From the seat of his bike, 54-year-old Granville resident Matthew Kretchmar took in the sights and sounds of Emporia, Kansas. The town was packed with people from far and wide to participate in the UNBOUND gravel cycling races. 

While most participants were there to compete in the 50-mile, 100-mile and 200-mile stretches of the race, Kretchmar was one of 200 racers selected by a lottery system to participate in the “XL” version of the contest: 352 miles on all-gravel roads through the Flint Hills region of Kansas. 

Kretchmar, surrounded by his 199 fellow racers, rested against his handlebars as they prepared to embark on one of the most grueling challenges in gravel biking. The race was set to begin at 3 p.m. Friday, and about 15,000 bike fanatics gathered to cheer the racers on as they began their notoriously difficult journey. 

The entire course takes riders about 30 hours — without sleep and limited breaks — to complete, and takes competitors through “extremely remote area,” according to the participant guide

“These roads receive little to no maintenance throughout the year and can be quite primitive in nature,” the guide warns participants. “In the event of inclement weather, gravel and dirt roads can become mud roads. Riders are therefore encouraged to prepare their bikes, their bodies, and their minds to be ready for any and all possible conditions.”

Kretchmar knows these roads — and the mud — quite well after mud caused mechanical failure in his bike during a 2019 UNBOUND XL attempt. 

“There are places in Kansas where the mud is really thick, like peanut butter goo,” Kretchmar said “If it gets into your drive train, you can rip the derailleur off your bike, I mean, just instantly.” 

After riding into one of these “peanut butter goo” mud puddles, Kretchmar’s dream of finishing the UNBOUND XL slipped through his grease-covered fingers. The chain on his bike could not stay in place, even after more than 90 minutes of messing with the mechanical components.

As he prepared to embark on his second attempt at UNBOUND XL, he was plagued with doubt. 

“Am I good enough to do this? What if I don’t make it?” He asked himself. “Since that time, I’ve had this really, really nagging regret of not finishing this. They say for 30 hours, you’re in pain. But that only lasts like 30 hours, right? When you quit and you don’t finish, that lasts your whole life.”

Kretchmar was always involved in athletics. While he was in graduate school at Colorado State University, he started training for marathons, and attempted to make the USA Olympic Team marathon running trials. In his mid-30s he decided he wanted to try something new: bicycle racing. He started with a 100-mile mountain bike race and then switched to gravel bike racing.

See also: Pedaling around the world via Licking County

With the fear of a second failure burning inside him, Kretchmar pedaled away from the start line. The applause of thousands urged him onward. He even spotted professional rider Lachlan Morton, the Australian cyclist who competes in races such as the Tour de France, at the start cheering on the XL riders.

Kretchmar began his journey. He pedaled through the afternoon and into the night. For some of his journey, he was not only in physical distress but also under the mental toll of navigating the difficult terrain of the Kansas prairie. 

He raced on hundreds of miles of “minimum maintenance roads,” and he had to stay alert in order to dodge rocks, holes and even armadillos.

“They (the gravel roads) are just horrible,” he said after the race. “Some of them are muddy. Some of them are just full of rocks. And they usually go up and down steep things, like a ravine at the bottom and you have to jump over a creek or something. You have to watch all the time because the minute you stop watching, you’re gonna hit a rock, and then that’s it, you break your rim or you puncture your tire or something and maybe you don’t get to go on.”

There were literal and mental dark moments for Kretchmar during his journey. Around 1 a.m., after he had been racing for nearly 12 hours,, he stopped at a convenience store on his route and grabbed a Yoo-hoo and a bag of chips. He quickly drank and ate while he paid for the food that would fuel him until he passed another store. Kretchmar hopped back on his back and his stomach started to turn, and he threw up. 

“Oh God, it’s so many miles to the next checkpoint, and I have little food and I can’t keep it down. It’s one in the morning. I can’t see anything because it is pitch-black darkness,” he said. “It’s a battle with yourself, in your mind more than a battle of physical conditions, because you’re going to have 500 reasons to quit, and you just have to keep telling yourself ‘No.’”

Kretchmar continued forward after his nighttime vomit. The hours rolled by and his hands blistered and bled. His helmet dug into his forehead, cutting him. As blood and sweat streamed down him, Kretchmar continued to pedal. The night turned to day as the miles to go shrunk. 

At 10 p.m. on Saturday, Kretchmar crossed the finish line in Emporia, Kansas, finishing 84th out of the original 200 racers. Some people might have collapsed from exhaustion, but not Kretchmar. Instead, he settled into a nice dinner and a beer while he cheered his fellow racers over the finish line.

When he returned to his Granville home in early June, successful in his second attempt at UNBOUND XL, he was greeted by a homemade sign from his family. Courtesy of Matthew Kretchmar

Kretchmar completed his personal challenge, and he does not think he will do this race again because of the strain it puts on his body and the amount of money it costs to compete.

Kretchmar is a computer science professor at Denison University and does AI research. He is a person who likes to be challenged and is always testing himself to see if he can do hard things. He likes that he has a balance of mental and physical challenges in his life.

“You just want to do stuff that is hard,” he said. “I think that makes you feel alive.” 

He believes that’s what drives the other racers to complete this challenging bike race; They want to see if they can do it. Kretchmar calls the amazing feeling of finishing a long race “type 2 fun.”

“It’s not fun while you do it, but it’s fun when it’s done,” he said. 

Caroline Zollinger and Andrew Theophilus write for, the nonprofit news organization of Denison University’s Journalism program, which is supported by generous donations from readers. Sign up for The Reporting Project newsletter here.