I’m starting this out with my thank-you’s. Often these come as the wrap-up to a race report, but my report is long and I wouldn’t want you to fall asleep before reading about these fabulous people.
Thank you first to Lambert without whom I would not have made it to the end. Two years ago when I announced I was embarking on this crazy adventure, he stepped up to come along and keep an eye on me. To anyone considering this race for the first time, I highly suggest finding a very stable friend to accompany you.
Also thank you to Lambert for talking his friend Drew into coming with us as crew. This leads me to the next thank you. Drew was a crew person extraordinaire. Crewing is long periods of boredom interspersed with short periods of frenzied activity and managing extremely cranky racers. Drew was excellent at handling all three of these things. Thank you Drew for making this race fun, the completion of it possible, and for finding a fix for my derailleur.
Thank you also to George and Robert (and later Dirk and David), my pandemic cycling pod. Your willingness to be extra careful both on and off the bike meant we could explore new roads, spending close to 10,000 miles together in the year prior to the race. Also, thank you to Patty, Robert’s wife, for the beautiful masks that she made us.
Thank you to Jayson (aka JOM), the Gravel Cyclist, who provided excellent advice on everything from starting position to tires. Also for allowing me to pontificate on his blog about my training and thoughts on the race.
Thank you to Thomas at the Athlete’s Den for switching to virtual training and making my body strong enough to withstand the pounding of 206 miles of Kansas gravel. As a testament to his training, this was the first long race I’ve done where I was walking normally the next day.
Thank you to Keith at Springhill Therapeutic Massage for putting me back together every time I managed to get a little overly ambitious and pull something. Thank you to the amazing team at Life Time, especially Kristi Mohn who greeted me at the finish line, for putting on an amazing event, and to the people of Emporia, who made the weekend so memorable.
Finally, thank you to my husband, Steve, for putting up with my cycling obsession (which BTW did not exist when we got married). His support through the race was key as he followed the race tracker closely and kept me up to date with where I was in the standings.
This past year has been a tough year for this race. In addition to having to cancel in 2020, Life Time contended with a reduced field, a name change, and race management adjustments. People have groused on social media that the race has become too corporate and the focus on the pros has ruined it for the average rider. Lucky for us, the one thing that has not changed is the Flint Hills themselves. This brutal course will test your skills as a rider and resolve as a person. Traversing the 200 (and six) miles in whatever brutal weather Kansas decides to serve up is an experience that will not be determined by a name or a race owner, but instead by the individual that rises to the challenge.
I had gotten in under the lottery in January 2020, as had my friends, Lambert and Graham. I spent the winter training and fussing over my gear, then the spring worrying about cancellation due to COVID-19. I chose to defer to 2021 rather than try to come back in September. When they canceled the September race, we agreed to head for Emporia this June.
Luckily, my cycling pod, George, Robert, and Dirk, had all gotten into gravel and we spent most of the pandemic riding the gravel roads of Florida. From March 2020 to May 2021, I rode 14,000 miles, most of which was gravel. Once everyone started getting vaccinated, I was able to ride with some others and even got in a 250 miles weekend riding with Lambert.
I started my taper in late May, spending most of that time worrying about various aches and pains and ordering random backup parts and items off the internet. After getting one last check by JD at Super Cool Bike Shop, I packed my bike for transport on my flight to Kansas. Although I have disassembled my bikes before and packed them, it is always an anxious experience. To assuage my anxiety, I then packed all the crap that I bought last minute to take with me “in case of emergency.” As I would find out, unless you can carry an entire bike shop with you (and a mechanic), you will not be prepared for everything the Flint Hills can throw at you.
The flight to Kansas City was painless and, in a stroke of good luck, I got upgraded to a large SUV which made transporting the bike easier. After a brief stop at WalMart for supplies, I headed to our AirBnB which turned out to be amazing. Not only was it on a beautiful gravel road, but it was fully stocked with any supplies we could want … including Epsom Salts (another item that would come in handy later).
I rebuilt my bike and finished just about the time that Lambert and Drew arrived. (Graham had decided to defer to next year.) Drew had volunteered to crew for Lambert and agreed to take care of me as well. I had purchased the crew-for-hire, but I was only planning on using them if I had to abandon and needed to be picked up.
