboundXL: 2024

I’m slowly coming off the high that was Unbound Gravel. I love hearing everyone’s stories, and knowing behind every person that lined up at the start there were a myriad of experiences and events that eventually brought them back to the finish one way or another. Here’s a little bit of mine: 

How it started.

Start line on Commercial St. felt way more ‘official’ than in ’22, and I manage to start near the front this time. So many friends are there to see us all off. A hug from Betsy, who I rode through the night with in 2022, brings me much joy. There is a helicopter overhead, drones, and cameras everywhere.

Paul and I, ready to ride!

166 of us (from 200 signed up) all taking that collective inhale just before the chaos. And then, it begins. 

Early miles

The front 2/3 or so roll out as a giant group, and we’re on the gravel in less than two miles. But just a few minutes later, the sound of braking and a crash in the big group. Multiple riders down. Both riders in front of me go down, and I just miss hitting the deck. My front wheel goes into someone’s bike and my back wheel lifts off the ground, thankfully coming back down and keeping me upright. I swerve around and chase back on.

A few hours in and feeling pretty good!

I stay with the front group for about an hour before I decide I need to back off. Paul catches me sometime after that, along with a few others, and we all roll fast to the chunk of Divide Road at mile 45. Paul and I have made no plans to ride together, but we find ourselves pacing similarly. We yo-yo on and off, but end up staying pretty close. We make it through the rocks and ruts without incident, and spirits are good. Dusk brings some double track chunky descending and our first stop at mile 85. Cranberry juice and Oreos will help fuel the next few miles! 

Quick mile 85 gas station refill

Soon after the night is in full swing. One century down! Roads are pretty good, and I’m settling in. We stop again at mile 127 where I grab sweet tea, my first caffeine hit of the race. I am feeling really good. The humidity is high but the air is cool. At times the night is so black – it’s almost dizzying to look around. 

I ride with Paul and another rider on some fast gravel roads. The three of us trading off who rides in front – less about pulling and more about switching up who is taking the worst of the eye strain into the dark to catch the twists and turns and bumps of the road. Stop to help a rider plug a tire, and then push to Pillsbury Crossing – a long water crossing over concrete. We catch a little group, and we almost all opt to walk since it’s quite dark and we’ve heard it was slick (sorry bike shoes, you’ll never be the same…). Back on the bike and I am still feeling really good. Gravel is fast, legs are solid. 

But then suddenly, ~150 miles in, intense left knee pain – well beyond the normal ultra aches and pains I know come and go. I grab two Tylenol and my pace slows to a crawl. I’m unclipped, one legged pedaling, wondering how I could possibly complete 200 more miles like this. Paul asks if I want to scratch. I decline – I’m going to give it two hours to let the Tylenol kick in and see if the pain will pass. It’s not unusual for pains to come up on long rides, and eventually ease sometime later. This doesn’t really feel like that, but we’ll see. Either way, I can no longer push the pace my body wants to. That is frustrating. It is much like a mechanical – I know I have so much more to give but I’m unable to fully capitalize on it. Still, onward. 

Soon we go through Little Egypt, a notoriously chunky and steep section. There’s actually an EMT parked at the start of the section. I have my one nighttime brain confusion when I briefly think Paul (who’s 100 ft in front of me) is a rider on a horse 🙃 But then my eyes adjust and refocus again and I have to laugh at the absurdity of the thought. I crawl along riding active recovery watts, just trying to keep going forward. 

We make it to Alta Vista, 185 miles in, and a water stop. It’s good to stand off the bike. Do I scratch here? No. Not yet. I want to give it more time. Just before sunrise, I’m descending a good dirt road. Maybe I’m distracted by my knee, or lulled by the good surface, or just tired. Probably all of it. But all of a sudden, in the course of a second or two, my front tire is slamming into something and I’m trying to counter steer and then I’m face down in the dirt on my side with the wind mildly knocked out of me. The ground is hard, but it’s dirt and not rock. This probably saves me from a much worse experience. I’ve run my wheel into a massive rut at the bottom of the little hill, and it’s thrown me sideways. Paul arrives from behind and helps me sit up. I inspect my helmet for damage, then my body, and then my bike. A concussion, or even the chance of one, would be an immediate race ender. My familiar knee pain is one thing, but a concussion is another. However, I am okay. Some scraps, a twisted headset, a lot of dirt jammed into everything. We see a bunch of scattered nutrition (Snickers, Maurten gels) and wonder if someone else also crashed here. The whole experience takes maybe five minutes. 

