Fifty miles into Unbound 100, Adam Kachman started to fight his demons.
Just four weeks earlier, he had taken part in Cascadia Super Gravel, a 100-miler with 14,000 vertical feet in Olympia, Washington. It was meant to be the final event before the big dance, but it evolved into the toughest challenge before Unbound.
The rainy and freezing conditions in Cascadia had pushed Kachman to his limits: his hands went numb, and he crashed heavily on a stretch with slick rocks. He walked away from the accident with a separated collarbone.
A few weeks later, in Unbound, there was no escape: the pain crept into his body and his head slowly but surely.
A hot day in Emporia
The day was sunny and hot in Emporia, Kansas. With high temperatures of 31°C (88°F), riders have to keep their hydration levels high, as well as their motivation.
Unbound is an event that changes Emporia, a small and slow-paced town, and the whole community gathers for a gravel race that has shaped its identity for the last 15 years.
"Within two hours of being there, I was sitting at a dinner table with the founders of the race, and some of the legends of the race. So I had this accelerated experience of feeling like I knew the race," says Kachman.
Kachman also knew Unbound because his Easton Overland teammate, Amity Rockwell, won in 2019 (and finished 2nd in 2021). But in Unbound, it doesn't matter how well you have prepared beforehand. You still need to be ready for the unexpected. And a race is a race. If you push hard on your pedals, you need to be at 100%. With a fast start to the day, a puncture, and a chase to the front pack, the fatigue and physical degradation started to build up in Kachman's muscles.
"I was almost in denial of it at first," says Kachman. "You know, you're climbing up this gravel road. And yes, it's hot. But you've got the excitement."
Kachman rides an Orbea Terra
A desperate chase–and pickle juice
The thrill of the ride wasn't enough to keep the pain at bay. After having ridden in the first pack for 50 miles, Kachman punctured on the notoriously sharp rocks of the Flint Hills. In a desperate chase to join the front group again, he pushed a little too hard, and things started to fall apart.
"My stubbornness led me to try and chase back on and ask a bit more than my body was willing to give. After that, it was game over," he says.
The last 40 miles of Unbound were pure agony. Not able to put any pressure or weight on his left arm, he cycled one-handed for the remainder of the ride. Dehydrated and cramped up, he filled one of his water bottles with pickle juice and fuelled the last part of the ride with that.
"Those last few hours of trying to maintain an upright position on the bike and realising that there was a chance of me not finishing was something that, you know, my ego was battling with. The pickle juice was an act of desperation — but it worked," he remembers.
Sharp rocks and mind games
Kachman is not new to long hours in the saddle or off-road conditions. Born in Detroit in 1989, he moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2010 and started racing cyclocross in 2012. And in 2016 he started to go long, very long. With a couple of friends, he completed the Rapha Festive 500 in one go. That has now become an end-of-the-year tradition they still honour. During these rides, he often cycles for 26-28 hours without stopping. And because of the sleep deprivation and exhaustion, he has also experienced hallucinations.
Yet, the Flint Hills – where Unbound was born in 2006 – are unique. The rocks are sharp and the roots are deep. Only a few PSI too many will make the worst nightmare real.
"There's two parts to this race. There's the pavement in town, and then the Flint Hills. On one section it's a mix of dirt and hard patent grass, a rural farm double track. That is the safest part of the course. Everything else you're on, it's over big rocks or sharp rocks," he says.
Kachman made the mistake of keeping the PSI a bit too high (42+) instead of going for a "cyclocross approach.” By the time he learned his lesson the hard way, opting to inflate his tyre to the low 30s, it was too late — the finish line was a long way off. In those challenging moments, the only thing he could do was push through and focus on his tasks. Yet at the same time he couldn’t focus on them too much either — it was a matter of playing mind games with himself.
"I thought of every other ride I've done that was either so much worse or similar. And I reminded myself that all of that, the discomfort, the pain, the suffering, is a temporary state," he says.
Tears of joy
Kachman acted as his own mental coach for the rest of the ride. He tricked and encouraged himself. He thought of the distance remaining, broke it down into smaller chunks, translated it into time splits, and gritted his teeth. When he crossed the finish line, 7 hours and 12 minutes after he had started Unbound (90th out of 649), he felt relieved and then proud. He had tears of joy.
"It's a humble pride because I made it through it," he says. "It was difficult because I was not only racing and trying to do one thing, but I was battling this other thing — the injury."
Racing through the injury has undoubtedly changed his experience with the race. And that's why he's already signed up for the 2022 edition.
Although he's ready to expect the unexpected, he knows for sure that he'll have another big day in the saddle, he'll inflate the tyres to a lower PSI, and maybe he'll skip the pickle juice.