Wednesday, July 01, 2009

2009 Race Across America -- or -- What I Did On My Summer Vacation

Howard recently crewed for a team of eight bicyclists with type-2 diabetes who participated in a race across America. It's a 3000-mile race called, oddly enough, Race Across America, or RAAM. Here is my personal experience of RAAM, greatly condensed... and way too positive to accurately represent the reality of the event.

I spent a week at Cannon Beach, Oregon celebrating my wife's parents' 50th Anniversary at a huge family reunion. Then I flew from Portland to San Diego.
After some anxious minutes, I finally hooked up with my chauffeur, Saul, one of the riders who unfortunately got bumped from the ride. We also found the pediatric endocrinologist and team doc for Team Type 1, and headed to Oceanside's pier via GPS -- my first experience with them. Worked like a charm.

Because of the family reunion, I was among the very last to arrive in San Diego. When I arrived, it seemed like everyone knew each other and I was surrounded by strangers. But I quickly found two friends, Zin and JulieB, and then saw a couple other riders, Mark and Tim, whom I had ridden with in Colorado on training rides with Zin. I also found and talked to BikeJournal's Homey and Veronica with team JDRF.


Soon it was time for the TT1 & 2 group picture. Everyone already had their "crew team kits", but I didn't yet, so JulieB let me borrow her TT2 hoodie:


Then we went to an auditorium where all the teams were introduced. I found it utterly mesmerizing and found myself thinking I HAD to be up on that stage next year. When they introduced the 4-man team on hand-crank bikes, everyone gave them a standing ovation that lasted two minutes. Very moving and inspiring.

Then it was time for dinner. The mass of 30-some Team Type 2 folks, along with an equal contingent of Team Type I riders and crew all piled into a flotilla of RVs and vans, were given simple directions to a nearby mall and food court, and told that if we couldn't find it, we had no business driving across the country. The driver and navigator of our RV promptly got lost and ended up at our hotel instead, where they stopped and stomped off due to all the verbal abuse. Howard is a kindly soul and never said a harsh word. Instead I tried to ask the others to get used to it. The whole week was going to be like this.

So I checked into the hotel and asked if any restaurants were within walking distance. "No," was the answer. "Nothing? No McDonald's? No Subways?" "Oh, there's a Subway down the street but it's too far to walk." "How far is it?" "Oh, at least a mile or mile-and-a-half." Off I went and had a nice dinner at Subway. Lesson Learned: Californians consider walking distance to be within half a mile or less.

The next morning, we all packed up and headed back to an area near the pier, where we met and talked to lots of folks with diabetes and a doctor or two who treat diabetics. I didn't know too much, so I listened to the conversations. Later on, as the week wore on, I asked my riders to fill me in on the physiology and treatment of diabetes and they did. I also met BikeJournal's Robo there and gave him my cell phone number so he could check up on our progress, which he did three times during the week. Robo has ridden RAAM numerous times.

Then it was time to race and all the riders headed down to the pier while my rider van headed to the first rider exchange point 25 miles down the road.

This is how the vans and RVs worked for Team Type 2. There were 32 of us -- 8 riders and 24 crew members. The riders were divided into two squads of four, and each squad was matched up with four crew members -- a follow van with a driver and navigator and a rider van with a driver and navigator. The remaining 16 crew members were assigned to either a rider RV, a crew RV, or a utility van. The squad of four riders, four crew members, and two vans were out on the road for between 120 miles and 190 miles while the RVs and utility van filled with everyone else would zoom on ahead to the transition point, always a time station, and await the arrival of the active riders, crew, and their two vans. The follow van would always follow the active rider, who moved along at between 6 mph and 63 mph (yes, we had a very large guy who was packed with descending muscle and could fly down the descents.) The rider van carried the other three riders who were on the clock but between pulls, and that's the van that I navigated and made all the rider exchange decisions for. We were constantly leap-frogging the follow van and active rider, finding a good place to pull off the shoulder for a rider exchange, then getting the next rider ready to ride, making the exchange, loading up the last rider's bike up, and then zooming down the road again. Pulls were usually 4 to 5 miles long, though we would shorten them up if we were climbing or the four or five times we were in direct racing competition with another team. The active squad of riders and crew would do this over and over and over again for 8 to 11 hours typically while all the other riders and crew in the RVs relaxed and tried to sleep.

