RAAM 2009 – It’s Not As Easy As It Sounds

The crew ready at the start (minus Pete and Carlo)

The crew ready at the start (minus Pete and Carlo)

As I crossed the finish line in Annapolis, MD after riding for over 11 days, I realized I had made two major mistakes. First, I had overestimated my own abilities. Second, I had greatly underestimated the difficulty of the race. I thought it would be manageable to ride 300 miles each day. I mean I could ride 200 miles a day during training on a Saturday and still go out for a ride and run the next day. I thought I could give it everything I had and cover the 300 miles per day. What was I thinking? One of the biggest challenges of RAAM is the constant pace and no recovery time. The RAAM record is an average speed of about 15 MPH. That sounds so easy. I can go out and pedal my bike all day faster than 15 MPH, even into a headwind. But that record has stood for a long time and most who even attempt to complete RAAM do not make it to the finish. Why is it so difficult? If you take your bike out for a ride right now, I’m sure you can sustain a 15 MPH speed and feel pretty good. But throw in some mountains (over 10,000 feet tall), throw in some deserts, throw in some heat and humidity (110 degrees), throw in some roads that pound your butt for miles and miles, throw in some rain and hail and lightning, and throw in a lot of other unknown variables that will surface. You want to stop to eat or to use the bathroom? The clock keeps ticking on and suddenly your MPH is dropping quickly. You haven’t slept in over 21 hours and your legs are a little sore – if you stop your MPH drops. You developed some saddle sores so that every stroke of the pedal stings. That’s a pain you better get comfortable with over the next week. You rise out of the saddle to climb a hill and the skin you’ve been sitting on rips a little more. Your chest has been hurting from all the heavy breathing at high altitude. Your throat is sore from being dry even though you’ve been drinking fluids like you haven’t tasted water in days. What I have tasted are lots of bugs. Crossing the California desert the first night, so many bugs kept pelting me in the face that I put on a balaclava just so I could breathe without swallowing bugs. My whole face is covered by either the balaclava or glasses so I can ride without the taste of wings in my mouth. Slowly I start to lose sensation in my toes and fingers, they’ve been in the same position for days and have fallen asleep but aren’t waking up. It’s nearly impossible to shift with my right fingers as I have no control or strength. My fingers have literally fallen asleep. It’s impossible to even open a CLIF Blok package. It’s as if my fingers are frozen.

Valley of the Gods

Valley of the Gods

But it’s nowhere near freezing as I cross the Arizona desert, a desert with mountains over 7,000 feet tall that I must cross. I climb for hours. And then I climb some more. That 15 MPH is harder and harder to maintain. At the top of the 7,000 foot climb, I stop to eat a little dinner before heading towards Utah in the night. While I eat, my MPH drops again and again. I ride well into the early morning hours, somewhere between 2 AM and 3 AM. Jody and Valerie blare the music behind me to keep me energized. It works for a period, but around midnight on the second or third night, my body just wants a good night’s sleep. I’m still 40 miles from the next time station so I keep pedaling. I roll into the time station, the RV is waiting and the crew gets me off the bike and I eat a little then try to get 3 hours sleep. Nicole tells me Dan Moore has passed away from cancer. A fellow ultra runner, he’s been fighting cancer the last year and things had been looking up. Life turned on him yesterday. If I had my Auburn Running Company shirt, I would be wearing it in his honor. Nicole gives me a hug and says “Go after your dream.” A minute later, Dave is shaking my leg saying it’s time to go. What? I just went to bed. Three hours never passed so quickly. Dylan and Nicole sleep next to me. My body is so depleted. Yesterday we only covered 275 miles so we need to try and ride more today. I have some oatmeal and hot chocolate. It’s taking longer and longer to go the bathroom. Any chance of using a sick day today? I could really use a day to recover. Dave and Richard are waiting in the car. We are off, riding into the sunrise. The Colorado Rocky Mountains loom ahead and there will be a few climbs of over 9,000 feet and 10,000 feet. I better like climbing because that’s about all I’ll be doing today. I love mountains and today I get to ride across The Rocky Mountains. Endless grassy and snow covered peaks scaling into the blue sky. We climb and it feels good to be surrounded by a few other riders. We are mountain goats chasing each other along the ridges. As the afternoon approaches, so do some storm clouds.