Dawn, just before 6AM, with Paul

So back up, back pedaling, and soon sunrise! A little after 7 AM Paul and I both make it to mile 220 and Council Grove. We are both feeling pretty battered. I work hard to take very quick stops, but I opt to take my time here and assess my situation. I’ve ridden 70 miles on my janky knee, which seems to be suffering from my childhood issue of runner’s knee. I know this pain well, though it rarely happens on the bike. It’s deeply uncomfortable and likely only rest will stop it. I am unclear if I can ride another 130+ miles. I think I’m going to scratch. I eat a gas station mini loaf cake and sit on the curb. More Tylenol. More iced tea. I watch the others I’ve worked so hard to stay ahead of catch up, briefly stop, and then pass on. That’s really hard to see, for sure, but I also will them forward. I’ve been there – the one pushing onward past the others who are having off days. Go get it, I think. 

I text Bex that the odds are 80/20 I’m quitting, but that I’m currently stopped and reassessing. She tells me “We got you no matter what” and “Take all the time you need.”. Somehow that makes me want to keep going instead. I see so many other encouraging messages on my phone. They mean everything in this moment. What took someone 10-20 seconds to send is keeping me going when I was pretty sure I couldn’t. Because, I realize, I can still pedal my bike albeit slowly and uncomfortably. I believe I might be able to finish. And I’m not going to stop pushing as much as I can, it’s just that the push will have to look different. I adjust my goals. I adjust my mindset. I decide to continue. But first I hang with Paul who is still unsure of his next steps. Eventually he decides to call it due to bad back pain. I lend him my phone, as his has gone into a 3 hour (!?!?) security lock from too much moisture, and wait while he goes back and forth with the crew-for-hire for 30 minutes to figure out a pickup. 

Sleepy but going forward.

Finally I roll off into the morning. The next few hours are a blur. I’m solo, sleepy, and slow. I have the energy to go harder, the legs want to push, but the knee says no. I practice patience. I try to stay present. I try to practice gratitude. I have 55 miles until my next chance at water. It feels like 500. Time slows. I consider scratching again and again and again. I text Paul to be on standby for pickup. I stop to pee in some tall grass and hope there aren’t snakes. 

Hello mud. Thankfully we saw very little of this.

And then, MUD! It’s not a long stretch, and the Lauf handles it so well. I manage to get off fast enough to walk the worst bits, and ride through so much more than I could have two years ago. The on and off bike walking wakes me up. I see others, including Eric, and though I can’t pace with them, it’s nice to see friendly faces. I pass them, knowing I can’t pedal as fast and they will soon catch. But we are moving forward. I wipe my bottle caps as best I can, and hope the mud doesn’t have Giardia lurking. I try to drink more from my hydration pack. I wish I had more snacks. 

Lots of view like this

I finally get to the planned water stop at mile 275. I expect some jugs on a table, but there’s a kind man there who also has snacks, wipes, and encouragement!

A little tent bringing so much happiness! Typically we only refill at gas stations on the XL, but in this year’s addition, the last two stops were changed last minute to be more like aid stops due to safety and traffic.

There are others there too, all enjoying a little break. I pause for a bit to refill bottles, and then grab a bag of Funyuns because it’s more calorie and carb dense than the alternate bag of popcorn.

Weird, but why not?

I try to soak in the experience. I notice the greenery and the flowers. I marvel at the butterflies everywhere. One lands on me and it’s a delight. I run into Jessica, who I thought was LONG gone in front of me. She’s working through her own challenges, and we both want to quit but we don’t. Her resolve strengthens my resolve. My knee prevents me from pacing with her, but we both pedal on. 

I have waited hours for this piece of pizza, and I am so happy for it

I make it to Bazaar, mile 297, and the last stop. I can not believe I’ve managed to get here. I finally get some Casey’s pizza. Salty and cheesy and delicious. I’ve been looking forward to it for miles. As I’m getting ready to go Tina, a volunteer there, tells me “You’re going to the finish!”. I almost cry. I bike off repeating “I’m going to the finish, I’m going to the finish” out loud. I stop thinking about scratching. 

