Saturday, 26 June 2010

Race Across America Race Report

As I sit and reflect on what has been one of the most memorable moments of my sporting life, I find it hard to find the words that make me so proud to have been a part of a hugely successful team that overcame adversity at every turn. I also think about the tougher times of the race when I hurt like I have not hurt before, the endless (or seemingly) climbs of the Rockies with the altitude making my lungs scream for oxygen, the brutality of the Appalachians, the unbearable humidity of Missouri and Illinois; and I think of what it was that got me through those moments.

I recall choking with emotion as I thought of my family back home, who have been a huge inspiration for me, and who have sacrificed a lot to allow me to fulfill a dream of a lifetime; I remember the dark moments when I heard that JC was out of the Race, and, in a bizarre way, that was a huge inspiration for us all to persevere for him; JC and I had worked really hard to make this a success for both of us and the team. I was gutted when he went off to hospital.

I recall meeting the only guy in the 60+ Solo age category (Dex Tooke), shortly after crossing the Mississippi, and how humbled I was to have the good fortune to chat with him. What a true hero he was, and living proof that the human is capable of almost unimaginable feats. And the regular thoughts of crossing that RAAM Finish line, were at the forefront of my mind during the long, monotonous roads of Kansas in the beating heat of the midday sun, where you could make out the curvature of the earth, and Annapolis seemed like a lifetime away!

The support team that helped us also need a mention. Without them, we would have got stuck in California. They worked so hard, toiled with the sleep deprivation that must have been tortuous, and yet kept us safe on the road (despite a few close shaves!!). Thank you to everyone. Below is a copy of the Race report that I submitted to the WashingMachinePost (a cycling blog).

Please feel free to donate to Help For Heroes as we wind up our RAAM Dream. We did it for the real Heroes out there who so need our help. Donations can be made through our website at

A final mention must be made of the sponsors, without which this event could not have gone ahead. Notably The Royal Air Force Sports Lottery, Survitec Group Ltd and EPIC Performance Ltd. We are indebted to you for your kindness.

RAAM Report

It is difficult to accurately surmise and to describe the emotions, the events, the pain, the sweat, the tears, the setbacks, the highs and the lows of this, the toughest bike race in the world. The Race Across America, or RAAM, is a 3000mile bike race the route of which traverses 14 States and has over 100,000 feet of climbing. It's not for the faint-hearted. And this race is more about the logistics of getting the riders ready and rested, about navigating successfully, than it is about the riding of a bicycle. That said, the RAAM tests people's resolve to push themselves through agonising pain, sleep deprivation, and heat exhaustion. It is a battle of great magnitude, in which the mind will play tricks and convince you that you have got to stop. The RAAM has been described by a solo finisher as being similar to a gladiator being thrown into a pit of lions.

We set off from Oceanside on Saturday 12th June and in spite of all our previous discussions about how 'easy' we were going to take the first part of the race, the proverbial hammer went down right from the off! There was an electric atmosphere at the start line, as the teams gathered and wished each other good fortune on the journey ahead. There was lots of friendly banter between ourselves and our American Military colleagues from Team 4Mil, with whom we were competing for the RAAM Military Challenge Cup. We knew that the statistics did not add up in our favour, as the four of us would have little chance of beating an eight-person team. Nevertheless we did our best to suggest to them that we were not going to roll over and accept defeat, rather that we were a serious force to be reckoned with.

All the teams were introduced to the waiting crowds, and at 14:21 local time, we were sent on our way to traverse one of the largest continents in the world, 3005 miles in the shortest possible time. We had no idea how things were going to pan out for us, and we simply focused on success at every turn. The weather was kind at the start; a steady breeze blowing on-shore meant that the first riders on the road would be whistling their way along the Californian valley floor before commencing the lumpy ascent, then the descent of the 'Glass Elevator' to take us into the desert. The following wind picked up through the night, and when taking over my shift, we were averaging 38mph for one 90 minute stretch. We were flying and quickly settled into 3rd position overall.

