The adverse conditions at Unbound Gravel this year were exactly what I needed.
I've started and deleted two posts on this blog this year. The first was a comparison of mountain biking and swimming (strength helps for both, but what you really need is skill). The week after I wrote that post, I raced at the Ouachita Challenge, which completely shook all my confidence. With a DNF at that race because I could not navigate the technical mountain bike trails within the time cuts, who was I to write a blog post about how important skills are in mountain biking? And, I was too embarrassed about that failure to write a report, even though I know we shouldn't just be sharing the happy highlight reel.
|Even the gravel race at the Ouachita Challenge was hard for me, but riding with my lovely friend Ari was wonderful.|
|Rule of Three had the best post-ride party ever!|
Leading up to Unbound, I wondered if I'd have the endurance for an 8 or 9 hour day on the bike for 100 miles. I'd been working on mountain bike skills, doing one- to two-hour rides nearly every day of the week, but nothing like the weekend volume I did last year. Finally I texted my coach about three weeks ago. "Should I be concerned that this time last year I was doing 7-hour training rides on the weekend and right now I'm not?" "No," Nell replied, "You have such a huge aerobic engine, you will be more than fine come race day." I told her that I believed her. I also cursed Strava for showing me what I was doing last year.
I traveled to Emporia on Friday, ready to have a great time with Shelly (racing the 50, her third-ever gravel ride) and Orissa (who I had gleefully raced the 50 with last year and couldn't wait to tackle the 100 with this time). Exploring the expo was awesome, being with my wonderful friends was great, staying in our cute and cheerful airbnb was perfect. We were set up for a great day.
Except. It had been raining for a week or so every day in Kansas. At the start of the 350XL race on Friday afternoon, the sky opened and the rain poured down for several hours, causing some of the county roads to turn into sticky, thick, "peanut butter" mud.
|Happy at the start.|
The 200-mile race started at 6 am and Orissa and I toed the line for the 100 at 7 am. The gun went off at 7:05 and we were on our way. After maybe one minute had elapsed, the entire field was stopped by a train going through town. We just had to laugh. Our goal was to ride "easy" to the first aid station, the Water Oasis at mile 42, then to pick up the pace if we felt good. What's easier than standing still waiting for a train?
The ride was uneventful for the first half hour. You couldn't even tell that it had rained. The gravel was smooth and felt almost as packed down as the Boulder backroads in many places. I laughed, remembering how Orissa had said she expected the event to take us 10 hours to finish. "That's ridiculous," I'd told her, "we'll go much faster than that." Woo hoo! Here we were at mile 10 and only 36 minutes had gone by.
Then, we turned onto what I now know is called the infamous Road D. The conditions of the road changed abruptly to wet, sticky, suck-your-shoes-off mud. All you could see was people walking with their bikes for miles ahead of you. Orissa and I dug in and started walking, careful to keep our tires off the mud as much as possible. We rolled the bikes through grass when we could, and carried them when we couldn't. Even so, after about a mile of walking like this, we were stopping like everyone else to use paint stirrers to scrape the mud out from between the front wheel and the fork, and from between the rear wheel and the chain and derailleur. We even had to scrape heaps of sticky mud from our shoes to lighten our feet and allow us to walk.
|True to her Instagram name, Orissa Tri-For-Smiles Loftin never stopped smiling.|
Reports vary widely about how much hike-a-bike we actually did. I know that when I finally did get back on my bike and attempt to ride it with muddy cleats that would not clip in, an hour and 35 minutes had gone by and 13.1 miles of the race were complete. I joked out loud to nobody in particular that I'd gotten a great new half-marathon PR today.
Many people were joking and laughing through the mud. One guy was even handing out sips of whiskey from a flask. Others seemed defeated and devastated by it. I was grateful to be one of the ones who was making the best of it. I can honestly say that I was enjoying myself. Adventure!
Orissa and I had gotten separated a few times during the mud walk and by the time I reached the end of it, I couldn't see her anywhere. I looked up the road and back down, then finally gave up and decided to ride. She's probably ahead of me. I'll see her at mile 42 when we stop for water. I rode tentatively down the road, soft pedaling for a bit in case she was behind me. Then, I picked up the pace. If I'm doing this by myself today, I'm going to do the best I can do.
It was exhilarating to speed down the road, on dry, smooth gravel again. The sun was shining and the views of the prairie were magnificent, just a huge, vast, brilliant green and blue landscape as far as you could see. The other riders were friendly and I felt so strong and happy as I made my way down the road, ticking off the miles. I don't remember a time in recent months that I've felt so happy.
When I arrived at the Water Oasis, there were two RVs at the top of a hill, a bunch of bikes laying on the sides of the road, and a huge line with people waiting to fill their water. Apparently the official aid station had run out of water earlier, and a couple of people with their RVs were filling up cyclists' bottles with their own water supply. I had intended to fill my whole 2.5L hydration pack and two 24-ounce bottles at this station. I panicked when I heard someone say they'd only fill one bottle per person. The next aid station was 20 miles down the road. But I got in the right line and the man at the end of it filled my whole hydration bladder with water from a hose, plus 3/4 of each of my bottles. That would do.
