Long slow journeys across vast distances always seem to evoke romantic Marco Polo’esq notions – or maybe Frodo is a more accurate reflection.
Fighting against the adversity of distance and time; exploring in intricate detail a cross section of an entire continent; meeting people for the first and last time; visiting new places; and learning the peculiarities and personalities of a country that stay with you for a life time.
Words - David Bentley
Spending a week or two driving across the US is one such journey that had from time to time entered my wandering mind as something worth doing at some time in my life. Driving through the desert and across the plains of the US, exploring small mid-western towns and dodging Kansas twisters and Trump supporters seemed like a very satisfying way to spend a few weeks. It was, however, a notion which was destined to little be more than a wisp, a thought, carried off into the vast ether of unexplored dreams by the pressures and priorities of normal everyday life.
But, a message four weeks ago from my friend Luke transformed this breath of an idea into a distinct and material possibility, although not in the guise I ever thought it would come:
LT: “How’s your bike fitness mate? If you’re solid and available for a week in June, let me know”
DB: “Hey mate. Ironman Cairns coming up on 12 June, so bike fitness is solid. What’s on your mind?”
LT: “RAAM from June 18 for 6 days? All paid?”
LT: “Just get there”
DB: “Team? Solo?”
LT: “8 man team. You’d have to be in Oceanside Cali by June 16”
LT: “How will the legs be?”
DB: “I can ditch the IM, so legs will be fine” “Plus means I don’t have to do a 4k swim set tomorrow. I’d do anything to avoid that one!”
And with that and a quick pivot of athletic goals I was committed to riding across America with a bunch of guys I’ve never met (with the exception of Luke). It’s not exactly driving across the US, but if you’re going to do a road trip, may as well do it the slow way and take it all in.
What did I know about RAAM when I committed to doing it?
Well, pretty much nothing. A couple of years ago I had seen some Facebook updates from a friend Stefan Schlegel. I met Stefan when we did Ironman China together back in 2010 and, figuring Ironman wasn’t hard enough, he competed in RAAM in 2014. The difference here is that Stefan did the race solo, which is a whole new world of insanity (no offence Stefan). I remembered that Stefan had a fairly serious crash coming down the Glass Elevator (a famous climb) in Arizona, and took off a lot of skin, but was able to get up, dust himself off and still finished in 10 days and 14 ours, placing 5th in the solo category. Just for context, this is also a guy who did the entire Hawaii Ironman on little more than apple juice as being a coeliac he was unable to have the nutrition provided by the race organisers. That’s one hard as German nails individual. Stefan is competing in the solo race again this year and you can track his progress using the link below. As I write this, he is actually in the lead which is exciting..
So, what do I now know about RAAM?
More than I probably want to!
The race was originally run in 1982 when four individuals raced each other from the Santa Monica Pier in Los Angeles to the Empire State Building in New York.
It was extended to include teams in 1992.
The race is probably best summed up by the scale of the numbers involved. There are plenty of scary stats, but here are the main ones:
- Distance: 4,828km - 30% longer than the Tour de France
- Total climbing: 51,816m – 5.5x Mt Everest
- Highest pass: 3,300m – Wolf Creek Pass, Colorado
- Mens solo record: Christoph Strasser (Austria): 7 days, 15 hours, 56 minutes. Average speed: 26.3km/h(bear in mind this average includes sleep time)
- Womens solo record: Seana Hogan (USA) 9 days, 4 hours, 2 minutes. Average speed: 21.2km/h
- Mens team record: Team Allied Forces (UK and USA): 5 days, 3 hours, 45 minutes. Average speed: 38.4km/h
- Womens team record: Bike Like a Girl (USA): 6 days, 12 hours, 58 minutes. Average speed: 30.6km/h
- Womens 4-person team record: Veloroos (Australia): 6 days, 13 hours: 27 minutes. Average speed: 30.5km/h
Whilst all these records are mind boggling achievements in their own rights, it is this last one that is particularly worthy of note. The Veloroos, who are based in Sydney missed the Women’s overall team record by less than 30 minutes, despite being a four person team (relative to the USA team of 8). I’d highly recommend watching the documentary about their incredible achievement. I only found this after I’d committed to the race, but it was a great source of inspiration. The team demonstrated incredible positivity, resilience, comradery, teamwork and humility and if we can work half as well as a team as they did, we will be in wonderful shape. Chapeau ladies.