It was foolhardy of to think that our positioning was secure. This race presents riders and support crew with so many challenges and problems that we were navigationally challenged many times costing us vital minutes. When you put it into perspective, driving along a 3000 mile route and expecting not to take a wrong turn at any point, is perhaps not a realistic aspiration. There was plenty of jostling for positions in the first 24 hours, and dawn brought the realisation that there could be another seven sunrises to get through before the race was complete. Once the adrenalin had dissipated, the role of the riders was superceded by the organisation of the support crew, how they planned to run the show, and arrange to put riders in position so that we could exchange with one another and maintain our pace. This was going to be the challenge for us all, as it transpired. The crew got less sleep than the riders, maintained our morale and made decisions under some intense pressure. The riders meanwhile, were able to focus solely on getting themselves ready for riding.

Our strategy was to split the four-man team into two smaller elements of two riders, only one of which would be on the road at any time. We had practised doing between 15-30min pulls on the road to maintain a high average speed, and to ensure that the riders got plenty of rest. This worked extremely well for the racers, however it took its toll on the support crew who were constantly on the go.

Our second day took us through Arizona and into Utah, cycling through Monument Valley in the middle of the night, all the while gaining elevation as the Rockies approached. We as riders became accustomed to spending up to and in excess of six hours in the saddle each day, and most of the riding was in the big ring. The big climbs of the Rockies were particularly challenging; the temperature at night would plummet to 3-4deg C and the long descents required us to be appropriately dressed to cope with the cold. The highest recorded speed was 56mph during a night time descent. These were 20-30 mile ups and downs, the like of which some of us had never experienced before.

The lush green pastures and beautiful hills of Colorado gave way to the flats of Kansas. We spent hundreds of miles on long straight roads in the soaring heat, and it seemed that the most significant landmarks were the grain silos which popped up every 20 miles or so. We were fortunate with the winds in Kansas; one of our fears had been whether we would be battling into a howling head wind for days on end.

Kansas came and went, and the heat and humidity soared as we neared Missouri and Illinois. The quantity of wildlife also increased. There were plagues of frogs on the roads, and the night sky was alight with Lightning bugs, making the scenery look more like a Christmas card scene with twinkling lights in the trees. Fluid intake and dehydration became a big issue. I can recall losing so much fluid, that I was soaked in sweat from head to toe after only five minutes on the bike. The humidity made life uncomfortable in the Winnebago, where sleeping was a challenge; the mosquitoes bit at every opportunity, and the bike did not generate any cooling airflow effect either, meaning it was impossible to escape the heat.

The crew and riders were holding up reasonably well and we were destined for a six day finish as we reached Illinois. The RAAM has a knack of testing a team's resolve to the limit, and none more so than when resting at a time station, we received a call to say that John Crewe had collided with Mat Stephenson, that JC had landed heavily, and damaged his collar bone. We were devastated to hear that news, and as JC was taken to the nearest hospital we were left to re-assess how and if we would continue with the race. The RAAM clock does not stop. Steve and I put our heads together to figure out how our riding strategy would change with only three riders remaining. We opted for a three hour rotation for each rider, allowing six hours of recovery. Our riding style also changed from a pretty aggressive, to one where we conserved energy as best as possible. The Appalachians were still a day away, and we had been warned that they were leg breakers.

The support crew rallied round, re-organising themselves to work with the three-rider rotation. They did a marvellous job, and given that they were getting less sleep than the riders, their resolve and tenacity was noteworthy. With 48 hours or so to the finish we now focused on finishing within the seven day target. It was going to be tough; the support crew were literally on their last legs due to sleep deprivation.

During the race we were in frequent contact with a two-man team from Denmark. The Biking Vikings were super strong riders, and we set our sights on beating them to the finish line. This raised the tempo somewhat and inspired the whole team to work even harder than before.

