Unbound is coming - Are you ready?
After entering the lottery for Unbound200 in 2019, and seeing the blockades of travel bans around the world, I never thought I’d be sitting in the USA writing this article for you now. To defer my entry twice was soul crushing, I just had to find my way from South Africa to race this event!
I’ve heard it’s hard, with never ending undulating Flint hills that seem to go on forever. The gravel is also unique and difficult to prepare for. Ultimately you don’t really know what it’s like until you’ve been there. Which is why I can confirm so many of my friends keep coming back to try to improve their time or overall position. Not only would this be a physical challenge to complete 200 mi (322km), but it would be a challenge to mentally stay in the game. These kinds of events excite me. The events that push our bodies far beyond what we expect them to do. An event that we can only train so much for, and an event that will enlighten us on our deepest, hidden secrets.
Just a bike race? Ha! This event is the lock and key to understanding what long distance gravel racing is all about. We are all craving the feeling of true freedom in racing – to be unbound from our anchors – and to see what we’re truly capable of.
Have I sold you on it yet? Well, each year a random lottery draw is made to decide who gets to participate. Which makes the achievement of getting in that much more rewarding. But that’s just the first step.
Second is to take a look at your training program. Long hours – yes of course. But what else? Something that I have been paying a lot more attention to over the past couple months: Training your gut, and training your mind to endure the distance.
Just because you successfully got through a 6hr event on a particular nutrition strategy, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for a 16hr race. Same thing goes for multi-day events. I had to learn the hard way this year. My 1 day nutrition strategy negatively affected my performance over 8 days, and as a result I needed to abandon the race. There’s a lot the body can tolerate, and copious amounts of sugar and caffeine work great for that 100km event. What I found myself not paying attention to, was what my body was doing the day after, and the day after that. Same with ultra-endurance racing, we need to pay attention to what our bodies are going to do in the 8th, 10th, 12th and 14th hour. Each athlete’s gut prefers a unique combination of foods, and that combination needs to be practiced and understood before going into race day. For me, I now understand that high levels of caffeine just simply doesn’t work with my body. Combine that with hi GI sugars which are far away from natural foods and my body finds it difficult to digest. My body’s response is swelling. If it weren’t for the Cape Epic scenario, I would never have known what my tolerance levels were, and what would happen if I crossed that line. It’s a hard way to learn, but it’s opened up a door into discovering what TRULY works for me. During Unbound, you will see me eating a range of natural products, easy to digest real-foods like dates and nuts, as well as oat bars that have sources of protein within them. Hydration wise – for those who know the full story has been a touchy subject for me. Since experiencing overhydration at Epic, I have had a fear of the imbalance of electrolytes to carbohydrate to water intake. You really can get this wrong! Whether you’re the kind of racer who can eat on the bike, or depends mostly on fluid intake for your source of carbohydrates and electrolytes, make sure you know what it feels like to consume 6+ bottles of the same drink in one day! I am one to eat on the bike as it allows me that control of intake vs expenditure. Do your calculations before the race begins!
Next up I needed to focus on training my mind. I have done quite a few long distance events in my career so far, but this will officially be the longest. Unbound has opened my eyes up to finally saying yes to races such as 36One in South Africa and Dessert Dash in Namibia. They’re bucket list races but that door for me can only open once I’ve Unbound(ed) myself from that mental barrier. Mental training has become a huge topic in my life. I am currently studying a Masters in Sports Psychology, but that by no means is enough to practice with skills and tools I am learning. I had always touched base with my own Sports Psychologist (who actually has become a bit of a mentor for me now), and after Epic, my manager nudged me to really dive in and uncover those fears that were holding me back.
Fear of extreme fatigue CHECK
Fear of cramping and losing position CHECK
Fear of injury CHECK
Fear of not being fast enough (according to my own expectations) CHECK
Fear of being dropped and racing alone CHECK
Fear of not finishing CHECK
To all those who are entering this race for the first time, your fears are shared with all of us. Even the long-time ultra-endurance athletes have these thoughts come into their minds at some point. And to be honest, there may even be things that happen in this event that were completely out of your control that might prevent you from crossing the line. It’s the risk we take to reap the reward of such a HUGE challenge.
Unbound is unique in that our experience will be once in a lifetime. We need to see it that way. The opportunity to be able to start an event like this is precious, let alone arriving back on the start line the following year. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt this year from racing, is that we can never take anything for granted. Our bodies (and minds) can change so fast, and we need to practice being able to keep them in focus while riding the distance. Mentally, toughness is needed, yes, but psychological endurance I believe is needed more. Find ways to keep you going! This could be counting down the miles, eating every hour on the hour, stopping at the waterpoints and deliberately having a good stretch. My little technique is becoming more aware of where my mind and body is at any given point in the race with a personal “check-in”. I ask myself:
What can I see?
What can I feel?
What can I hear?
What can I smell?
What can I taste?
Going through these senses while racing might seem a bit strange, but 200km in, I need to be able to ground myself to avoid the “what if’s?” or “I’m not’s”. The longer the event, the higher the emotions run, and if there’s anything my sports psychologist has taught me, it’s not to let my emotions define me.
I am not useless because I got dropped from the group.
I am not weak because I needed to stop at the water point.
Another great add-on that I have learned that will stay with me forever, is how exactly to talk to one’s self. This topic is now often ‘eye-rolled’ due to its lethargic stigma, but self-talk can be your super power if you nail it correctly. The key is to believe in what you are saying, and with that, comes absolute honesty. We all have had times where we attempt to be positive and optimistic, but at the same time know very well that we are lying to ourselves. We cannot just talk ourselves into feeling good unless we believe in the process of getting there. A perfect example of this when the intensity is high we automatically fall into self-definition:
“I’m not strong enough to do this”
However, we can rephrase this to help ground ourselves in that moment:
“I am feeling fatigued right now, let me sip on my water bottle and feel the energy go into my legs. I can see others in the group are starting to get tired, and I can hear the loud breathing around me. In 10min I will have a bite of my energy bar, up the next climb I will count to 20 and breathe deeply with every count. My focus for the next 10km is noticing when I feel good…”
And so the narrative continues.
It sounds like a lot, but as you go through the motions, miles tick off and before you know it you are out of the low and riding the wave. No matter what, keep riding that wave.
I am beyond excited to FINALLY get to race the Unbound gravel event. I have been drooling over the idea of racing all day and I’ll be arriving on its doorstep in 2 weeks time. If you’re reading this and will be racing too, let us know in the comments how it went for you! We are all so excited to hear the post-event feedback from this one. To our athletes at The Threshold and to every athlete who put in the miles, let this race graduate you as The Unbound Person.