La Manga Pass in Colorado - 10,255 feet.

La Manga Pass in Colorado - 10,255 feet.

Within minutes, I’m riding through an intense rainstorm. For the next couple of hours, the rain keeps me company as Nicole and Bernadette follow behind. Later the sun returns and we are back to enjoying the views. Cresting one of the peaks, some fans scream at the summit and flash us as we pass. You gotta smile. More climbing that night and now it’s cold. So cold that I’m shivering and take a break in the Jeep with Jody and Valerie. I beg to have the heater blasted. I’m cold and tired. Sleep eludes me. Coldplay’s “Fix Me” plays as I climb – “When you feel so tired but cannot sleep…” Oh, can I relate. I think we pulled into Durango close to 3 AM. It’s not getting any easier. We are off in the morning for more climbing. RAAM climbs a total of over 100,000 feet and it’s time to pay my dues. More amazing views all morning. If it wasn’t for all the aches and pains, I would really be enjoying this thing. Leaving Chama, NM the riding couldn’t have been better. Warm. Sun’s out. We are battling with a few other riders up a 15 mile climb to 10,255 feet. As we reach the summit, so do the storm clouds. Within minutes we are enveloped in a heavy and very cold rain. The descent down the backside leaves me on the verge of hypothermia. I’m soaked through and we have no dry clothes left. The RV is out of cell phone range and we still have a couple more hours of riding. Dave hands me hot chocolate from the Jeep as I pedal towards the next time station. To stop would certainly invite my core temperate to drop. The only option is to keep pedaling and keep the heart pumping. I’m shivering so much it is difficult to steer the bike in a straight line. My thoughts for the next hour were on Ernest Shackelton’s Endurance. If he could do it, then so can I. Must keep moving forward. Must keep moving forward. When I arrive at the next time station, the crew warms me up with blankets and hot fluids. Welcome to RAAM. More riding that night as we had to make it to Taos, NM. It was in the wee morning hours when Dave and Richard guided me into the time station. I sat in an Epsom salt bath at the Best Western for about 20 minutes to soothe my aching butt. 1,000 miles in the bank and I realize I’m just a third of the way done.

Caution - Wildlife Ahead

Caution - Wildlife Ahead

Riding through Kansas, the altitude leveled off but  the temperatures went up. One temperature sign outside a bank displays 110 degrees. With the heat index it’s 121 degrees. And this aint no dry heat either.

Hot and humid across the plains of Kansas

Hot and humid across the plains of Kansas

I’m eating ice as fast as I can. I’m loading up my sun sleeves with ice cubes. I’m fighting a losing battle trying not to overheat. Nicole and Bernadette are stopping about every 30 minutes and pouring cold water over me. Every stop counts against me. So do the math. It’s 4 days in. Saddle sores. Body is begging for some rest. The heat only adds to the depletion level. Gradually, my right Achilles tendon starts to nag me. Pretty soon it evolves into a sharper pain with each stroke. This forces me to make more frequent stops as Valerie tries to ice and massage out the pain. That 15 MPH feels impossible. Entering a small town, I see an RV park with a pool and jump in to cool off. What I would give to sit by this pool for a couple hours and just take a nap. But I must keep moving.

