Monday, May 22, 2023

How NOT to Train for Unbound XL

post by Corrine

There are many ways to train improperly. Live in the wrong place. Ignore a good training plan. Grow old. Get chased by a bear. Yep, I think I’ve got those all down pat and more!

I know I can ride my bike 350 miles. I’m pretty sure I can ride my bike for 36 hours. But can I ride 350 miles in 36 hours on gravel? That is the question that will be answered when I line up June 2 for my second try at the Unbound Gravel XL. Was my training adequate? I doubt it. Will I be able to finish? I hope so. My training tends to be a bit unconventional and probably really isn’t what you should do. But I did it anyway. So I thought I would share my top 10 tips for how NOT to train for Unbound Gravel XL.

1. Live in Fairbanks, AK

This was bike training in mid April

Living in the far north is not conducive to training for an early season gravel race. Our winters last forever and this year was especially long, with cold temps and snow through most of spring. I would notice all my Strava friends who live Outside (that’s Alaskan for anywhere outside of Alaska) doing gravel rides all winter. I didn’t even get out on roads to train until late April. Yes, we have fatbiking, but with frequent snowstorms our trails are often not good for biking. I got a lot of skiing in, which does build fitness but it’s not the same as long days in the saddle. (Note to self: quit doing early season bike races.)

2. Don’t Heat Train

Not heat training at -25F

This is another problem living in Fairbanks. Cold training, no problem. But heat training? Nope, not going to happen. In May, our average highs are barely around 60F. And in later summer we only occasionally get above 80F. Friends have recommended I do long saunas or even work out on a trainer in a heated space. That sounds awful. For me, training has to be fun, or I won’t do it. I’ll just have to hope that temperatures in Emporia, Kansas, aren’t too hot on race day. Or suffer. Or both. 

3. Don’t Have a Training Plan

I’m not one for rigid training plans so I don’t use them. I also don’t use a coach. Maybe I should? Nah, that wouldn’t be any fun. And I think training should be mostly fun. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m never going to win anything. I’m not in it for prizes or glory. I race to see what I’m capable of accomplishing. And to see new country and roads and trails that I otherwise wouldn’t see. Some might think otherwise, but I swear that I don’t like to suffer. I want to have fun on a bike. When I look at training plans, such as those offered by Unbound, they don’t look fun. They just look complicated and overly structured.

I prefer to gestalt my training. I have a general plan-ish and I’m pretty self-motivated, so I generally stick with it. Unless the weather is bad, or friends come up with better fun outdoor idea, or I’m just not feeling it or …. you get the idea.

Riding with these WOW riders is always a hard but fun work out

My “plan” is as follows: I do one hard interval-like workout each week, this is often my super-fast-paced road bike ride with the WOW (Women on Wheels) group, but sometimes I do interval training on my commute to work, too. I also do one longer ride on the weekends and one or two strength workouts, and other stuff, depending on what fits into my schedule. And I gradually increase my overall mileage and time on the bike. Plus, I usually take two rest days a week. At my age, rest is as important as training. 

4. Obsess About Other Racers’ Training

I’m on some group sites for endurance racing and for Unbound. Bad thing to do. Everybody else has done more training than me. Everybody is fussing about tires and pressure and about things I didn’t even know I should be stressing about. Yikes. I really try to not look at these sites, but it’s hard to stay away. It doesn’t help and just causes more pre-race anxiety.

This forecast was made on May 23.  Are you really going to believe it?

While obsessing online, don’t forget to also obsess about the weather.  Start checking several weather sites a couple of weeks before the race.  You can’t do anything about the weather, but you can increase your anxiety just by looking at the forecast. As the time gets closer, check several times a day, you never know if it might change.  And I’m sure that hoping and wishing for good weather will magically make it happen!

5. Don’t Dial in Your Nutrition

My stomach is my weak point when endurance racing. It almost always shuts down during the race. Then I have no appetite and can’t eat anything. Often, I’ll even vomit. Not fun. I’ve researched this and have tried many things, but I still don’t have my nutrition dialed in. I never know what I might be able to get down, so I just wing it. 

I usually make sure to bring a combination of sweet and savory foods of different textures. As a last resort, I generally bring some GUs. I never eat on a schedule. I know I should, but that doesn’t work for me either. I’ve tried to eat the same on a training ride as I would in a race, but that never works, either. I don’t have problems on long training rides. If I could get this figured out, I’m sure I would be unstoppable. . . maybe!

6. Don’t Taper

Hmm, 135 miles 13 days before the race. Is that tapering?

Okay, I do taper, but it’s my own kind of taper. “Experts” recommend doing your longest ride about 3-4 weeks before your race. I was just ramping up my gravel riding at that point. For this Unbound, I did my longest ride 13 days before the race. There is some science behind tapering that says anywhere from 7 to 28 days may work so I’m hoping that 13 days gives me enough time to recover and have fresh legs. If not, oh well.

7. Wait Until Age 64 to Do This Race

Finishing Cross Washington 700-mile bikepacking race last year at age 63

I’ve always been physically active, but I didn’t even start doing endurance races until age 50 when my kids were pre-teens, and I could spend more time training. Since then, I’ve raced Leadville and Unbound Gravel 200, and bikepacking races like Tour Divide, Smoke ‘N Fire, BC Epic 1000, Trans South Dakota, and Cross Washington. I’m definitely getting slower as I get older, and it’s getting harder to stay motivated. I would highly recommend doing these races at a younger age! Of course, there are very few women my age doing them so sometimes I can even podium!

