Four things I learned at the epically muddy Unbound XL

Four things I learned at the epically muddy Unbound XL

The 2023 edition of the 352-mile Unbound XL gravel race in Emporia, Kansas, pushed professional riders and amateurs alike to their limits and beyond. Julbo athlete Chris Mehlman was among them.

by Chris Mehlman

Hours of hiking through wet clay, endless dropped chains and a very lonely night made the race a true test of grit and determination. While it wasn’t a win, finishing fifth place after taking fourth last year—and just finishing at all—is the result I am most proud of in my whole career. It left me with lasting memories and a new appreciation for how far my mind can take me when I think positive. 

Here are a few things I learned along the way, from the simplest to the most impactful.

Chris Mehlman, far left, placed fifth in the 2023 Unbound XL.

1.) Even a chain coated in rocks and mud will still work

Sometimes, it’s easy to put a chain back on. But, as I learned, it is almost impossible once the chain is filled with mud and rocks. Through trial and error, I found that I had to get my chain line straight so it wouldn’t immediately be pulled off. I then had to force each link onto the chainring, hold the bike with the rear wheel off the ground and slowly pedal until the chain bedded in to settle on the chainring.

As meaningless as this sounds, this task became one of my main focuses during the race and was key to my success.  

2.) Don’t sweat the small stuff

Prior to the race, I spent hours agonizing over tire pressure, whether I should carry 23 or 24 gels and where I should place all of the spare parts and food I was carrying. This race became a lesson in perspective. Ten hours in, none of those trivial decisions mattered.

We, as racers and humans, often agonize too long over decisions that will have little impact in the long term. Focus on the big picture—one small decision won’t ruin your race or your day. 

3.) The race is not over until it’s over

It's easy to give up when you see the front of the race ride away from you. I’ve made this mistake before. This race was a true test of mental toughness in terms of weathering the conditions and staying mentally in the game. I was far back at points, and part of my mind wanted to give in to the idea that the race was over, but I kept telling myself there was still a chance for a good result.

Sure enough, I managed to reel in riders until I was on the podium by the end, a result I never would have imagined 15 hours earlier. By telling myself there was still a chance, I gave myself that chance. It always is there if you say it is and if you commit to trying.

4.) You CAN do hard things

This race broke frames, drivetrains and people. I wanted to quit more times than I can count, but I used one tool to keep myself going. I asked myself: How would I feel if I quit?

I imagined the days after the race when I would regret my decision. I knew how proud I would feel getting through such a crazy experience, even if, at mile 190, I had only gone eight miles in the previous two hours. Because of this single question, I made it through, and I cannot be prouder. Your mind can empower you to accomplish tasks that seem impossible if you use it in the correct way. 

Chris finished in a time of 26:00:14—that's 26 HOURS! He raced wearing the Julbo Edge, with a REACTIV 0-3 High Contrast lens.