At the squad transition points, the fresh squad would choose the rider to lead them out, and since the follow van had to stay with the rider between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m., this usually meant very quick exchanges of crew and supplies in the follow van as well. The rider van could take a bit more time to clean out the van and replace all the supplies. Once the squads were replaced and the two vans took off, the tired riders would shower in temporary shower facilities and eat food prepared by the RV crew. Then they would zoom ahead to the next transition point, trying to sleep on the moving RV, and usually being more successful once the RV stopped at the transition point.

Everything was humming along on the first day. We found a good spot to sit and await the two Team Type 2 riders that got to lead out from the starting line -- Zin and Peter. Zin because he was the Team Manager for Team Type 2 and Peter because he was the poster boy for Type 2 diabetics since he weighed 320 pounds and was the associate director for the Milwaukee American Diabetes Association chapter and a genuinely nice, articulate, and personable man. He was on my squad of riders and quickly became The Descender. At one point late in the race we came up to a 7 mile 9% descent, and we quickly duct-taped a camera to his aerobars to film the descent. It was spectacular, though it was also much too curvy and dangerous, darnit.

When Deadhead and I did the Hoodoo 500 last September, the race director had told me that the race would be decided within the first five miles. So at the start of RAAM, I was thinking about this as we waited and wondered what was going to happen. After watching most of the teams go past us, our riders finally showed up and we did our first rider exchange. We were slotted into a later spot among the teams, which was no surprise, as winning was never a concern. That was Team Type 1's goal... which they reached, setting a record for 8-man teams. But for us, thriving and surviving the ordeal, and doing it within 7 days was the goal, knowing that scores of thousands of type-2 diabetics could and would take encouragement from the success of our riders racing over 3,000 miles across the continent in 7 days.

The rhythms and textures of the race began to emerge very quickly. Each rider would do his pull as a time trial -- at or close to lactic threshold -- for 15 minutes before being replaced by another rider. The retiring rider would then have about 45 minutes to recover and prepare for his next "time trial". Being type-2 diabetics, they tested their blood glucose levels before and after every pull. Seeing numbers as high as 190 followed by a low of 80 or 90 afterward was pretty typical for some of them. Those kinds of extreme swings were kind of shocking to a couple of the riders who hadn't expected to see such spreads, but all the riders in the van were constantly talking back and forth, helping and advising each other every step of the way. Zin was especially knowledgeable and helpful with this. My driver, Andrew, and I would talk a lot too, but mostly we just listened to the delightful chatter in the back seats as a couple of the riders had wonderfully quick and colorful senses of humor.

Those times in the rider van spent talking, laughing, planning strategies, determining who would ride on what kind of terrain and for how long, and finding places to pull off the road safely were the VERY BEST times for me and Andrew during the week. The times on the RV were another story...

Once we reached our destination, the transition point where we would end our shift, the drivers and navigators would be left to our own devices. The showers and food being prepared were for the riders only, so we had to find food or go without. And unfortunately, many times there was no food to be found at the transition point. And being wound up from all the high-intensity focus we had to bring to our jobs for hours on end, finding sleep was very difficult, especially when the generator and air conditioner stopped working in Kansas. The first four days, I would honestly estimate that I slept all of 10 hours. More and more raggedy and stinky we became. Somewhere in Kansas, I believe, one the crew in the utility van offered to take our stinky clothes to a laundromat. That is where I think I lost my most cherished BolderBoulder shirt from last Memorial Day. But at least we all had clean clothes.

Unfortunately, the temps and humidity began to beat down on us. I've lived all my life in dry Wyoming, dry Colorado, and dry Arizona. Humid Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Maryland were too much for me, especially with heat at or over 100F! All my clean clothes quickly became stinky again so that during days 6 and 7, all I had left were my swim trunks and a black sports tee. Fortunately, many of our shifts were at night during those last few days.

The highlights of the race? Riding through Monument Valley near Mexican Hat, Utah in the early morning hours, and as the sky lightened, the outlines of the Wiley T. Coyote buttes began to emerge. Then the sky filled with color and we could begin to make out details of the rocky outcroppings. Then more light and we could see texture and features of the majestic mountains. We were all mesmerized and grateful that our squad got to experience this moment.

