Last weekend I completed the Unbound Gravel 200 gravel bike race in Emporia, Kansas. On the whole it was a ton of fun and I want to do it again. Here’s my story of preparing for Unbound Gravel 200 and completing the event long after my goal time and even longer after the winners had finished their celebratory beers.
TLDR Version: I rode, I puked, I rallied, I finished.
What is Unbound Gravel?
Unbound Gravel is an event that was formerly known as Dirty Kanza. (You can read about the reasons for the name change here). There are many events over the weekend, but the 200 is the marquee event.
It is a mass-start event much like the Boston Marathon. And much like the Boston Marathon, entry is via a lottery and the level of participation ranges from professional athletes to rank amateurs like me who just like to ride bikes and push themselves to accomplish difficult goals. Before the race people who don’t know bike racing asked me if I had a chance to win. I did not! I didn’t even have a chance to win my age group (40-44) as the guy who won my age group finished in the top ten at the Tour de France a few years ago.
Training for Unbound Gravel
In February of 2020 I was entered for the event, but it got canceled along with just about everything else last year. My entry was rolled over into this year. So I was more or less training for Unbound Gravel 200 for eighteen months.
Living in Maine a lot of my training time was spent on an indoor trainer. Although I did manage some outdoor rides every month of the year, I couldn’t consistently ride outside until late March. By and large my training followed a plan from Training Peaks that called for a lot of polarized and interval training sessions.
My goal was to have 3500 miles logged before I got to Unbound Gravel. I came up about 500 miles short of that goal.
Overall, I felt like my training and fitness levels were good heading into Unbound Gravel. The only thing that I would change is to put in a few more really long days on the bike (that should be easier to do next year due to some upcoming changes in my working schedule). During the race itself, leg strength was never an issue and my legs felt fine the next day. That said, my shoulders and triceps were sore as all get-out the next day (more about that, next).
Race Weekend! (Thursday and Friday)
We (my awesome partner, Jess) and I flew out on Thursday morning. Our daughters stayed home with our awesome friends’ college-age daughters. I put my bike in an Evoc Bike Bag that I borrowed from a friend. I then just checked it as luggage on our Delta flight to Kansas City. In Kansas City we rented a Toyota Tacoma from National.
Renting a truck was the result of a calculated gamble. I’m a member of National’s Executive Elite program that lets you pick any vehicle on the lot. Sometimes you’ll show up and it will be nothing but Nissan Maximas and other times it’ll be a lot full of SUVs and trucks. I’ve flown into Kansas City enough times over the years to remember that there are often a lot of SUVs and trucks on that National lot. (If I wasn’t a National Executive Elite member, I would have paid the extra cost to guarantee the availability of a truck or large SUV).
The drive from Kansas City to Emporia is about two hours. We got into Emporia at about 5pm Central Time. Hotel rooms and Airbnb rentals go fast in Emporia for Unbound Weekend. The best I could find available was a Super 8 that ended up being almost $600 for the weekend! I’m already on the hunt for better accommodations for next time.
After getting my bike assembled at the Super 8 we headed into the center of Emporia where all Unbound Gravel-related activities were happening. As soon as we parked and started walking down the street I could feel the buzz in the air for the weekend. We walked past the outdoor vendor expo just as it was closing then found a great Mexican restaurant! While waiting for the table I checked out Gravel City Supply and grabbed some CO2 canisters because I couldn’t take them on the plane.
The Mexican restaurant, Casa Ramos, might have been the highlight of the weekend for Jess. Her one request of me for the weekend was to have a nice, seated dinner (as parents of small children it’s rare that we eat a meal without getting up and down ten times). Queso and chips is Jess’ “love language” and she was very happy to order that the instant we sat down. Believe it or not, there is not a place within 50 miles of our home in Maine that serves good Mexican food so Jess was happy and I was too. Casa Ramos was in full Unbound Gravel mode. Huge banners from Canyon Bikes were hanging on the walls and there were even bike-themed margaritas on the menu (I opted for a giant stein of ice-cold Modelo).
Friday morning I joined an organized “shake-out” ride with about 100 other people. The ride was a 21 mile loop intended to give folks the opportunity to make sure our bikes were in working order and familiarize themselves with the kind of gravel we’d be seeing for many, many hours the next day. I met a few folks on the ride including one guy who lives about two miles from the house that I grew up in! Conversations during the ride centered around questions about where people were from, whether or not it was their first Unbound (DK), and tire choices.