I added Skratch powder to the bladder and sped away again, drinking happily from the straw. As we rolled through a part of the course with steeper climbs and descents and loose gravel, I realized two things: my legs felt strong and confident climbing the hills. And I felt confident descending them and navigating the loose gravel too! All the mountain bike practicing has not been for nothing. All the balance drills I've been doing helped me to stay upright in some sketchy sections. I felt amazing. It was also getting really warm outside and I drank every drop of the liquid in my backpack before I arrived in Madison, KS, where the main aid station was.
Unbound is meant to be a self-supported race, meaning that you can bring a crew and have them meet you at certain checkpoints to help you refuel and to work on your bike if needed. You can also hire a crew. Orissa and I had agreed that there was no need to have a crew for the 100 - there were two water stops and we could carry all the food and drink mix we needed. As I rolled into the Madison checkpoint, I looked through the tents of support crews for the neutral water stop. I couldn't find it. I was directed further down the road by one volunteer; once I arrived there, another volunteer told me it was back the way I came.
I made a quick calculation: I had two bottles on my frame that together, contained maybe 40 ounces of water. I had 40 miles to go. I dumped the two bottles into my hydration bladder and mixed in some Skratch. That would have to do. I wanted to get going again.
As I rolled away from Madison, I started to calculate again. Forty ounces on a road ride would be fine for 40 miles. Forty miles on this gravel bike might take many more hours, especially if there was more mud up the road. I recalled how Trent finished Rule of Three in four hours with only 2 bottles, and decided that if he could do it, so could I. I also decided I needed to make it to the finish line as fast as possible, conserving my water as I went.
I looked at the time of day and laughed out loud. How could I have cursed us by mocking Orissa for projecting a time of 10 hours? I'd be lucky to make it in that amount of time. At that moment, a sub-10 hour day became the only thing I wanted in life, for no other reason than that I needed a goal to propel myself forward.
Around mile 70, I started counting down miles. I didn't feel happy not being able to drink freely from my pack whenever I wanted. I had a headache and started to feel lightheaded, then nauseated, as the heat of the day rose and the miles went by slowly. I was probably dehydrated, and there was nothing I could do.
I did stop to take some ibuprofen and the last of my caffeinated Skratch chews to help with the headache. My body was getting tired, but not in the way that I expected. My legs felt fresh and smooth and much better than they've ever felt in the last half of a 100-mile ride. But my hands were sore and numb. My back was sore. I had hot spots and blisters on both feet, souvenirs of the hike-a-bike section. I kept stopping to stretch my back and shake out my hands. It was annoying to be making progress, passing people, and then having them all pass me back as I stood on the side of the road.
Spectators had been sporadic on the course all day, but they started to appear more frequently in the last quarter of the race. One group offered me a beer. I almost stopped because the beers looked cold. At the next group, I pulled up to their table that was laden with orange slices, a large Gatorade container, and a cooler with mini Cokes. "I'm sorry to ask," I said, "do you happen to have some spare water for someone who isn't one of the people you're crewing for?"
The man at the table smiled. "If we were here crewing for someone, they'd be disqualified. This is a self-supported race. We're here to help everyone." And he took one of my bottles and filled it with cold water as his wife offered me a Coke. It was exactly what I needed. I almost cried with gratitude and told her several times that she was literally saving my life. They sent me on my way. Okay....15ish miles to go.
The wind began to pick up and I heard thunder in the distance. Luckily, at the same time, the course seemed to level out. The continuous climbing and descending had turned into flat-ish, fast, packed gravel. I watched the time and miles tick away. Would I make it under 10 hours? It would be close.
With five miles left to go, the sky opened and the rain poured down. It felt incredible. The cool rain soothed my hot skin and made me smile again. As I drank from my precious cold water bottle with the finish line and the goal in sight, I felt so grateful for the day. I screamed as I crossed the flooded finish line in nine hours and 45 minutes.
So much of my confidence was restored this Saturday. I'll never question Nell again about my training plan. She's right: I have nearly 15 years of aerobic engine inside me. This 100-mile ride felt physically easier than any 100+ miler I've done. My handling skills have improved and my climbing and descending skills have improved. A week ago, I was apprehensive about Leadville coming up in just two short months. Now, I feel like I'll be ready. I just need to keep working on the skills.
After I finished, I hung out with Shelly and heard about her success at the 50-mile distance while we waited for Orissa, who'd had a couple extra adventures out there. The afternoon rainstorm had created more mud pits, and she'd had to hike another two miles. When Orissa crossed the line we all celebrated together. I knew immediately after finishing that I want to try the 200-mile distance next year. They're not so sure, but I've got a year to convince them. Either way, the three of us will be back in Emporia next year. The Spirit of Gravel is real.
|Happy friendies at the Finish Line party!|
And finally, at 47 years old, I worked up the courage to get a tattoo a couple of months ago, something I've wanted to do since college but could never decide on something important enough to get. Last year, while descending Columbine at Leadville, it occurred to me that a tattoo of Columbine flowers would be the perfect thing. They grow at high altitude and they flourish under the most adverse conditions. I needed the reminder at Unbound Gravel that I can too. I don't think I'll forget that anytime soon, but if I do, I've got the tattoo to remind me.