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The Long Haul: 299.9 Miles of Corn

September 12, 2023

The Long Haul: 299.9 Miles of Corn

The weekend of Gravel Worlds started off with a reminder of how hot Nebraska can be. Thursday saw the temps crack triple digits, which had the Gravel Worlds crew announce no shakeout rides. Ouch, with a heat warning shutting down the chill rides, I really hoped the real-deal race day wasn’t too hot. We were out of luck, with 97 degrees on the thermometer, and a ‘real feel’ of 105—we were off for a 299.9-mile sail of Nebraska and Iowa corn dust. Couldn’t they have added on an extra turn, or a ‘ride the roundabout for that extra tenth of a mile? But alas, 299.9 it is for this time around!

I came into this race with a different mindset than normal. After a disappointing DNF at Unbound XL this year, I struggled to stay motivated through the dog days of summer. Recognizing that I tend to operate best if I have something I’m working towards, I signed up for Gravel Worlds and told myself it would be a long ride rather than a ‘race’. Honestly, I just wanted to come out, ride steady, and still have some power left to push myself during the last 6 hours. With that in mind, I kept myself out of the wind but near the front of the pack. So I set off from the start and somehow found myself in the front pack of 10. If those first three hours were the race ‘selection’, I had made it and felt like it wasn’t too high of a pace. It felt good. Coming into our first town on the route, I looked around at our group trying to figure out if anyone would be stopping for fuel or water. As I suspected, everyone was planning to push on to the 80-mile resupply. I knew I’d be faster if I stayed with the group, the pace wasn’t terribly high and we were rolling along at a good clip. But the chance that I get dropped or simply run out of fluids before the next town was a little too real. I didn’t want to go without water and get dropped in these temps, so I pulled out of our group and got my water refilled as quickly as I could. While I never saw the front of the pack again, I was happy to be riding my own pace. As with most things in life, it’s easy for me to get caught up and potentially lead to an implosion. My own pace was a good thing, even if it was a little slower.

Packing up for Gravel Worlds

After a wonderful sunset, a ceasing of the searing heat, and an eruption of darkness I realized I did the right thing to stop and get water. I was nearing the end of my last bottle when I arrived at a small gas station with one other racer, Sage. We had been riding strong together ever since he caught me shortly after my first water stop. Trading pulls over the hills of Iowa, I began to realize that Sage was climbing a little stronger than I was, though I was descending faster. After a couple of rounds of yo-yo-ing, getting dropped on the up, and regaining his wheel on the downs, I pulled up and again decided to settle into my own pace. After all, this was just a long ride for me and the thought of feeling strong in the last 6 hours was of high priority. If I could maintain a steady effort, I believed I could hold my place or even move up a few spots.

The darkness of night was only increased by the lack of a full moon. If I were organizing these types of races, they would always coincide with a full moon. Complete darkness is a thing to behold, but having the moonlight shine down on the rows of corn is that much cooler, almost like having a spotlight following you around!

With a masthead light (pirate-speak for headlamp) as my beacon, I settled into a state of tunnel vision. Only seeing that which my light illuminates, I clawed my way up the endless repeating hills and bombed down the backside. Just stay in the tunnel and keep eating, I told myself. And that I did.

Riding at night: Gravel Worlds

Around 4 am I found myself searching for the next resupply. I knew the mileage and it had to be close, though I had seen two bikes leaning up alongside a diner a few miles back and was hoping that wasn’t it. Seeing those bikes motivated me, thinking I had just passed two riders. One guy caught me shortly after, though he didn’t seem like the conversational type when I asked him about the expected gas station. I guess he didn’t need to stop because he rolled right by after I turned off. Sometimes, you feel worse once you step off the bike, and this was one of those moments. I had felt consistent throughout the race, but something hit me at this 4 a.m. gas station. I grabbed a fountain coke, breakfast sandwich, chips, and some other goodies and I sat for ~15 minutes, watching a couple of people ride off ahead of me while I tried to convince myself that it was okay to just sit for a second. And it was, especially when two people who rolled out ahead had gone the wrong way and were seen a few minutes later correcting their mistake. I think at this time I had dropped back to ~12th place, which was fine—Once again, I’m here to race the last 6 hours, everything else is just a long ride.