Another MMR… thankfully this one will be okay

I take more Tylenol. Ibuprofen would definitely knock the pain out better but I know I’m dehydrated and I don’t want to mess with my kidneys in this state. I eat eight Oreos. They are, apparently, my ultra superfood. I will eat 15 of them on the ride. I try to eat my second Nutrigrain bar but it crumbles into a gross mess and I shove it back in my pocket. I have several brief encounters with other XLers just hanging on. We’re all tired, everyone with their own story, but we’re going to the finish. 

The sun has come out in full force but that’s okay. I think that heat training paid off a bit. I hit rollers with seemingly endless false summits. You swear this one MUST be the last climb, only to get to the top and see that it somehow rises again. My knee hates them. It’s okay, I’m going forward. Eventually we join with the other courses around mile 325. I can’t hold a single wheel but it’s amazing to see everyone pushing. Some folks realize I’m doing the XL and they give extra encouragement. They do not know how much it means to me. 

Is it really Unbound if there isn’t a train!?

The cheers at Kahola Hill, the last ‘big’ climb, are so motivating. It signals that we’re almost done but wait, there’s still like 20 miles to go and a mild headwind that slows me to a crawl. But I am determined to arrive before sunset. A new goal I’ve come up with. Arbitrary but I’m holding it close. I’m hanging on by a thread but also so happy to be here, to be in it. The effort has also caught up. No longer do my legs want to go harder than my knee will let them. I am bonking. I have no more Oreos. But then FINALLY – the underpass 2 miles out and then Highland Hill. The Gravel Worlds crew at the top with cheers. I’m there, I’m there! The finish line just ahead. 

I let a couple riders pass me, I want to slow down and savor this finish chute that I couldn’t imagine seeing 200 miles earlier. And then I’m across the line! My RDC teammates are there, flying out from the sidelines with hugs and water and love. Paul there to grab my bike (and me!). Many other friends have come over, including Eric who has completed his own race. Friends finishing the 200 stopping to say hi. Friends who have finished long ago who have come over to say congrats. It is incredible. 

Can’t believe this whole crew came to see me finish – meant everything!

I have immense gratitude for the whole experience. For the ability to start. To finish. To ride at all. I was three hours slower than two years ago, on a year that I thought might actually be faster given the conditions. I had a very different but equally astounding experience — and isn’t that the beauty of racing ♥️ 

Clean bike courtesy of the fine folks running the Muc-Off bike wash

A last but important note: Sometimes scratching is 100% the right call. There are lots of reasons to end a race early. Whether it’s physical (risk of concussion, risk of injury, major wounds, fever, illness, etc.), mental (burn out, exhaustion), mechanical, or otherwise. Sometimes the best and smartest choice is to not keeping going. Often that’s the harder choice to make, and takes a lot of courage. But sometimes it’s REALLY hard to know what the best choice is, especially for endurance athletes. It is a fine line, and exactly where that line is may be a little different for different people. In my case, I had fairly high confidence my knee pain wasn’t causing long term damage. I wasn’t at risk for a concussion. I had no broken bones. My injury was on the edge, but for me it was a familiar pain. I made a calculated risk to continue, and did so in the safest way I could. I don’t believe in the “finish at any cost” mindset for a bike race, so I feel lucky that this one stopped just short of that fine line.

Some final stats:

  • Miles covered: 354.8
  • Elevation climbed: 18,304 ft
  • Elapsed time: 29:28:30 (Half of that stoppage at Council Grove, mile 220)
  • Moving time: 26:42:57
  • Sleeping time: 00:00:00
  • XL riders registered: ~200
  • XL riders started: 166
  • XL riders finished: 115
  • My finish: 70th overall, 7th women (of 16)
  • Oreos eaten: 15
  • Non water liquid purchased: 2 sweet teas, 1 cranberry juice
  • Train delays: 1
  • Hills walked: 1, at dawn
  • Streams walked: 1, Pillsbury Crossing
  • Friends made: Many ❤️

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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