Monday, June 5, 2023

Finding My Boundaries at the Unbound Gravel XL Race

 post by Corrine

“Wow, look at you riding!” 

That upbeat cheer is what I heard right before my race started going south. 

It was close to midnight, 98 miles into the Unbound XL in Kansas when another rider cheered me on as I biked by. At first, I wasn’t sure why he was cheering me on. But moments later, I too was mired down in thick sticky mud mixed with rocks that had stopped him. 

The mud stopped me in my tracks. My wheels wouldn’t even roll. I carried my bike—now 10 pounds heavier with mud—onto the grass on the side of the road. I spent several minutes digging the concrete-like mud out from between the wheels and frame and from around the derailleur without destroying it. Everybody around me was doing the same thing. 

Looking ahead, the road was muddy as far as I could see. About a half-mile ahead, I could see other bikers walking their bikes. I didn’t know it yet, but that mud would be my nemesis, coming after me again and again. 

Second Try

Four years ago, I did the 200-mile version of the Unbound Gravel, which starts in Emporia, Kansas. Many people think of Kansas as flat, but that area of the state has a lot of hills. A LOT of hills. And the gravel roads can be rough. And then there’s the wind and heat and humidity and rain. It can be a super tough race. And it was hard, but I was able to finish well within the cut-off time, even with stopping to help an injured rider.

But those darned race organizers also hold the Unbound XL, a 350-mile race. I knew I could ride 200 miles in one go, but could I ride 350 miles in 36 hours? I had to try. 

Two years ago, I started the Unbound XL but did not finish due to heat, headwinds, difficult unmaintained roads during the night, and my stomach shutting down to the point I couldn’t eat for eight hours. I felt I made the right decision, but I soon felt like the race was unfinished business. I knew that completing this race would be stretching my boundaries, but I thought it was within my abilities. So, I came back this year to try again. 

The XL race is self-supported (no outside help allowed), but each racer needs somebody to rescue them if they can’t finish. My son Riley, currently living in Iowa, was happy to come along and be that person. He would be able to ride his bike in a different place and play disc golf on some of the best courses in the nation. (Who knew Emporia was a hot spot for disc golf?!) 

Riley picked me up in Kansas City two days before the race and we drove to our Airbnb rental, a small cabin about 30 miles south of Emporia on a working ranch. It’s a great location: quiet, not too far from Emporia, and close to the race route. Riley and I had the chance to do a couple of shakedown rides right from our cabin incorporating parts of the course.

Beeman's cabin -  our home for 5 days

Pre-Race Jitters

As usual, I fussed over the weather. It didn’t look too bad. Highs in the mid 80s (better than in the 90s), winds only 5-10 mph and 40-70% chance of showers and thunderstorms depending on which weather app you were using. Pretty good for Kansas weather in June. 

The night before the race I fussed about what to pack on my bike. Did I need rain pants? Just a rain jacket or a windbreaker, too? And what food should I bring? My stomach is my Achille’s heel when it comes to endurance racing. I usually lose my appetite and have a hard time getting calories in. I always experiment while training, but I never know what will work during the race. I had made some rice cakes (from the Feed Zone cookbook) and I made some burritos. Would I want to eat them when my stomach shut down? I also had a mixture of sweet and savory convenience store snacks. I had electrolytes to add to water bottles. And I had some high caloric powder mixes to add to water. I had so many choices I was probably carrying a couple more pounds of food than everybody else. 

One bad thing about the XL race is that it doesn’t start until 3 PM on Friday. The 200-mile race starts early on Saturday. I think the race directors set the race start times so that the bulk of the racers from both races finish at the same time. But for slow racers (like me) starting at 3PM and riding 350 miles means having to stay awake two nights. No sleep for two nights is brutal. The afternoon start also means that there is plenty of time to fuss on Friday and get more anxious waiting for the race to start. 

Eventually, it was time to go. Riley and I headed to Emporia, and I lined up in the starting chute with the other 150 XL riders. I felt like a rock star racer with fans lining the streets for several blocks. 

Lining up in the start chute
And They Are Off

Finally, the starting gun fired, and we were off. We headed out with a neutral start and just as everybody was jockeying for position. . . we were stopped by a train. It took a couple of minutes for the train to pass and then the race was finally, really, on. We racers laughed about that and decided that we should be able to subtract that time from our finish time!

Waiting for the train

The first part of the race was a lot of fun. I was making good time on good gravel roads. I had a chance to talk to some of the racers around me. I met a guy whose brother’s wife’s sister was a patient of mine in Fairbanks. He figured out I was her doctor when he saw my Alaska jersey and asked me if I was the one who had to out sprint a momma grizzly bear. His family had told him about me. I also met a guy who asked if I had ridden in 2021. When I said yes, he said we rode together for several miles to the town of Alta. That was fun to reconnect. I met Darin and found out we had a friend in common. He had done the Silk Road bikepacking race in Kyrgyzstan with my friend, Danni, who lives in Montana. Darin and I rode 10 miles together into the first food stop. Everybody was super friendly. We were all in this crazy race together.

