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Inside RAAM – Overcoming Fear

by on July 19, 2015

I’m not normally a “fearful person”.  When faced with new situations or challenging tasks, I tend not to get very anxious and instead respond with a lot of thoughtfulness and planning.  There were plenty of people who asked if I was afraid or nervous about RAAM before it began.  My answer was usually, “Not really.”  I thought I knew what to expect.

I didn’t get scared until two days before the start.  That fear was justified.

On Thursday, June 18th, Chip and I rode the first 14 miles of the route to help orient Chip who would be riding the first leg of the race solo.  There is a climb near the end of that stretch that lasts for about 2 miles and is quite the challenge.  We wanted to make sure he knew what to expect.

It was a good day for a ride.  There was a good ocean breeze.  Temperatures were comfortable.  We made quick work of the first 11 miles.  We encountered the “Bike Like a Girl” team from Maryland near the base of the climb.  I can say that I was quite embarassed to have those riders pass me on the uphill segment … even the woman who was lagging far behind.  Before the ride, I knew Chip would out-climb me, so we agreed to meet at the summit.  He went a little further, then turned around and came back about the time I was fully recovered from the effort, having found a nice cool place in the shade.

We started the descent together, and although the road surface was quite rough, a steep 2 mile descent seemed to be quite the reward for the day.

About the time I reached about 40 mph I started to get a little vibration in my handlebars.  At 45 mph there was an oscillation that started and my front wheel was starting to become uncontrollable.  I started looking at the ditch as a place to dump the bike instead of hitting the pavement at this speed.  My speed topped out at nearly 47 mph and the bike was completely out of control.  The oscillation of the front handlebar was nearly pulling the handlebars out of my hands.  I sat back, putting more weight on the rear wheel, clamped my legs across the top tube, relaxed my hands and shoulders, and gradually feathered the brakes until I started slowing, the vibration was dampened, and I could bring the bike to a stop.  My heart rate monitor shows that my heart rate increased by 20 bpm during this descent, or should I say the time bringing the bike back under control.  Chip looked back, asked if I was ok, and I replied, “No”.  It took me a full minute to calm down enough to get back on the bike and ride the rest of the way back to Oceanside.

Now I was scared.  I knew that there were some big descents ahead and I had somehow caused not only a potentially dangerous vibration on a descent, but had also just scared myself silly.  I had been that speed before on the bike.  I had hopes of breaking the 50 mph barrier on this trip.  This was not adding up to the experience I was hoping for and the race had not yet started.  Yes, fear was the emotion.

As I reviewed the events leading to this near tragedy, it was clear that my initial attempts to correct the vibration only made it worse and that my many miles in the saddle and the resulting experience pulled me back out of it.  I continued the affirmations and carefully reviewed the incident many times over the next day or two.

I was still somewhat anxious on day one of RAAM because it was possible that I would be descending the “glass elevator”, a 12 mile 8% descent in western California.  As race day began, it was determined that Chip would be doing the descent and I actually breathed a sigh of relief.  But then, adapting to circumstances as they emerged and some strange transition error, it ended up that I would be the one on the first big descent of the ride.  I gamely said I was ready, and took off.

The “glass elevator” has magnificent views, is a twisty, technical descent with gusty, variable winds and has a reputation of resulting in a crash or two every year.  Here I was hitting this descent with my most recent experience not exactly building confidence.  Still, I let the bike go as much as I could. I quickly determined that I was comfortable and enjoying the ride.  I noted that I could comfortably negotiate the turns at 10 mph faster than the posted speed limit.  I had vehicles in front of me at times that I had to slow down for.  I noted in particular that the “Bike Like a Girl” van was ahead of me at one point and they pulled off the road to allow me to go flying by.  I concentrated on relaxing my body, keeping track of my speed in the turns, and tried to occasionally glance at the amazing scenery of the desert unfolding below me.  I only maxed out at just over 47 mph, but that section restored my confidence on the bike.  No, the follow van couldn’t keep up.  I didn’t complain when I hit the valley floor and was asked if I could take a longer turn while vehicles gassed up.  I kept the speed up as much as possible in the 116° F heat to keep the wind flowing over my body.  Soon enough, I was back in the van in air conditioned comfort and thrilled at the ride.  It was a real accomplishment to have overcome the initial fear and sit back and enjoy the ride (although due to the technical part of the descent, “sit back and enjoy” really means “have every nerve fiber on alert for the constantly changing conditions and adapt quickly and if you feel yourself slowing in the least amount or think you can handle more speed … pedal hard!”).

There were only two other times I remember having fear on the ride.  The first came during a nighttime descent with small undulating rollers.  I was in the headlights of the van as required at night but because of the rollers, there were times when I crested a small hill where it was completely dark on the road ahead of me and I had no idea whether or not there was a pothole ahead.  My bike headlight wasn’t strong enough to pick out such obstacles at 40 mph.  I slowed it down a little in that section.

The other fearful time was in Missouri.  I was riding on the shoulder of a busy highway and I noticed fresh blacktop on the shoulder ahead.  It looked safe enough until I hit it.  The blacktop had not been compacted and was as loose as gravel.  I nearly fell when I hit the loose surface and while trying to stay upright on the bike wrenched my back pulling a muscle.  I tried to ride, but the pain was intense.  I signaled the follow van, stopped, and another rider replaced me.  I got into the van and thought that my ride might be over.  That was the scary part.  I popped an ice pack, laid on it and stretched the muscle.  I gave up my next turn on the bike, still nursing that muscle, and fortunately was able to get back on the bike the following turn.  It never gave me another bit of trouble the rest of the ride … although truth be told, it was a little tight for a couple of weeks.

RAAM is a physically challenging event, and most people who want to talk about it talk most about that physical challenge.  Readers of this blog will note that in addition to the physical challenges, the mental game is just as important.  Here I’ve written about the fear, but later will write about more of the mental challenges of the event.  They are huge!

My next installment however will be more “uplifting”.

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