Spending a few minutes with Dylan on Father's Day

Spending a few minutes with Dylan on Father's Day

I pedal through the rest of the day and well into the night trying to make up for the miles I lost in the mountains. The next morning I emerge from the RV to see my bike covered in a Cookie Monster costume. I know who to blame – Bernadette always trying to keep the mood light. The crew is concerned about my Achilles tendon and thinks I should see a doctor. What is a doctor going to say? I know exactly what a doctor would say. I should rest it. However, rest is not an option. Worst case, we can cast it and mount a cleat to the bottom of the cast. Pedal on. Richard and Dave are following behind me that morning and Dave pulls up next to me and reads me some emails from friends back home. It raises my spirits. But as I start to think about the task that lies ahead, I realize this is going to be the toughest race of my life. About halfway completed, my body struggles. I’m thinking about what it’s going to take to finish the race. I’m thinking about everything that went to get to this point. My opportunity waits ahead. I’m thinking about the doubters watching to see if I will be a man and complete the task. I’m riding among the giant corn fields and the tears start to flow. I want to finish but it’s not as if it will be over soon and tomorrow I can rest. I’m looking at 5 more days of this. Dave pulls alongside and I tell him I’m fine and just need to ride. Blood is dripping from my nose and he’s worried that I’m not drinking enough. I just need to ride through this and I pull ahead. For some strange reason, I’m crying like I haven’t cried in a long, long time. I’m just trying to swallow what’s ahead. Dave calls Nicole and he and Richard leave to talk with the rest of the crew. The tears still flowing, I keep pedaling. Within 45 minutes, Nicole and Jody are alongside  me and we talk about the situation and I explain I’m fine. My solution was out there somewhere in the cornfields. I came back to Eleanor Roosevelt’s quote: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” Welcome to RAAM. I’ve reached the turning point in the race. I know what is required to complete the task and I’m prepared to pay my dues. This will be a high price but we’ve all sacrificed so much just to reach this point. A DNF is not an option. The ride doesn’t become any easier.

Freak thunderstorm leaving the heat of Kansas

Freak thunderstorm leaving the heat of Kansas

Illinois, Indiana, Ohio. They all have their highs and lows. And that is another thing about RAAM. There are some incredible peaks and valleys along the way. One hour you are in the zone and realize you are living your dream. Another hour you are struggling up a hill, beyond exhausted and still miles and miles from the end. I mean you’ve ridden your bike from the Pacific Ocean to the Mississippi River and you still have another 1,000 miles to go. You cannot think about the distance but it is always there looming in front of you. In Ohio, some friends from the CLIF Bar Marathon Pace team come out to see us and bring us some Chinese food. I’d been craving some fried rice since New Mexico but when we had asked a New Mexico burger joint about finding a local Chinese restaurant, they replied with “I think the nearest one is in Texas or Oklahoma.” Unfortunately, we weren’t hitting either of those states. This is RAAM where you ride for hours to reach a town in the middle of the country with only a gas station and Dairy Queen. And the Dairy Queen is if you’re lucky.  The CLIF Bar friends really filled our bellies and lifted our spirits. Here’s a bunch of runners who drove out on a Friday night to bring Chinese food and cookies to a guy riding a bike. What great friends. Here I must comment that although the people in Ohio cannot be friendlier, the roads needs some work. There was one stretch of probably 30 or 40 miles that pounded my butt into submission. This was totally unnecessary. I think I could feel the finish was close once we left Ohio and entered the hills of Western Virginia. I had commented to Jody earlier about reaching that stage in the marathon when you know you are going to finish. When does that usually come for him. Well, I think Western Virginia was that point for me in RAAM. I would just need to put in the time and work. But then my thoughts went back to moments before the race, I talked to a rider next to me and he had dropped from the race last year around with only a few hundred miles left. There would be no gimmes. The hills of West Virginia reminded me many times of hills of Northern California, nothing like the climbing of The Rocky Mountains but even a 3,000’ mountain can quickly remind you there is still work to do. That 15 MPH pace that seemed so easy when I was out on my training rides is now slapping me in the face as my calculations predict a pace below 12 MPH. I’m still trying to ride hard. I’m still trying to attack the climbs. On one climb, Jody jumps out of the woods and I chase him up the hill. I’m so grateful to have had the crew I had. I’m so grateful to have created this memory with these new friends. I’m still able to crank out 20 MPH on the flats but when everything adds up, I’m averaging less than 12 MPH. You might think you could run just as fast. RAAM would love to see you try. The rolling hills of West Virginia and Pennsylvania seem to roll on forever. So close to the finish but still hundreds of miles to ride. Cool temperatures surround us with low clouds. Historic farm houses dot the countryside.

