As a high school wrestler, I watched the movie Vision Quest and remember a great character walking up the bleachers with a telephone pole across his back saying, “I like bleeders.” After completing the Race Across America (RAAM), I have a sense of what a vision quest is. Here is my story...
RAAM !!!! WOW, HOT, WET, HILLY, FLAT, WINDY, and that was just the first few hours.
At 44 years old I have been riding and racing bikes for about 27 years, well over half of my life. My bike has offered me transportation, income, freedom, a place of peace, feelings of frustration and anger. It has allowed me to ride away from problems I created, as well as given me the ability to fix them. It has allowed me to travel the world and meet a wide variety of people. But in those 27 years, I never experienced what RAAM offered me. RAAM took me to a place of tired exhaustion, a place where I was moving and pedaling, but my mind was disconnected from my body. It was a journey that transcended anything I have ever experienced.
My take-aways are many and span a vast range of topics. Two months after finishing, the learnings keep coming. They range from the small things, “Can I actually pedal that far?” to major life lessons - understanding how much love I have in my life and learning that the life I have lived has been one of service and meaning to many people, rather than the small existence I sometimes thought it was. I learned to not define myself by mistakes made, but rather by the way I meaningfully connect with people. With all these great and unexpected learnings, the biggest one of all, one that will still take practice, is loving myself for who I am.
I experienced how blessed I was before the race even started. It was powerful to sit at the race start at the Oceanside pier supported by many wonderful people - from Terry Johnes and the Hoover High School graduates of San Diego VeloYouth, to athletes - young and old - who I have been privileged to coach, to friends and family. All of these people plus the Equal Earth team led by my friend and sponsor, Andrew Duggan. I saw, but was unable to take in, the pride and love that these people had for me just for starting and attempting to do this crazy 3,000 mile, 10 to 12 day bike race across the country.
As the race started, I rolled out of Oceanside, California with a dozen friends riding the first seven miles to Annapolis, Maryland. We were talking, having fun, and riding our bikes. What could be better, right? Just 2,993 miles to go.
With the help of my friend and crew chief, Rob Panzera, owner of CCSD Sport Event, we planned to start slow, eat and drink and take care of my body to make it to the finish line. This plan had come together from the learnings of two challenging weekend training rides four weeks prior to the race start. I had signed up for the SoCal RAAM Challenge in which I failed miserably. I rode only half of the 400 miles and became severely dehydrated. With Rob's wisdom, we called it quits. We repeated the course the following weekend with a different strategy. I let go of the pressure to “race” and just rode smart. That ride went great and gave us a plan we could execute to move us across the country. I began to realize that I was the only one putting pressure on myself.
As I rolled along, many riders passed me in the first few hours of the race. I was solid in our plan, and it gave me the confidence to let them all roll by. When we reached the first time check I was second to last. As the first night approached and we descended into the desert, Rob gave me the ok pedal a bit faster.
I know from experience that the dessert was hot and would be hard. The only other ultra race I had done was Race Across the West (RAW) the previous year. However, the desert this year was much worse - 116 was the temp I heard over and over, but it felt even hotter. The great thing is that I felt prepared, not because I spent time in it or because I was as lean as I would have liked to be, but because I knew it was coming. I always feel like I can handle what I know.
This is also where the fun relationship with Russell Midori and Media Team 2 began. As you know, I can be sarcastic at times. When Media 2 rolled up and asked me, “How is the race going? How are you feeling?” I sarcastically replied, “I was really hoping for a challenge with this race, like hills or heat or something.” And so started our fun relationship.
This is a good point to say “Thank You” to an amazing crew. I can 100% say that without the friends I had with me, I would not have completed RAAM. Not just because they were all great at what they did and had fun too, but because their energy and their caring was something I felt throughout the race. Rob, Tony, Aubree, John, Jimmy, Jesse, Dave, and Adot - know that you made one of the hardest challenges of my life also one of the best and most rewarding. I will be forever in your debt.... unless you choose to do RAAM, and then you are on your own because crewing for that is way too hard!!
So out of the desert we went, but not out of the heat. I was hot for days, for nights, and across states. The crew was great at reading to me, listening to me, and then making sure I did what I needed to do, even when I didn’t want to. That proved to be key in getting to the finish.
Before we knew it we reached Durango, Colorado. I knew I could reach Durango because I had done it in RAW. My time was not faster than the previous year, but I was feeling better - not beat up or broken. After Durango, we were in unchartered waters. I had crewed for Dave Preston as part of his two-man RAAM team two years prior, but had forgotten much of the course. I had never ridden this far; I had never gone this long without sleep; I knew I would be finding new boundaries.