We immediately headed in town to buy more emergency supplies and for dinner with Bobby who had lived in Gainesville, but moved to Nebraska a few years ago. We had an excellent meal at Radius Brewing Company, although it took quite a while and we didn’t get to bed until after 9 pm local time (10 pm Florida time).
Luckily, we were sort of able to sleep in and, after breakfast, headed back to downtown for the shake-out ride. There we met Bobby, who was doing the 100, and headed out for our first taste of Kansas gravel. The ride was planned for 21 miles at an easy pace, but at six miles with race nerves and testosterone coursing through the air, our pace reached 25 mph and I made the executive decision to turn back. We had seen the start of the course which was really the point anyway.
We picked up our race packets and headed back to the house to putter around with our bikes and load Drew up with every emergency item we had brought.
Early to bed, but not necessarily to sleep, we still roused at 4 am to make the 6 am start. As I was pulling on my bra, I realized my breasts were tender. (More foreshadowing.)
Luckily, there was plenty of parking and we were able to get over to Commercial St with plenty of time to scout out our starting spot. We had decided to start in the 14-16 mph corral figuring we’d be on the tail-end of the fast group and get some draft before we hit the hills.
In retrospect, I think this would have been a good decision in a normal year, but in a year with a reduced field, a lot of people filled into the 10-12 and 12-14 mph corrals that clearly were going to not finish in that time frame. We may have gotten the benefit of a bigger draft pack had we moved into that group. Regardless, the excitement was palpable and it was such a relief to get started.
Our initial goal was to try to beat the sun (14 hours and 45 minutes). This was definitely a stretch, but according to Best Bike Split should be achievable. Lambert told me to tuck into his wheel and stay close. He weaved us through the initial traffic, trying to find a decent-sized group to ride with. We’d sit in for a while with a group, then move on to another as we moved up through the other riders. Suddenly, at about 20 miles, we popped out the front and there was no one in front of us. The separation that had happened between our group and the initial group was a surprise. I had expected to continue to see riders stretched out for miles.
As the roads got a little rougher, we’d pass riders here and there, sometimes finding some people to work with. We started into the hills and Lambert warned me to be careful going downhill as speed when we hit the bottom made flats more likely. Sure enough, at the bottom of every hill were two or three riders working on their wheels. Around mile 30, Lambert stopped for a food/picture break, encouraging me to go on. I was feeling really great. Although I found the descents a little hairy, I was having no problems with the climbs and was spinning easily going up.
Clearly, the gravel gods saw this as a sign that I was getting a little ahead of myself and felt a need to smack me down and smack me down hard. Around mile 42, I was coming down a descent, trying to stay slower, but still moving faster than I should have been. As I bounced across the bottom, I suddenly found my wheels spinning and realized that I had dropped my chain. I pulled over to the side and climbed off my bike. Some very helpful man rode by and said, “you dropped your chain.” He was lucky I wasn’t closer to the road.
I nestled the chain onto the small chainring, spun the pedals, then went running through the gears… nothing. My rear derailleur made a slight humming noise like it was trying to move, but it did not. The chain was stuck on the 11 cog.
By this time, Lambert had caught up to me and pulled over to give the gears a try. Still nothing. Damn it. I still was able to change between the two front rings (compact-50/34T), but that was a pretty big jump and neither one was really suited for the terrain we were riding.
Still, what else can you do? I decided I would climb back on, take it as easy as I could, and see if we would be able to find a solution when we got to Checkpoint 1.
Since we were stopped, I figured I’d take a nature break. Some guy riding by says, “oh, I didn’t know we’d be riding through the ladies’ boudoir.”
Which (a) learn what a boudoir is, and (b) guys, seriously, if you can’t say something helpful when someone is having a problem, keep it to your damn self. I must have seen hundreds of guys changing tires, peeing, vomiting, and sleeping (see definition of boudoir here) and did I say anything? No, I did not. Why? Because this race is hard AF and doesn’t need additional useless commentary.
I climbed back on my bike and started up the hill in front of. No longer were the hills an easy spin, but instead were a hard slog, usually including a portion of standing. (I had at least one man let me know that I should be “spinning” up the hill. Thank you, Sherlock.)
Once I made it to a somewhat level road, I texted Drew. Having crewed for others and having had a crew before, I know the best aspect of a crew person is ingenuity. Despite the fact that this was a seemingly insurmountable problem, I had absolutely 100% confidence that Drew would find a solution. I wasn’t sure what that solution would be, but by the time I rolled out of Alma, I knew I would have a working rear derailleur. Strangely this gave me confidence and I was not worried that my day might be over. All I focused on doing was making it to checkpoint 1.
