Meet Some of the Veteran Racers Featured in HELL ON TWO WHEELS

Patrick Autissier. French. 47 years old. Experienced swimmer, triathlete, and cyclist. Recognized as level-headed and cerebral. Scientist who uses himself as a research subject during RAAM.

Autissier is a handsome, blue-eyed medical researcher who lives in Boston. His easy-going, subdued personality stands in contrast to how intensely his eyes sparkle with energy and zeal. This man was as driven as the others, and his motive force was curiosity.

Autissier was back for his third time. He knew what to expect and his training had gone well. Autissier is a cerebral man, so his mind was going a mile a minute trying to diagnose what was wrong with him. As he struggled he felt deeply grateful for the support he was getting from his crew. Autissier was doing RAAM on a shoestring budget compared to the rest. Team Autissier didn’t have a motor home; they fielded only two vans. Their transcontinental journey wouldn’t be nearly as comfortable as the others and this weighed heavily on him.

Autissier is one of those big-brained thinkers who might forget he put a tea pot on because he’s caught up pondering some problem or another. Even during RAAM, he couldn’t put his scientific curiosity to rest. He planned on using his body as a immunology experiment during the race, drawing blood periodically and mailing the specimens back to his Boston lab so his colleagues could assess how his immune system was holding up to the rigors of the race.

RAAM is largely a test of will, but willpower is mediated by the body. The struggle between willful minds and brutalized bodies is something that draws researchers each year to study how the racers cope. If a medical researcher proposed subjecting athletes to the conditions cyclists experience during RAAM, he wouldn’t be able to get past his medical ethics department. But since race participants are competing of their own volition, RAAM is an ideal lab for studying the limits of body and mind.

So Autissier was keen to take the time to draw blood during the race to help improve science’s understanding. But he research project could only last as long as he did. A few weeks before, Autissier had come down with the flu and hadn’t been able to ride since. At the start line he was unsure of what he had in his legs. As it turned out, not much. The first day of the race would prove to be a brutal one for Autissier.

Janet Christiansen. American. 48 years old. Podium-finishing, veteran Ironman triathlete, stage racer, and ultra-distance cyclist. Known for her tenacity and sense of humor. Software engineer.

Christiansen is a gangly, fair-skinned 48-year-old software engineer who has that slightly-frumpy, nerdy look that screams “techie” from a mile away. But this hard core endurance athlete doesn’t sit at a computer terminal 80 hours a week. Christiansen went to Nationals as a bike racer in the 1980s and become a podium-finishing Ironman triathlete in the 1990s, developing a reputation for prodigious physical stamina and toughness. Her ultra cycling resume is littered with impressive results, including first and second place finishes in several 500-mile races, such as the Furnace Creek 508 where once she placed third overall, beating all but two of the men. She also garnered a first place finish in the Hoodoo 500 (where she raced unsupported), and after that she set a course record for two-woman RAAM.

When you first meet Christiansen it can be off-putting, because she deadpans so well and has such a clever, sarcastic sense of humor it’s hard to tell if she’s making a serious point or trying to pull your leg. Once she grows comfortable with you, Christiansen lets you see her goofy sense of humor more and more. This is a woman who loves Broadway show tunes and movie scores, and who, in her solo RAAM debut, donned cycling shoes with red sequins in Kansas, paying homage to The Wizard of Oz even in the throes of the race.

After her sense of humor, the second thing I saw in Christiansen was how serious was about her sport. As an engineer, she brings a fact-based, analytical approach to ultra cycling, always tinkering and musing about how to make things just a tiny bit better. But this didn’t help her in RAAM the previous year.

In spite of her Wizard of Oz high jinks, Christiansen suffered a tragic DNF the year before, dropping out almost within sight of the finish line having raced her heart out for 2,750 miles. This experienced endurance athlete knew from the beginning she was in trouble. She had arrived in Oceanside that year over-trained and burned out. She was thinking boy, are my legs dead just as the gun went off.

With only 250 miles left, after 12 days of punishing racing Christiansen could almost smell the Atlantic Ocean. But every inch of her race had been torture, and she was a broken woman. She had abandoned her sense of humor long before. This first RAAM bid had ripped her asunder. “I just got to that point—you couldn’t tell me, c’mon Janet, get back on your bike and keep going,” she told me. “One of the crew said, ‘I can’t bear to watch this anymore,’ and just gave me a big hug, and at that moment my spirits just—that was it, it was over.” Within hours of quitting the race, even in the depths of her misery (or perhaps because of it?) Christiansen knew she would return the following year.

