Unbound is a big deal. It’s been touted as the hardest gravel race in the world, and is probably the most famous. I would also argue that this year was the most hotly attended version to date, attracting an incredibly deep professional field in both the men’s and women’s categories. At 200 miles long, and with heinous weather conditions for a large portion of the day, it was a huge, huge challenge.
I didn’t know what to expect or how to plan for this day. Do I plan to win? Execute specific race tactics? Or just plan to ride my own steady pace and survive to the end? We were told to expect mechanicals and flats, crashes and mishaps, and with those variables tossed into the mix, it was hard to make a race plan. Add to that that this was my first gravel race ever and first time riding more than 260km… well, there were a lot of unknowns before this one!
All things considered, I’m really surprised at how smooth the day went for me. There were many moments of adversity, but I didn’t suffer any flats or race-ending mechanicals, nor did I have any major body failures. I didn’t really know where I was within the field for the whole day, but I’m happy to have finished 6th. I think I’m capable of more than that, but I don’t think I could have expected anything much more successful for my first time at an event like this.
The race started at 6am, in near-darkness. The pros started at the front of the field of 1200+ racers, but there was no organization/call-up/corrals. I showed up a bit late and so wasn’t positioned exactly how I wanted, but that was no real problem. When we rolled out, it was neutral to the edge of town (maybe 5-10 minutes), before we made a sharp right to leave the pavement and enter the loose gravel. It was sketchiness right from the roll-out, with a lot of men trying to insinuate themselves in places they maybe shouldn’t have been (no offence intended!) and tons of movement within the pack. This sketchiness was immediately dialled up when we hit the loose gravel, with rocks flying in the air, people braking and getting squirrelly off-line. Mental sharpness and focus were critical in order not to hit the ground. This group stayed as one big, fast-moving blob for the first 40ish minutes (honestly I actually have no idea how much time it was as I didn’t look at my computer even once). There were SO MANY crashes that I managed to narrowly avoid, the final one of these being the one that split me from the lead group (and also caused me to get smoked from behind and have to search around in the dirt for my wahoo - should have had a chunky stop sign on the back of my jersey. IFKYK). Aside from getting pinged in the face by flying gravel, I made it through this first hour or so relatively unscathed. Phew!!
Honestly, the next while is a bit of a blur. I spent a bit trying to bridge up after that last crash separated me, rode with a few different groups of guys (including the Flow nutrition train!), but was trying to keep it conservative as I was expecting to be out for 12-13 hours. At some point within the first two hours, I caught Lea and then Sarah Sturm, and we rode the remainder of the first 125km together (i.e. to the first of two feed/support zones). I was SO excited to have caught up to them, because I was prepared to be friendless out there all day, and that would have been a bummer. Riding with these two was so fun! We were with a group of about 5 guys, but none of them were overly keen on working together to drive the pace, so the three of us women were doing most of the pulling (don't want to sell the guys short, there were a few in this group that took turns!). We got a few “wow, it’s so impressive how strong you are and that you’re out here!” comments from these guys (you know, the subtext being that it’s impressive… for women), which I’m sure lit the “I’ll show you!” fire in all three of us LOL.
We made a pact to wait for each other at the end of the feed, and then we set out as a trio for the meaty section in the middle (kms 125-260). At some point early after the feed, Emily Newsome launched past us and Sarah accelerated to try to catch her. I was able to get on Sarah’s wheel, but we lost Lea in this which was a bummer! I rode with Sarah for a while, who was riding “blind” as the map she had loaded in her wahoo was the pre-course revision version (they had to modify the course due to flooding a couple of days before the race) and the course is completely unmarked. We eventually caught another woman in the pro field and a few men, and that’s when I hit my first real “high” of the day. I’d been advised to “ride my highs low and my lows high” in order to effectively mete out my energy throughout the day, but I couldn’t resist leaning into the energy wave I was feeling. I rode solo away from this group and started to reel in groups of men. At some point in the middle of this section was the first insane mud sector (probably about a mile long), and the mtb skills really came into play here. Not to toot my own horn… but I railed it. Or at least, I railed it compared to the people I was riding around! If you sent it, the whole thing was rideable and super fun. If you were timid or didn’t commit, then you might have been walking. I elected to send it.
I can’t remember if the storms started before or after this mud section; all I know is that maybe halfway through the day, the skies opened up and POURED for a while. Like, a long while. The winds also shifted, coming from the north/northeast as opposed to from the south. This was a bit of a mental challenge, as I started to wonder how much the pace would slow with the newfound headwind and sideways rain. The only thing you can do in a situation like this is keep pedalling, so that’s what I did.
