How would you describe Hell on Two Wheels?

There are a couple ways to answer this question. Most broadly, Hell on Two Wheels is an epic tale of adventure and survival in the mode of John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air or Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm. It tells a mythic story of human perseverance relevant to anyone.

At the most basic level this is a book about a bike race. But this race — the Race Across America (RAAM) — is a race like no other. Outside Magazine described it as “the most difficult test of endurance in the world.” The 2009 race was the basis of Hell on Two Wheels, and that race happened to be the most suspenseful and controversial in the 30-year history of RAAM. Hell on Two Wheels covers the drama as it unfolds across the entire sweep of the continent. The 2009 race was one for the history books, with riveting action and plenty of surprises.

But the real story involves the racers. Readers get to know them and become invested in their lives. Who are these people? What drives them to endure such a staggering amount of punishment? We watch with ghoulish fascination as the race exacts its vicious toll. We hope for the best, but the opposite is equally compelling.

 

Why did you write Hell on Two Wheels?

Another way to put this is, “Why would a nice girl like me write a book about the most brutal, macho cycling race on the planet?” After all, I’m a middle-aged woman with a business background who grew up nerdy and unathletic in New York City.

So here are my motivations for taking on this unusual book topic. First, because I could. As a young retiree I always fancied writing a book after an almost two decade long career in management consulting. Second, because I was told I could not! When I first began pitching this book concept, one well known, New York-based literary agent told me, “If it’s a book about a bike race and it’s not written by Lance Armstrong, it doesn’t stand a chance.” Well, when somebody tells me I can’t do something, I’m like a bull to a red rag. That was all I needed to hear! Third, because as three-time Ironman finisher and endurance cyclist, I knew something about the topic.

But the most interesting motivation for this project is that, as a three-time Ironman finisher and marathon cyclist, I learned a lot about myself through endurance sports. Throughout my childhood and well into adulthood, I came to deny and even fear my own vulnerability. Through endurance sports, I developed the courage to be imperfect, and to fail. I learned that being vulnerable actually makes me beautiful. When I discovered RAAM, I figured that the story of this race might offer all of us lessons on an even grander scale.

Even with my background in endurance sports, I was aghast when I first began digging into what this race is about. With a little bit of luck and some encouragement from friends and family, a reasonably fit, goal-oriented person can finish an Ironman-length triathlon in less a bit over half a day of hard racing. I knew I could never push myself much beyond this, and this compelled me to discover how other athletes can and why they do.

You see, when I did my first Ironman the weather conditions were brutal, and after finishing I ended up in the medical tent. There I was diagnosed with severe hyponatremia, or water poisoning. I had gained nine pounds of water weight during the race by making the rookie mistake of drinking too much in an effort to keep cool. My brain was swollen and my electrolyte level was so low I risked seizure, coma, and even death.

Before this race, I was a hard-charging executive who barreled through her workdays without letting go of who she thought she should be long enough to realize who she was. Through the harrowing ordeal of my first Ironman, I learned it was okay to fail, ask for help, and feel scared and intimidated. As I settled into life as an endurance athlete, I began to embrace my vulnerability. It finally dawned on me that feeling vulnerable also makes me beautiful. It’s no longer excruciating for me; it’s actually liberating.

For me, pushing my limits through endurance racing was a profoundly self-revelatory experience. So when I learned that my friend, George Vargas, was preparing to compete in RAAM as part of two-man team, I decided I had to discover what this epic race could teach the rest of us. I discovered that the Race Across America is much more than a race. As I watched the 2009 event unfold from the West Coast to the East, I realized that this monster — this crucible — held lessons for us all.

Marathon swimmer Diana Nyad captures it well in her 1978 book Other Shores. She writes, “What interests me about marathon swimming is that it tests the human spirit. It is a sport of extremes. The real issue behind reaching the other shore is neither talent nor preparation nor the outwitting of an opponent. The real issue is the strength of the human will and the ability to focus that will under the most unimaginable of circumstances.”

 

Why do people enter this race?

This is the number one question on people’s minds, and Hell on Two Wheels sets out to answer it by chronicling the experiences of a handful of racers during the 2009 event, as well as the before and after.

