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Inside RAAM – The Memorable Beauty

Whatever one might say about the physical and mental challenges of a Race Across America, there are some simply amazing and stunning moments that just aren’t the same from a car as they are from a bicycle.  While there were some spectacular sights from the back of the minivan, here are some of my favorite times on a bike during this race.

Every. Single. Sunrise.

Yes, the last morning we didn’t really know when the sun rose because we were in the middle of a heavy rainstorm, and the morning we crossed the Mississippi River, it was dark and overcast and blustery and damp.  But I never tire of watching the sunrise, especially the sunrise from the saddle of a bicycle.

The absolute best sunrise I recall was in Utah, the second morning.  I knew that we were running behind our planned schedule.  Monument Valley, UT should have been traversed completely in the dark if we were anywhere near record pace for the race.  As the sky started to lighten before dawn, we started to witness the rock formations against that very early morning sky.  Yes, for that I stepped out and took a photo before taking my turn riding through that early morning beauty.

MV2 MV1

The photos are very grainy, but very few people get a chance to see these rock formations at this time of day.  Spectacular!

Another memorable early morning, by then location was a blur, was as we followed a river to our right, with a meadow between us and the river.  Deer were out by the dozens and beauty of the golden hour was simply amazing.

Each sunrise brought new promise to the day.  Riding at night is quite enjoyable, but my favorite time of the day is sunrise.  Like I said, I enjoyed them all.

The Darkest Part of the Night

When I talk about crewing for RAAM 4 years ago, I often mention that most of the country looked the same to me … since my shift always included the night.  This year I stopped and gazed at the night sky often.  The moon was in the first quarter as we began the race, so we didn’t have the amazing moonlight I recall from before, but we had very dark skies and I had forgotten how much I like viewing the Milky Way.  In the desert, in Kansas, and even in the Midwest, the light pollution was so minimal as to be able to see the Milky Way clearly.  I would have liked to have been able to sit with the car lights off for an hour or so just to get the full effect.

Some of the Wildlife

I’ll admit, some of the wildlife I was not enamored with.  The biting flies of Kansas and the mosquitoes of the Midwest didn’t make any friends.  We saw way more roadkill than we needed to.  (I didn’t realize that Armadillos had made it as far north as Kansas.)  My favorite were the deer, elk, and the like.  We saw antlers in full velvet.  One particular deer ran across the road in front of us, up a steep bank on the right, then leaped over a fence at the top of the ridge.  Our angle was such that the leaping deer was completely framed by the late evening sky.  Our vehicle nearly collided with a few deer, but our drivers kept a sharp eye out.  I did not encounter any troublesome dogs.  I don’t know about the rest of the team, but I heard no stories this year.

The Vistas During Descents

Starting with the “Glass Elevator” the descents gave me the most opportunities to marvel at the beauty around us.  Not only do the descents mean that there is less “work” being done, but the views are usually quite extended, especially near the highest elevations.  I especially liked the “Glass Elevator” and the descents into the Durango, Colorado area.

And More

Those are highlights, but there certainly is more.  I think of the drought conditions of California with its own monotone beauty.  The sand dunes and blowing sand of the Imperial Sand Dunes is always amazing in the dark.  The snow capped mountains of Colorado can be seen from far off (and a great reminder that we had to cross those).  The streams and rivers often paralleling the road, especially in the mountains generates excitement or peace, depending on the power of the flow of water.  The forests of Missouri were dense.  The fields from eastern Colorado through Ohio took me back to my roots.  Even the towns and their own unique character were pleasant.  Of course, Oldenburg, IN with its street signs in German is unique and so is the terrain around town.

West Virginia and Maryland were simply wet.  We caught especially western Maryland, and southern Pennsylvania in some of the wettest weather of the summer.  Even then, there was beauty.  Forested land in the rain has a very unique aroma.