New friend, Darin, who knew my old friend, Danni - It's a small world

A Good Start

We got lucky with the weather. We were surrounded by ominous looking storm clouds, and somebody said they heard it was dumping rain in Emporia, but we were in the sweet spot that was mostly sunny. The edge of one of those storms hit us, but we had only about five minutes of rain. Just enough to put on a rain jacket before it moved on and we had to take the jackets off again. We did have mild headwinds, but the route kept changing directions, so they weren’t too annoying. And it clouded up after the storm passed so the temperatures were comfortable in the 70s. 

I felt like I did a good job with my nutrition, taking in plenty of fluids and food while riding. I made it to first food stop, a Casey’s convenience store in Cottonwood Falls at mile 75, in about six hours. Right on schedule. I was able to drink a chocolate milk, eat a piece of pizza, and buy a Coke to take with me before I was off again with a stop time of less than 15 minutes. The sun was just going down as I headed out with several other riders. 

Photo that was on the Unbound Facebook page.

Lots of racers stopping and refueling at Casey's convenience store

Then the Mud

The night riding started out pleasant enough. The roads were good with none of the really rough unmaintained roads that I had had to deal with in the dark in my 2021 race. But then we hit the dreaded mud. Although Kansas hadn’t had much rain this year, there had been daily thunderstorms the week prior to the race, which caused havoc for us on some of the roads. 

We had to carry our bikes or wheel them along in the grass and weeds on the side of the road. Any time we thought the road was improving and we would try to ride, our bikes were soon jammed with mud again. Then we had to stop, try to remove the mud, and carry our bikes to the side of the road where we could roll them in the vegetation until the road looked good again. Repeat, repeat, repeat. (I used my titanium camp spoon to dig out the mud.) Occasionally I could ride just off the road but would frequently get thwarted by a drainage ditch or lots of big rocks or barbed wire and it was back to walking and carrying my bike. All I can say, is it’s a good thing I’ve been consistent with strength training!

This picture only shows minimal mud caked in my bike.  I didn't get any good photos from at night

We finally got past two different sections of mud, each 1-2 miles in length, and were able to ride again. But the mud was taking its toll. Several people had broken derailleurs. Most couldn’t clip into their pedals. I was using flat pedals, so I was feeling smug about that! Others had flat tires. One racer had had five flats. He had used all his spare inner tubes when I gave him one of my spare tubes and saved his day. I saw him 50 miles later and the tube I was giving him was still holding!

More Troubles

When I started riding again, there was a terrible screeching noise coming from my drive train. I stopped several times to figure it out. I tried to get all the mud out, but all I did was change the screech to a zinging noise instead. And then suddenly, my pedals seized up. I couldn’t turn the pedals at all. What the heck? I stopped and tried to figure it out. Somebody else stopped to help me. I put the bike upside down, looked the chain all over, looked for anything that was causing the problem. Had my bottom bracket seized up? I was stumped and thinking I was going to have to call Riley. I turned my bike back upright and kicked down super hard on the pedal. Something went flying and I was back in action. It must have been a small rock that got stuck somewhere. I was just glad I was able to ride again. 

But then I noticed that my Garmin etrex , my navigational device, wasn’t working. I hadn’t taken it off when I flipped my bike over and a bunch of mud got into the toggle. Yikes, I needed that to follow my track. I couldn’t do the race without the track. But luckily, I had brought my backup older etrex with the route loaded on it, too. I dug it out of the depths of my seat bag, fired it up, and was back to riding again. Whew, another disaster averted.

After the mud sections it was smooth riding to the second food stop in El Dorado at another Casey’s. I arrived there at 5:20 AM, 150 miles into the race not quite halfway done. I had expected a lot more riders to be there, several had been just a few minutes ahead of me after the mud fest. I just assumed they must have been riding a lot faster than me. I asked the worker how many bikers had been through, and she informed me that they didn’t open until 5 AM. We had been told that this Casey’s was open 24 hours. I have no idea how the other racers who came through earlier had refueled. Maybe another convenience store was open? I was glad I hadn’t been any faster. By then I had lost my appetite but was able to easily drink another chocolate milk. Nothing looked good to eat. I refilled my water bladder and got a Coke to take with me. I still had lots of food on my bike if my appetite came back later.

And More Mud and Other Stuff

I headed back out on the course. The riding was good for a while but then it was back to the dreaded mud. This time there was close to four miles of it with occasional areas where I could actually ride, either in the middle or on the side of the road on top of vegetation. I was riding (or maybe I should say walking) with two other racers. We commiserated about conditions. 

It took us five and a half hours to go the first 30 miles out of El Dorado. We had already been biking for 18 hours and had only done half the distance. Our overall speed had dropped enough that there was no way we could make the time cut off for the race. I had envisioned this when planning for the race, telling myself I would try to finish even if I didn’t make the race cut off. 

But my legs felt dead already. The 4% grades felt like 8% grades. The other two racers’ legs were even more tired. They were walking up all the hills. At least I was still riding, but there was more climbing to come. A lot more. Just to be extra brutal, most of the climbing for the race is done in the second half. 