The English language lacks a word for people who willingly submit to the level of suffering required to complete RAAM, so we just dismiss these athletes “crazy.” But they dearly want to be seen as fully realized individuals. Believe it or not, they feel every ache and pain as much as you or I would, and they don’t want to suffer, either.

In their bleakest moments on the road, each racer finds his own reason to keep going. While it’s difficult to relate to the extreme challenge these athletes confront, all of us have pushed ourselves to the point where we think, “I can’t go on for another minute.” And yet we do. Like these cyclists, we share a curiosity about what will happen—and what we will learn about ourselves—when we push our bodies and minds right to the edge.

Hell on Two Wheels sets the 2009 race in the context of each racer’s life and personal journey. Some of these athletes use ultra-distance cycling to prove their self-worth. Some are out there for the fanatical pursuit of their own brand of joy and adventure. Others are trying to exercise demons or get in touch with their authentic selves. Each athlete has a unique motivation, but all share an unquenchable desire to challenge the limits of their own endurance.

 

What do endurance races like this tell us about human beings?

The desire to test our physical and mental limits is a uniquely human trait. The recent popularity of endurance sports is an example of this … compulsion. A sociological explanation goes something like this: in our modern age, we yearn for authentic experiences where our courage must be summoned. One way we do this is by willingly undertaking extreme physical challenges. Through these experiences, writer Nancy Soloman observes, “we drop our pretenses, ego, and arrogance in favor of truth and transformation…we fulfill our intention to be authentic.”

Some endurance sports fanatics explain that a race like 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 that they feel intensely alive and in touch with nature. Some claim to experience powerfully spiritual moments of transcendence.

All of this suggests that for ultradistance racers, the balance between pain and pleasure might not be as out of kilter as it first seems. When Kirk Johnson ran Badwater [a 135 mile long ultramarathon], he was filled with “eye-opening wonder” while watching meteor showers in the night sky of the desert, when “the simple act of moving along the desert floor 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.”

 

Who did you write this book for? What if I’m not a cyclist or endurance athlete?

Just as the majority of Jon Krakauer’s or Sebastian Junger’s readers weren’t alpinists or sailors, Hell on Two Wheels will also appeal to the millions of armchair adventurers who thrill to tales about adventure and survival.

But the book is also of interest to explorers of the human spirit. The athletes we meet in Hell on Two Wheels push their limits in ways that are unimaginable to the rest of us. Watching them experience the agony of breaking through barriers offers important lessons in human perseverance and the power of the human will.

And of course, if you’re a cycling fan you will love the book. The race action is dramatic, and there are plenty of interesting backstories sprinkled throughout that explore cycling technology, exercise physiology, and sports psychology, to name a few.

 

What research did you do for Hell on Two Wheels?

I spent time with a handful of the 2009 contestants prior to this year’s race. 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. Just like the racers, we traveled across the continent, crawling along back roads from west to east in order to keep track of each of the racers featured in the book.

Watching this relentless race unfold was considerably more disturbing than I expected. As it dragged on, I watched as 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.

 

Tell us about the 2009 race?

This was the closest and most controversial race in the 30-year history of the event. In RAAM there are three marquee races-within-the race: the race to be the first man, the first woman, and the first rookie. Each of these contests went down to the wire. Without giving too much away, each also included controversies and plot twists as the finish line drew near.

To give you a hint of the action, in the 2009 race the two leaders were racing neck-and-neck for literally days late in the race. After eight or nine days, the physical challenges involved in this type of contest are obvious. But you cannot imagine how the psychological pressure builds when a drawn-out race like this is so incredibly close for such a long time. People start freaking out. Tempers flare. Paranoia reigns. And heroes come to the fore. The 2009 event was a race for the ages.

Who are your favorite racers featured in Hell on Two Wheels?

Oh my! Several of them have become good friends. All of them taught me important lessons about perseverance and determination. Going into this project, I was careful to avoid being “reductionist” about the racers and generalizing about their personality types and the like. I discovered that each of them has a unique life story and motivation for doing the race. Many lead full and fascinating lives “off the bike.” They aren’t zombies or one-dimensional cycling brutes. Some are highly-accomplished in their field of work. And all of them dearly want to be seen as fully-realized individuals. Just as importantly, they want people to understand what motivates them to do what they do.

