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. The scope of this epic event spans a continent, starting at the Pacific Ocean near San Diego and ending at the Atlantic near Washington, D.C. It takes the winners about nine days to finish and the rest a couple of days more. The conditions are extreme and unpredictable, and nobody finishes this race unscathed.
RAAM is a bicycle race like no other. It is a 3,000-mile nonstop contest, and 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. 3,000 miles. That’s 114 marathon routes laid out end-to-end. Or 21 Ironman triathlon routes. Or the distance the average American will drive in two and a half months. 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. Exposed to the elements day and night, racers average between 230 and 250 miles every day just to make the time cutoffs. 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.
In researching HELL ON TWO WHEELS I spent time with a handful of the 2009 contestants prior to this year’s event. I got to know them and their families, then followed the race for two weeks in a minivan along with Les Handy, a long-time RAAM groupie and himself an accomplished amateur bike racer. Watching this relentless race unfold was considerably more disturbing than I expected. As it dragged on, I saw how RAAM transformed my new friends, brutalized them, and turned them into simpler beings. I bore witness to their suffering but it was their passion and grit that stuck with me most.
After two amazing weeks traveling the back roads of America from one coast to the other, I was forever changed my experience of this race and its contestants. Everyone who encounters RAAM says it changes their relationship to their own limiting thoughts and feelings. This is more than a race—it’s an unforgettable allegory about the human experience of pain and joy and self-revelation…and a story that needs to be told.
But I soon discovered that telling the story of RAAM isn’t easy.
For one thing, it’s impossible to comprehend what it feels like to propel oneself over a distance of 3,000 miles. Here’s one way to think about it: it would take the average jogger who runs three miles five days a week close to four years to cover this distance.
Another reason its difficult conveying the monstrous nature of RAAM is because this race in a different league compared to better known extreme sporting challenges. Take the Tour de France. RAAM is half again as long as this 23-day-long spectacle but condensed into a far shorter time frame.
The toll this event takes on mind and body is equally difficult to convey.
RAAM participants can gradually lose the use of their hands during this relentless race because of nerve compression in the wrist; neck muscles can fail because they must continually hold up one’s head; life-threatening pulmonary infections and organ failure can hit at any moment; muscles and joints can self-destruct; and cyclist’s minds can be shattered by a lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation causes deficits in reaction time which can lead to violent crashes. Lack of sleep also induces behavioral problems, including depression, confusion, and anger. Riders become paranoid and suggestible. They hallucinate, seeing things that aren’t there, conversing with animals, recoiling from monsters, jumping off their bikes deep into the night to do battle with invisible beasts.
Every struggling rider draws us in like voyeurs as we watch him teeter on the brink of calamity. We hope for miracles but the opposite is just as compelling.
It might seem as though RAAM finishers are a different breed, invested with superhuman constitutions that help them overcome the unimaginable brutality that RAAM dishes out. But that’s just not so. Racers feel every ache and pain just like a normal person would and they don’t want to suffer, either. They point out that persevering in this race 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 resolve. Each comes close to quitting more than once during his odyssey. Racers sob and scream and curl up in fetal positions along the side of the road, but then pull themselves together again. 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 and longer 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 ultra-distance 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 are different 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.
All of this suggests that, for ultra-distance racers, the balance between pain and pleasure might not be as out-of-kilter as it first seems.
When Kirk Johnson ran Badwater, 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.”
As RAAM began one sunny June day in Oceanside, California, 28 men and women started resolutely pedaling, driven by a force few of us can comprehend. They didn’t know it at the time, but this would be the closest and most controversial race in history. Through their ordeals, some racers would find their bliss and others would be crushed by the crucible of RAAM. Moving steadily across the country, they would all learn the lessons of a lifetime in scorching deserts, ragged mountains, and windy plains as they conquered a continent on two wheels.
Check out this RAAM promotional video:
Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder