358 Hard Miles: 26 Hours, 55 Minutes – Lael Wilcox at the 2021 Unbound XL

“You just dance up those climbs. It’s amazing to watch.”

“Thank you.”

These are some of the only words we’ve exchanged, despite riding together for the past ten hours. It’s a few more hours before I learn that his name is Dave. That’s ultra-endurance. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you don’t, but it’s still great to have company riding through the night. I later find out that Dave is in his 50s and from Wisconsin. He must outweigh me by a good 50-80lbs and most of it is muscle. He’s a powerhouse on the flats and I’m light up the climbs. He groans and says “shit” a lot, but when the lady at the gas station asks if we’re having fun, he says, “we’re having the time of our lives.” And we really are. It’s hot and humid and hard as hell, but there’s so much beauty out there. Beauty in the sunset and the sunrise and the warm night— the cows and the fields, the open expanses.

Just Before 3 pm on Friday, June 4th: the Start

We’re packed handlebar to handlebar with a fence of well-wishers locking us in and more than a dozen photographers in front, shooting the start. The big man, I think it’s the Kansas governor, is talking details and inspiration about the XL, 358 miles of gravel, non-stop. They’re playing surprisingly somber music and it feels a bit heavy. I see many familiar and kind faces. The sun is beating down and we’re ready to go. The longer we stand here, the more dehydrated we get. It’s finally time and we go— neutral for the first few miles through town and then we turn onto dirt and blast off.

It’s fast. I don’t try to stay with the first group, but I hang onto the second and then back off onto the third and get on Dylan Morton’s wheel. Dylan and I have ridden together for years— both racing Unbound XL and the Tour Divide in 2019 and the Kenai 250 in Alaska last summer. Dylan’s a good wheel and a hell of a nice guy. I recognize Tony Krupicka and Nico and I’m happy with my crew. Nico drove all the way from Chicago to Emporia the night before to make it to the race. He hand-delivered a bottom bracket for me as well. He’s full of heart and I’m sad to hear that he scratches with a mechanical later on. Dylan scratches too from the heat. Ashley Carelock goes down in the first ten miles and I hear she pulls out too. There’s a high dropout rate and I can see why— the course this year is rugged. There are huge rocks and water crossings and grass fields. We start in 88F heat and it doesn’t cool off that much.

I ride to the first resupply at mile 41 with Tony K. The pack is still tight and we’re all rushing around each other. Amanda Nauman actually pushes the door into me as she’s leaving and I’m entering the convenience store. I’ve heard she’s really tough, winning the 200-mile race at least a couple of times.

I get three liters of cold water and two bottles of coke that I tuck into my jersey pockets. I drink most of a bottle of water while I wait to pay, fill up my bottles, pour the rest over my head and shoulders and get back on my bike. I’m out of town with a guy in a hot pink kit. Soon, I’m in a group of three. We gain on a couple of others including Amanda and ride together for the next few hours.

There are a lot of turns and you never know what’s coming next. A high-quality gravel road goes 90 degrees to an overgrown doubletrack— from the plains to what feels like the jungle. It’s nice to be close to water because it feels a lot cooler. Locals are out on ATVs. They holler that we’re past the worst of Bobcat Road. I don’t know the road, but it’s definitely encouraging to be on the other side.

A couple of riders are stopped by flat tires. Another guy is cramping up. They usually catch back up.

Up a chunky climb, I hear someone say, “Hi Lael!” And feel a hand on my back that gives me a strong push forward before he floats up the hill.

It’s a slight blonde guy in a black kit. I don’t know him and later find out it’s Mat Stephens from Texas. We’re at least 80 miles in and he doesn’t look like he’s broken a sweat. He’s riding side by side with another guy, cool as can be, despite the steep grade and huge rocks. I’ll never forget it.

The sun is going down, revealing a magenta horizon. My glasses are splattered with mud and it’s getting harder to see. I tuck them away. Our pack splits up. I don’t want to stop to wire in my headlight, but I hit the side of a rut and go down, scraping up my leg. It’s time to get into night mode— wired in headlamp, dynamo front light, focus forward.

It’s another 12 or 15 miles to the next gas station and over a hundred until I’ll see another one.

It’s welcoming to roll into a well-lit town. I pull up to the shop to cheering. I go in to buy chocolate milk, two bottles of Sprite, and peanut butter crackers. I still haven’t eaten anything because of the heat. I’m carrying a couple of PayDays and granola bars and I have enough to get through the night. Back out front, I drink the chocolate milk and a local starts asking me questions about Kansas and the Trans Am. He says he met me while I rode in 2016.

“Really? Sorry, I don’t remember. I was out of my mind during the Trans Am.”

I lube my chain, fill my bottles, tuck the soda in the jersey, throw out my trash and say hi to Jeff Kerkove. He’s sitting on the sidewalk and grinning. We rode together in 2019 and I’m hoping it works out that we’re together for a bit this year too. Later I find out he scratches from heat exhaustion. After throwing up an iced tea, he calls it. Too bad. I really like riding with that guy. He has such a great sense of humor.

I’m back on the bike. It’s a warm night and cruising feels good. Two tall guys catch me and I hop on their train. The young one with the yellow jersey and the blonde ponytail is having a real midnight streak. We fly together for the next hour. It feels incredible. In time, he tells us he’s fading. I’m pretty sure he needs to pull off to take a nap and then it’s just Dave and me.

We pedal, mostly side by side at first, and then the wind picks up out of the north. When we turn in that direction, we tighten up a bit, trading pulls to the next turn. Drafting, sharing tools, and food between racers is encouraged in Unbound XL, making it special for a self-supported race. It feels odd to ride in the wind at night. Nights are generally calm and quiet. I know we have a tough windy day ahead of us. Drafting helps a lot.

Hours in, Dave asks about the next water spot. We must’ve just passed one, but there’s another in 12 miles in a city park and we roll up on it. There’s a spigot, but it’s dry. I use the port-a-potty and then look for a water source. There are bathrooms around the other side of the building with faucets. Bingo! I wash my face and arms, fill my bottles, throw out my trash and I’m ready to go. Dave takes a few moments longer, but he catches me quickly and we’ve got a couple more hours until sunrise.

It’s a good one— pink and blue— my energy and spirits are on the up. There are just a few more miles to a town with a gas station and a chance to buy some food.

There’s another gravel bike outside the Short Stop and a rider inside. It’s Robb Finnegan on a Lauf. He says hello and I ask how he’s doing.

“Pretty good, but I fell in the night in a rut.”

His elbows and knees are black with blood. He’s got earrings and zinc sunscreen and he’s kind of a pirate with a broad smile and thousands of miles in his bones.

While I go to buy milk, Coke, and some horrible breakfast sandwiches, Robb and Dave are talking like old friends. Robb says he’d hoped some racers would come, so he’d have somebody to ride with. He asks if he can join us and promises to do some work. I had no idea at the time, but Robb is a packhorse of a rider— so strong and consistent, an absolute pleasure to ride with.

We’re back on the bikes, through town on the pavement until a steep gravel road goes up to the right. I’m feeling my pint of milk and I’m not sure I can keep it down. Robb and Dave pull strong and make a little gap. I know I have to close it. I need to ride with these guys through the wind. It’s really picking up. I hold my guts in and power myself back up to them.

It’s bright and heating up quickly. The terrain keeps rolling, along with farm fields, down to water crossings, across the grass, impossible to predict.

We talk a little, not too much, but the feeling is positive. We’re in this together.

Robb’s from Nebraska. He’s designed the course for the 300 mile Gravel Worlds Long Voyage in August. He’s pulled Allison Tetrick through a race and he loves doing the work. He’s got that real dig-in feel and I’m really grateful he’s there. Along the way, I’m grabbing handfuls of biscuits and pancakes and eggs and sausage from my breakfast sandwiches. They taste awful, but I know I need to get something down and I don’t want anything sweet besides soda. Robb takes sips from his jersey pocket liter of Canada Dry, using his fingertips to tuck the bottle back in.

That wind! That sun. It’s so hot!

I see Robb squeeze water onto his shoulders and upper quads, almost like the Tinman from The Wizard of Oz lubricating his joints. Why is he doing that? Then, I feel it. My upper thighs are burning under the direct sunlight and I do the same— squeezing bottles on my upper thighs and down my back. The water is warm, but it still offers relief.

We’re coming up on a water resupply in a windswept village. There’s no store and we’re looking for the private spigot. We pass all the houses— must’ve missed it. I look at my notes.

“It was the first house on the right. Do we need it?”

Yes, we do. We turn around and ride back a quarter mile to find the water pump in the backyard. I fill my bottles and soak my body and go behind the shed to pee.

“I think that was a discreet bathroom break.” “Yes, it was.”

“When I rode with Amanda Panda, she said she had to pee and just squatted down in the middle of the road.”

I don’t tell them that that’s exactly what I would do if they weren’t there.

We’re back out and it’s still rolling, but we’re getting closer. A couple of minutes riding south feels like a million bucks. What a tailwind! And then it abruptly turns, again and again. Near Cottonwood Falls, we hit the pavement and are directly crossing paths with a full-on parade. I think it’s for a rodeo. There are dozens of trucks and horses and people in costumes. I wave to them and they mostly don’t wave back. It doesn’t matter. At the edge of town is the Casey’s, my favorite gas station resupply because they always have pizza. And they do! I get a slice of pepperoni, not sure if I’ll be able to get it down, but I’ll definitely try. I also get a yellow Red Bull, a green smoothie, more water, and a huge Rice Krispie treat. The Redbull goes down the hatch, the juice & Rice Krispie go in my jersey pockets, and the pizza in my mag-tank.

