Last year my summer road trip to work remote in Tahoe for a month ended early due to the forest fires. I was so bummed, so when fellow Sorella’s Saskia & Libby suggested I sign up for the Unbound Women’s Gravel Camp, I jumped at the opportunity. I was planning on doing Unbound and figured this would help make up for my shortened road trip, allow me to experience the Flint Hills, and also get a guaranteed entry into the race instead of taking a chance on the lottery. At camp I fell in love with Emporia, KS! The gravel was amazing, the Unbound/Lifetime team putting on the event were all so awesome, and there were so many strong fun women there that have now become friends. It was such a great experience.
At camp everyone was talking about what distance they were going to do. Kathryn (Girls Gone Gravel) had already been pushing the 200 miles at me via texts. (If you read my Steamboat Gravel article last year, Kathryn had talked me into doing the 105 mile course, completely untrained!) She’s very convincing, and I had decided at camp I was going to go for it - 200 miles!!
Most of 2022 leading up to Unbound was about training for a 200 mile gravel ride. I was fortunate to attend camp again in April. We did many rides including a 100 mile ride that left me questioning doing 200 miles. How was I going to double the distance? That ride was so hard, so hot, so long, it didn’t seem possible to add another 100 miles! But, I committed to doing the 200 and I was going to put the hours in and give it my best shot. At home I did long rides maxing out at 120 miles one day, did tons of weekly intense trainer rides, and did a couple of night rides the last weekend to be prepared for the last few hours in the dark.
Going into the race I had serious doubts I was going to finish. I felt like I hadn’t trained enough, hadn’t done enough long rides, and I thought about dropping down to the 100. But I had already ridden 100 miles there, I wanted to do the 200! My coach told me to trust the process, he said I was strong and was ready, he told me to be patient but persistent. I normally don’t tell people when I’m doing a big race, but I purposely posted on Facebook and Instagram the day before what I was doing so when I was having a low moment out there I would think back to all the people that knew I was doing 200 miles. I couldn’t stop!
The 200 milers started at 6am. My goal was to be done before midnight and I told Tom if I was still out there at midnight to please come put me out of my misery! Based on training rides I estimated I would finish somewhere between 16-17 hours so I lined up with the 16 hour pace group. In hindsight I should have started with the 14 hour group and held on as long as I could. But I started with the 16 hour group and rode an easy pace in a large pack for about the first 20 miles. Wanting to go a bit faster I moved up and around everyone and soon found myself mostly alone.
Soon I approached the first stop. This was a neutral water stop where all they had was….water. I stopped for a brief minute, looked around at all the people, checked that I still had plenty of fluids, and continued riding. Before I knew it I found myself at the next stop which was the 1st checkpoint at mile 77. I had hired a crew to transport my bags and they quickly found my bag. Here I refilled bottles, replenished nutrition, used the port-o-potty, applied sunscreen & chamois cream. I also took the time to clean my drivetrain with water and re-lube the chain. I took entirely way too long here but wasn’t in any hurry so didn’t really care.
Leaving this 1st checkpoint it started to rain. Temps dropped and despite the rain the cooler air felt so good. As I approached 100 miles I remember thinking to myself, wow, am I already at 100 miles? I felt like I had just started, my legs and body felt great.
The second neutral water stop was at mile 119, I didn’t stop at all. At camp we were told miles 120-160 would be hard, mentally those miles would be the toughest, but to continue on because once you hit 160 miles you’d get a second wind and it would be smooth sailing to the finish. I remember my computer clicking over at 120 miles, and braced myself for the worst. About a half mile later I entered a muddy section that started with a steep downhill and had some twists and turns. I carefully followed another person through the mess. We didn’t make it very far, it soon flattened out and there was a gradual climb. Here it got really thick and slippery, when I tried pedaling my tires wouldn’t go in a straight line. There were people stopped all over the place trying to walk. We were told the night before at athlete briefing that if we saw people walking through mud, to get off and walk. It meant it was not ridable and would just ruin our drivetrains. They were not kidding! So I got off and started walking.
