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In many ways, the Unbound XL is right up my alley: a huge self-supported bike adventure where self-preservation is more important than the ‘race,’ and hallucinations (or at least revelations) are not only possible but highly probable. So too are new friendships that become sealed through shared experience.
In other ways, though, it is not my style at all: it requires a heavy reliance on technology and its accompanying batteries and charger cables, training would have helped, and I never keep track of things like calories and carbs and sodium.
And wait, what about sleep?
This year I’ll join about 165 other people who have also signed up for this big mysterious adventure.
The 350-mile XL was added to Unbound’s menu of offerings in 2018 because, as former race director LeLan Dains said, “everyone was getting so good at 200, we had to up the mileage.” The XL is entirely self-supported, which means riders must resupply at gas stations that come at roughly 60-mile intervals throughout the course. They — now we 😬 — start at 3p.m. on Friday afternoon, with the sun setting around 9 and then rising again at 6a.m.
So, while I understand the basics — eat lots, make sure your lights are charged, bring an extensive repair kit — I still wanted to know what people who’d done the XL thought. What they did right or wished they’d done differently. What they remembered from the night. What kind of crap they bought at the gas stations. And most importantly, did they recommend doing it?
‘Eat like it’s your job’ and ‘memorize the buttons’
“You are for sure going to enjoy it . . . as long as you allow yourself to,” Taylor Lideen told me.
Lideen won the XL in 2021, finishing in just under 23 hours. He loves the event so much that he’s coming back for year two, “the aspect of adventure, navigation, strategy, logistics and looking after yourself through the night is something I thoroughly enjoy and wanted more of that after last year’s XL,” he said.
Lideen suggested an age-old adage for finding peace when the going gets tough: focus on the controllables.
“Be open to the challenges the night time provides and enjoy it,” he said. “You can’t force the miles to tick off so instead of counting the hours or miles, spend your time looking after yourself. Constantly eating, hydrating and appreciating what you are doing. It’s super hard but that’s what makes it worth it.”
Lael Wilcox, who was the first woman to finish the XL in both 2019 and 2021, also told me to eat.
“Eat like it’s your job,” she said. “It’s nearly impossible to consume as much as you’re burning, but consistent snacking and drinking is key.”
Regarding the challenges of the night time, Wilcox recommended not only good lights (on the helmet and handlebars) but also companionship.
“Unbound XL is one of the few endurance races that you’re actually allowed to ride with other people and draft,” she said. “It’s especially nice to ride through the night with people. You really get to know someone if you spend 12 hours with them and it’s a lot of fun. The time passes quickly and you can work together.”
Last year, Amanda Nauman found herself riding with Wilcox. . . until night fell. She told me that her biggest regret was not learning her lights better before the race, namely memorizing the different settings.
“If I could go back, I would super memorize those buttons,” she said. “You’re flustered as the sun’s going down. I was with Lael until I had to stop and fiddle with my lights, and that was when I lost her was figuring all that out. As soon as the sun goes down, it’s a matter of making sure you know your buttons.”
Nauman said that one of her lights went out halfway through the night which then greatly affected her speed. She cautioned me against running the lights on too low a setting.
“Make sure you can actually pedal with both of those on low,” she said. “You can only go so fast based on how far you can see ahead of you. The average I could hold throughout the night was significantly slower than I had anticipated, you’re braking more than you think.”
The mental journey
When Yuri Hauswald was invited to line up at the inaugural XL in 2018, “I was extremely honored, but I was also extremely scared,” he told me. He almost declined but gave in to the peer pressure from his friends and fellow racers Rebecca Rusch and Jay Petervary.
“It wasn’t the physicality of it, it was the mental, emotional side of it,” he said. “How many layers of the onion emotionally do I have to peel back and process over a 25 hour effort?”
No one who I told about the XL asked me about my fitness, which leads me to believe that what Hauswald was talking about will likely be the greatest challenge.
Nauman said that she was also surprised at how her mind dictated her progress much more so than her body.
“Your mind is so powerful, as soon as you’re committed you’ll get to 200 [miles] and be like, ‘OK, 150 more.’ Your brain has already committed to something larger. You’ll be surprised when you’re out there just ticking along and you get to a checkpoint of ‘just 200’ when before, it was like, ‘yeah this used to be the whole goal.'”
“That mental journey was the most rewarding and interesting,” Hauswald said. “Yes the landscape was beautiful and we had a crazy thunderstorm, but it was processing all sorts of stuff inside of me and tapping into emotional energy that allowed me to get through the event and finish second. Hands down, it was the most mentally and emotionally rewarding event I’ve ever done in my career.”
Bobby Wintle, the charismatic personality behind The Mid South, also participated in the inaugural XL in 2018. The first thing he said when I asked him about the experience?
“It was a masterpiece.”
“That was the thing I told Jim [Cummins, former race director] when I crossed the finish line,” Wintle said. “I ended up alone for 200 miles into the wind. I tried to take a shit in a field and I couldn’t and I was naked and I was like, ‘please, body!’
Eventually, Wintle was able to poop, and his body did other surprising things, too. Or, was it his mind?
Wintle said that around mile 250, the sun was starting to wane — again — and a friend had just dropped out of the race. There, he felt his energy shift.
“I just felt alive,” he said. “I hit all those hills that I know and I just started smashing it. I felt so good. Even though people were finishing at that time, and it took me forever, but I started to feel really good at 250. And I don’t know how to quantify that or what it’s from. Not what I’m eating or training. There’s a mental capacity of knowing what it takes. You have to switch what you know to be true on a normal day and turn that off completely.”