What the Race Across America Can Teach the Rest of Us Roadies
By Amy Snyder
In spring 2009, I set out to write a book about an obscure subculture of athletes—ultradistance cyclists preparing to compete in the equally obscure Race Across America (RAAM). At that time I was like you: I was only dimly aware of this race that starts each year in Oceanside. Like you, I dismissed ultracyclists as kooky, outcast masochists. I wasn’t sure I would end up with something meaningful to say, but I relished the challenge.
As it turns out, my experience of this race and these racers left a lasting impression and affected me in ways I never imagined. Let me explain. But first, a little about the race.
The Race Across America (RAAM) is the most brutal organized sporting event you’ve never heard of, and one of the best-kept secrets in the sports world. Yet each year since 1982, the world’s top ultradistance cyclists gather in Oceanside to take on this 3,000-mile, nonstop beast that finishes clear across the continent in Annapolis, Maryland. It takes the winners about nine days and the rest a couple of days more. That’s like doing three or four centuries a day for days on end. The conditions are extreme and unpredictable, and nobody finishes this race unscathed. Contestants have died, been maimed, and spiraled into the nightmarish realm of the mad. Half don’t finish; in the 30-year history of this event, only 200 people have ever made it to the end.
RAAM is a bicycle race like no other. Once the gun goes off the clock doesn’t stop. The first rider to complete the prescribed route—racing day and night through broiling deserts, over ragged mountains, across windswept plains—is the victor. During the race contestants climb over 100,000 feet (nearly 20 miles straight up—three and a half times the height of Everest), taking on the Rockies, the Ozarks, and the Appalachians. Temperatures range from 125 degrees in the desert to 30 degrees atop mountain passes. The winners cover 350 miles each day and survive on about an hour of sleep during each 24-hour cycle.
This race is nothing like its more famous cousin the Tour de France. It offers none of the made-for-TV splendor of this grand European stage race. It’s much crazier, more gothic, and even savage. It takes participants to the limits of their physical and mental endurance, and in contrast to the compelling visuals of the Tour, this is often not a pretty sight.
By now it might seem as though RAAM finishers are a different breed, invested with superhuman constitutions that help them overcome the unimaginable brutality that this race dishes out. But that’s just not so. Racers feel every ache and pain just as a normal person would, and they don’t want to suffer, either. They point out that it is mostly a mental challenge. So how does a racer maintain the will to go on, sitting on a narrow bicycle saddle and churning his legs for up to twelve days straight, especially toward the end when physical discomfort blots out everything else and his sleep deprived mind falters and sputters?
Actually, not a single racer maintains his or her resolve. Each comes close to quitting more than once during the crossing. Racers sob and scream and curl up in fetal positions along the side of the road, but then pull themselves together again. Late in the 2005 event, defending champion Jure Robič found himself in the lead almost a full day ahead of the next man on the road. Even though he was set to win by a decisive margin, after seven days and nights of non-stop racing and almost no sleep, his mind was mush and he was losing touch with reality. He began weeping and almost quit because he couldn’t remember what his boy’s face looked like. As he crossed the finish line he held up a photo of his wife Petra and his infant son and kissed it. Even though his lips were so dry and cracked they made people cringe, he managed a big smile then fell to the ground.
In their bleakest moments on the bike (or on the ground), each racer finds his own reason to keep going. Every reason is unique but all finishers share two things in common. The first is an unquenchable curiosity to see what happens when they challenge the limits of their own endurance. RAAM winner Franz Spilauer said, “What kept me going was my overall fascination with what I was doing and how it affected me, the testing of my body and seeing how far I could push myself.” The second reason is the unfathomable sense of joy and completeness they experience while on their bikes. These fanatics just crave cycling—the farther the better.
These characteristics give racers determination, but they’re insufficient to ensure success. There are two more pieces to the puzzle. One has to do with how RAAM finishers experience pain. The way ultradistance athletes relate to pain is different from you and me. They are able to dissociate from it, observe it, work with it, and calmly accept it as a necessary part of the race. To them, pain is information. The other way RAAM contestants differ has to do with their capacity to endure thousands of hours of grueling training, through all types of weather, at all hours of the day and night, almost always alone.
Because these abilities are so hard to relate to, for the vast majority of us who don’t do ultradistance races, it’s easy to dismiss these people as crazy loners and misanthrope outcasts. But they keenly want to be understood as fully-realized individuals.
Many race veterans explain how RAAM changed their lives and humanized them. Five-time finisher Rick Kent entered RAAM for the last time in 1994 and was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He explained that, “Competing in RAAM made me stronger, more confident, and able to handle my disease much better.” RAAM veteran Lt. Col. Tony O’Keeffe credited the race with “opening me up emotionally. I cry now at weddings. I didn’t realize I was so connected to other people’s emotions until RAAM.” This was a recurring theme I heard, especially from older male racers. The way RAAM opens you; makes it easier to feel, share, and be vulnerable.
Other racers describe how RAAM demands so much it peels everything away and lays them bare, reconnecting them to their simpler, animal selves. In this state of grace athletes explain they feel intensely alive and in touch with nature. Some claim to experience powerfully spiritual moments of transcendence. For instance, when ultramarathoner Kirk Johnson ran Badwater, a 135-mile footrace, he was filled with “eye opening wonder” watching meteor showers in the night sky of the open desert, when “the simple act of moving through was a source of joy.” Johnson was a self-described seeker who thought “there might be a way—through the unfathomable post-apocalyptic wilderness of racing in Death Valley—to reach the veil and touch something beyond me and my life. A place where misery and transcendence were so deeply intertwined it couldn’t be without meaning.”
When I set out to write Hell on Two Wheels, I wasn’t sure I would end up with a book that would be relevant to mainstream readers and had something important to say. As it turns out, the story of this race and these brave racers offers important lessons about perseverance. Everyone who encounters RAAM says it changes their relationship to their own limiting thoughts and feelings. This is more than just a race—it’s a monster, a crucible, an unforgettable allegory about overcoming personal limitations, self-discovery, and the power of the human spirit.
This article includes excerpts from Hell on Two Wheels: An Astonishing Story of Suffering, Triumph, and the Most Extreme Endurance Race in the World which are printed with the permission of Triumph Books, www.triumphbooks.com/hellontwowheels.
» Amy Snyder is a marathon cyclist, three-time Ironman finisher, and retired management consultant. She lives in La Jolla, California and recently wrote Hell on Two Wheels, a book about a 3,000-mile nonstop bike race Outside Magazine called the toughest test of endurance in the world. Learn more about her book at hellontwowheelsbook.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder
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