And we got to see it all at an average of 17.5 mph, meaning that we didn’t dash past it.  We felt the moisture or the dryness.  We smelled the clean air and the decaying roadkill.  We noticed the cool pockets of air and the quick warm spots along the way.  We were immersed in the climate and conditions … and it is a great way to travel.

Inside RAAM – Overcoming Fear

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”.

Inside RAAM – Sleep Deprivation

Most of my expectations about how our RAAM Team would manage our rotations provided the opportunity to get some good sleep, even it it would be only for 2-3 hours at most.  Unfortunately, my expectations were not the same as the schedule that evolved and we implemented.  I believe we chose one of the most inefficient strategies and one that led to significant sleep deprivation issues.  Having said that, I agreed to the plan.

What developed was 15 minutes of riding and 45 minutes off for each of the team members.  We kept this up pretty much around the clock during most of the 7 days.  There were times when we would allow a teammate to skip a cycle or two to get rest, but that was actually quite rare.  It wasn’t because it wasn’t offered.  Each of us wanted to ride and believed that we needed to share the effort equally.  One of the first time I took an extra rotation to let my van partner sleep an extra cycle, I got chewed out by him for making him skip a turn riding.  As a larger team, there were two significant (2-2.5 hour sleeps) scheduled.  One happened in eastern Colorado.  The other happened (or more accurately was supposed to happen) in eastern Ohio/western West Virginia.  Mechanical issues with a bike meant this sleep stop was skipped for our van.

I took advantage of opportunities to sleep as often as I could, but what that meant was 20-30 minute naps.  I was amazed that I could be sleeping one minute, be woken up for my shift on the bike, and be riding at 20 mph in under a minute.  There were many such times along the route.

The one time the longer sleep period failed led to some significant consequences for me.  (My partner in the van got less sleep than I did and suffered similar symptoms for much longer.)

Outside of Grafton, WV my mind got very fuzzy.  I knew that I was riding a bike but my field of vision was very narrow.  It was as if I could only focus on a few key things.  I remember starting part way up a hill and continuing a significant climb for my time in the rotation.  After that, I remember my next rotation on the bike being more climbing.  There was wind.  There was rain.  It was dark.  For all I knew I was above the tree line in Colorado … at least that’s how it felt to me.  The crew expressed concern that I wasn’t thinking correctly, and I remember arguing with them.  There was an incident where my van partner started riding too soon and he was completely confused about what was happening.  I fell out of the van as it started to move, and was nearly run over by the rear wheel.  I got back in the van, and laid down for sleep.

The crew tells me that 30 minutes later they couldn’t wake me up.  They let me sleep.  Sometime later (I think about another 30 minutes) I woke up and sat up in the van.  But at this point, I didn’t know who I was, where I was, what I was doing, and what those other people were doing in a moving vehicle.  I was cold and wet and very confused.  I think I just sat there trying to work all this out.  I don’t recall asking any questions.  I remember seeing the route book and thinking that this must be some bicycle race, but I recall thinking that it was some kind of loop in West Virginia … near Grafton.  I heard people speak about Nancy, but I had no idea who that might have been.  Gradually my brain began to make sense out of what was happening.  It came back slowly.  I was back on the bike again riding before all of it made complete sense to me.  My focus was still very narrow.  I had to be told just about everything to do.  I do recall someone bringing food.  I really wasn’t clear again until I rode through Cumberland.

In the stretch between Cumberland and Hancock I still really wasn’t ready to ride.  I feel bad about that because I didn’t do any of that tough climbing.  I slept some of that stretch.  After that, I was good to go.  I could function appropriately and although I was tired, I could think reasonably clearly.

For me, the serious sleep deprivation issues lasted just a few hours.  For my partner, it was significantly longer.  But this is about my experience, not about his.  I will say that I was able to help orient him several times, mostly by moving in close so that we were face to face and explaining in simple terms what was happening.  I took advantage of his narrow focus.  Taking extra rotations so he could sleep also helped.