At around hour 7.5, I hit my first real low. My gut was pretty tapped out and I couldn’t really eat anymore, and I really had to coax my mind and legs to be in the present. I got through it by asking myself, “Can I keep doing this RIGHT NOW, nevermind for the remainder?” The answer continued to be “yes”, so I kept going. It was at about this time that Melisa Rollins caught up to me (I had no clue that I’d been riding in fifth). I was able to stick with her and her group for a while, making sure to take my turns on the front, but they did pop me just before the final feed. A quick stop at the final feed - only 65ish km remaining - where I chugged my first ever Red Bull (apparently I impressed the Shimano guys with my chugging ability???) and felt REBORN. It helped that the sun was just starting to show its face, as well. I felt the tides turning and knew I could do it.
With 52km to go, we came to the long mud bit - basically super muddy and flooded atv trail. There were people EVERYWHERE walking, trying to clean their bikes, standing in confusion… but again, I opted for the “send or be sent” mentality and was able to ride the whole thing. I did lay it down twice (not hard slams, but enough to break my top tube bag straps and also a spoke… but those were both quick fixes. My post-race bike shot reveals my MacGuyvering), but I still think I probably gained minutes here.
Once through that muddy section, it was mostly smooth sailing to the finish. It’s a weird thing to be “racing” so deep into an 11hr effort, and you kind of have to focus on concrete goals in order to keep the pace high (especially when you’re alone, which I was). One of my goals for the day was to ride at 29 km/hr, so I was aiming to just keep my speed higher than that for the final 50km. Coming into the finish straight, I shed a few tears - mostly from fatigue, a little from pride that I managed to complete something so big, and a little from I don’t know what.
This is one of those events that needs to be experienced to understand the emotions and gravity of it. It’s a team effort - I would not have been able to take this on without MFR, Drew, Lespy, and our sponsors/support team. And it’s also a collective effort between yourself and the other racers out there - you really do have to work together and keep each other going. It’s a very, very special way to compete.
Impressions and Happenings
Bike and Equipment Set Up
The gear at Unbound is flashy, full of style, and can be very polarizing (particularly with respect to aero bars). I opted for no aero bars, and I think it was the right call given that I only had two weeks to prepare for this event after the World Cups. Aside from that decision, I also opted for a knobbier tire - most Maxxis athletes were either running Refuses (basically slicks) or Ramblers (a really fast rolling knobby). I went for the Rambler, and I credit it to my ability to rail the mud and descend/corner with confidence. Full set-up is outlined here:
Apart from the crash-induced broken spoke, I had no mechanicals and no flats. I hear that’s a pretty rare thing to have at Unbound, so thank you team and sponsors for making that possible!!!
People warned me in advance that Unbound is a race of attrition, and a race of nutrition. Many riders made mathematical plans for their fuelling and hydration, but I knew from experience that that wasn’t going to work for me. Depending on when your efforts are, how your body is feeling, even what the weather is like, your ability to take in and absorb calories is going to vary. I opted for a lighter mixed hydration in my bottles, a 60g/500ml Flow solution in my hydration packs (ran one for km 0-125, and another for km 125-260), and crushed both a coke and a Red Bull in the final 2.5 hours.
In terms of food, I literally cannot remember what I ate. I work best on solid food, so that’s where the majority of my calories came from. Things I know for sure I took in were 2 Mars bars, 2 Snickers, 3 gels, a homemade hand pie, a couple homemade pecan bars, a stash of brownies I stole from the Air Canada lounge on the way down (lol), and a mini bagel with peanut butter.
I laughed at all the instagram replies to my story asking you to caption my thoughts, because nearly everyone said something along the lines of, “where’s the food??”. Well, let me tell you, after the race I didn’t think I’d ever want to eat again. Thankfully, I’m over that now ha.
I did a LOT of riding solo and on the front of groups. I got separated from the front bit with the one significant crash I was caught behind, and that meant I was riding perhaps a little farther back in the field than was meshing well with my abilities and fitness level. So, I ended up spending more time on the front and less time benefiting from group work-sharing. The average power for the 11:07 is pretty high - 191 watts - and the normalized was over 200. 3 hours in tempo, 1.5 in threshold, 40 minutes in aerobic power zone, and 22min anaerobic. Not crazy numbers, but over the course of a race that long, it really adds up!
Link to Strava file (with power and heart rate)
I think these peaks show you that it was a very steady race. The efforts really weren't that high; there were just a lot of them, spread over a long time!
Haven’t fully decided yet, but this seems like a good week to take a reset. I’ll be recovering this week before Lespy and I head to altitude next week to begin our prep for the second half of the season. The looming shadow of Unbound has dissipated, and now it’s time to shift focus onto the rest of the season’s goals.
Sorry for the novel - hope it was interesting. There is just too much to share from this one! I have so many more stories from the day, but I’ll leave it at this… Unbound shows you what you’re made of. And honestly, I’m really freaking proud of myself and my team for rising to that challenge!