8. Buy a New Bike Five Weeks Before the Race

Yes, it's new and it's sexy but I'm not riding it for this year's race

I finally broke down and bought a gravel-specific bike after fussing about it for four years. Fortunately, even I’m NOT stupid enough to try and ride it without getting more miles on it. I’m sticking with my tried and true Felt Hardtail Niner. I’ll probably be the only one out there on a mountain bike with flat handlebars, but it fits me well and I can ride it for days without problems. That’s more important to me than a sexy, fast-looking bike. 

9. Remind Yourself You Can Always Quit

For the XL you must have somebody available to extricate you from the race if you can’t finish. But you shouldn’t even think of it as an option unless you have an unfixable mechanical or an injury. 

There will be times in every race (or at least there is for me) when you wonder why the heck you thought this was a good idea. You will tell yourself you’re never signing up for another race. You will tell yourself to just quit. When those feeling come, don’t call your support person. Just sit with those feelings for a while and keep pedaling. They will pass and you will feel better. At least that’s worked for me. 

2021 Unbound  XL after not being able to eat for 8 hours.  I made the decision here to quit

The only time I DNF’d on purpose was with my first XL attempt two years ago. My stomach shut down. I was not able to get in any nutrition for eight hours. I felt like I couldn’t keep going if I couldn’t refuel. Plus, it was really hot, and really windy and I wasn’t going to make the time cut-off. I called my son Riley and dropped out 180 miles into the race. I felt a little better when I learned that more than half of the XL field dropped out, but only a little better. Maybe I could have rested, then kept going? So what if I didn’t make the time cut off? 

Dropping out felt like unfinished business, which is why I’m back this year to try again. My goal is to finish, even if it takes me 40 hours, and I show up at the finish line long after it has been taken down. But I do want an official finish so I’m going to try my hardest to be fast enough. And I really plan to not quit.

10. Get Chased by a Bear 

Photo of a grizzly bear cub from a previous bike trip

Getting chased by a bear is a non-traditional yet effective training tool. Disclaimer - I do not recommend it!

Toward the end of my last long 135-mile training ride, I got chased by a bear. I’ve seen lots of grizzly bears in my 30+ years in Alaska, but this was by far the scariest encounter I have ever had. I still can’t believe I didn’t get mauled. 

I was cruising downhill (about a 3 percent grade) going about 20 mph when I glanced to the left and noticed two grizzly bears on the other side of the guard rail. Before I had time to think about what I was seeing, a third bear—a cub—jumped the guard rail out onto the road just 10 feet away from me. 

Not even a half second later the momma bear (only then did I realize the other two were a sow and a cub) jumped the rail and started running after me. I glanced over my shoulder. Momma was just 20 feet behind me stretched out running as hard as she could. 

I didn’t think. I just started pedaling as hard as I could while yelling and screaming.  If I stopped, she would maul me. If she caught me, she would knock me off my bike and maul me. If I had had bear spray (I didn’t), I wouldn’t have had time to use it. No good choices.

Except pedal hard! And harder! And harder! 

Luckily, I was going downhill so pedaling hard quickly added to my momentum. Speed worked in my favor. Momma pulled up fairly quickly and headed back to her cubs. But I kept pedaling hard for a long time! (I did stop screaming, though.)

The whole incident lasted maybe 5-10 seconds max. I pedaled at a sprint pace for another few miles. I didn’t want to do interval training 120 miles into my 135-mile ride, but that’s what I got thanks to coach Momma Bear. However, I wouldn’t recommend it to others!

Kansas, here I come!

So those are my tips on how not to train. I have done all of them. I’ll be curious to see if my not-training works. It’ll soon be time to find out. Hopefully, my not-training will not lead to a not-finish!


  1. HOLY CRAP!! Your last “Don’t Do” tip had my heart pounding!! You really Would have been a “Fast Food” snack for that Momma Bear!?!
    I Love reading your blogs - Very Entertaining!!
    I have No Doubt you will be and Are ready for this trip! I look forward to reading all about it!
    You’re Amazing Corrine!!
    GOOD LUCK & Most of All….
    HAVE FUN!!🎉🎉🚴‍♀️🎉🎉

  2. Oh my goodness, Corrine!!!! How scary! Not the interval training I’m sure you wanted. I’m sure your heart rate was thru the roof after that! Glad it all turned out ok. So hard to make those split second decisions!
    Best of luck for the race! I love your unconventional Alaska training :)

  3. Probably the best tip was getting chased by a bear; that was probably the best interval workout you've ever had! Wishing you luck in Unbound!

    1. Not recommended for sure but I did get a good interval workout at the end of a long ride. Hope I never have to do that again!

  4. I’m glad though that you had everything else pretty much dialed in - and more people need to know that Kansas isn’t flat! I think it’s harder than mountains because you’re always pedaling. There’s no real downhill recovery - the hills aren’t long enough to recover. I think you did awesome. - Danni