On at least three hills, I couldn’t muscle over the grade and had to unclip and walk the last half. I told Lambert to ride ahead. He tried to ride with me; however, because of my wonky gearing, I was either going too fast or too slow for us comfortably to stay together. I think he was really worried that I would eventually just topple over and he should be there to make sure I was okay.
This was not an unfounded fear. About mile 57, I was halfway up a hill. I had lost steam and was not going to make it to the top. I went to unclip and … no. In slow motion, I toppled over on the drive train side.
The very shocked, but nice guy next to me gasped out, “are you okay?” And surprisingly enough, it seemed I was. I had clearly cut my leg, but nothing felt bruised and the fall wasn’t that bad. I replied that I was fine and scrambled to walk my bike the rest of the way. Amusingly, Lambert had fallen behind and did not see my graceless plop on the gravel hill.
At the top, I clamored back on and started pedaling. I had been avoiding shifting because if I was in the small ring and hit the rear shifter, the small movement the derailleur did have caused the chain to drop. Nevertheless, as any cyclist with a geared bike will know, shifting becomes instinctual and one often does it without thinking, which I did. To my astonishment, the familiar whirl of the Di2 sang in my ears. I clicked again. It shifted again. I tried a few more times, disbelieving what I was feeling and hearing. Whatever had been jammed in the derailleur had unjammed when I hit the ground.
I rode along feeling thankful and happy. Lambert came riding up beside me and exclaimed, “what happened to you?!?” I happily replied that my derailleur was working again. He stared at my leg and said, “I mean there.”
In my delight that the bike was back in working order, I had completely forgotten that I had cut my leg, which was now bleeding profusely. Red streaks were running down my leg into my sock and shoe. I shrugged cheerfully and said I’d clean it up at the aid station.
We rolled into the aid station and Drew had found a mechanic who was helping out riders like me. He took my bike while Drew went through swapping our food and bottles. I tried to wash my leg off, including spraying alcohol on it to clean it out a little. Finally, I wiped it off and slapped a Tegaderm patch on it in hopes of keeping some dirt out. My bike was declared to be in working order and we headed out of Alma just as the day began to heat up.
The weather had been predicted to be hot and windy, and in this case, the weatherman was correct. We left the checkpoint at 10:48 am (14 minutes after we rolled in) and my Garmin recorded the temperature to be 90º F. Despite each having a Camelbak and two bottles, we were a little worried that we might run out before the water station at mile 126. Thankfully, we learned from some of the other competitors that the organizers had planned for a second water station at mile 106 as well. It had been announced in the morning, but neither of us had heard it.
Somewhere in this stretch, we had run into Dana (another rider from Gainesville, aka Mrs. K-Dogg to Gravel Cyclist fans) who was out for her fourth time. She was wearing her Gravel Cyclist kit and looking in good form. My legs, on the other hand, were shot. In the fifteen miles that I had been without a working rear derailleur, we had seen 1200 ft of elevation gain. Slogging up those hills in low gear had put a hurting to my quads.
If you have done Unbound Gravel, then the roads need no explanation, but if you have not, I give you the best explanation I can, but it’s something that you really have to experience for yourself. About 60-65% of the course is what I would consider normal gravel roads, relatively smooth and not particularly technical. These are the roads closer to towns or considered more main travel routes. Then there are the “B-roads.” These roads are comprised of chunky rough rocks and often washed out on the hills. A fair number of these come down into stream beds where the rain has washed away the dirt and fist-to-softball sized rocks remain. Some of the streams were rideable, but, for mere mortals, most required getting off and walking your bike across, remounting, then trying to navigate the washed-out mess while avoiding the other riders who have prudently decided to walk.
Coming up to and across Little Egypt road, there were a couple of spots where I had to get off and walk my bike up the hill coming out of the creek bed. Dana navigated these with no problem and was off and away long before I saw the top.
