Landing on the top step of the first Unbound 200 nonbinary podium will likely go down as one of the proudest moments of my life. Not because of winning or bragging rights or looking good for sponsors, but because I was up there with a full podium of athletes like me. Last year, in all the Unbound race distances there was one single nonbinary athlete, Abi Robins. This year, we were 17 strong! I have come away from this race weekend with what feels like a whole new family standing up on that podium with me.
Now you may be asking: “how the heck does one train for a 12+ hour off-road bike race?” This tiger does so by first hitting a solid 10 hour “training day” racing the IRONMAN World Championships in St George, Utah four weeks before and spending a few days in Moab playing mountain bikes, before finally landing in Emporia, KS for a couple weeks of trying to become a local.
In my new Kansas home, I was able to get in a solid week of big rides targeting the Unbound course, amongst some short swims in the hot tub-warm Emporia Rec Center pool and little jogs to keep the legs pounding the pavement. The course recon was priceless: got to know almost every mile, experienced big variation in wind speeds and directions, rode all the big-for-Kansas climbs, and ran the most technical spots a couple times through. There is so much to go through mentally and physically in such a long race. Having an upper hand on the route and conditions left my brain to focus on eating, drinking, and crushing on race day.
And then 2 weeks out I realized I had done something really dumb.
While in Moab, I’d changed my shoe cleat position rather dramatically for a more mountain bike-friendly placement. Then I’d just kept it that way, putting in a couple 6-7 hour ride days on the gravel rig, thinking nothing of it. Two hours into a training ride, still 30 miles out of town, I was struck with 9/10 knee pain and had to limp the rest of the way back. Yup, my IT band was very angry with me. *I* was very angry with me!
I super know better than this. I could just see my medical and coaching team facepalming already. After an emergency call with my PT at MoveMed Physio (and moving my cleats back!), I spent the 2 weeks leading into the race riding 60 min a day and loading up on anti-inflammatories to calm the IT band as much as possible. I was incredibly frustrated, losing confidence in my fitness, and embarrassed to be showing up at yet another start line very undertrained. I was convinced I was going to be gritting my teeth in pain for 10 of the 12 race hours, especially after just over an hour spin on the bike the day before race day had led to a flair-up.
I have to credit my coach Mateo Mercur for having the confidence to really keep my training ridiculously easy, knowing in the best case scenario that maybe I could get to this race with the irritation gone but undertrained versus training through it, showing up with a fraction more fitness, and then potentially having to deal with a chronic ITB syndrome the rest of the season. Incredibly (and with the help of about 2400mg of Ibuprofen LOL) it barely gave me any issues during the 200 miles. Let’s hope we dodged a bullet with this one!
It is incredible how quickly 12 hours in the saddle goes by. The first hour I spent trying to hold onto the front of the race. I remember looking down at my bike computer 27 min in, noticed my heart rate in the yellow, sometimes red, zone, and thinking “you need to cool it down, Rach!” Based on winds coming from the south, I knew being in a pack was way better than pushing through the headwind solo. However, the yo-yo at the back of the group was just too much over my comfort zone and after an hour of hammer, I dropped back to let my heart rate come down, hoping I hadn’t screwed myself.
Most of the day I spent bouncing from group to group. I was grateful to hop into some solid pain trains heading into both aid stations. The Flint Hills gave us all the weathers. The cool morning brought in some expected thundershowers. I remember slowly coming through a slippery, muddy, wooded area with some scattered riders. Like dominoes, 4 guys went down in front of me, but I nimbly threaded the needle through the multiple pile-ups. I was very proud to come out the other end of the section without having to walk. That mountain biking is paying off! I didn’t keep the rubber side down for the entire race though. As the sun came out and started to turn the mud into the sticky mess that Kansas is known for, one section in particular was unrideable. Thinking I was somehow more skilled than the dozens of riders walking their bikes, I barrelled into the muddy ruts, only to get flipped over shortly thereafter. I am still getting that mud out of my bike, shoes and cleats days later!
Not only had I never ridden more than 160 miles, I had never needed to organize a support crew. I was grateful that the amazing HED Cycling crew stepped up at the last minute for the job (high five to Maddy, Andy, and Catherine!). I would come into each aid station, toss my bike to Andy for an imperative chain clean, lube, and tire pressure check, switch my hydration pack, and hand my glasses off to be cleaned. By the time I chugged a delicious coke and tossed a sandwich down my jersey, my team had me off and running again. Magic.
At some point on a long straightaway I remember thinking of 26-year-old Mo Wilson, the winning Lifetime Grand Prix athlete. Her senseless murder just a couple weeks before had sent shockwaves through the community like I have never experienced. I did not know Mo very well, but she had been one of us. At sunrise the Friday before the race, Lifetime had graciously organized a memorial ride. Tears had streamed down my face when we stopped and said some words. Again, that moment on course, I caught my breath, choking back my emotions. So many of us that day were riding for Mo. Pushing ourselves to that finish line because we could, and she could not.
Near the last quarter of the race, my body finally started to complain. With over 2 hours left in the saddle, my lower back started to feel super tight and sore. I started cursing the fact that this race didn’t entail a sport change like triathlon. I was ready to get OFF that bike! Where was my marathon run to move my body in a different way?!
The pain in my back was becoming all I could think about. I knew I had to just keep the pressure on; it hurt the same no matter what the effort. I didn’t know who was ahead or behind me. I could catch or be caught by a competitor at any moment. I was flying by 100 and XL racers, shouting “good job!” and “keep it up!” as we all closed in on the finish line.
And what a finish line it was. I was laughing and crying at the same time, giving high fives to the kiddos, rolling down the iconic downtown Emporia that I had known so well from pictures. I will cherish the finish line hugs from the truly incredible Kristi Mohn and my HED crew, despite being caked head-to-toe in mud.
I had crossed the line as the first nonbinary racer to finish the 200 mile race. I’d hit my goal to finish under 12 hours (11:56), a time that any other year would have been a winning time in the female category, but landed me 23rd in just the Lifetime Grand Prix female race results alone.
I was able to cheer in 2nd place nonbinary athlete Apollo at the finish before heading off to feed and clean myself. Outside of the race, the whole weekend was an incredible experience of connecting with a whole crew of nonbinary racers for the first time in my life. The significance of this cannot be understated. I have spent my entire racing career feeling like an odd duck. Words do not do justice the feeling pride and comfort, joining an entire 5-person nonbinary podium up on stage the next day at the Granada Theater awards ceremony. And we are just getting started!
My Unbound 200 setup and nutrition:
- Bike: Diamondback Haanjo 8C
- Rims: HED Emporia RC3
- Tires: Panaracer Gravel King SK (front), SK+ (rear), 38mm w/ Cushcor inserts
- Tire pressure: 35 front/38 rear
- Stem: Redshift Sports Shockstop
- Drive train: SRAM 1x - 42 chainring, 10-47 cogset
- Saddle: ISM PS 1.0
- Hydration pack: Camelback Chase vest
- 5 L Maurten 320 + extra sea salt
- 3.5 L water with electrolytes
- 1 L coke
- 6 packages Gu Chews
- 6 Gu liquid gels
- 4 Maurten caffeinated gels
- 3 vegan ham and cheese sandwiches
- Total fluid: 9.5 L
- Total calories: approx. 5810
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Rach is a professional triathlete turned gravel racer, paving the way for non-binary athletes to experience the joy, adventure and challenge of elite sport. They will be competing in the Life Time Series of gravel races for the first time in 2022 and will be writing out the experience for Cyclingnews.