Unstoppable: Austin's Unbound XL Experience
Ed note: OBED assembly ace Austin Sullivan isn't just great at running cable and tightening to torque specifications on your new OBED. He's also adept a pedaling—a lot. Austin just completed Unbound XL: the 350-mile, 24-hour (or more) gravel race epic held every June in the Flint Hills of Emporia, Kansas.
Austin shares with us the dusty 24-hour day aboard his OBED, where he finished an impressive 29 hours, 27 minutes, 48 seconds to finish in 23rd overall, averaging 12.08 miles per hour. And stick around to the end, where he shares what he used to fuel his ride.
Unbound XL 2021
I woke up early—as I usually do—and tossed for a couple more hours. Soon enough, I rolled out around 8:30 a.m. My roommate/coworker Michael dropped me off at IHOP while he ran down to the expo. IHOP was busy, to be expected on a race weekend in Emporia.
This town gets so into gravel this weekend! We walked out the van at the hotel and some lady in the drive-thru yelled out to ask if we were gravel grinders—an endearing term for those who ride gravel. She told us about friends of hers, what they would be wearing (pink and blue) and to look out for them. At IHOP, I was told of a short wait. Naturally, I looked around the store to see if anyone was sitting alone and appearing to be friendly. I made eye contact with one guy after hearing him declare to this server that he would like two glasses of water, because he drinks a lot. A quick smile and I sat down to wait. A moment later, I stood up and asked him if he would like some company. “Of course”, he said. I jumped into the other side of the booth, got a glass of water, four blueberry pancakes, hashbrowns and three eggs. We chatted; he was from Houston, which I’m familiar with from working the rodeo. He was racing the 200 and was excited and nervous as I was. After finishing, he asked the server for one check and promptly paid for my meal, out of the blue. What a nice guy to eat and chat with!
I had one item left to get established for my race: to make a route resupply chart, something I could reference throughout the race, allowing me to easily decipher how far I was from food/water. I was worried about there being two 100-mile sections between gas stations, which were our only source of food, as no support crews are not allowed in Unbound XL.
The race started at 3pm on Friday, setting us up for a finish on Saturday afternoon/evening. Most of the racing for the weekend was set for Saturday, with both the 100-mile and 200-mile events starting early Saturday morning.
Naturally, there was a big crowd hanging out to watch us roll out, cheering for all the crazies about to get down with 357 miles of Flint Hills. I saw a friend of mine from Chattanooga, moved through the pack of about 120 racers and chatted with her about the 11-hour drive from Tennessee. We slowly rolled through town for about two miles before hitting the first of the gravel. I began to notice the pack spreading out, and I wanted to be near the front of the group and try to hold on to the lead group for as long as reasonably possible. We were going fast. The first wreck of the day happened to a fast racer from Colorado. She went down on the loose left-hand turn. She popped back up and was checking her bike, “You Ok?” “Yup.”
Soon after another guy was attempting to make a pass on my right, when there wasn't really room. He hit some loose gravel, began to slide sideways and then was in the grassy ditch off to the right. Jeez! All of a sudden I became extremely aware of whose wheels I was following and how they were riding; the last thing I wanted after months of training was to be taken out by another racer. It was all the more reason to stay on the gas and keep up with the lead group, riders who seemed to be more experienced. Next thing I know, I'm riding in the group with a couple legends in bikepacking. I didn't get to talk to Jay Petervary as he was on the front of the group driving the pace, but I did catch up with the eventual and reigning female champion, Lael Wilcox. The first two hours flew by, averaging around 19 mph. I knew the pace wasn't sustainable for me, and dropped off the front group of 10 or so riders.
The first gas station was at mile 41 in Eskridge. I jumped off, lean the bike, quickly move inside, grab three liters of water, and a bunch of snacks to get through the next 70 miles. Everyone was moving swiftly. The store clerk was a sweet lady, also rushing to help get all of us through the checkout. “I thought the race was July 4th”, she told me. I warned her there would be about 100 more riders coming soon. I quickly refilled my hydration vest and bottles, shoved all the snacks into the bags I have on my OBED bike, and was off. Stop time was less than eight minutes; it felt good to make such a quick and efficient stop.
A little further down the road, Lael caught up with me and a couple others. We ended up riding together for most of the next leg. The sun was intense, a constant reminder to keep drinking water and keep eating. Getting dehydrated early on would mean a terrible night of riding. We cruised along for the next few hours, trading pulls on the front and going a moderate pace on the surprisingly steep climbs.
