The last section of mud I remembered was from last year, but this year was worse. If the first section of mud at Unbound was peanut butter, this was cement, and I barely entered the section before my wheels instantly seized in a thick paste of prairie goo.
I began running down the side of the road on the banked shoulders of hip-high grasses now well beaten down by fellow travelers, but this time, my run slowed to a walk and then a hobble. My right foot was done.
Oh yeah – my foot.
So, during the first three miles of mud at Unbound, I, like everyone else, had stopped trying to ride and began running and pushing my bike for all I was worth. My highest heart rate of the day actually came from pushing my bike, not riding it.
Anyway, the grass was so high at that point that I couldn’t see where I was running. On one tricky section, my right foot violently rolled as I set my weight and the bike’s weight on it. If you’ve ever done any trail running, you know what’s coming for you later, but in the moment, the combination of adrenaline and endorphins soothed the sudden throbbing and delayed the consequences of that misstep to future Matti.
As the day wore on, my right foot swelled. The solution was simple – loosen the boas on my shoe. That worked until nothing was left to loosen, and my foot stayed in my shoe because it had grown to my youth’s aspirational foot size of 13. I always wanted to tell the girls I had big feet.
By the time I reached the second mud section, however, I had all but forgotten my foot because the pain had mixed in with the other pain. When I took my first step, however, everything changed.
Every footfall was like being stabbed. At first, I tried to bear the suffering manfully, but in short order, wincing rendered to audible cries every time I put weight on it. I was gorged with suffering and tried to think of another way to get past this soupy nonsense, but I wasn’t hopscotching my way through this mile and a half of hell pushing a bike. The only way past was through.
When I finally cleared the mud, I wanted to amputate the foot. I couldn’t put pressure on it, so I only mounted and pedaled with my left foot for several miles.
But the finish was near; my body could feel it, and something down deep punched the turbo button, and the ditches melted into a blur.
Just as I swung under the bridge of I-25, Hayden swung into view.
I have yet to mention him, but I’d made a new friend out on the road, and he wasn’t Canadian; he was Hayden Werner. He rode for Above and Beyond Cancer, and we’d played off each other all day.
Initially, we’d try dropping each other – me pushing the uphills, he everything else. We went back and forth like this for about 80 miles before finally calling an unspoken truce and swapping pulls and exchanging light banter.
That cadence is an emergent phenomenon in Unbound that maybe only Forest articulated well. The race is so long that all of your strengths and weaknesses eventually play out to their inevitable end, so if you cannot shake someone for 80 miles, ride with them instead of against them. If you were truly better, you wouldn’t be battling them, so let it go and make a friend.
We came to the final hill entering Emporia, and I lit my last remaining match and roared up the hill, swung through the college, and entered the sweetest stretch in cycling – the finish to Unbound.
There wasn’t much of a crowd – the rains had thinned the crowds – but there were enough half-buzzed raucous hooligans left to lift me as I crossed the line.
I looked back – 12:26, good enough for 48th place.
I’ll admit I’m proud of that. Bike racers aren’t comfortable celebrating their own accomplishments, nor should they be, but given my corn-fed genetics, character flaws, and weaknesses, 48th in the pro field approaches…respectable. It requires no excuses, no qualification; it’s just emphatically, undebatably OK, which is all I ever wanted.