This mud was like nothing I have every experienced, it globbed up on the tires, shoes, anything that came into contact with it. I could see ahead for what seemed like miles but was a bit over a mile, people carrying their bikes through this mess. I did my best to get through that with shoes weighed down with mud while carrying my bike that felt like a thousand pounds, and trying to not slip and fall in the mess.
After I made it out of that section I had to then spend time scraping my tires and shoes to get as much mud off as I could. In hindsight I really didn’t need to spend as much time as I did, I was just watching others and following what they were doing. My bike has a ton of tire clearance so it wasn’t as necessary in my case, but I didn’t know. Another lesson learned.
Right after this was the Kuat disc golf challenge, closest to the pin won a bike rack. No one was stopping, just one other guy. I stopped, did my best toss which was horrible, told them I’d much prefer a bike cleaning station than a frisbee toss to which one person replied that there was a creek just up the way. That creek was a LIFE SAVER!!! The sun had come out while I was wrestling with the mud and I was soooo hot! I rolled up to the creek and squeezed myself and my bike into that water to clean up and cool off. It was lovely.
That was mile 122 and from there it was mostly uneventful through to the next checkpoint. We had another mud section but it was short and not nearly as bad. The miles from 122-160 I never hit a low point. I was enjoying the entire journey - stopping occasionally to take photos, chatting with others when they were around, and taking in the beautiful flint hills. I felt thankful to be out there doing what I love.
I hit the last checkpoint at mile 160 and filled up bottles & hydration pack, reloaded nutrition, and cleaned and re-lubed my chain. I had the most wonderful volunteer (same crew for hire folks) and she persuaded me to drink a coke. That was like rocket fuel, even though I was feeling good, it gave me a boost of energy! I left that stop with 40 miles to go, feeling so great!
We hit another long mud section shortly after, I want to say mile 170ish. I rode as far as I could but a girl in front of me stopped and I had no where to go so had to unclip. That was another slog walking through the peanut butter mud, carrying my heavy bike, with shoes caked with mud. After cleaning the bike and shoes off again I set out to finish the ride.
Dusk set in, I was prepared to turn on my light and settle in for the final miles in the dark. I realized I had forgotten to grab my helmet light and clear sunglasses at the last stop - oops! Another lesson learned, have a list of what to do/grab in my bag. I would make do with my one light I had with me. I still felt really good. It was only the last 30 miles when it seemed like time was slowing down. Each tenth of a mile seemed to take a long time. They had said the last 30 miles were fast, but they felt really slow to me. But I was still in a great state of mind, and my legs felt really good, so I kept turning the pedals over.
At mile 191 I heard a train whistle, it was dark and I couldn’t see it, but I heard it. Trains make me happy. Shortly after I came upon a RR Crossing and the barriers were lit up and coming down. I rolled to a stop excited to see the train come through. A group of others rolled up and we all chatted about how awesome the day had been. As we started the final 9 miles there were 4 guys amped up, ready to go! I tried to draft and stay with them but they were too fast! I settled in and pedaled the final miles alone. My back was starting to bother me at this point and I was ready to get off the bike. But I was still enjoying the adventure, soaking it all in knowing it would soon be over.
With less than 2 miles to go we had a short steep climb near the college. It’s not fun but you know you’re almost done so you just put your head down and get it done. Here is where I had my one and only mechanical. My chain dropped and I had to pull over and fix it. I was amazed that I had no other issues, no flats, nothing!
As I came into the finish area I heard my name called out by the announcer, then heard Tom and several friends all cheering on the side. That was the best feeling - crossing the finish line, hearing all the cheering, seeing everyone, completing what I thought might not be possible, and feeling so great the entire day. I couldn’t stop smiling!
Goal accomplished of finishing before midnight - I made the Midnight Club!