Our first B road soon arrived, and we were riding on what seemed like someone's driveway. Lo and behold, a house popped into view shortly after and our route turned left onto a loose washed-out climb. A couple was sitting on their porch, waving hello and cheering for us. The locals seem to love this race weekend as there was a bunch of people hanging out in their yards, by the street cheering us on. I had heard about the B roads, notorious for being rutted, washed-out and minimally maintained. This first one was not terrible, but the six of us who were riding together certainly couldn't stay close together while trying to find the smoothest line through. The sun was setting, and it was a glorious moment we all had been hoping would come sooner—a respite from the blazing ball of life.
The last light of the sun seemed to last forever, the sky glowing orange and red for an hour. I hadn't turned my lights on yet, and I don't think anyone in our group had. Next thing I know, I crested a hill and was descending the worst line possible. Lots of big, fist to baby head-sized rocks were pinging me around. I noticed my rear wheel had gone flat and every rock was banging into my rim. Bummer, as I was enjoying riding with this group. I quickly pulled out a tire plug, shoved it in and got my pump out to add some air hoping it would all seal up. Two or three riders passed me, each asking if I was ok as they cruised on by. “Yup, just a flat.”
I got rolling again, and slowly caught riders until rolling into the next gas station at mile 118 in Alma. Another quick three liters, homemade cookies at the counter, Combos, gummy bears and a doubleshot espresso for later on. I added some more air to my rear tire, hoping it would continue to seal the puncture from earlier.
It was proper dark at this point. Clear skies and Milky Way views, with lightning bugs out to enjoy it all. The next bit of gravel was fast. We were crushing along, myself and three others. There were multiple snake sightings, bunnies in the road, frogs and mysterious furry animals I couldn't make out with my lights. Soon enough, we were ripping, trading pulls and enjoying each others company. There wasn't much conversation, just the occasional discussion about what bike your were riding, is that a Coca Cola in your jersey, et cetera. I slowly started to feel as if I was low on energy and found myself at the back of our small group, bouncing up and down on the underinflated rear tire. I slowly dropped off the back, around 2 a.m. to stop and add yet again more air to my rear tire.
Soon, I was rolling again with fresh calories in my belly, a firmer tire and a beautiful night of riding ahead. I was caught by two guys who seemed to be moving quite fast together. Perfect, I thought. But once again I found myself riding on a completely flat tire, rim bouncing along on rocks. I hopped off, grabbed my CO2 thinking that I just needed to reset the tire bead. Blast some air and all seems well—I’m rolling again. I catch back up the two guys I was with earlier, and one of them tells me how he wrecked on Little Egypt, a B road that was notoriously tough. Shortly after, I hear his tires sliding and he wrecks again, in the middle of a seemingly chill gravel road. I stop and ask if he is alright, he remounts and we continue. He had tried to cross the middle hump of gravel, and washed-out.
The rest of the night was cool, beautiful and fast. I stopped to air up my rear tire again at some point, frustrated that I was still dealing with it. I got into Alta Vista around 5 a.m., a potential resupply town, but the general store opened at 7 a.m. I saw a park building bathroom, table and chairs—a perfect spot to put a tube into my rear tire. I spent about 45 minutes with the tire fix, washed up, changed bibs and brushed my teeth. What a luxury brushing your teeth is after 14 hours on the bike!
Sunrise. Again, the light from the sun seemed to take hours to finally rise, with orange and red waves all along the endless horizon. I snapped a few photos, my first since the roll out from town. I drank my espresso and continued to munch on my snacks. I got into the next gas station in Council Grove and saw a friend of mine who was nearby doing support for the 200 mile race. He said hello and rushed back to man his support station.
Man was I hungry. I immediately grabbed two slices of pizza, three liters of water, a coffee cake, danish, more Combos and gummy bears. I needed enough food to get through 100 miles to the next gas station. I took a little longer at this stop, trying to eat and drink as much as possible. I rolled out after 20 minutes, back on route and couldn't help but notice the supply stop for the 200-mile and 100-mile racers. Must be nice to have someone swap bottles, shove food into your bike bags and clean your chain. Maybe next year!