After Friday morning’s shake-out ride Jess met me and we grabbed some good coffee at Granada Coffee and we wandered around the outdoor expo. It was there that I bumped into The Vegan Cyclist. The Vegan Cyclist is Tyler Pearce who makes some very entertaining videos about bike racing and training. He’s taller in person than he appears on camera. We chatted for a minute then wished each other luck. Spoiler alert! We both suffered from some serious nausea after the first neutral water stop the next day.
The rest of the day was spent organizing snacks and supplies into the Camelbaks that I’d wear during the race. Dinner was pizza and salad from an unnoteworthy place. Bedtime was at 8pm after a nice Facetime session with our adorable daughters who wished me luck and told me “don’t get a flat tire.”
I was up at 4:01am to make oatmeal, drink some terrible hotel-room coffee, and answer nature’s call before the race. The race didn’t start until 6am, but I’m a slow mover in the morning despite the fact that I’ve been getting up between 4am and 5am for years. By 5am we were walking to the truck to drive to the starting area. We were a bit earlier than most, but not all riders. Jess got us some proper coffee from Granada Coffee to drink while waiting for the starting area to fill up.
At 5:30am I lined up at the 14 hour marker as that was my goal time for completing the race. The nervous energy in the starting area was palpable. I chatted with the guys around me until the National Anthem played then we gave each other fist bumps for luck and we were off!
Nearly 1,100 people rolled out at the same time yet unlike a local crit I didn’t hear one person yell, “hold your line!” That was the first sign that gravel racing is a much different experience than road racing.
After a couple of miles of pavement we hit the first gravel section and wouldn’t see pavement again until the first checkpoint at 69 miles. I paid close attention to three things throughout the first section of the race. Those were my heart rate, the people in front of me, and the line that I wanted to take through the gravel.
The first twenty five miles of gravel were rather tame. The roads were wide and dusty but the surface was rather smooth and free of ruts. Then all of a sudden, we weren’t in Kansas anymore! The road switched from wide, smooth gravel to two big ruts with large rocks, water, and mud mixed in. It was here that I stopped looking at my bike computer and solely focused on the people in front of me and the line that I wanted to ride. Even a second of inattention to either of those things would have put me on the ground, hard! It was in this section that World Tour Pro Kiel Reijnen broke a rim then decided to attempt to run to the next checkpoint before the time cut (he didn’t make it).
I survived the first really difficult terrain without any flat tires or mechanical problems. That could not be said for a lot of people. I attribute getting through the first tough section without any flats or mechanical problems to three things. First, I didn’t try to “bomb it” down any hills and held back from riders in front of me so that I could see a clear line. I heard one guy behind me say, “I’m trusting your line.” In my head I said, “that’s a bad idea.” Second, while I’m not a great mountain biker, I have some skills at picking lines and learned how to do it back in the days before full suspension bikes. Third, dumb luck.
From roughly mile 50 to the first checkpoint at mile 69 the terrain switched back to relatively tame gravel roads. But by then the field had really started to splinter and I largely rode alone only occasionally hooking up with one or two people to trade pulls heading into the first checkpoint.
At the first checkpoint Jess was waiting for me with Coke, a PB&J sandwich, and some other snacks including beef jerky and pickles. I declined the beef jerky and pickles. That was decision number one that would come back to bite me in the ass. After lubing my chain, drinking my Coke, and having my sandwich I rolled out of the checkpoint well ahead of my goal time.
Leaving the first checkpoint I was feeling good and was all alone. I kept snacking and drinking water as I rode along, occasionally passing other riders and occasionally getting passed. All-in-all, I was ahead of my goal pace and feeling good as I rolled along. Then I stopped at the first neutral water station shortly after the 100 mile mark.
As I came upon the first neutral water station I was feeling good and had plenty of water still in my Camelbak along with bottles on my bike. I thought about rolling right past it, but so many other people stopped that I thought “maybe they know something I don’t know about what’s coming up.” I should have trusted my own judgement and rolled through, but I didn’t. I stopped and topped-up my Camelbak with water from a giant water tank. The water tasted like watered-down Milk of Magnesia!