Lambert waited for me, mentioning that he was not feeling his best. He had run out of water, but I didn’t realize that until we’d made it to the first water stop. This was quite a party – filled with relieved riders and energetic volunteers who filled our bottles and draped ice-cold handkerchiefs around our necks. One asked if I wanted ice and I asked her to put it in my bra – a trick I learned from running in Florida. Lambert ran his head under the spigot, filled his Camelbak, and wet down his kit. The ground around the trashcans was littered with small Coke cans, evidence of the delicious treat that they had just run out of. That was the only time during the ride that I considered crying.
Despite the disappointment of no Cokes, we left this station feeling much revived. We had less than a century to go and “only” 20 miles to the next water station. At mile 112, there was some more walking on my part and we turned into the wind. The section between there and Alta Vista was tough. The wind had been blowing at about 13-14 mph the whole day, but this was the first time it seemed like it was a steady headwind.
By mile 120, my Garmin gave me a temperature reading of 95º again and we both had gone through much of our water. We had caught up with Dana again and the three of us rode into Alta Vista, looking forward to the water stop.
Sadly, the festive atmosphere that had imbued the previous stop was non-existent here. There was no ice, no towels, and somewhat tepid water coming out of the spigots. We were grateful for the water and filled our bottles, but left with less cheerfulness than the previous stop. Lambert let me know that he was suffering from the heat and to let him go if he fell off the back. Dana pulled us out of town into the southern wind. After a couple of miles, I figured that it was time to put the aerobars to use. I pulled for about five miles before she mentioned that Lambert had fallen off, but when I looked back, he had caught back up, so I kept going. A few more miles along, I realized I was alone.
This section was a little weird because although I hadn’t been riding right by Lambert the whole time, he had always been close by. I worried about how he was feeling, but we had made an agreement that if one of us was clearly stronger, we would keep on going. He and Drew also had some intentions of getting me to the podium, although after the derailleur incident, I was unwilling to even let any finish-line thoughts enter my head. I was not about to tempt the gravel gods again.
I rode with a couple who were triathletes. I asked because they were clearly comfortable on their aerobars. It was nice to have someone to talk to, but like so many other times, they drifted away and I didn’t see them again.
At this point, I had also seen a couple of turtles and a large black snake. I’d started to really have trouble clipping out on my right side (which is the side I normally clip out on – mental note, practice clipping out on the other side). I actually rode through a stream unintentionally because I couldn’t get out in time.
Most of the time from when I lost Lambert and Dana to when I hit the rolling hills before the second checkpoint was a blur. I have little snippets of memory of different parts of the course, stream crossings, windy parts, people pulled off on the side of the road in the shady parts, and a few other riders, but I cannot put anything into order for this approximate 25 miles or so.
What brought things into focus was the set of five or six hills that came just before the trail to the second checkpoint. These were not the short punchy hills that we had encountered near the stream crossing, but instead longer steadier climbs that, from the top, gave a good view of the countryside … and the next hill. As I climbed the first one, I got caught up in some other people walking and had to stop and walk myself. It was a long damn hill and I was determined that that was the last damn hill I was walking that day. The next four or five I just slogged up, not stopping until I hit the top. I rested as best as I could on the way down the other side before tackling the next one. Close to the top of one, there were four guys walking their bikes side by side. There was no way I had the power to maneuver around them, so I plaintively whined that they stand aside. They were so nice about apologizing and hopping to the side – I know I must have looked totally pathetic.
I hit a couple more hills and was so grateful when saw on my Garmin that the next turn was onto the bike trail into Council Grove. I had texted Drew about twenty minutes out and he was prepared to catch me as I came across the bridge into town. I rode in on the trail with an extremely nice man who had way too much pep for that late in the race, but it was good to be distracted from the heat, the wind, and my exhaustion.
It was wonderful to see Drew and a great surprise to see Bobby, who had ridden the 100 but come to help us out. I immediately sat on the curb to change my wet socks. When I pulled off my right shoe, I found that one of the screws had fallen out of the cleat which is why I was having such trouble clipping out. Luckily, Bobby found the screw stuck in the pedal and was able to fix the issue. I was so happy to see Lambert roll in about 10 minutes after I did. Dana had pushed him to go on around mile 135 or so and he had felt better and managed to make up ground on me.
