I love making the annual trip to Emporia, Kansas and was really excited to have the race back on the calendar in 2021. Emporia has certainly produced its share of highs and lows for me, and this year’s race was no different.
2018 was my introduction to this little gravel haven, and I had an amazing time out on the Kansas plains, making new friends and finishing a respectable 16th. Eager for more in 2019, I arrived ready to battle and reality intervened.
The day before the race, my wife and I got hit with the some of the hardest news I think a parent—let alone new parents—could receive. At just four months old, our daughter Claire was diagnosed with retinoblastoma, a form of cancer that produces tumors. In her case, it is in both of her eyes. It was tough carrying that with me for 206 miles without being able to really express it to anyone. Pile on multiple flats and being “out of the front end of the race,” it made for a mentally challenging day, but one that my body had enough gas in the tank to carry me through. I was proud of the day—it was tough, but it will certainly be something I remember for a long time.
Flash forward to 2021. Covid is beginning to recede and the last time I had raced (other than virtually) was in October 2019 at unPAved. I’d been fully vaccinated in mid-May and was excited to get back to a start line. Training had been decent, but I’ll admit was made tougher with the workload from my day job. The busy work life is good and fantastic for my career, but it certainly adds to the stresses when it takes away valuable sleep and time on the bike. Time that you know you really need to excel at a race that is over 10 hours long for the winners—some of the fastest people out there.
So, with all of that, I knew it was going to be tough to perform at the level I wanted—but I was determined to give it my best go. I’d had some solid training through April, riding my Watia that Litespeed set me up with, amassing a ton of miles on the road. Gravel in long distances is simply hard to find in New England where I live, so I made do with 32mm tires and lots of miles.
Having never ridden titanium before, I have to say I was truly impressed by how comfortable the bike is. The difference that titanium yields in long haul comfort I think is absolutely a defining feature, one that can’t be overlooked for this genre of racing that is rising in popularity, a category where 120-plus mile races of bumpy terrain is the norm. Even though I wasn’t rolling over bumpy rocks I was still putting the Watia through its paces and tailoring it to my liking.
All through April and the beginning of May, things were solid; training was consistent and towards the middle of May I really tried to sneak a few more hours of sleep in and lay off the early morning Zwift racing that is a staple of dad-life training. I’ll be honest here: I was prepared to battle it out for a solid Top 20 spot based on the firepower that was headed to Unbound. I thought that was a great marker for the first race in a long time, and one where the build wasn’t as big as I might have normally wanted.
And then it happened. I felt it on my birthday, May 28th one week before the race; a little fogginess in the head. I was sick. Forced in by rain on Saturday, I decided to ride Zwift and keep the session contained and controlled. I should have known. I should have treated myself like one of the athletes I coach. The lungs started burning during the session, something quite honestly I haven’t felt in I don’t know how long. I had a chest cold, which appeared to be the same thing that was ripping through my daughter’s daycare, and something she had herself. Apparently, the re-opening of the country has also re-opened the daycare sicknesses that we were lucky to avoid for over a year. I couldn’t remember the last time I had a chest cold. It frankly was brutal. I was in not great shape for a couple days, stayed off the bike and tried to sleep it off. I did a couple efforts on Tuesday and Wednesday on the trainer and it just felt flat, my body was lacking in energy and a cough was in full effect. (and no, not Covid; a negative test confirmed it and my sense of taste and smell remained and all that). So, with plans already in place, I flew out and figured I’d give it a go; I’m not one to back down from a challenge. I trusted myself to know my body, but my body wasn’t done with me yet.
Arriving in Emporia, I was a train wreck. My head was pounding (likely from airplane pressure messing with a congested head) and I literally “lost my lunch.” I curled up in the dorm room with an empty stomach and just laid in bed from 5:00 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. on Friday morning. Definitely not an ideal way to go into a 200-mile race where you need to be at 100 percent all system GO.
Apologies if this is a sob story (not my intention), but it is what it is: things just weren’t exactly turning up roses. Friday I was able to ride with fellow OBED rider Angela Naeth (who—no big deal— finished as sixth overall woman in her first go in Kansas) and take down an IHOP breakfast. I did my best to fuel up, but I was already way behind the eight ball. I did what I could, got ready and got to bed.
Saturday morning I was on the start line, feeling OK and optimistic that maybe I could pull this thing off. I rode in the moment and maintained position during the early miles of the chaotic and frenzied start that defines Unbound. I am not kidding, ask anyone that raced—it’s pretty nuts. I should have known when my HR was 170 about two minutes into the race that my “engine” was not primed for success. But the hell with it at that point—there is nothing you can do but carry on and see how the day progressed.
We arrived at the first real “sector” of the race, at mile 25. It begins with a slight downhill where the Jeep track road goes from smooth to rocky. Ruts, rocks and divots define this section. It’s where the front speeds up and looks to jettison all those who aren’t ready. It forced me to go into the red, but I made this selection. I was pleased and as the paced eased I was pretty psyched. Then the paced eased even more and the group of maybe 20-25 swelled back up to well over 50, maybe even more. This is never great, because it means another vicious surge is going to occur quickly as the front wants to drop people to slim it down. Sure enough, we rolled through a little town and as soon as we left the pavement and headed towards the rolling gravel hills the race was 100 percent on—and never let up after that. Ian Boswell (the future race champ at that point) came barreling up the left side of the group with a couple people in tow, and you could just tell that the race was about to go off. A blistering pace ensued and within the span of maybe 10 minutes the front group was created. A second chasing group of six or so formed and then the group I was with followed behind. There were about 10-15 of us in this third pack and over the miles of 35-70, we shrank to about five or six.
I was happy there, content to make some allies and work together. We hit the first aid, re-filled bottles and went back to battle. It was on that first hill out of the aid station that I knew I was on borrowed time. I didn’t have the normal race day “ENERGY” when the gun went off. I faked it over the first portion of the race off of pure adrenaline. That adrenaline was now gone and replaced with… essentially, nothing. My tank was empty. The sickness, lack of full week of carb loading, missed workouts, lack of sleep—quite honestly, the whole last year or so of minimal race action just hit me. I didn’t have that reserve to draw upon.
When I looked at the mileage odometer it said 90—not 190, but 90. That meant I was 116 miles away from the finish line. 2019 Matt faced with 180 solo miles was able to grit his teeth and get through it—but that Matt had a store of energy to draw upon. 2021 Matt was a different story
I hated to do it as I really intend on seeing all things through on the bike and in life, but man another seven or eight hours on the bike—in Unbound conditions? It seemed like the absolute worst thing I could do to my body. With a spunky two-year-old daughter at home and a busy job awaiting me at home, I couldn’t afford to devastate my body in a way that I might not be functional for a few weeks.
So yeah, I phoned a friend. My longtime friend and coach Tim—I kid you no—drove a hybrid minivan on Little Egypt. Those that know him A.) Are unsurprised Tim did that and B). are thinking “how the hell did he do that?”
We headed to Council Grove and I spent the afternoon hanging with friends and supporting our riders. It’s always a bummer to drop out and not finish the job, but honestly it was the right call and I stand by it. It’s never worth destroying your health—maybe only if your livelihood is at stake. In my case, my livelihood counts on my being healthy and functional in the brain.
Therefore, no regrets and ONWARD! I tremendously appreciative of all the support: friends and family sending messages, Jesse whose an absolute champ for driving all the way to Kansas to support our crew (really can’t say thank you enough) and Litespeed for getting me on their new Watia frame for 2021. The bike was amazing and the perfect tool for a race like Unbound where you ABSOLUTELY need a sturdy steed that can take a beating, keep you comfortable and rolls fast. It really is an optimal choice in these situations; a bike that can take on terrain that was meant for mountain bikes (full suspension kind) but can also roll quick on the flat and smooth. This bike is all of that.
While I did not honor the bike with a stellar finish, I take heed in knowing that the next time, when I’m 100 percent that I’ve got the right tool for the job.