Unbound XL 350 “From an Ultrarunner’s Perspective”

As an endurance athlete and ultrarunner, I am always looking for the next outrageous event or activity to participate in. After seeing photos and videos from last year’s Garmin Unbound Gravel race, I knew this was something I needed to sign up for. Even though I had not participated in nearly any cycling races, I was hooked on this event. I have always been inspired by Tony Krupicka; his looks, his free-spirit, his introspect, and perspective on movement in the mountains. After seeing him tackle Unbound XL as an ultrarunner, I knew I wanted a piece of the Flint hills. So, when lottery registration opened I click sign up, paid my dues without hesitation. From that point my eyes were set on 350 miles through the Flint hills of Emporia, Kansas.

Living in Carbondale, CO winter hits hard and brings lots of snow. This means minimal outdoor riding. My winter training was focused on Nordic skate skiing, and lots of boring trainer rides. Each time I sat on the bike at 5am, turned on the fan, cranked up the music; I would picture myself riding though the night in Kansas, hammering the punchy climbs and envisioning myself crossing that finish line. I would pop on my Nordic skis at 5:30pm after work and skate till 7:30pm at the Aspen Nordic center in the below freezing temps, in the dark; I would relish these moments alone preparing for what lie ahead this summer between ultra races and my start to the racing season at Unbound XL. In my preparation for the night I would encounter at Unbound, I signed up for a 24 hr Nordic ski in Leadville. I was able to manage 101 miles in 20 hours with temperatures in the -12F through the night in less than ideal snow conditions. Knowing full well mental is 70% of the training for any endurance event. I was ready!!

Come spring I was able to get out on the bike while still maintaining good running fitness for after the race. As race day approached my rides became longer, dialing in nutrition (mostly of the pop tart variety), I developed homemade muffins, Belgian waffles, and other delicious treats that I would dream up on the 8-10hr training rides. Skratch labs became a constant flow through my bottles. Mountain flow provided me with all of the eco-friendly chain lube and bike wash I could ever dream of. I encountered snowy rides, muddy rides, and the all too beautiful and infrequent sunny rides. As a runner I was used to just lacing up my shoes throwing a pack on with some nutrition and going out the door. Unbound XL required tons of research into tires, gear, lights, bags, and numerous other necessities that became my free time research in addition to training research. I felt like I was entering a new world, only to find out I was….

And so on June 2nd I lined up at the start line at 3pm in Emporia, Kansas along with another 191 riders prepared (or thought we were prepared) for what lie in the next 352 miles. I arrived in Kansas to my first real gravel bike race unknowing what to expect. I encountered a town devoted to gravel biking, an inviting atmosphere, and the most gear nerdy cyclists I have ever met. I had a blast conversing with others racers, vendors, and other friends at the expo and days leading to the event. I was excited and prepared more than any race I have done and couldn’t wait to get out and ride the flint hills!

The national anthem started, my heart was racing, I was in my element. Nothing could be more simple than riding my bike for the next 352 miles, eating all the snacks I could ever dream of from the most robust gas station buffets EVER!!! We took off, 3 miles in a crash in front of me, I am still alive…moving, heart rate in the 160’s. This was not the calm start I envisioned. The front pack took off at nearly 30mph. I settled for mid back tried riding with a few groups. The storm clouds moved in quickly within the first 2 hours and we were hit with some cold rain and heavy winds, I pushed on. The first aid at 75 miles took forever, I kept glancing at my Garmin wishing it would come. It finally did. I refueled (honeybuns, poptarts, tons of water, snickers and gummi worms) I was ready for the next 75 miles just as night fall was setting. I was able to latch onto a group of 4, two from Colorado, one from Hawaii, and another from Texas. We made a great team through the night until the unthinkable mud hit us at about 2am. We trudged through, walking our bikes, cleaning them repeatedly for nearly 1.5 miles. Then another hour later another mud section. This peanut butter mud was like a magnet to my 2x drivetrain. Mentally I knew I could get through this, I had done so much to get to this point and I pushed on. I rode through the most beautiful night and full moon, this time passed quickly, and was greeted to a rising red sun just as my helmet light began to die, great timing I thought.

Throughout the day Saturday we continued on through the rolling hills, the mud, the thunderstorms, anything that mother nature threw at us we continued to push on. At the mile 225 gas stop I connected with Matt Shapiro, an endurance cyclist and runner from Flagstaff, Arizona who had completed the XL last year. We rode the last 125 miles together while joining the Unbound 200 course and getting blown by all the fresh legs of the front packs. The company was good and just what I needed to help pull me along amongst the Kansas heat and humidity, as well as the afternoon thunderstorm that drenched us and the course around 3pm on Saturday. We made great team, icing each other down to stay cool at gas stations, sharing food and advice with one another, and most importantly encouraging each other to keep going. We traded pulls, we traded stories, until 20 miles from the finish my good friend’s rear derailleur ceased to function. Just another wrench in this adventure. Unfortunately, I had to leave him as I continued on the last 20 miles solo, reflecting on the entire adventure, as I watched the 200 riders pass me wishing me luck to the finish. Matt was able to spin in his 4th gear to the finish, and I was able to see him cross the finish line. What an amazing story for him to continue on despite the difficulties. Over these last miles I battled the hardest mental space I had encountered all race, I just wanted to be DONE!! I knew I would get there one pedal stroke and pull at a time.

Eventually just passed the 9 o’clock hour I crossed the finish line to my amazement in 30 hours 21 minutes and 54 seconds good for 18th overall. Nearly, 7 hours off the first finisher, but a result I will cherish and remember for the rest of my life. I had encountered every possible thing that this race could possibly throw at you. Of the 192 that started this race, only 47 managed to make it to the finish line back in Emporia, Kansas. This race meant more to me than any ultrarunning race I had ever competed in the past. I was so thankful for my Boundless family that was waiting for me at the finish line and all the encouraging words sent to me throughout the race. Even though I made it a point to have my phone on airplane mode, so I could enjoy the experience and fully embrace the challenge. It is one thing I often crave in life these days, no phones, social media, or distractions from the task at hand and experiencing the nature around me. These experiences allow me to appreciate the human body and what we are able to accomplish both mentally and physically if you set your mind to it. Through my training and this new approach to life, I have become more interested and thoughtful in my impact on the earth, water, and natural resources around me. I have tried to, although a small part, try and make the world a better place through my resourcefulness, recycling, and minimal waste practices. I also hope to inspire others through my activities and encourage others to accomplish goals that seem daunting in both life and athletics. I hope that I can make an impact on my short time on this earth, and something I often thought about on this Unbound XL adventure. For now, I move on to ultrarunning season with upcoming races and a focus on getting my trail legs ready. Unbound XL training and race experience has sparked a new life in me and has me excited for future long endeavors. It has sparked an interest in the Tour Divide 2024, a roughly 2,800mile bikepacking starting in Banff, Alberta, Canada and finishing at the US/Mexico border in Antelope Wells, New Mexico. Only time will tell what I decide on next….

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Zack Russel at the Unbound XL 350