Another amazing moment was as we were climbing the continental divide northeast of Chama, New Mexico into Colorado and towards Antonito and then back down to Taos, New Mexico. The stars were beyond description. None of us had seen the Milky Way Galaxy so clearly and brightly in decades as we all came from population centers smeared with light pollution. When you're at 10,000 ft. altitude and hundreds of miles away from any city over 50,000 population, the stars are utterly spectacular. I'm afraid JulieB and her driver Jeremy didn't see much of this because they were obligated to stay with the active rider, illuminating the road ahead. JulieB is an avid amateur astronomer too. But then I know for a fact that she gets to see the stars more than most of us, so I guess I shouldn't feel so bad for her.

Another memorable moment came after we crossed the Missouri river, in Missouri of course, and I put Zin on the pull because we were about to tackle one of the most difficult climbs of the entire week, Dutzow Hill. It was only a mile long, but it had sustained pitches of 20%! Lucky to find a pull-out at the very top of the hill, my driver Andrew, who was the official photojournalist of Team Type 2, videotaped the final 30 yards of Zin's climb/suffering. At the very top, Peter yelled, "That was fucking awesome!" which upset Andrew because it meant that he couldn't post the video to the TT2 website blog. I suggested that Zin go down and do it again, but nobody thought that was a very good idea.

Yet another great moment was as we were within 25 miles of the Mississippi River. Zin had mentioned how much he was looking forward to crossing it, and crossing it before the time cutoff of Friday at 5 p.m. When Zin was doing a pull, Peter requested that Zin get to be the one to cross the Mississippi. Great idea, I agreed, and began to calculate pulls to make this happen. It quickly became apparent that I would have to shorten pulls down to 3 and 4 miles to ensure that Zin was the man. So that's what I did without telling anyone. They were all too frazzled by the heat to notice that they were pulling for 10 and 12 minutes instead of 15 or 17 minutes, so that when we reached the time station just before the river, I put Zin out and he had no idea we were so close to it. After we loaded up the previous rider and drove past Zin, I stuck my head out the window and yelled, "enjoy!" 30 seconds later, we came around a bend and there it was, a brand new beautiful gold single-tower suspension bridge over the Mississippi.

Afterward, he remarked that it was going to be one of the most memorable moments of his week of RAAM. I made sure to let him know that it was Peter's idea.

Illinois was flat but around 110F. Southeast of Springfield, JulieB's parents brought doughnuts for everyone, which perked up all our spirits. We were also parked next to an air conditioned McDonald's. The kind with nice bathrooms. That perked up everyone's spirits too.

On through Illinois to Indiana we went. Indiana is kind of hilly and hot, as was Ohio. Sorry to the Hoosiers and Buckeyes, but I pretty much blocked out all memories of your states, hahahahaha!

West Virginia, on the other hand, I'll never get out of my head. In one bathroom at a gas station, I went in and on the other side of the door a sign was posted... OUT. No, I'm not kidding. I wish I was, but that's really what it said. Off we went into the West Virginia night and there wasn't a speck of flat anywhere for the next 190 miles. It was our worst shift yet. The climbs were horribly steep and endless, the forests made creepy sounds, I could swear I heard banjos a duelin', and the towns were few, sparse, and filled with mud, dogs, and uneducation. The guys were all suffering and I as their leader was getting fuzzy and unfocused. I began to make mistakes.

Eventually the sun began to rise and we could see the countryside. Absolutely beautiful, foggy but green and luscious. Plus, we soon came into Maryland. Feeling a bit perked up, our average began to pick up. But then at one rider exchange, Jeremy, the driver of the follow van needed to pull over fast to go to the bathroom and drove straight into a mud bog. I sent the rider on ahead because there weren't any turns in the route for 12 miles, and we all pushed and pushed and pushed again, finally getting the van back on the road. Then we spent the next five minutes cleaning off our shoes and/or cleats. Zooming ahead, we found our active rider, who was kinda freaked out that it took so long for us to catch him. After that, the day never coalesced again for us as racers and we finished that time station with a 12-something mph average. Yuck!

Anyway, that was our worst day, and though we had lots of shifts earlier with 18 mph and 20 mph averages, we just hoped the other squad could have some good pulls to get our team average back up enough to get us to the finish line by Saturday night. They did turn in some good pulls, and we had some better ones too, but not like the first four or five days, darnit.

