Unbound 2023

Oh goodness where to begin the story of Unbound.

I’ve been trying to gain entry into Unbound before it was Unbound: back in the Dirty Kanza days.  Well 2023 was my lucky year, and way back in January I was notified that I had indeed been given entry into the event. Be careful what you wish for.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: nothing is worth doing if at least at some point along the way you don’t seriously ask yourself “what the hell was I thinking?”  Unbound falls into the “what the hell” category.

I showed up in Emporia super prepped for the event, having eight centuries in seven weeks, including a 250 mile (400 Km) rando event under my tires.  I hadn’t touched a drop of beer for two months, my weight was at a ten-year low and my bike was tuned and smooth.

Just to answer a few questions off the top, I ran:

Rene Herse Snoqualmie Pass endurance casing tires (smooth tread 44mm)

Tire pressure was – oh that feels right

Aero bars

USWE hydration pack

The race was the first Saturday in June.  My brother David and I drove down from Des Moines, Iowa (5 hours) in a rented camper van on Thursday – I had flown from Seattle to Des Moines on Wednesday.  We camped at the Lyon County Fairgrounds, which is less than two miles from the start line – an easy race day ride. I hadn’t reserved a spot early enough to get an electrical hookup thus the warm nights without AC were relatively sleepless. The shower was MASH 4077, but the water was hot and the pressure adequate, so not being a shy guy, I was fine. In hindsight camping worked, but I’d recommend a hotel room with a comfy bed, close showers and AC.

Being a Seattleite my kryptonite is heat, and on Friday I felt as though I’d been locked inside and EasyBake oven.  Temperatures at the Expo were in excess of ninety stifling degrees.  Friday evening while David, and my Seattle friends, Dodi and Rob. and I ate our pre-race meal at the IHOP the skies opened to a deluge; I secretly hoped for the same on Saturday as these Midwest thunderstorms can cut the temperatures by over twenty degrees. Be careful what you wish for.

After dinner, I fastened lucky number 1313 (I figured that the double 13 cancelled out), filled my water bottles, loaded up eighty miles of food and tried to fall asleep. I slept okay, not as good as I had hoped but not as bad as I had anticipated.

Lucky or Unlucky?

I should take a time out here to note how much in my head I get prior to these races. My biggest fear is leg cramps, and as I was waiting for the illusive sandman, I could already feel twinges sparking in my calves and thighs.  I’m also an old average dude and when I come to these extreme events I can’t avoid feelings of inadequacy, everyone here is so much fitter, so much stronger, so much better prepared.  These thoughts become corrosive and by Friday afternoon I simply wanted to get riding: stop worrying and start doing.

I woke up easily at four thirty, ate my oatmeal, banana, and Pop Tart and drank a tall cup out of the French press.  At half past five I threw a leg over the bike and rolled to the start line.  Dodi was lining up with the 10-12 hour group with the philosophy that folks in this elite group would be competent bike handlers (the first few miles of these events can be a bit of a scrum).  This theory had me unsettled as trying to keep up with this group and going out way too hot could blow me up within the first ten miles. As I approached the start line I saw Seattleites Chris and Reeve in the 14-16 hour group; I decided to jump in with them. The race started five minutes late and before we even passed the city limit sign we were stopped by a passing train. The train was passenger and not freight (short not long) and soon we were off.

Feeling good at the start

The gravel starts at a right turn on the outskirts of Emporia, it’s of the champagne variety and the three of us were rolling easy and enjoying the sunrise.

At mile eleven we turned onto mud pit number one.  Oh wow I didn’t expect this.  Folks refer to it as peanut butter mud.  It’s really not mud, but clay.  Even with massive mountain bike knobbies traction would be a challenge, but with my Rene Herse 44mm slicks, there was no traction period.  Everyone was off in the grass pushing and sometimes carrying their rig.  Within a hundred feet of entering the mud pit I realized that my fat tires left virtually no clearance aft of the bottom bracket and my rear tire seized up immediately.  Luckily, I found a flattened beer can and used it as a scraper.  Some people were carrying paint stir sticks, but those would have been too thick to help me.

Eventually a fellow racer asked if I needed a scraper, my first inclination was to say no, that I had this nearly useless beer can, but I overcame my impulse and said that yes, indeed need a scraper.  The guy pulled out a blue six-inch plastic elementary school ruler.  Oh my God this six inches of plastic was a race-saver.  I still have it, entombed in Kansas clay/mud and will probably frame it and hang it on the wall.

Eventually the mud ended and Chris, Reeve and I were able to clear our drivetrains and get going.  I managed to find a fairly descent pace a little behind Chris and little in front of Reeve.   My buddy Steve, who was riding the 100 miler, passed me just shy of the first water stop, he had started an hour later and was riding strong.