Where are we headed?
The race will kick off in Oceanside, California which is just north of San Diego. The solo riders launched their quests on 14 June, providing them with a few days head start on the teams who depart on 18 June.
The route takes us through California and into Arizona, a little bit to the north of Phoenix. From there the course turns north and heads through the desert through some iconic places including Monument Valley, Skull Valley and Montezuma where the temperatures will reach up into the high 40’s in the sun. The race route then passes though the bottom corner of Utah before turning east through Colorado and making its way over the Rocky Mountains. Here we crest the highest point of the race at Wolf Creek Pass (c.3,300m) as well as three other passes above 3,000 metres.
The altitude will become a big factor through this phase. After overcoming the final peak in Colorado it’s a long, straight and very gradual downhill section through Kansas and Missouri before we hit the western edge of the Appalachians in Indiana. By this stage we will have dealt with a number of challenges, including the heat of the desert and the altitude of the Rockies, but I expect that this is where it will start to really get tough. A few days of accumulated fatigue combined with the mountainous terrain means that this will be a really tough part of the race, where we will need to be on our game to keep both the physical and mental elements on track. Then it’s a final push through to the finish line in Annapolis, Maryland, where we will be eternally grateful to see the Atlantic.
So, what’s the plan Stan?
Ted Kennedy our Crew Chief and veteran of several RAAM events as both a racer and crew broke it down for the team in an email.
Our team of eight will break into two teams of four. Each team of four will take a 12 hour shift – one from midday to midnight and one frommidnight through to midday. Each rider will ride a 15-20 minute time trial before handing over to the next rider who will do the same. Hand overs just involve overlapping wheels which can be done on the fly during the day, but must be a stop/start switch at night. In short, this equates to ten 20 minute time trials per day. Rinse and repeat for five days.
This approach is designed so that we be able (hopefully) to be racing at or just below lactate threshold for pretty much the entire journey and occasionally pushing above this point on the climbs. Within this relatively straightforward framework, there are a huge number of tactical and strategic decisions that need to be made along the way to optimise the team’s performance. We will take shorter turns on the climbs and take longer turns on the descents. We will also need to take shorter turns through the desert of Arizona due to the stifling heat and possibly shorter turns through the Rockies depending on how we are coping with the altitude.
No doubt we will also need to constantly reassess and adapt the plan as we go along. As Mike Tyson said “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face”. Sadly, that was the first and possibly the last profound thing Mike ever said.
Who’s who in the zoo?
We will be racing for TeamDMS. DMS stands for Digital Media Solutions, which is a online marketing consultancy based in Florida. Their CEO, Joe Marinucci is one of our riders and a number of our other team members are also DMS employees. Our team website is here: http://thedigitalmediasolutions.com/raam/ which will provide some more details about our team. I’ll give a fuller intro to the team in the next instalment and once I’ve actually met the rest of the guys.
You need some serious help
Yes, that is true. We will be brilliantly supported by a team of highly experienced crew led by Ted Kennedy and Anders Mavis. Our bikes will be given the pro treatment by mechanics Dave Fogarty, Will Golde and Jacob Freese. Bobby Hills, Nick Reiter and Maxx Rivera will be charged with putting us back together again, with both preventative and (hopefully less so) medical treatment. Scott Kennedy will be responsible for getting us to where we need to be and making sure we don’t get lost, which happens a surprising amount.
Other useful details
You can follow the progress of our team (and all the other teams and individuals) at this site.
I will also be aiming to upload a few photos and a brief update from the race each day….after all I’m going to have 10 hours stuck in a van each day travelling at little more than 35km/h.
Before wrapping up this little introduction, I wanted to give a big shout out to Sarah Hammond, who has just finished a challenge which even makes the RAAM look a bit soft – the TransAm bike race.
There was an excellent profile on Sarah on La Velocita which you can read here. Apart from this being a materially longer and harder course, the main difference is that the TransAm is a fully self supported race, which means that she had to carry everything she needs with her...