A battlefield at Gettysburg

A battlefield at Gettysburg

Is this Gettysburg we are passing through? A favorite memory is the couple miles of riding through the battlefields of Gettysburg. Whisper quiet. Cloudy. The fields marked with different battles. Stone statues and war pieces still standing in the fields. I would have flashes of finishing strong, hoping to rally the crew and my energy with “Let’s ride through the night and finish the race.” Well, the crew was always willing but it was me that lacked the ability to ride more than 21-22 hours without getting a couple hours sleep. Come 1 AM, my pace would suffer and my motivation wane. My tune changed, “Forget what I said earlier, let’s stop and sleep at the next time station.” I started to drift off while riding. The darkness. Staring at the circle of light in front of me. The lack of sleep. The tired body. So at midnight we pulled over and I took a 30 minute nap in the back of the Jeep to get me through the final hours. Those visions of finishing strong are now dreams lost in the night. I just want to finish this thing. Please let this be over. At time station 51 in Mount Airy, MD, there is a penalty box where I must serve any time penalties incurred during the race. Sort of like in a triathlon, this might include blocking, safety infractions, etc. I had one 15 minute penalty for not having the headlights on in the follow vehicle during a section of the race. Thankfully, we didn’t have to stop and they just added the 15 minutes to our overall time. Now, the finish is only about 50 miles away. The next couple hours are more rollers. “Jody, talk me through this. Just say something to me every mile so I stay awake.” And he does. The finish arrives between 3 AM and 4 AM on Monday morning, over 11 days after starting. The crew stands at the finish and I wish they could cross with me. RAAM is over and we did it. Slower than I had thought I could, but to finish this race for me is big. What began as a dream as a kid has morphed into a goal and a reality dozens of years later. Like other races, RAAM doesn’t cure cancer or solve any of life’s problems. I’m the same smelly person the next day, no better and no worse. However, I’ve created some new relationships that will stay with me for the rest of my life. I have friends that I’ve gone to battle with that I share a deeper connection with. We did it. We don’t even have to say a word but we know what it took to get the job done.

Our Technology For RAAM

The Crew Pit

The Crew Pit

We had some incredible technology in RAAM. Walking through the crew pit at the start you could see some serious cash has been invested in some of the riders. Some had satellite phones. All had multiple bikes and many of the bikes were worth thousands and thousands of dollars. I noticed some of the riders had GPS units mounted on the bikes. Many of the vans had been outfitted with beds so the rider could nap without locating their RV.

Jody and Bernadette Checking The Systems

Jody and Bernadette Checking The Systems

Our setup was unique. Dave outfitted me with a GPS unit from MyAthlete that would send my location every few seconds through the cellular system so the crew and friends back home could track my status. This worked well when we were in cell coverage but the first few days we were out of coverage most of the time. Dave also had a computer in each vehicle with a web cam and was broadcasting our race. Again this worked well when we were within cell coverage. We had multiple data cards (Sprint, AT&T and Verizon) and everybody brought their cell phones. Pete Tanguay provided exceptional ground support with weather updates, pacing info, and info on other riders. He also told our story through the blog. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I thought we would have more time. I even had told Dave and Jody they could bring a bike and try to get in a daily training ride. What was I thinking!? Trying to maintain a pace even close to that 15 MPH speed requires constant movement on everybody’s part. There was no downtime during RAAM. For the crew, if you aren’t working, you are trying to sleep for a hour because you only had a few hours sleep the night before. I think the crew had less sleep than I did. I wore my Garmin for much of the first part of the race but as the race became more mentally challenging, I decided not to wear it because when I did, I found myself constantly looking at the mileage to see how much farther to the next time station.