Our next milestone was Wolf Creek Pass, over the Rockies at nearly 11,000 feet of elevation in the middle of the night. Riding in the dark is an unusual experience, and I'm still not sure if it makes climbing better or worse. On one hand, I couldn’t see the incline and that was nice. But on the other hand, I couldn’t see and missed much of the beauty. I was struggling, and the last four miles to the summit seemed to go forever. I was struggling to stay awake and move forward, neither of which was going well. I swerved back and forth on the road, taking little one second naps - never a good idea on a bike. Suddenly, Tony jumped out of the van and was running alongside me. Tony is a tremendous athlete and ran the next mile talking to help me stay awake and also speeding me up (there was no way I was going to ask him to slow down as he was running in street clothes at 11,000 feet in the middle of the night!) At one point, he asked if I could share a sip of water with him - undoubtedly this was crew fully committed to reaching the finish! After that I was re-energized and stomped out the last few miles over the top.
Just after crossing the Continental Divide was the first time my body freaked out. The temperature dropped to 40 degrees. We dressed warm and began the descent. I love going down hill, and we were flying! About halfway down the hill, it flattened out, and I lost focus, almost fell asleep, and started to freeze. It was so bad, I had to stop. The crew put me in the car and blasted the heater for 15 minutes until I stopped shaking. Again the crew took care of everything. We started back down the hill feeling more awake with the sunrise. For me, this was the real start of the race. I was on new roads and dealing with all the unexpected things. We found a new rhythm where I put in miles during the day and solved problems at night. We pushed over climbs and ate up the miles. We also passed fellow solo riders who had passed me in the beginning. This felt encouraging.
Then came more unexpected emotions! This bit is a side step into me and some of the feelings I was dealing with that influenced my ride. I am a very passionate person, physically strong on the outside, but comparatively less strong on the inside. When you combine passion, insecurity and and the desire to please, life can be very difficult. A few years back, my life appeared and felt great on the outside. Many things that I had wanted were happening, but in reality was I was unhappy inside. I was pretending to be what others wanted, when what I needed was to be myself. But I was too insecure to believe that. As a result, I made some poor choices, ended friendships and relationships, and was unhappy. Eventually, with the help of friends, I put the pieces back together and started life on a new path. This path starts with loving myself. I worked hard to learn and trust this new way of life without forgetting the lessons of the past.
Back to the race...
As I said we were in new territory. The mountains of Colorado and the heat continued. It seemed there was no flat ground - we were either going up or down - but continuing to move forward. It was one of these nights when I started to feel more than just the pain from pedaling - a saddle sore! We changed seats, but I was having a tough night. I was learning to let others help me and trust. This was no different. With the awesome support of the crew, that night we rode 150 miles despite the saddle sore. That is when I truly realized that listening to my crew, doing what they recommended, and communicating how I was feeling was key. This is where I will add another huge “Thank You” to Aubree and Rob for managing my sad backside.
Kansas! I had mentioned I was a bit ignorant of the race details and the course. What I did know was there were three main sections: through Colorado, across the plains of Kansas, and over the Appalachian Mountains. We had completed one-third and were doing well. The only ride terrain I enjoy more than down hills with tail winds are flats, and Kansas was flat. We began using social media as a fun way to get through the nights. We posted videos from the media crew, and that brought a lot of emotions, as well as laughs. We posted questions during the day and read the responses at night. I was overwhelmed by the number of people following us online. Not only did they respond, but they did it with humor, kindness and support. In Kansas I realized that we had gone from last place to eighth place. It was also here where I had let my mind get involved, generally a mistake. I started thinking “Wow - top 10! Maybe even better.” I was on pace to complete the race in 10 days. With inspiration from a friend, I started riding faster. I remember thinking, “Why not me? If not me, then who?” I told myself I would not give anyone else the power to beat me.
We were flying and things were good, in RAAM terms. My hands and feet were bothering me, but my spare shoes and some out-of-the-box bar wraps kept them going. We had another great interview with Media 2, talking about the inspiration I gathered from Equal Earth and Velo Youth. We talked about the impact the race would have on the VeloYouth kids, but really the impact at the moment was the kids on me. In taking on this challenge, I knew there would be hard times, and I expected to be strong enough to work through them.