Inside RAAM – The Aftermath

RAAM Team Beau, Babe, & Buds crossed the finish line in 7 days, 3 hours, 41 minutes.  We didn’t set a record.  We did win the 4 person mixed gender (60-69 year old) division.  In a series of posts, I intend to take you inside this RAAM team ride, describing as much as possible what it was like and how we responded to challenging circumstances.

This first post describes the week following the race.  It was a week full of surprises.

As prelude, let me simply say that I suffered some dramatic sleep deprivation symptoms during the race, and most of the last 24 hours of the race were completed in chilly 60 degree temperatures in pouring rain.  You will be able to read about those details later.

As fatigued as I was at the end of RAAM, it took a full week for me to return to something like a normal sleep schedule.  For a full seven days, I slept no more than two hours at a time.  At night, I was constantly dreaming about rider exchanges and bicycle racing.  I would wake up when it was “my turn” to ride.  I’d get up, go to the bathroom, and head back to bed for another two hours of sleep.  On day 8 I slept 4 hours and didn’t dream of racing.  On day 9 I slept something like 6-7 hours without waking.  There were no dreams that night either.

The first night back home was the worst.  I think I had become hypodermic during the last day of racing.  In addition to sleeping only a maximum of two hours at a time I had symptoms other than the dreaming that impacted my sleep.  The first was night sweats.  I sweated heavily until the sheets were soaking wet and then became chilled to the point of shivering.  I’d throw a sheet back over me to warm up and start sweating all over again.  There was no middle ground.  In addition, sometimes the shivering seemed to be more like muscles firing uncontrollably so that my whole body shook as if I were locked in a whole body tremor.  I’d describe it like a seizure except that there was no real rigidity of the muscles.  These shaking episodes lasted only a few seconds but would leave me exhausted.  Needless to say, after that first night, naps were in order during the day.  I think I got two.  I did take my temperature the first morning after RAAM and it registered about 1 degree below normal for me.

The second night the night sweats continued, but were not as bad.  The tremors also diminished but were still there occasionally.  By the second morning, I was ready for the dreams to stop, but as I said earlier, they continued for a full week.

By the third night, there were no more night sweats or tremors.  I was still getting up every two hours.  Getting back to sleep usually wasn’t a problem.

On Wednesday (the race finished Saturday evening) I developed a bad cold.  A friend had commented on Tuesday morning that given what I had done to my immune system, he was surprised I wasn’t sick.  I blame him.  The very next morning I was ill.  I had sinus congestion, lung congestion, and simply felt miserable.  I had to sleep for 3-4 days with my head elevated in order to sleep my two hours at a time, and if I got a little too warm, I started coughing hard.  That meant that some of the time I slept in a chair with no blanket or sheet just to stay cool enough to keep from coughing.  Lori and I went away Wednesday evening for a mini vacation, and I was pretty miserable at night the whole time.  To keep from coughing I had to stay cool enough that it was uncomfortable.

When I finally did sleep for a 4 hour stretch on the 8th night, it was wonderful!

I got out on the bicycle for a ride on the Tuesday following the race.  It felt good to be out and ride a 20 mile stretch with friends.  I didn’t take the bike on the mini vacation.  I have found that even though riding the bike feels pretty good, I’m quicker with an excuse to not ride.  I’ve not ridden more days than I’ve ridden in the nearly 3 weeks since RAAM, putting in fewer than 150 miles.  I’ve enjoyed every ride.  It is just getting out the door that seem harder than it used to be.

My ability to focus on a task longer than about 10 minutes was severely compromised the first few days after RAAM.  I fully intended to begin writing about my RAAM experience on day 2 & 3 post RAAM, but I really couldn’t pull together the thoughts or organization needed to begin.  I’m really glad I didn’t go back to work immediately because I simply had trouble focusing on tasks.

I will also admit that 20 days after the race, there is not a day in which I haven’t taken at least a short 15-20 minute nap.

I started by saying that I was surprised by these post race symptoms.  I expected sore muscles, tender tissues, etc.  Even though I rode about 800 miles that week, it seems that since they were in relatively short “bursts”, the physical exertion didn’t reach the level where there would be the residual physical effects I’ve experienced after other long rides.