I pedaled out of the neutral water station still feeling good except for the fact that my Camelbak was now full of water that was barely palatable. And the water bottles on my bike were full of Mapleaid which is great when cold, but disgusting when warm. Then at about mile 125 the effects of heat (93F) and relentless headwinds hit me hard! My pace dropped from a steady, manageable 15mph to 10mph almost instantly and every effort made me feel nauseous. But I figured I could get to the next water station at mile 136 and refill with fresh water and I’d be okay.
The water station at mile 136 had water that was even worse than that at the previous water station! Drinking it made me nauseous and left a very chalky taste in my mouth. I sat at that water station for a while and thought about my next course of action. It was 30 miles to the next checkpoint where Jess would be waiting for me with fresh, bottled spring water. I do 30 mile rides all the time so that distance feels easy to me. I decided I could ride to the next checkpoint without drinking water, that was a disastrous choice!
Miles 136 to 156 were the thirty most difficult miles I’ve ever traveled on a bicycle! I puked at least three times, I walked my bike up at least five hills that I’d normally soar over, and I very slowly turned the pedals for almost four hours to get to the checkpoint. When I finally got there I told Jess I was done.
I collapsed in the grass next to the truck at the checkpoint. I was done. Then Jess started pulling out the tricks in her nurse, mother, loving-partner playbook. First she yelled at me to drink some Coke and eat something. Then she made me walk a little. Then when I was just about to pull the plug, she pulled out a “Go Dad Go” poster that our daughters made and she had secretly brought along. That’s what got me going again. Jess said just try to ride a few more miles. So I climbed on the bike with a bag of Doritos, a load of clean spring water, and a can of Coke in my Camelbak.
A mile or two after leaving the last checkpoint I came upon some cows loose in the course. Two other people were pedaling nearby and we started chatting about the loose cows. A minute or two later one of them said, “hey, do you want to roll in with us?” I immediately said yes. That’s how I met Eddie and Rae who became my best friends for the last fifty miles of the race. We took turns pulling, we waited for each other at the top of the trickier climbs, and chatted about all things bikes and life as day turned into night and we rolled back to Emporia.
In the end I finished four hours after my goal time, but I finished. I’m not a talented enough writer to describe how awful I felt and how difficult it was to get from mile 136 to 156. Likewise, I can’t describe how valuable it was to have Jess as my support crew at the last checkpoint to get me going again.
Would I do Unbound Gravel 200 again? Yes!
How do you feel?
Everyone has asked me how I feel after finishing the race. I actually felt really good all things considered. My legs were fine. Once the nausea went away after the second checkpoint I probably could have pushed the pace but my goal time was gone by then and I just wanted to enjoy the company of other riders out there for the experience. The only lingering soreness was in my arms and shoulders from all of the jarring that is associated with gravel riding.
What I’d Do Differently
There isn’t anything that I’d change about my equipment choices. While there was almost 11,000 feet of climbing during the day, none of the climbs were so long or so steep as to need an easier gear.
My nutrition strategy had one huge flaw. Too much sugar, not enough salt! As soon as Jess gave me those Doritos at the last checkpoint my nausea went away and I was back to being able to eat and drink. That tells me that I definitely didn’t have enough salt in my system. Over the next year I’ll experiment with various salty snacks and drinks that I can mix in with the Untapped Maple Waffles that I love.
Fly home on Monday morning instead of Sunday morning. Jess and I were both a little bummed to miss the after-party because we had to head straight to the airport after the race to catch our 6am flight.
Take a few more pictures and maybe some videos of the course. Or maybe not. People like The Vegan Cyclist do a great job of video race reports so maybe I’ll leave it to them.
No report about Unbound Gravel 200 is complete without a rundown of the equipment choices.
Bike: Niner RLT RDO
Groupset: Ultegra 46/36 front, 11-30 rear. Shimano RX clutched rear derailleur.
Wheels: Prime Black Edition 50 disc.
- I did not have one flat or puncture. I attribute that to picking conservative lines through the tricky sections and a good dose of luck.
Pedals: Look X-track Race
Disc Brakes: SRAM Centerline (because Shimano discs are almost impossible to find right now)
Bottle cages: generic aluminum cages. They worked and I didn’t rattle out any bottles which is not something that everyone could say.
Shoes: Scott MTB pro-team race (these are so old they’re not made anymore and I’ll be retiring mine after this).