This is when the race began to take its toll. I was warned that this would happen, and I knew I would not be immune to it. We had been riding hard with little sleep for many days. I remember letting Rob know that my focus was narrowing, both physically and mentally. I was seeing less of what was going on around me and was focusing more and more on the lines of the road and every little climb. I was attacking them all one at a time, not thinking or worrying about what was next.
Physically, I was riding fine, but I felt like I was looking through a straw. Normally, I am very observant, but at this moment I only could only see one thing - the white line on the side of the road. Later, even more tired, I started seeing two lines. Every time this happened I would shake my head and it would go away but it was a very strange experience, as it happened repeatedly, for miles. Luckily, I always followed the correct line, and each time something happened to either re-energize me or wake me up. That said, this was the start of another phase of the race, a new level of physical and mental depletion. I had believe that this would not be a race that was about the bike, but about deep commitment and determination. As we got deeper into it, this proved to be true. I was still pedaling, but my mind and parts of my body were making pedaling more difficult.
The first three or four days of RAAM were not easy, but we were having fun. The middle four days, we were cooking - passing riders, going fast, riding hard, and tackling anything and everything in our paths. The next three days became all about mental toughness.
In an endurance race, you will waiver. This is when the support of people all around you helps the most. My crew members are motivated by adventure and passion. They come from different backgrounds, but share a common purpose to live for experiences and emotional wealth. They shared the best parts of themselves with me, and I needed it.
The breakdown started in Illinois. I felt I was getting close to the finish, and I was wrong! Even though we had gone a long way, we still had many miles and mother nature to work with. I was using a small computer on my bike that showed speed and distance. Somehow I had mis-added the distance to a time station and was unhappy to discover I had another thirty miles to go. My mental planning for this little section failed, and it was hard to get those last thirty miles done. The more I pushed, the hillier it got. The faster I rode, the farther away the time station seemed to get. When we finally arrived, we took a few minutes to regroup, and off we rode again. My mental and physical energy were declining. As we rode through the last part of Indiana, I wanted to stop. I needed to stop. The crew kept me going yet again. I was listening to them, but not well. We planned a break at the next time station, but it was not coming soon enough. I found myself sitting on the side of the road - empty and emotions flying everywhere. I was crying. I was lost. Dave sat in the grass with me getting choked up as well, and talked me through the breakdown. He asked me, “When you decided to do this you knew it was going to be hard, right?” Through my tears, I replied, “No.” John put his hand on my shoulder, and without a word let me know that it was going to be fine. We talked a bit more, then back on the bike. Dave had me stop looking at my computer, and we actually pulled it off the bike. So on we rolled to the time station where the team was set up, and I finally got to rest.
Rob is a very smart and insightful man. He is great with logistics, but also has a wonderful human element that goes into all he does. He talks softly and even I have never been able to make him mad. Despite his quiet tone, his words are strong and hold weight. Talking with Rob helped me regain mental strength. Ninety minutes of sleep and a good meal, courtesy of Jesse, helped me regain physical strength. I knew I would not need another one of these stops. I also know if I had not gotten this rest, things would have been bad. The downtime allowed me regroup mentally and seeing the crew laughing and joking put me right back where I needed to be.
On the road again with the light of the night into Ohio. I remember rolling through the cobbled streets somewhere in the middle of the night, weaving our way through towns, saying “Hi” to late nighters walkers. I also started getting passed by team racers. Chatting with these riders encouraged me, and it helped as we started climbing again. These were nice, long rollers - up then down then up as far as I could see. Around this time the rain started. And it stayed with us all the way to Annapolis. We just kept pushing on and the rain was added discomfort in the overall toughness of RAAM.
We rode into the Appalachian Mountains, the last and hardest part of this ride, hardest because while not as high as the Rockies, the climbs are much steeper. We had made it through heat; we had made it over the Rockies; we had made it through the mindless, flat winds of the plains. More importantly, I had made it through my own mind's limits. We had a one or two more days to go. I started feeling like a shriveled up grape in the constant rain. The climbs were steep. I was tired and growing ever less comfortable. Again, the crew was strong with their ability to help me, listen to me, and then do whatever was needed. Once again, my mind started to wander. I questioned, “Why am I doing this? How can I get out of this with dignity intact?” Then, POW! the answer came in the first of my two crashes.
Sleepy and not seeing well, I rode onto a metal expansion strip on the edge of a bridge, and in a split second, I was on the ground. I jumped up, got back on my bike, and started going again with more embarrassment than anything else. The rain was getting harder and harder, so much so I was tucking in my lower lip that was cracked and sunburned because the rain stung every time a drop hit it. The misery was extreme. But in a moment of clarity, I realized that I chose this and quitting, although an option, was not my choice. My choice, even in the misery of pain, exhaustion and pouring rain was to move forward.