So let's put things into perspective. Most people would class a three hour ride as a good training session, after which they would take the day off to recover. Such is the nature of the RAAM, we were having to ride for nine hours each, when we were down to only three racers. A real feat in anyone's book for sure. Approaching the Appalachians, the weather got hotter, the humidity rose, and the gradients steepened. The RAAM book mentions the steepest hill, describing it as one where most people get off their bikes and walk. What were we in for? I went out for a night time session, with a 39/27 gear, and was quickly working hard as the first of three five-mile climbs kicked in. Thankfully one of the Vikings came up to me but did not have the legs to pull away, so we turned the gears and chatted as best we could, given our hypoxic state! That was a great way to take your mind off the task at hand.

As I came off my shift on the last night. I was really starting to tire. Steve said he felt good in the hills and Mat went flat out, and buried himself. By the time I came back on shift to take over from Mat, he was down to a walking pace, and he looked exhausted. We were racing both clock and Vikings now, and the terrain had drained us of all energy. Nevertheless we re-fuelled and hit the road again. Our final morning and the end was in sight. The Vikings pulled away, and we couldn't keep up.

The maths told us we needed to average 13mph for the last 100miles, not a problem to anyone with fresh legs on the Lincolnshire flatlands we thought. The terrain, however, was still rolling and a cheeky headwind had picked up. We re-grouped and rotated every five miles due to fatigue, ensuring that our average speed stayed fairly high. I'm not sure what it was, perhaps the adrenalin of seeing that finish line, but we were averaging 20mph! A slight miscommunication at the last time station cost us a few vital seconds, so we then decided to put three riders on the road for the last 40 miles. We were flying! The end was in sight, and we were scheduled to finish well within the seven days. We cruised at a steady 22mph, not bad given that we had just cycled 2950miles without stopping. The crew sent one vehicle ahead to guide us in and make sure the navigation was accurate, while the other vehicle protected us from the busy roads of Maryland.

With 200 metres to go, I saw two random riders come onto the road and start weaving themselves in amongst us. I shouted for them to take care and give us room, but then recognised them as Roy Collins from the US Team4Mil gang with his son. What a delight to see him. Roy and his eight-person team DNF'd at Durango after their Winnebago rolled off the road. Thankfully no one was seriously injured but their RAAM ended in the Rockies. Roy escorted us to the finish line three miles away from the pier in Annapolis. We celebrated with our support crew; lots of hugs and a few tears. The relief of finishing the World's Toughest Bike Race was incredible. As we awaited our official Race Escort to parade us through the streets of Annapolis to the Atlantic finishing point, we looked at each other in sheer disbelief. What had we just done? We also thought of John Crewe. He was instrumental in making this project a success, dedicating a lot of time, effort and money and unfortunately his race ended prematurely.

I can safely say that I felt an overwhelming sense of pride to have been part of a team that was so successful in the face of continued adversity. The support crew were outstanding, and their 'can-do' attitude ensured we were able to keep going for the whole race. We finished the 3000mile Race Across America in under seven days and we had won the inaugural RAAM Military Challenge Cup. That is what we came for.

Truly Outstanding!!

Now as all good events come to a natural conclusion I feel it is important to mention personally all those that made this event someting to remember for a lifetime. Here are the 'credits':

Mr John Crewe - RAAM Racer
Mr Steve Duffy - RAAM Racer
Mr Mat Stephenson - RAAM Racer
Yours truly - RAAM Racer
Mr Paul Dunning - Crew Chief
Mr Max Seaman - Comms/Photo Expert/No sleep required driver(!)
Mr Phil Kelly - Ad hoc Crew Chief/All Round Top Bloke
Mr Mike Burgess - Sports Massage Therapist/ Crew Organiser/Top Bloke
Mrs Louise Parr - Sports Massage Therapist/Nutritionist/Trojan Worker
Ms Claire Birch - Navigator & Driver
Mr Nick Freaks - Bike Mechanic/Navigator/Driver/Top Guy
Mr Ed Nockles - Civvy in the group/brilliant guy and very relaible
Mr Jamie Simmonds - Media coord/Speed Policeman

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