Regathering myself after the disappointment of not being able to finish my bag of chips, I remained excited to watch the sunrise but was abruptly reminded of how cold I often get after stopping. Little fits of shivers kept running through my body, but I kept telling myself I wouldn’t put my jacket on because I’d be warm soon enough. It is nice to be able to rely on experience for these things. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped and restarted to put on/take off a jacket. But not this time.

The darkest of the night went by quickly, with the hours and miles ticking off and the sky beginning to show where exactly daybreak would occur. I love these pre-dawn hours. Watching the world wake up, the birds getting excited and the dark sky opening up to light. If you haven’t ridden a couple of hours before sunrise, I cannot recommend it enough.

Throughout the night, there were occasional flashes of lightning. Nothing was ever terribly close to us, and with all the 90-degree turns I wasn’t sure which direction the storm was. Sometime after sunrise, I noticed puddles of water on some of the cement bridges but no signs of puddles on the dirt roads. Hopefully, there wouldn’t be any death mud à la Unbound ’23

Wait, did someone say death mud!?! After chasing a couple of blinking lights all morning, I came to the bottom of a descent and found a stretch of the stuff. I walked and used the grass shoulders (with walking taking over) for less than 10 minutes. I had also caught two other racers. One guy couldn’t get his wheels to spin due to mud clogging up his frame, and the other got his clear, attacked right away, and rode off ahead of me. We still had 100 miles to go, and I wasn’t sure that it was time to crank the afterburners—especially if there was more mud ahead. So I held off, kept my pace, and kept using my mud stick to clear my tires.

One thing I love about events that have multiple distances is when all the routes join for the last X number of miles. At Gravel Worlds, the last 50 or so miles are shared between multiple distances. After being alone most of the night, it’s so nice to see others, and both give and receive encouragement. There is a lot of talk about the ‘gravel community’, and I think this is where it shines brightest for me. Ironically, at my last gas station stop I ran into someone I had met a couple of years ago while doing a 350-mile race in Florida. He was lollygagging and riding the 50k with friends. Pretty funny to be rushing through a gas station, have someone ask you questions and after a couple of back-and-forths we realize we know each other! Ultra-endurance off-road cycling is a small, small world.

Rolling through the finish: Gravel Worlds

The final 50 miles were a lot of fun. More rolling hills accompanied by bomber descents, friendly cyclists, and a well-fueled and happy Austin. I often save my caffeine intake for late in these events, and this one was no different. I had been holding onto a double-shot espresso can for hours, waiting until I was 40 miles out from the finish. Canned espresso never tasted so good, and I’ve never felt so good this late in a race. I kept charging on the hills and bombing the descents. A couple more minor mud sections had others walking but dang did I feel invincible. Blasting around the hike-a-bikers, I felt like I was on a monster truck. No mud is gonna stop me. Even more encouraging, the guy who charged away from me at the first mud section was blown up and walking. My pacing strategy was working. I kept a steady effort in the last 20 miles, trying to relish the moment and enjoy the effort I had made. Looking at the map, the finish looked straightforward and paved. But of course, the Pirates who designed the route threw in one more muddy wrench. Again, I was able to smash through it and hit the pavement to the finish line.

The Aftermath of Gravel Worlds

Rolling across the line was quite a relief, high fives, hugs, and an embrace from my girlfriend were about all I could muster. Quickly I found a curb, sat down, and spent the next half hour sitting. Processing. Thinking. Thinking about how proud I am of the effort but also how I could have done things a little better. Always improving but accepting that it's often two steps forward and one step back when setting goals. This season, I’ve had two successful sub-24-hour races and one DNF. Two forwards, one back. I think there is still time for one more ultra this year...

Until the next one-

Austin Sulli

P.S. Without any prompting, I was expecting to be handed an un-shucked ear of corn at the finish line. That didn’t happen, but maybe the Gravel Worlds staff will see this and make my corn-y dreams come true next year?

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