Racing 350 Miles of Mud - Recapping Unbound XL with Luke Hall

Racing 350 Miles of Mud - Recapping Unbound XL with Luke Hall

This year, Chamois Butt'r athlete and ultra-distance cyclist, Luke Hall, attempted the infamous UNBOUND XL course. Ever heard of it? The race challenges bikepackers, gravel grinders, and endurance athletes to pedal 350 miles through the Flint Hills of east-central Kansas. Most of those who finish the race, do so in one push - sacrificing sleep, adequate fuel, and often their sanity to be among the finishers. 

We are proud to support Luke in his gravel pursuits and keep his rides smooth with Chamois Butt'r Ultra Balm. Below Luke recounts his inspiring and tenacious journey to the second place podium at UNBOUND XL in 2023.

Racing 350 Miles of Mud

By: Luke Hall

Nobody understood what the UNBOUND XL course was going to throw at us in 2023. Most of us heard of the mud reports at mile 10, but we also believed there were lines we could ride to avoid the slop. 

What we didn’t know was what lay past the first 40 miles–the same 40 miles that the 200-mile course traversed later that weekend.

Fifteen of us rolled into the first gas station at mile 75 as a solid group. Tension permeated the gas station as we waited in line with our various sugars and waters. Looking back I realize that as we rolled out of there, we were all still blissfully unaware of what was coming. 

We hit the first bit of mud still in the light of day. Our bikes seized up, wheels jammed with mud, and before long our shifting was gone to hell. Our lead group walked for 2 miles, mumbling and grumbling on the side of the sticky roads.

When we got back on the bikes again, the contrast of riding was so freeing. Big clods of mud flew in every direction, including my eyes and my mouth. I crossed my fingers that these stretches of mud were limited, but our second stretch was just around the corner. 

The first stretch blew up the group, and the second stretch of a two-mile hike-a-bike splintered us even more. I found myself behind, sitting around 10th place. My dreams of winning felt shockingly over, even though there were still 200 miles left. "What ifs" took over my thoughts and I found myself ruminating and frustrated. 

Every so often I looked down at the note from my partner Heather on my stem: "Keep :), Movin', Groovin', Hydrate." At times I took the advice to heart, other times I laughed at the absurdity of what I was attempting.

Coming around a corner, my small group of three hit the third stretch of mud and we saw the headlamps of our competition crisscrossing in every direction on the road. Within a few minutes, I hiked myself to the front of the race. I couldn't help but laugh at the reality that I was leading the UBXL while pushing along a 50lb mud-laden bike. What was I doing out here? 

I looked at the map: "Next turn in 7 miles." Quite a long way to struggle with one’s bike. 

In the hour of hiking that followed, quite a few talked of quitting, and I felt pressured to let this race go. Was it worth it to trash my bike and drivetrain? What if after all this hiking my race ended in a mechanical? 

At the end of the mud stretch, I called Heather and told her I had an opportunity to drop out. She reminded me of the sacrifices I made over the past few years, but especially the last 8 months. "Think about it—you're currently on the podium with three people ahead of you."

For the first time since the race started, I put my headphones in and put my head down for what I figured would be a 170-mile solo push. It was time to do some groovin'. 

Ten miles down the road, I found two Germans who recently changed out an entire tire. I got into my groove and towed them for a handful of miles. Eventually, I looked back, there was no one on my wheel. So, I cranked a little bit harder, determined to see if I could catch Logan Kasper, who was leading the race. 

The mind runs to all sorts of corners when it's sleep and calorie deprived. I imagined that I was hunting Logan, tracking him through his tire tracks and with all five of my senses (yes, even taste, haha). At one point in the night, I hallucinated spry farm dogs waited at the side of the road to chase me down.

Luckily, the rising sun gave me new energy, and I counted down the mileage until we joined up with the 200/100 riders. I knew that would drive me even further, and maybe I could sneak up on Logan. Later I would learn, however, that we stayed pretty static, separated by 10-15 miles the whole race. 

The last 50 miles seemed to take the longest. It was impossible not to imagine myself being passed by the 3rd place rider or a mechanical taking me down. I was down to three usable gears right in the center of my cassette. Not great for climbing, not great for speed. Finally, we rode into the city limits of Emporia, and I gave everything I had for the last hill.

Once across the finish line, I felt both overwhelmed and numb. An accumulation of training and sacrifice over many years and a real badge of grit and tenacity. I find myself still plagued by nagging negative thoughts. But in the end, I did the best that I could, and the race turned out the only way it could. The reception from friends, family, sponsors, my coach, and competitors has been incredible. I'm slowly recovering and feel hungry for the rest of the season.

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