Father’s Day

Fathers Day

Father's Day

We celebrated Father’s Day on the bike. Dave and Richard were with me Sunday morning at midnight as we rode and all 3 of us wished each other Happy Father’s Day. Later that day, the RV drove by with this big sign on the back. Having Dylan with me on the trip was something I will cherish. Having a 20 month old sharing the space with 7 adults during the race wasn’t easy. The crew again and again showed flexbility and patience when the inner workings of a family would wind their way into the day and night. Often I would come off the bike and Dylan would be excited to see me and think it was play time. My legs sore, he would want to jump up and down on me and wrestle. He spent countless hours patiently sitting in his car seat looking at the passing scenery. Thank you Dylan for being such a good boy. We love you. I hope in some way, you will be able to remember this trip.

Bikes

I rode 2 bikes throughout RAAM: a Trek 5500 with ZIPP 404 wheels (along with a spare set of Bontrager Race X Lite wheels) and a Trek T11 with HED 3 wheels. The Trek 5500 is a more comfortable setup and I primarily rode that until we had some flat stretches and I could benefit more from the more aggressive aero position of the T11 Tri bike. As the race wore on, we would adjust my seat to alter the pressure points. By the end of the race, my seat on the Trek 5500 was in a very downward angle. I flatted 3 times, all very early in the race. I mainly rode on Continental GrandPrix 4000 tires. These are my favorite tires and seem to be very puncture resistant.

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7 thoughts on “RAAM 2009 – It’s Not As Easy As It Sounds

  1. Michael, it was such an honor to be on your crew team for your successful RAAM ride!!! You have to be one of the most humble people I have ever met!
    Every time you would got off the bike, no matter how you felt or looked, you were always saying Thank You to each crew member, and asking what you could do to help us. You, help us, we were there to help you!! Having so many help with this effort is beyond amazing. I enjoyed so much working with others to pull of tracking you in real time with the MyAthlete GPS tracking unit, and the live Video. That MA Unit saved our butts more than a few times.

    Boy do I have stories that will last a lifetime. If I ever do a race and think it is bad weather or going to be tough, all I do not is think of you riding with hypothermia looking at me like you were going to die. Or when you basically fell asleep and rode off the road. Thank god it was a flat piece of grass! Or when you slipped with your cleat and fell on your bike. Or riding during heat and humidity over 115 degrees!! Or, or, or.

    One thing I can say for sure, is we live in the best part of the world. I have never seen so many houses, businesses, and roads is such terrible shape.

    Even though we as the crew had our moments, we always ended up working together to keep you going. Thanks to all the crew for putting up with me,
    and it was an honor also to work with each one of you.

    Now, I have more great ideas on how we can track you even better next year as you go for your 10 day goal. :o)

    Dave

  2. It was an honor to be connected to your success. You have helped me and others so much in my training and to be connected to the ultimate ultra event with you was an experience that I’ll never forget. I enjoyed getting to know your crew and Nicole from a distance and look forward to meeting them someday. Get some rest and dream on. Pete

  3. Michael,

    My emotions are flowing as I read your reflection of this massive undertaking. I understood it woud be the most highly monumental, and toughest racing event. Your writing confirms the nightmare of enormous challenges that your physical and emotional body endured. It is truly amazing that you were able to force enough inner strength to work through the extreme bodily pain of racing non-stop from California through the finish line in Maryland.

    We are most thankful that you made it through the race safely (vertically) with the remarkable help from your devoted road (and blog) crew, including your loving and supportive wife, Nicole, and Dylan. A true blessing for such a feat. You have successfully completed your life dream of cycling RAAM. An accomplished goal of which you can feel proud each and every day of your life.

    Above all, we hope you will TAKE TIME to sleep, eat, and rest allowing your body to recover from this unequaled force.

    Tracey (and Chris)

  4. I linked to your blog through the RAAM website. What a fascinating read. Congratulations on your achievement!

  5. Congrats I was looking at your times and map and Im still in awe. I cant even imagine 100,000 feet of elevation, 3 gallons of water/day, and 8000 calories/day.. you are an amazing man! again congrats

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