Belly full, caffeine flowing and a rear tire holding a solid amount of air, I was back on pace. But things began to get weird around 11 a.m. No sleep and no riding company left my mind wandering as my Wahoo GPS kept alerting me about upcoming turns. The gravel road began to look like a painting, almost surreal. I kept having moments where I thought I saw the shadow of another rider next to me, but nope—there was no one there. I remember having thoughts that I was on a group ride, that other people were just in front of me. I looked up and around and almost chuckled because no one was there, and I certainly was not on a group ride. Each time this happened, it was a subtle reminder to eat some sugar. Gummy bears was the snap back to reality I needed.
After a few hours of weird moments, blurry gravel and nonexistent shadows, I became aware of how low I was on water. I knew there was a house coming up that had a spigot we were allowed to use, "the first house on the right as you enter town.” Not being sure as to when I would "enter town", I of course missed the house. I turned around and found a gentleman in his yard, I asked if he might have water for cyclist and he pointed over to the spigot and went on with his business. Thank goodness! It was hot and I was nearly out. I refilled, remounted and felt like a brand new man—all Brooks n' Dunn like!
Revived, I kept cruising. There were another 40 miles to more food,—then 45 miles to done! I stopped for a quick photoshoot, and of course the winds blew my bike over and bent my derailleur hanger. Luckily, I brought a second hanger for my OBED bike, quickly swapped it and was on my way. If it wasn't for the spare hanger, it could have been a bad ending....I got a great picture though!
Most of the route on Saturday was southbound, and the winds of Kansas didn't disappoint. 10 to 20 mph headwinds out of the south made for some tough pedaling. The nice thing about riding farm roads is that you're never going in the same direction for too long, constantly turning 90 degrees. The moments the roads went away from being south-facing, I tried to ride a little harder to make up for the headwinds I was fighting.
I arrive in Cottonwood Springs around 5 p.m., the last gas station. Only 45 miles to go. I assess the route, my water and food. I think I could finish before 9 p.m., a goal I had been shooting for, but was unsure up to that point if was possible. Another doubleshot of espresso and a coffee cake, and I was back on the bike with determination. The legs felt pretty good, and I was hammering. With about 25 miles left, I began to pass riders who were finishing up the 200-mile race. I felt like I had a motor, just hammering by them after a cordial hello and wave.
I kept getting text messages from friends in those final three or four hours. “You got this!” “You're doing it!” “Almost there”. What a boost those messages were! A few more steep climbs, then some flat roads and I was beginning to enter the outskirts of town. I can't believe how good I'm feeling! Back onto pavement, one last climb that I stand up for and power through, a couple turns through campus and I'm in the finishing lane. Surprisingly there were a good bit of people out there cheering for all the finishers, even at 8:30 p.m. The announcer calls out my name, “Austin Sullivan from Chattanooga, TN finishing up the Unbound XL!” I grab a couple high fives from kids along the finishing chute, cross the line and have a huge smile on my face.
Finishers lanyard around my neck, the volunteers hand me a big beer stein, a cold water and wet cloth to drape on my neck. I turn to my right and see Michael, and more friends cheering for me. I'm just SO HAPPY! Michael hands me a quart of chocolate milk, which promptly is quaffed in champion fashion. A couple more photos, a swap to sandals and we mosey back to the van. It's shower time, and I've never seen my legs so dirty.
I clean up, and by this time there isn't much open for food. We settle for IHOP and end up running into some other OBED racer friends, one being Angela Naeth— she finished sixth in the 200! Awesome! I ordered a lot of food and surprisingly wasn't able to eat all of it - but damn was it good as leftover breakfast Sunday morning.
Unbound XL was just so much fun, with endless miles of rolling hills. I was constantly reminded that there just isn't anything out there. Rolling gravel roads, fields of grass and nothingness except endless views and wide-open skies. My bike was amazing, at times felt like an extension of my body. Shifts from the Di2 were smooth and predictable.
I was asked on the finish line, “Would you do it again?”
- 2 Amy's burritos-thawed out in the OBED jersey pocket
- 2 packages of gummy bears
- 2 gu gels
- 2 slices of gas station pizza
- 1 PayDay bar
- 2 coffee cakes
- 1 Blueberry Danish
- 2 homemade cookies,
- 1 package of Chips Ahoy cookies
- 1 package of Grandma's cookies
- 1 package of lemon crème cookies
- 1.5 bags of Combos cheddar cheese snacks
- 2 CliffBar Shot Blocks
- 6 LMNT drink packets
- 12 liters (approx.) of water
- 1/2 lb of dust consumption via nose, mouth & eyes