From the Appalachians to Annapolis, I have four big memories. First was battlefield at Gettysburg. I was wet, cold and one of the bridges had washed out, causing us to detour on a longer route around it. The history and the vastness of Gettysburg made everything we were going through at the time feel very small. I looked down at my toptube, painted with the names of the VeloYouth kids. I felt strength in the connection between the past of Gettysburg and the future of the at-risk youth I am committed to support.
The second memory was the last time I fell. I'm a good rider, and this exit from my bike was undoubtedly situational. I was going down hill much too fast for the conditions - wet, rainy road and my own tiredness. At the bottom of this descent was a one lane bridge. Though I was not able to see clearly in the rain, I was picking my spot to cross the bridge. Then in my ear piece the crew was yelling, “Red light!!!” Never did it cross my mind that a two-way, one-lane bridge would have a stop light. To add to this perfect storm, my hands had very little feeling in them. As I heard the guys yell “red light,” I reached down and grabbed a handful of both front and rear brake. I sailed over the handlebars, landed hard on my back, picked up my arms and legs and slid down the hill. At the same time, my eyes were locked with John’s, praying he could stop the van without running over me. A little banged up on the body and a little backyard wrenching on my derailleur, and off we went. WOW! In hindsight, this might have been a blessing because just a few miles and hours back Rob and I were having one of those deep philosophical conversations on what to do with my “stick and berries”... Tape them up? Lower my seat? Put on all the shorts I have? Maybe even some underwear or a thong? But amazingly, falling off my bike always changes what I’m feeling and thinking. The rest of my body now felt worse and became my primary focus.
The third vivid memory was Media 2 finding us again in a tough section of the course, climbing some of the steep, ugly stuff in the rain. Once again, talking with them about the crew, the VeloYouth kids and what we accomplished to this point motivated me and lifted my spirits. I was reminded what a lucky man I am to have so much caring, love, and support in my life. This ride truly allowed me to see that and reconnect with the most important things in life.
My last vivid memory before the finish line was a visit from Phil. I met long-time cyclists/friend Phil and Paul Turner when I first started riding bikes as a teenager. When Phil heard I was doing RAAM, he let me know he would be at the finish and wanted to ride with me. As we rolled through Pennsylvania, a station wagon kept passing me and disappearing, only to pop up again. We had experienced a range of interesting drivers on the road this trip, yet this was really odd. Having had some unpleasant experiences already with drivers and dealing with the limited visibility of the heavy rain, I was skeptical about this driver. Finally the car pulled to the side of the road, and the driver jumped out. It was Phil! He had been tracking us and looking for good place to say “Hi!” I hadn't seen him in many years, but time turned back as he gave me a big, wet hug. I started to choke up a bit as he told me its ok to cry, and I introduced him to the crew. I had seen Paul in Bonsall at the start of the race, and now Phil in Pennsylvania near the end of the race - Turner bookends. Thank you guys !!
From there it was just one last night. The crew and I could smell the finish. Time was no longer a worry. We even rested a bit more in order to finish in the morning, rather than in the middle of the night. Unlike the year before when we finished RAW in an empty carpark, I was blessed to be celebrated by friends at the finish. My friend and sponsor, Andrew Duggan of Equal Earth, was the first face I saw at the finish. VeloYouth board members, Tanya Landry and Maryclare Boyle greeted me with posters and champagne. And of course, all of my online supporters were with me in spirit. Emotions were high. The closer we got to the finish, the more it hit me, and the harder it was for me to keep it together. We all know one of those lovey drunks, the ones who drink a few cocktails and hug everyone and tell them how much they love them all. Well, apparently for me, it just takes a few thousand miles of riding, lack of sleep, a few mountain ranges, some wind, scorching heat and a few special sprinkles to feel that very same way!
I have been asked many times if this is a race I will do again? The answer is NO, I could improve , go a bit faster, but what I have taken away from this and all that I have learn about myself will last for ever. I will use this race RAAM to better myself. I will share my experiences and what I have learn about myself to help others. I will take the strength that I found within myself and turn it toward Veloyouth. I with the rest of the Veloyouth team, Andrew Duggan, CCSD and all the wonderful support I have received will work toward positively impacting our world one life at a time.
This experience RAAM did and will forever change my life and for that I will be eternally grateful!!!