Christiansen changed it up preparing for this year’s race. Physically, she cut down her training mileage and mentally she learned to control her negative thoughts when something started hurting. “This year, I began my toughest training rides thinking about all the things that were going well, all the things that were good. Then when one or two things started going wrong—a pain here or there—I reminded myself about the good things.”

But the most important change she made was to commit to having more fun during the race. That meant everybody. She worked to find crew members who could be as silly, wacky, and witty as she was. She was happy with the composition of her crew. This year Christiansen wanted to cycle across the country on the power of laughter.

Tony O’Keeffe. Canadian. 48 years old. Lt. Colonel in the Canadian armed forces, veteran Ironman/Ultraman triathlete, respected for his discipline, inspirational leadership qualities, and mental toughness.

A 47-year-old Lt. Colonel in the Canadian Armed Forces, O’Keeffe is all about showing people what is possible. His friends call him the most inspirational man they’ve ever met. O’Keeffe is tall, broad-shouldered, and handsome, and his eyes sparkle and dart around when he talks to you, hinting at the energy bubbling just beneath the surface. But right now, O’Keeffe’s eyes were dark pools of foreboding.

As Director of Cadets at the Royal Military College, O’Keeffe leads Canada’s best and brightest. He inspires them, too. He finished solo RAAM in his first try in 2006 after a sensational career as an Ironman and Ultraman triathlete. This Canadian superman was elected to the Canadian Military Sports Hall of Fame while still serving—the only active member ever given this honor.

One look at O’Keeffe’s resume puts this award in context. He had succeeded at RAAM once already; finished second overall in the Ultraman world championships four times; and successfully completed over 20 “regular” ironman distance races, including four Ironman world championships in Hawaii where he garnered first place in the military division. He had accomplished all this while raising two kids, getting a masters degree, serving two tours of duty in Saudi Arabia, and spending time in Bosnia at NATO headquarters.

O’Keeffe credits his success in endurance sports to one thing—his mental strength. “I don’t get down on myself easily, and I won’t quit. If a DNF ever does happen it will either be because I’ve been hit by a car or the police are taking me off the course in handcuffs.”

Jim Rees. British. 46 years old. Veteran Ironman triathlete turned ultra cyclist. Keynote speaker, executive coach, and father of six. Known for his thoughtfulness, determination, and generosity.

Rees is a suave 46-year-old motivational speaker who lives an hour north of London. He doesn’t have a lot of formal education, but you’d never know it: Rees is widely-read and comes across as deeply thoughtful. Despite being the most urbane racer in the field, RAAM always seemed to transform Rees into a simpler, more primitive being. He had raced four-man RAAM in 2005 and made his first solo bid in 2007. That year he was plagued with hallucinations, digestive issues, dehydration—just everything. But his greatest torture was his failing neck muscles. He rode for several agonizing days with his head lashed to a backpack-like brace to keep it up so he could see the road ahead of him. By the time he had reached the Appalachians he could barely turn his pedals over. He was a zombie on the bike. What a transformation for this classy man who on “dry land” always has an incisive point of view and a quick wit.

With less than 200 miles to go in his RAAM solo debut, his crew tried letting him down gently. He wasn’t going to make the time cutoff; his pace had slowed too much. This news came as a shock to Rees. “I was absolutely gutted when my crew didn’t think I could finish. I can’t believe they gave up on me like that. Obviously they didn’t know me well enough.” He was wide awake now—and miffed. To his crew’s amazement, he found new reservoirs of energy and upped his speed for the final 200 miles by an additional six miles per hour—an almost unfathomable acceleration that he sustained for over 15 hours.

He beat the 288-hour time cutoff with less than an hour to spare.

Knowing he could do better Rees came back the following year, confident he would break the British record. This time he brought a chiropractor along for his neck, closely monitored his electrolyte intake, and kept his time “fiddling around off the bike” to a minimum. He managed to shave almost a full day off his prior year’s time, coming over the line ahead of the previous British record. Problem was, there was another British man racing that year—a rookie named Mark Pattinson—who came from nowhere to finish second, more than a day and a half ahead of Rees who placed a respectable ninth.

Rees was determined to push himself even harder the third time around, now chasing Pattinson’s time. But how? He had executed his race plan well the previous year, so where could he pick up the day and a half he needed? Rees came up with the obvious answer—he had to become a faster bike racer. So this year he hit the gym, dropped some weight, and reduced his training mileage but upped the intensity. “No garbage miles. No through-the-night rides. Only high quality riding this year,” he explained.

As Rees waited for the countdown on a sunny day in Oceanside, he knew he had it in him to race much faster. He also knew this time, everything had to go perfectly for him to achieve his elusive goal. He hoped his green crew was ready for the challenges ahead.

Copyright © 2011 by Amy Snyder