Late Saturday afternoon, we got the final shift to take us to Annapolis and the guys were stoked. We averaged between the final three time stations anywhere from 15.7 to 17.7 to 20.9 mph. Letting Zin and another fast rider from Indiana, Bill, paceline each other for a final 6-mile pull into the "official race" finish line, we zoomed ahead to find the four riders from the other squad waiting to join our four riders for the final ceremonial ride to the Annapolis bay and the ceremonial finish line a bit after midnight. 7 Days, 7 Hours, 24 Minutes. Here they are:



L to R - Congratulations to Mark, Denny, John, Peter, Bob, Zin, Larry ("Cleeeve!"), and Bill!

Here are a few other memories from the Team Type 2 RAAM "experience":

As we were touring Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (I found it awe-inspiring), our race leader, Kevin, got a call that Bob Chiasson had cut his leg on his pedal and that a race official had sent him to the hospital. He was being transported in the utility van, which also contained Peter's shoes. His cleats were worn down by the abrasiveness of the mud bog we got stuck in, so he gave the shoes to that crew so they could buy new cleats. Bob's trip to the hospital added to the degree of difficulty in getting this done in time for the beginning of our next shift, not to mention the difficulties it put the other squad in with only three riders. But all came together nicely. Bob got his stitches, Peter got his new cleats, and the crew found a YMCA where some of us (namely, me) got their first and only showers of the entire week.

In the panhandle of Oklahoma, we were set up by the side of the road awaiting our rider so we could put in another. As the rider approached, a car passed the follow van and rider and then stopped directly next to our van. An elderly couple. I immediately stuck my head in their window, asking/demanding of them to move forward immediately and I would come and talk to them soon. Fortunately, they did exactly that and the rider switch was made. Then I walked up to talk to them. They said they had seen bicyclists on their road for days and were wondering what what going on. I told them all about RAAM and the distances involved and how we had started from San Diego just three days earlier, and how our team were all type-2 diabetics taking control of their lives and health, and this nice old couple was transfixed and astonished. A good moment.

One of our riders, Larry Cleveland aka Cleve, was not on any medications for his diabetes. He had learned to control the highs and lows with diet, exercise, and careful monitoring. He almost didn't make the team because he was one of two NOT taking the drugs sold by the TT2 pharmaceutical sponsors, Lantus and Apidra. But Andrew and I were very glad he was on our squad. He was a riot! The guy had hilarious one-liners from Oceanside to Annapolis that kept us all entertained. There were moments when everyone in the van was laughing uncontrollably because of some witticism of Larry's. But because he wasn't on The Product, it meant his glucose shifts were sometimes extreme, which made him quite moody at times. That poor guy suffered more than anyone else, emotionally, and was practically to tears many times throughout the week. I had to talk to him one-on-one many times to assure and reassure him that though he might not receive the same support "post-race" from the sponsors as the others, he still had stories to tell based on his unique lessons learned. On his last and final pull of the week, I stuck my head out the window as we passed and yelled, "Cleeeeeeeeeeeeeve!"

This one's for you, buddy. You done good.

9 Comments:

Blogger Kin said...

Great report! Thanks.

6:15 AM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger SiouxGeonz said...

There is editing that can be done to video ;) Yea, doesn't make for instant uploads...

SE of Springfield in Illinois? Just how close to Champaign Urbana were you guys?

My personal thanks for supporting the slightly out of the loop :)

May your cleats be mud-free!

11:56 AM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger SiouxGeonz said...

(oh, not to mention the tyres... I once ... well, actually twice on the same trip ... had to push out of mud in west virginny...)

11:58 AM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger Howard said...

Here's a link to the video... post snippage:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1abm5klvb0I
As for Champaign-Urbana, I haven't a clue how close we came. It's your state. You tell me.

12:48 PM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger Mike Schwab said...

The McDonalds was the Greenville Time Station, IL127 and US40. Effingham was a close as they got, about 100 miles south.

3:04 PM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger GT, Semper Fi! said...

Thanks for the report & the explanation of the different vehicles & crew responsibilities.

3:43 PM, July 05, 2009  
Blogger Baltic Tiger said...

A beautiful report! Well done!

The guys thought they were getting a navigator but what they got was a fantastic crew chief who's also a pretty damn good navigator. I'm proud of you!

10:32 AM, July 13, 2009  
Anonymous chris said...

hey howard sorry to bother you here but i left you a message on bikeforums (badhat) re: your bob cook offer.

3:12 PM, July 16, 2009  
Anonymous Peter said...

Two years later and doing some reflecting. Thanks for the awesome report! I'll be using some of that in my presentations!

8:20 PM, June 13, 2011  

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