So many hills in Kansas

And there was more. The temperature had been cool through the night and in the morning, but now it was rising. By mid-morning it was in the mid 80s. And the wind had changed direction and was coming from the east, which was the direction we were mostly headed for another 40 miles. And I still didn’t have much appetite. 

It probably wasn't quite this hot but it felt this hot in the relentless sun


It was all too much. I decided that even if I could eat more, there was no way, I could do this for another 18-20 hours. And I really didn’t want to, either. To quote my friend Danni, “Type 2 fun is one thing but just proving that we could go to war if we had to gets sillier as we get older.” 

I decided I was going to ride to Eureka at mile 225. That would be the longest continuous bike ride I had ever done and that was good enough for me. I texted Riley to let him know and checked Trackleaders to see where all the racers were at. I was pleasantly surprised to see that at least a quarter of the racers were still behind me. Usually, I’m at the very back of the pack. I was leading the back of the pack this time! And as we continued riding, I passed a few more racers that were suffering more than me. Some were getting picked up as soon as we hit good roads that cars could drive on safely. 

Then the heat started getting to me. I took a 10-minute break in some shade but didn’t feel any better. I started walking up some hills. To heck with Eureka. I texted Riley and said that I wanted to get picked up as soon as he could get to me. He checked to make sure that’s what I really wanted. But when I found out he was about 30 minutes away from my destination I decided to just keep riding until he got to me. I got to ride through one of the water obstacles, which felt good and cleaned some of the mud off my shoes and legs. And then at mile 205, there was Riley with his car. I was so relieved. I could finally stop. My race was over. And just in time, as a huge thunderstorm was bearing down on me! 

My race is done at mile 205

We headed to Eureka and had burgers and fries. Amazingly, my stomach recovered quickly and was doing just fine with some rest and getting out of the heat. When we got back to our cabin, I even raided the fridge for any other leftovers for a second lunch. My gut recovered much more quickly than it usually does.

After Race Contemplations

This year, the Unbound XL had a very low finishing rate. Only one third of the racers finished. 100 people dropped out including some of the top cyclists such as Ted King and Tyler Pearce (the Vegan Cyclist). Last year two thirds of the racers finished. 

Meeting the Vegan Cyclist the day before the race

So how do I feel now a day after the race? Physically I feel better than I expected. I got a good 12 hours of sleep the night after the race and then went out with Riley for a 37-mile “recovery” ride on Sunday, which went well. I didn’t have my top speed or power, but I was able to ride like any day that I’m feeling slightly fatigued. 

We biked 37 miles round trip to Teter Rock. John Teter placed these rocks in this high spot in the 1870's so early pioneers could find Cottonwood Creek and not get lost in the rolling Flint Hills

Mentally, I also feel pretty good. Yes, I wanted redemption and didn’t get it. Yes, conditions weren’t perfect, but even if they had been, I don’t think I could have finished this race. I don’t think I have it in me to ride 350 rough gravel miles in 36 hours. That is hard to admit but I’m pretty sure it’s true. 

I’m a little disappointed but I’m also okay with it. I have found my limit – at least in this respect – as to what I’m capable of doing. We all have limits. Everything isn’t possible. And if we don’t try difficult challenges on the edges of our abilities, then we won’t find out how much we can do. At least I tried. 

So, I probably won’t be back to try the Unbound XL again. Maybe I’ll find another challenge to do or maybe I’ll decide it’s time to retire from racing and pushing myself. Who knows? For now, I’m happy with where I’m at.



  1. Enjoyed your post! I was just ahead of you and pulled out at mile 190. Stomach issues started, knew there were a couple more hike a bikes and like you, my pace wouldn’t get me into Emporia by 3:00, if I could have even ridden that long!?

  2. That was a fun read! I am glad you pulled the plug while you were still having fun!

  3. Thanks for another enjoyable report. I don’t think I could finish a race like Unbound XL and I admire you for trying. I’ve had my share of death mud too, and yeah … no thanks! But I’m glad you had a good adventure and, as Jay said, left it while it was still a positive experience.

  4. Wow, Corrine. Anytime I see a rare race that you don’t finish, I know it must be a super tough race! You had such a solid ride that you should be proud of, and proud of yourself for lining up on the start of such an intimidating challenge. That mud looked wicked, the kind that just sucks the soul out of you. Congrats on a solid effort and giving it your all! You’re always smiling afterwards!

    1. And all that mud and rocks did a number on my carbon fiber frame. It now has holes in it and is not safe to ride. I either have to get it fixed or get a new bike. Yikes!

    2. Oh no! That’s bad news about your bike.

    3. Oh wow, that’s crazy! I guess I didn’t think of mud being able to do that!!! It looked like pretty gnarly mud and rocks though.

  5. Also, you need to learn the definition of “recovery ride!” 😝

    1. Haha! I know, but I felt pretty good, didn't push it and I had the goal of seeing Teter Rock which was pretty cool!

    2. It did look like a super cool destination! And glad you had the legs and energy for it!