Even though we were only in the checkpoint five minutes more than the previous checkpoint, it seemed like we were there for hours. After a Subway sandwich and a Coke, we were both ready to push through the final 50 miles. At this point, my stomach was rejecting whatever I had put in it to this point. I was very queasy and felt it was better just to take in water and electrolytes. Additionally, my back, which had been a trooper for the whole race, finally had enough. From experience, I knew if I got off the bike and stretched it for a minute, it would loosen up and I would be fine to ride again. Around 40 miles, we stopped and walked a few feet, then got back on. I felt guilty that I was holding Lambert up, given that he had clearly regained a lot of energy after the checkpoint.
However, by this point, he was enjoying just riding and watching the evening slip by. The wind had died down and the sun was dropping towards the horizon. It was clear even with my stopping periodically that we would be out of the rough gravel before dark. I was thankful for this because even through about mile 180, there continued to be some technical riding… including dodging the pothole that was actually a snake. (I don’t know, I was tired.)
Lambert stopped to take some pictures and I pressed on. I rode past the spillway and just couldn’t resist stopping to take pictures of the beautiful sunset. At this point, it no longer felt like a race but felt more like survival touched with moments of beauty.
People on boats on the lake waved and shouted at us and as we came off the bridge, we came across a lovely family handing out cold water to the riders. We rode up the hill from the lake, but the gravel was now smooth, so it was just a matter of getting to the top. One more small hill after that just as the last light from the sky disappeared. We were about 20 miles out and among a few riders that were coming to the end of their ride as well.
In the dark and among the other riders, Lambert passed me. I assumed he’d look back and see the two lights on my bike and realize that he was in front of me, but he did not. He spent the rest of the race trying to catch me which brought him in a good ten minutes in front of me.
Once I realized he wasn’t coming back for me, I focused on getting myself to the finish line. About every five miles, I would stop and walk to stretch out my back, then get on and continue. My back would stop hurting and I could concentrate on how nauseous I felt. Since Council Grove, I had managed to get down one SiS Gel, three Gummy Bears, and a half of a Boost drink – maybe 200 calories for 50 miles. I’d feel sick until my back hurt so much that I couldn’t pay attention to my stomach anymore, then I would walk until my back stretched out and get back on to focus on my wretched stomach.
I was so thankful to reach the road where we had ridden out that morning and doubly thankful for the family that lived on the corner where clearly many riders (including me) had gone the wrong way, only to be called back to the right course. I was even thankful for the hill beside Emporia State University since I knew it was all downhill after that.
I rode into town down the chute and was also thankful that I was cognizant enough to take off my dumb clear driving glasses that I had been wearing since it got dark for my ride down the finishers’ chute.
It was amazing to arrive and see Kristi Moen jumping up and down and screaming “you did it, you did it” and give me a big hug. Drew and Lambert were waiting to take my bike as I stumbled out to see them.
I still had enough energy for pictures in front of the Finisher’s backdrop, but clearly started fading after that. My stomach was in no shape to take advantage of the post-race food and beverage, much less the after-party that still seemed to be going on despite the late night. Drew propped me up against the wall and ran off to get my car.
Luckily, neither Drew nor Lambert seemed to have much interest in sticking around, so we headed back to the house. Like always, it felt so good to get into the shower. We sat around until about 1 am, eating, drinking, and reviewing our race notes. Although Lambert had declared one and done during the race, even before bed there was discussion of what we would do differently next year.
I said I wouldn’t make any decisions until my knee healed. There are some things that I might have changed, but mostly I was felled by bad luck, a sore back, and gut rot that started 12 hours into the race. Luck will always be a factor in this race. Had my derailleur not gone out, I might have had multiple flats, or lost a water bottle, or gotten broken a spoke – all things that I heard happened to others. I’m already considering what I can do for my back and how I can address my stomach issues.
The next day, Lambert and I headed back downtown for the awards ceremony. Although I did make it within my expected time frame of 15-17 hours, I was pushing closer to the longer bound than the nearer. Amazingly, 16 hours and 46 minutes was still fast enough to get the third-place finish in my age group and for women over 50. It was fun to see many of the racers that I had ridden with the day before and to see all the pros that took the podium spots in the younger age brackets. The town had quieted down and the party atmosphere was behind us, although the townspeople were as friendly as ever.
I would never discourage anyone who deems this race fascinating and achievable from attempting it, but it will change you. Even now, seven days later, I am still dreaming of being on endless gravel roads.
Will I be back? That remains to be seen, but one thing is sure. I will only go back with people as steadfast and thoughtful as Lambert and Drew. As mental support, they both made all the difference in this race.