This this is why each of the racers featured in Hell on Two Wheels gave so generously of their time during my interviews. I spent many hours with the racers featured in the book, traveling all around the world and spending time in the racers’ homes in with their families.

I grew to care about each of them, and felt real pangs of disappointment during the 2009 race when some were forced to withdraw and failed to finish. As Hell on Two Wheels unfolds, readers will become equally invested in these racer’s experiences and outcomes.

 

What are the lessons Hell on Two Wheels teaches?

My answer to this question is somewhat “new age-y.” I believe the lessons offered in Hell on Two Wheels are profound. Let me explain.

This race takes on a mythic quality to those who get close to it.

Mere observers like you and I are irresistibly, almost ghoulishly fascinated to see how each racer copes with his misery.

Crew members care for their racer and through their experience of his suffering, they deepen their own understanding of compassion, which literally means to suffer with someone else. They end up forging a bond with their racer that can be unnervingly powerful and intimate.

The racers themselves endure an astonishing amount of physical and mental punishment. They experience the agony of breaking through personal limitations. They risk their lives and sometimes push themselves to the brink of madness. We are compelled to ask why they do this.

Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist and author, describes one life-affirming myth that’s shared by every culture going back as far as recorded time. It offers a way to understand the allegorical meaning of this race and the racers’ motivations. In a sense, RAAM contestants are the modern-day equivalents of the adventurers and seekers in this archetypal myth.

In this myth, an ordinary person receives a “call to adventure” that compels him to leave the everyday world that he’s psychologically and spiritually outgrown. He journeys into a dreamlike arena—a dark forest, a desert, a foreboding place. Along the way he encounters a teacher who instructs him in skills he needs to successfully achieve a goal that’s now revealed to him.

Striving for this goal the protagonist is challenged to his limit by a series of terrifying and demanding trials, finally reaching and overcoming one last ordeal. Through these struggles he experiences a euphoric transfiguration and is forever changed. Unencumbered by personal limitations, he discovers new powers and purpose. He then sets off to re-enter his normal world.

His last task, Campbell says, is to share his discoveries, which promise to bring a boon to his society that will somehow restore its vibrancy. He encounters many incapable of comprehending. Finally someone hears the message and arises as the next adventurer. In RAAM, each racer has her own reason for undertaking her mythic journey across the continent, but all are drawn by the same irresistible call to adventure. Through their experiences, they develop deep insights into their own psyches and gain new powers that can benefit us if we are willing and open.

Watching these ultra-cyclists enduring and overcoming obstacle after obstacle, mile after mile, we can each learn lessons about the strength of the human spirit and the power of the human mind.

“Pain is self-revelatory,” seven-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong writes. “There’s a point in every race when a rider encounters his real opponent and understands that it’s himself. In my most painful moments on the bike, I am at my most curious and I wonder each time how I will respond. Will I discover my innermost weakness or will I seek out my innermost strength?” The 15 men and women who finished this year’s race all reached the deepest source of their strength. Watching them do so, we are obliged to re-examine our own limiting thoughts and feelings.

 

How did experiencing the story of this race affect you?

I was forever changed my experience of this race and its contestants. Everyone who encounters the story of this race says it changes their relationship to their own limiting thoughts and feelings. This is more than just a race – it’s an unforgettable allegory about the human experience of pain and joy and self-revelation … and a story that needed to be told.

 

What other books is your book similar to?

Before this, nobody had ever written a book that follows so many different racers and describes their experiences in such intimate detail during an ultra-distance race even half as long as the Race Across America. But the story of this remarkable race and these extraordinary athletes needed to be told.

 

Where can I learn more about the Race Across America?

Definitely check out the Race Across America website (link below), as well as the blogs and websites that many race participants employ to keep their fans updated. It’s also worth seeking out race coverage posted on YouTube, Facebook, and other social networking sites.

 

Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder

RAAM Website