“Let’s finish this!”
I’m pumped up. Just 43 miles to go, over 300 completed.

They don’t make it easy.

“We have to climb up there.” Robb points.

We do it. On the other side, there’s another grassy traverse.

I coach myself through the rut. “You’re okay. You’re okay. You’re okay.”

At the end of it is a young boy in a hi-vis orange t-shirt.

“Hey there! How are you doing?” Asks Robb. “I’m staying in the same house as that kid. I just met him yesterday.”

“Cool that he came out!”

We start seeing riders, going the same way, but they’re not in our race. This is the part where the XL, 100, and 200-mile races share the same course. It’s both strange and cool to see other riders after spending so many miles with so much open space. Some of them are walking. It gets really steep. We say hello to everyone and we crank our way in.

“What do you think? Do you want to try for under 27 hours? Up to you. It’s going to be close.” Asks Robb.

“Yeah, let’s go for it!”

We step on it, out of the saddle, up on the climbs, hammering the flats, Robb goes into a new gear and I can hardly hold his wheel.

“I was thinking that when we get close to the finish, Dave and I will just hold back and let you go first. No one cares how we do. You’re the first woman.”

“No way! You guys have been riding way too hard for that. You have to finish strong!”

Racing is all about guts and heart. No holding back. I know these guys have more power than me, especially on the flats. Honestly, I think Robb should’ve gone for the overall win and I tell him so.

“Not me! I just like to help.”

We’re getting close. The wind doesn’t relent. Past an open lake, with no cover, it’s just about the worst. There’s no point in getting frustrated or hating it. It is what it is, but it really makes everything that much harder.

And we’re back in Emporia, passing through the university. One mile to go. Let’s really crank! Let’s look both ways before we cross the street! There’s the finish!

I hear the big guy on the microphone, calling my name.
“From Anchorage, Alaska, it’s Lael Wilcox, the first woman of the XL.”

And there’s a wall of bodies and cheering down the chute and I see the clock, it’s five minutes til. We’re under 27 hours!

Out of the saddle, crossing the line, I see Rue shaking a big bottle of champagne, but I pass her before she gets the cork off.

I stop and unclip and walk back towards her. The bottle is now in Kristi Mohn’s hands. She gets that cork off quick and sprays me down. It’s great!

Rue gives me a hug and a kiss. There are cameras all around. I’m tired and happy and I just want to sit down and take off my wet shoes. The Chamois Butt’r girl hands me a wet towel and a bottle of cold water. I find a bench, take off my shoes and start wiping myself down. I’m being interviewed by two guys in a row. I get up to leave and get called a few different directions. It’s great to have friends to celebrate with. At the end, I thank Anna from SRAM that swapped my bottom bracket the morning of the race and tuned my shifting.

“My bike has never worked better. Thank you for everything!” “I’m glad to hear it. Congratulations!”
I walk away with Rue.
“We’ve gotta get out of here.”

Rue lets me borrow her e-bike and rides my race bike back to our rental, three miles away.

“I’m sorry the headset is so loose! It’s been like that for a while. I didn’t want to stop and fix it.”

I really want to shower, eat and sleep.

When we get back to the house, I get a text from Zander.

“719 Commercial Street. Press conference at 8 pm. Kristi just asked me to send this!! Congrats Lael! Fuck yeah!”

I’ve got time for a shower. Then, we’re back on the bikes, three miles to downtown. I’m a little late, but they pull out a chair for me and put a sign with my name on it on the table to mark my spot. All of the guys smile and wave. Pete Stetina and Colin Strickland are eating tacos. Amity Rockwell gives me a huge smile. Ted King pops his head out and waves. Laurens ten Damme’s eyes get big and Ian Boswell is serious, but he introduces himself later. I’m in good company.

They ask the first XL finisher, Taylor Lideen, how it is to ride through the night, without stopping to sleep.

He kindly defers to me, “Lael should know something about that.”

“Well, I haven’t gotten a chance to sleep yet, but I did get to take a shower. It’s special to ride through the night. I think everyone should try it. I’d love to encourage more women to race Unbound XL. Imagine what it could be like.”

After, as we’re heading out, Amity Rockwell gives me a big hug.
“Give me three years and I’ll be there with you.” She promises.
358 hard miles. 26 hours, 55 minutes. First woman and tenth overall. I’m happy with it.