Early in mud #1, everyone is still clean

I caught Chris at the water stop and we continued together.  A lot of gravel riding is rolling either the left or the right car track.  At the bottom of a downhill I was riding the left track when I saw another rider up ahead.  I looked down and when I looked back up I realized that the other rider was coming towards me and coming towards me fast.  Holy crap, I jumped the center line loose rocks just in time to avoid a collision.  The other guy just kept riding in a straight line, he never even wavered.  It was freaky and it took my addled mind a full minute to figure out what had even happened.

The sun was in full blaze mode as Chris and I peddled towards Aid one.  I was doing well with my eating and doing great with my hydration.  The USWE pack that I so rarely use really was a necessity not a luxury.  By mile 70 I was fading, I was overheating and my stomach was in knots.  I hobbled into Aid one, leaned my mud-clogged bike against the Sprinter and told my brother “fuck this I quit.”

Despite wanting to go home I downed a Coke and a Hostess cherry pie, got my chainline cleaned (using a water bottle) lubed and somehow convinced myself to continue on.  Chris and I rolled out of Aid one with doubtful minds for sure.  Sitting here today with the benefit of a few days reflection I can say that I am so glad that I kept going, I just can’t imagine how regretful I’d feel today if I had quit.

I had done enough centuries this spring to know that I go through a lull at around mile seventy to eighty, and after that things get better.  Well sure enough I was true to form and by mile ninety I was feeling pretty good.  Lucky thing too as there was a second mud pit at mile ninety-five. 

By mile one hundred I was feeling good.  I was eating one hundred to one hundred and fifty calories every five miles (about every twenty-three minutes).  The sky had clouded up, which I was thankful for, but as we turned onto a primitive road I could see that we were heading into a massive storm.  I turned to the lady riding next to me and said, “we’re riding into a wall of rain.”

Less than a minute after uttering those words we were in a wash tub of sideways rain/hail, thunder and lightning.  My riding mate yelled over the tempest “is this even safe?”

To which I replied “we don’t have much of a choice.” 

Which we didn’t.

Having grown up in the Midwest I knew that these rain squalls are short-lived and usually the more intense they are the shorter they are.  This turned out to be the case and soon we were riding out the other side.

The storm had dropped the thermometer twenty degrees, thank God.  I’ll take a bit of rain and hail over scorching heat any day.

Chris had stopped to put on a jacket, something I didn’t have, but he soon caught up to me and we rode together until about mile one forty.  Chris was having a lot of knee pain and was struggling on the hills, I knew that if Chris suffered a major issue his son, Spencer, would be able to come get him, so reluctantly I rolled ahead.

At mile one fifty we entered onto yet another primitive road.  I was riding the left track and saw that road conditions up ahead weren’t going to play well with my treadless tires, but I couldn’t get to the right as another rider seemed to be pacing me.  Inevitably my front tire washed out and I went over the handlebars.  When I managed to crawl out of the mud I saw that my rear mech was completely destroyed, nothing was moving.  Just as I was about to start walking, I decided to give it one last try, after scraping away a pound of sticky clay I realized that nothing was broken.  I took a few tentative pedal strokes, everything worked –  I was still in the game.

Night came quickly and thankfully I had put a light on the bike before leaving the camper that morning.  My original plan was to go lightless until Aid two, but for some reason I had changed my mind at the last minute.  This was a lucky break was I had about six miles of darkness before reaching Aid two.

Aid two was in the town of Madison.  It took me a minute, but I found my brother who had cooked me a couple of hot dogs and had set out a smorgasbord of treats.  I was eager to roll and after a quick lube and food resupply – no it was time to switch from regular food to the sports stuff: Gu’s and gels – I was off.

I was feeling good now, with only forty-five miles to go I was certain that I would make it.

Somewhere after Aid two we hit the third mu pit.  I’d vote that this was the worst as there was no side grass through which to push the bike.  The only option here was to either shoulder or suitcase a forty plus pound mud-encrusted monster.  I suspect that some of the female racers really suffered here as many had bikes without enough clearance in the front triangle to accommodate shouldering.  This final mud pit was kind of miserable but the only option was to walk the mile out of it, so that’s what we all did.

At mile one eighty I was changing the battery in my headlight when a passing rider said “hey Mike.”  What the heck?  It was Dodi and Matt.  I couldn’t believe it.  I had assumed that they were finished showered and having drinks at the bar.


Dodi was having stomach issues and hadn’t eaten in over eighty miles.  He was suffering, but he continued to ride strong and together we rode into Emporia and down the finish chute.  It was one thirty in the morning and the town was deserted.  Just past the finish line we met up with our buddy Aaron who came prepared with a Dominos Pizza.  A minute later my brother found me.  Dang he’d had a long day: hurry up and wait.

I was lucky to have my brother at the aid stations and at the finish.  The experience is richer when you can share it with a loved one.  I also can hardly believe my luck and having found my training partner and good friend Dodi and us finishing together.

Unbound is a cool event, not for everybody, but for those who like to go the distance it’s a nice memory.