In less than a week, I’ll be tackling one of the most ridiculous challenges I’ve ever taken on: Unbound. For those unfamiliar with it, Unbound is a 200 mile gravel race starting and ending in Emporia, Kansas. Actually, this year’s edition is 204.6 miles - 329.3km. Hilariously (to me, anyway), this will be my first “gravel” race ever. Why not go big on your first attempt, right??
Lespy has had this event on his radar for a long time. He actually had an entry from a few years ago that he had to put on hold because of scheduling conflicts and then the pandemic. When he first decided that he wanted to race it, I was of the opinion that he was certifiably insane. I declared that I would NEVER do something so crazy. Yet, here we are.
I don’t know that I actually WANT to race Unbound. But I also don’t NOT want to race it. It’s a big challenge with an inexorable pull that I haven’t been able to shake. So, though I’m not exactly excited to race it, I know in my heart that I need to race it. It has a very firm grip on my attention and energy; an itch I need to scratch, if you will. I have a suspicion that this type of event is up my alley, and I need to pursue that hunch.
Looking at the data, the things that stand out to me are the distance and the wind. The elevation isn’t that significant; we frequently climb that much in less than half that distance during our training camps. However, that does mean that the speeds will be relentless and we will never be coasting, which can be a different type of exhausting compared to grinding up mountains. The distance is mind-blowing to me, but I’m also keeping in mind that plenty of humans do much crazier things - 24hr races, for example, or the 300 mile race at Unbound (yes, there is a 300mile category… people are crazy). Being mentally prepared for the winds will be very important, and making sure to find a good group to ride with.
This will be a race where “chunking” becomes very important - i.e. breaking it down into manageable segments. I’ve broken it down into my head as 3 x 110km rides. 110km on flat/rolling terrain is basic, and I know I can do 3 of those in a row (“in a row” being up for interpretation…).
Most of the final 45km is on pavement and (if the prevailing winds hold true) will be a tailwind. Make it to this point, and you’ll be alright!
True, I’ve never done a race labelled as “gravel” before. But, I’ve done a lot of other events that replicate elements of Unbound. My first forays into tough endurance events go back to 2017 when I took on the Croc Trophy. This was an 8-day stage race through the Australian bush, where I accumulated over 32 hours of racing time and 2394 TSS (that one still blows my mind), dealt with food poisoning throughout stage 7, raced in extreme heat and humidity, and was the only pro woman in attendance - meaning I raced the men at my absolute maximum the entire time. The terrain was also largely what would now be thought of as gravel; lots of atv trail, double track, dirt roads, etc. Since that race, I’ve done at least one challenge like this every season. 2018 was Swiss Epic, 2019 was 9 days of stage racing in 11 days in Greece, 2020 was the Mediterranean Epic. Stage racing throws everything at you, from bizarre mechanicals, to seemingly irreparable flat tires, to mid-race illness, to sketchy group riding, so I feel like this has been easily transferrable preparation. In 2021 and 2022, without being able to travel quite as freely, I replicated these races in training blocks. I know I can handle big challenges, immense fatigue in adverse conditions (heat/altitude/poor weather/stomach… issues). You would not BELIEVE some of the crazy flat tires and mechanicals I've had to fix and nurse through long stages. I’ve also done a lot of big rides in training and am very familiar with the Darkness that presents itself around hour 8. I know I’m prepared to handle it. I’m no stranger to mass starts and elbow rubbing, nor am I unfamiliar with high effort in large groups on drop bars. No, I’ve never ridden 330km at one time, but I’ve done all the other things that make up an event like this and I’ve mentally rehearsed piecing them together into one ride.
Planning and preparing for things is more than half the fun. The training you do for an event like this is so addictive and fulfilling; there’s nothing I love more than big hours and mission rides. I’m into a very small taper right now (not too much, as I’m a rider that needs to keep the training legs online in order to perform well for this kind of effort), but the last couple of weeks in addition to the big camps we did over the pre-season have been amazing. You can check out a lot of the training I’ve done on Strava (Haley Smith - though I don’t put everything on there) if you’re curious to see how I’ve prepared.
Doing new things necessitates doing things you’ve never done before. Preparation can only take you so far; there comes a point where you WILL be wading into unfamiliar waters. It’s just that, in this case, I opted to jump in the deep end rather than gradually wade through the shallows.
I’m not convinced that going to the brink in terms of extreme intensity is something humans are naturally inclined to do. I think efforts like XCC and XCO have to really be coaxed out of the body and mind and require some very specific training. What I DO think humans are naturally good at is enduring. Time to test out that hypothesis this coming weekend!