Unbound 2022

Team photo when we were still clean. Photo by Erik Mathy

The 2022 edition of Unbound 200 has been a long time coming. My first time racing the Flint Hills was in 2019. I entered the 2019 lottery kind of on a whim, and I asked Jess Cutler to be my coach. After 5 months of structure training, I got through the sweltering 2019 edition of the event, but I immediately wanted to come back and beat the sun. Jess and I made a plan to make me faster for 2020, but then the pandemic put a pause on everything.

Fast forward to 2022, I had spent the last three years riding and racing road, cross, gravel and MTB. In that time, I’ve built an aerobic base that I am proud of and learned race craft and bike handling across road and cross. Returning to Emporia in 2022 would allow me to directly see the improvements I have made in the last few years.

Also new this year is that fact that I would start with teammates. Much has been said amongst the pro ranks about team tactics in gravel, but for me, having Mackenna here was much more about having a friendly wheel and someone else to cheer on and cheer me on. Mackenna’s partner Sean would also be our shared support crew, giving me the opportunity to optimize my pit stops and reduce time off the bike.

As we approached race day, the weather was top of mind for everyone. Unlike our gravel roads in the Northwest, Midwest gravel doesn’t drain when it rains. Rather, the “B” roads that make up many sectors of Unbound turn to a sticky, peanut butter mud when wet. Moreover, this mud sticks to everything. As we approached race day, Kansas was inundated with thunderstorms, causing widespread flooding. The day before the event, the organizers announced a route change due to “extensive flooding”. What could possibly go wrong?

Nerves at the start

Saturday morning at 6am, we lined up in Downtown Emporia. As we battled our nerves at the start, the organizers announced a delayed start due to train traffic. I had slept poorly the night before, and the delay did nothing to tamp down the nausea. As the raced started, we spent the first two hours searching for and following wheels. While dark clouds on the horizon threatened rain, the skies stayed a familiar grey with occasional drizzle, which only served to increase the pace.

I would love to say that I finished without mechanicals, but the gremlins started appearing after the first water stop of the race. The Texaco Hill descent was rough, rocky, and long. As I sought to absorb the bumps with my elbows and knees, I started hearing a rattle from the front of my bike. My confusion was interrupted by Mackenna hitting the brakes to avoid a large pothole where the gravel met the concrete bridge. As I absorbed that hit, the screen of my Wahoo bounced up and back down from the body of the computer. I was contemplating what to do about this novel mechanical when the clutch on my rear derailleur notified me that I had taken it on one too many adventures by freezing up my drivetrain.

Mackenna handed me her spare computer, but it did not have the route. I did have the route on my watch though, so I spent the next 150 miles following route directions on a 1.2″ watch screen. As I learned to manage my injured derailleur, Mackenna was dealing with her own mechanical challenges in the form of a very vocal chain. We spent the next 10 miles yo-yoing until we said our goodbyes on a technical section of the course.

I soon found myself suffering for the first time when a cheery voice plucked me from my ruminations. It was Holland from Oregon Trail! The same woman who brought me back to life after my Oregon Trail crash was here to save me again! I rolled with Holland into aid 1, where Sean made my bike feel new while I took care of the engine. Mackenna rolled in as I was getting ready to head out. The next 50 miles flew by as I formed, joined, and broke up various pace groups. Things soon took a turn for the sloppy though. Remember those clouds on the horizon? They had been working their magic on the last 60 miles of the course, and two sections had been turned into mud pits.

The mud was heralded by a long line of riders walking down the hill. My inner cyclocrosser was ecstatic as I rode pass riders walking, sliding, or even crashing out. Eventually, the sticky mud forced a dismount in order to preserve my bike, but I had passed dozens of riders at this point. Of course, unintended consequences are the name of the game, and this ascent in the standings was not different. I was now with riders much faster than myself, and the next two hours of drafting, along with the clearing skies, left me overheated and deep in the pain cave.

I soon found myself on the wheel of Hilary Allen of Scuderia Pinarello, and we rolled into aid 2 together. I was a wreck, but Sean and Kyle made sure that my bike was ready and I could take on the food and water I needed to finish this race. They also sought to lighten my load for the last 38 miles, taking the frame pack off my bike. Hilary soon rolled past, and in my haste to catch her, I left behind my hydration pack, pump, and mud scraper. I was now dependent on not puncturing in these final miles.

I worked with Hilary as we made our way out of aid 2. Almost as soon as we turned onto the second mud sector, we watched someone skid sideways in the slop. Trusting in my cyclocross skills and mud tires, I left Hilary behind and picked my way gingerly through the carnage. I didn’t quite escape without walking, but I rode the bulk of the sector and again gained time.

The excitement was not over though. We had another road with multiple water crossings. By this point, I was used to doing these somewhat blind. Carry speed, make sure you are in a reasonable gear, and just trust that the bike will keep moving forward. This works less well when the surface underneath includes a collapsed concrete slab. The front of my bike dropped into this unseen hole, and I was left holding onto the edge of the intact slab to keep myself from going for a swim. Suitable shaken, I slowed down for the next couple of crossings before picking up my speed again.

The next hour and a half were a blur. I was well ahead of beating the sun, and I even had a comfortable margin for my personal goal of sub 14 hours. My arms and shoulders were wrecked from 12 hours of vibration, technical terrain, and maintaining an aero position. Tears welled up as it sunk in just how much stronger I had gotten since my last visit to Kansas in 2019. I allowed those tears and emotions to accompany me on the final miles of the event.

Finish photo. Note the mud from just the second sector of mud

In the end, I finished in 13:43, a full two and a half hours faster than my finish in 2019. I shared my joy with friends who had completed their own Unbound adventures. Claire R had just finished 350 miles, Heidi with her incredible time in the 200, and Marley who finished her first imperial century at Unbound! Our day was capped off perfectly as Mackenna rolled across the line just ahead of her goal of beating the sun.

Hugs at the finish for Mackenna. Note how clean Heidi is because she finished hours ago and already showered.

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