Thanks for reading.  More later.

RAAM Tuesday Update

Team BB&B has crossed the last major climb of the Rockies and begun to descend towards the Kansas plains.  With 1/3 of the race complete, they lead their 60-69 age group by a wide margin and are giving many younger teams quite a race.  There’s more here on the Tuesday Update at the team blog.

The Monday Update

Team BB&B has passed through Cortez, CO and continues to make great time. See the Monday Update on the team blog here:  https://raambbb.wordpress.com/2015/06/22/monday-update-colorado/

RAAM – Good progress after 18 hours

I posted a short update on the Team BB&B site.  Progress the first night has been good.

https://raambbb.wordpress.com/2015/06/21/quick-update-after-18-hours-of-racing/

RAAM is Getting Close

It is 3 a.m. In California and I am awake.  I console myself with the fact that I had 7 hours asleep and I hope for some nap time later today.

Yesterday was a full day of prep and some riding. We started with an 8 a.m. team meeting and followed that with some 2 plus hours of labels, numbers, and van prep. Chip and I still have to arrange our interior, and will get to that today.

  
Early afternoon the riders got our first ride together,  The four of us rode the trail/parade route (7 miles) then Chip and I continued to the first steep climb.  We caught Bike Like a Girl and hit the climb together.  I’d like to say we demolished the hill, but it was more like we survived it while being schooled by the women. Age really does matter!  The 14% grade was relentless, and each curve brought more.  At the top we rested briefly, then returned.  The descent was fast and very rough. I had to limit the speed because the road was too rough to be safe.  We then rode back to the hotel against the strong sea breeze.  The aero bars helped.

As soon as we arrived, we were off to exchange practice. That put me on another steady climb for the day.  Exchange practice revealed a lot of flaws we need to work out. But my job for the day was over and I got some supper and hit the sack by 8 p.m. Local time.

  
So nearly 30 miles of riding for Thursday and about 1400′ of climbing concentrated in 3 miles. 

This ride will test the physical training, but even more … the mental.  That race is won or lost in my head, and with yesterday’s taste, that’s going to be a constant battle.

RAAM 2015, It’s getting rea…

Hello RevRider fans,

It’s Mike, Earl’s sometime ride partner and the RAAM team media intern.  Final preparations are underway for the start of Race Across America.   I’ve posted a few pictures and notes on how they’re spending these final days on the team’s blog. I hope you’ll follow along.  https://raambbb.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/its-getting-real/

RAAM Travel Day

Today was the travel day to California.  Clint and I were on the same flight from BWI, so I got a ride with him to the airport.  In the security line we bumped into Melissa from “Bike Like a Girl”.  As we chatted, suddenly an alarm went off and lights flashed, and everything came to a halt.  For about 10 minutes this piercing alarm sounded.  When it finally stopped, my ears felt as though they were stuffed with cotton.  More of the Bike Like a Girl team showed up, eventually numbering 5 of the 8 riders.  They were a hit, almost rock stars on the plane, especially to the pre-teen girls.

  
The flight was uneventful and long. The ground was hidden by clouds until Oklahoma.  I saw the Grand Canyon.  I was intimidated by the expansive desert below that seemed to get more desolate as we continued westward.  I’m glad I’m only riding about 1/4 of it.

When we landed, we discovered that our other 3 riders had been delayed by weather in Texas.  We grabbed the shuttle to Oceanside, and arrived at about 1:30 local time, famished.  A late lunch with another crew member and some down time in the room was the plan until Chip, John, and Nancy arrived.  

We ate dinner together (mostly) then a few of us watched the sunset over the Pacific and walked to the starting line/pier. 

  
  
 Thursday the crew will prepare the vans and riders will take an easy ride on the first part of the course.  Beyond that … hydration and rest and nutrition are the key tasks.

See also: https://raambbb.wordpress.com/

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