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Garmin Unbound 100 recap

Samantha Lindsey Wotiz  | Published on 6/17/2021

Sam finishes Unbound 100!
I am not super woman. I am not even a local legend. I am a mom with a full-time, square day job. And I’m also somehow a Garmin Unbound 100 finisher. Please forgive me but I’m still in a state of disbelief! What follows is a brief recount of the race and some strategies that worked for this endurance race rookie.

(TL;DR: Kansas was hot. The course starts easy, gets rolling and technical, then becomes a mental game of talking yourself through every passing mile. The reward is worth pushing through the growing physical and mental fatigue. There’s a list of some of the strategies that worked well for me in my Gravel Endurance Tips article) .

About four months ago one of my best gravel-riding girlfriends suggested to me that I should enter the Garmin Unbound lotto. She entered the lotto for the 200 mile race and I decided that 100 miles would be a stretch for me, but why not! We both got in. And so began 3 focused months of riding long and longer gravel rides.

Saturday morning I lined up with hundreds of other riders from across the United States in Emporia, KS (the gravel capital of the US) for the start of the 100 mile race. Locals were complaining of the humidity, but this Georgia girl wasn’t fazed at all. The sun was peeking over the horizon and the 200 mile riders had been on course for an hour already. I stood with hands shaking (like always) while I waited for the start of the race. The clock hit 7 am and everyone rolled out slowly through the small town, over the highway, and onto the start of the gravel roads.

The first 30 miles were a breeze; the roads were flat, the temperature was cool, and there were multiple peletons to sit in with. I was crawling my way from wheel to wheel and working successfully with a few folks. The scenery was gorgeous. The terrain started to become more rolling but the gravel was still small and manageable. I began to admire the rolling farm land, snapped a photo, and found a friend stopped along the ride. We administered some first aid to a downed rider, got him squared away into his SAG vehicle, and started back our ride. By this time we’d lost at least 20 minutes.

We spent the next 24 miles (on our way to the only aid station at mile 54) playing catch up. The sun started to climb higher in the sky and I felt my skin heating. There were some surprisingly steep rollers with large, loose rock that left many riders walking (both downhill and up). I leaned into my experience from riding the loose, chunky rocks of North Georgia jeep roads. As I climbed roller after roller so also the sun climbed higher and higher. The gentle breeze from the morning began to change into a steady headwind. But do you know what? That wind SAVED me. It kept me cool.

I refueled at the halfway point. I drank a ginger ale, enjoyed washing the salt/dirt off my face, and reapplied sunscreen. I decided that I wouldn’t need any of the many, many salty snacks in my drop bag and left them all behind, taking only my gummies and drink mix with me. By now it was HOT. Our shadows were small as we began the trek out of town and back to the rolling gravel. Civilization got farther away and the thought of riding 50 more miles of gravel seemed unappealing.

Miles 54-70 were not awful but I wasn’t feeling fresh any longer. The temperature was hot so I slowed down on the climbs. And the hills were relentless. People began walking on every hill, which meant you had to pick your line VERY carefully and sometimes ask walkers to let you pass. I meant to hold out until mile 75 but at mile 70 there was a rare shady spot under some trees. While I only drank two and a half bottles from the start to mile 54, from mile 54 to mile 70 I crushed three. I refilled my bottles with water and wished I had more drink mix. We snacked. We resumed pedaling. At mile 75 (full sun) some organizers had cold water to hand to riders. We passed them.

By mile 80 I was beginning to fade. I was approaching 6 hours of pedaling time, which was my longest gravel ride to date. Things were starting to ache, like my shoulders and hands. I bribed myself with the idea that 20 miles was no big deal and I knew if I could get to the final 15 miles I could finish. At what I thought would be 20 miles to go there was an official in his car cheering “only 25 miles to go!” I. Was. Crushed. It couldn’t be right. I had 20 miles of determination left in me, not 25.

But I’m a finisher! So how did I manage? Well, I had to slow down. I took the pressure off myself by reminding myself that I had ALL DAY to finish those 25 miles. I took the course piece by piece, setting little goals (to the top of that hill, to the end of that curve, past this pasture) like teammates had shared with me. I focused on the fact that any forward motion was good; pedaling would EVENTUALLY get me to the end. I ate even though I didn’t want to. I stopped and smelled the damp earth in the shade while the cool breeze kicked past me. I thought of my kids. I thought about all the members in the gym classes that showed up Saturday after Saturday who were my heroes. I thought about what an amazing gift it is to have the health to ride a bike miles in the sun. I thought about the long, grueling training rides with my cool-headed teammates. And I pedaled. There were cramps. There were silent curse words. And eventually...eventually there was the town again. With a finish line.

The last couple of miles of the course were on asphalt. I continued to cramp as I pedaled over the last little road roller to the street finish. The cramps abated as the final straightway came into sight. Announcers were calling out names of the finishers. I was going to make it. People lined the barriers ringing cow bells and cheering. I passed over the finish line, halted in the finisher tent to receive a cold towel and some trinkets, then walked out into the sun again. There I dissolved into a mess of tears. All the gratitude for my good health, for friends who believed in me, and for being DONE with an event that was like nothing I had ever imagined myself doing spilled out from behind my chest like a releasing a breath you didn’t know you were holding. This event was a stretch. And I raced it. I chewed up that gravel pedal stroke after pedal stroke. I met my goal of riding with a positive attitude no matter what. I finished with nothing but space for renewal in my body. (Kudos to you if you’ve read this far!)

That’s probably the most detailed race recap in the Sorella history. I wish I could have bottled up the feel of the Kansas wind, the sounds of the bikes crunching through miles of gravel, and the rush of endorphins from crossing the finish line to give to you all through the computer screen. Alas—it doesn’t work like that. But maybe you’ll feel inspired to try this race or any race that is a ‘push’ of your own fitness. :)