WHAT IT TAKES TO RIDE UNBOUND XL
By Paul Rider
Unbound XL is a 357 mile, non-stop, race with no sleep. It took me 34 hours and 30 minutes. My moving time was 30 hours and 47 minutes. The difference in elapsed and moving time is due to convenience store stops, water breaks, and pauses while attending to my gear. This year 125 riders signed up for Unbound XL. 46 riders crossed the finish line within the time limit of 36 hours. I was 42nd and every finisher ahead of me was younger, except for one.
At age 56, I still wonder what I’m made of, whether I’m tough. I’m curious to see what I’ll find at life’s edges. My goal was not to win, but to finish. I was searching for an epic journey. And since unlike the marquee Unbound 200 event which has aid stations (food, hydration, first aid, bike mechanics) along the route, Unbound XL is completely unsupported – as in no help from others.
Parts of Unbound gravel were awesome: fast rolling, limestone hard pack that allows smooth pedaling and aerobar tucks. Other parts of the Unbound route were extreme: washed-out gravel, ranch roads, punchy steeps, technical descents. Most of the climbs were sharp, not rolling hills. Officially, the route had 13,636 feet of total elevation.
My Garmin, and the headset computers of most other participants, registered 20,000+ feet for the route. Category 4 gravel, the gnarliest type, includes unmaintained roads with deep layers of sharp gravel. Neil Shirley, who authored the categories of gravel, offers Unbound gravel as an example of Category 4.
For the first 200 miles, I was overwhelmed by the course. I winced every time my Garmin directed me to a road with a sign that read “MINIMUM MAINTENACE, TRAVEL AT YOUR OWN RISK”. As a roadie with limited technical skills, the course difficulty far exceeded my expectations.
My set-up was a Lauf True Grit + Enve G23s with WTB’s new SG Light Resolutes (42 mm). Gearing was 1x with 46 in front and 10/50 in back. In the days before the race, I added Zipp aerobars with SRAM eTap bar-end shifters and a Brooks frame bag. With strong gusts from the south on Day 2, the aerobars helped me cheat the winds on the flats and afforded comfortable tucks whenever there were gradual descents. With zero flats and no mechanicals, I was thrilled with my set-up.
I would not have finished without the Lauf suspension fork. Over 357 miles, my hands, arms, shoulders and neck were hammered unrelentingly by the famously chunky gravel.
“I reminded myself that in the ‘hit the wall’ miles of marathons, I sometimes needed a moment to gather myself. I needed the pain to subside, even if only for a few short minutes.”
Along the route, there are 7 stops to refuel: convenience stores at miles 41, 117, 216, 311, and well water spigots at miles 174, 186, 281. Given my plant-based ways, convenience store favorites were Nutter Butters, Oreos, bananas, flavored almonds, coffee and Fritos! Hydration typically was 2 liters of water and 2 large Gatorades for guzzling and bottle refill. I carried 4 x 625 ml bottles on my bike.
I prefer real food when I ride, but was limited in how much I could carry. My three homemade vegan cheese and bean burritos and four roasted/super salty Yukon gold potatoes were cherished! I also packed Bumble Bars, Clif Bars, Lara bars, Nature’s Bakery date bars, GU gels, Huma gels and Tailwind powder to add to my water.
Recently, I read that the men’s Unbound XL winner, pro Taylor Lideen, guzzled “two Red Bulls, chocolate milk, soda, Gatorade, water, and another soda in like five minutes” at the mile 311 stop. To this, he remarked, “ …training the gut is more important than training the legs.”
THE FIRST STOP
At 3 PM Friday, the starting gun sounded. The race began at a nice pace, with the first 41 miles clicking over at 16.2 mph. The gravel was fast, riders were starting to spread out and I arrived in Eskridge at the aptly named ‘Rush In’ convenience store about 5:30 PM. Grabbing an armful of drinks and snacks, I stood in front of the counter, about sixth in line, as the queue started to snake behind and around the display aisles. Most were jovial, although I could see a least one rider who already had the empty stare of far-away eyes.
Departing Eskridge, the roads became rockier and rutted, the climbs grew steeper. By nightfall, I had tumbled twice and was very fortunate to stay upright another time when I bombed uncontrollably down a technical descent. Having survived this misjudgment of terrain, I pulled my speed way back and grew more deliberate.
I continued to the ‘Stop 2 Shop’ convenience store. The front of the store looked apocalyptic: bright fluorescent lights, grimy, exhausted riders gazing into the night, mud brown and gray dusty bikes, trash and bodies strewn everywhere. It was 117 miles down and for many, things were falling apart.
Plopping onto the counter my Gatorades, Smartwaters, a banana, almonds and a bag of Fritos, riders standing behind me commented that my elbow was gashed and that a flap of skin was sticking out. Maybe you should clean that up? With endorphins flowing, it was an easy decision to ignore my elbow. Heading into the night, I was delighted that my clear Rx glasses were finally fog-free. I could see again!
The 65 miles between 216 and 281 were soul crushing: sun baked with 5.5 hours between water stops and only 4 water bottles. Temperatures peaked at 101°F.
I can’t say when it started, but in the Saturday midday heat, I grew increasingly certain that I would not make it. Yes, 240 miles down, yet finishing 357 seemed unattainable. Pedaling through the midday heat, I spent what seemed like hours articulating, revising and then further embellishing the reasons why I had to stop. I clearly formulated the excuses for my impending DNF. The main explanation was this: the course was far more technical than my roadie skills were ready to handle. I was too slow. I would not make the cut off.
Finally, about mile 250, I’d had enough. The road was flat, I was moving along, yet I was cooked. I was baked, I was done. I dismounted my bike and walked.
For some reason, as I got off my bike, my mind shifted to a past endurance event. I reminded myself that in the ‘hit the wall’ miles of marathons, I sometimes needed a moment to gather myself. I needed the pain to subside, even if only for a few short minutes.
In 10 minutes, I felt fresh, almost as if the race was just beginning. All doubts disappeared. I had absolute belief. With a steady pedal stroke, I repeated my mantra again and again … “You got this!” I was ready for the final third of the race.
THE FINAL STRETCH
As I departed the yard of the Cedar Point house with 75 miles to go, the owner warned: “I hear they’re sending you over some really rough road ahead. Good luck. Oh, and you’re welcome here anytime.” Multiple creek crossings, steep descents and hike-a-bike were part of the next 30 miles. Slowly, systematically, I made my way to the last town on the route, Cottonwood Falls.
Riding proceeded uneventfully over the final 30 miles. Occasionally I was joined by a rider, sometimes two. I was fine to have company, but this was my first experience riding side-by-side with hallucinations. Perhaps dreamlike embellishments of reflections from my glasses, the rider on my left wore a Mondrian style jersey. The rider to my right was less discernable. With one on each side, they always stared forward, keeping the same steady pace. Knowing they weren’t real, I comforted myself with self-talk and tried not to be bothered by the chills on my skin.
At 1:30 AM Sunday morning, I crossed back into Emporia to the finish line. Thrilled, I triumphantly punched the air, flowed to a stop and accepted the warm greetings of friends and event staff.
Unbound XL was far more than I had anticipated. In the desolate, beautiful hills of Central Kansas, I found a gnarly, beautiful adventure, a passage. “Was it fun?” I was asked recently. I would say this: it was immensely satisfying, one of the most rewarding things I have done in my life. In my search for understanding, for insight, my mind has been touched, my thinking feels deeper.
Time is the most valuable thing we have. Looking back at those 34 ½ hours, I sense a time warp, a concentration and intensity of life experience. I love a good bike ride. I’m profoundly grateful for this journey.