Race Across America: world's toughest race?

Danny Chew is a two-time winner of RAAM and finished second this year  Credit: Courtesy of Race Acrosss America
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If racing a bicycle across the country sounds tough, consider the physical and psychological equivalents to RAAM: run 56 Boston Marathons back to back; swim the English Channel 18 times in a row; do approximately 1 million pushups without stopping.

Somehow, the options make riding a bicycle across the country in 12 days seem downright humane.

Preparing for an ultra-marathon ride is more like preparing for an expedition to the top of Mount Everest than it is a bike race, the RAAM organizers say. This is because the RAAM is more like an adventure than it is an athletic contest.

And like an expedition to Everest, RAAM has its share of gory particulars, inevitable to hit most competitors:

  • Hallucinations and severe sensory distortions occur due to lack of sleep; most riders sleep every night, but even that can be fitful. Racers talk about waking up after five minutes, afraid theyve slept too long.

  • Saddle sores are a given. Hours and hours of friction turns into sores, demanding second-skin treatments more familiar to backpackers fighting foot blisters.

  • Carpal tunnel syndrome can develop rapidly, bringing sharp pain and numbness to hands and wrists from gripping the handlebars.

  • Collapsed necks, when a rider cant hold up his head to see forward, also occur frequently. Riders have resorted to using bungee cords attached between the back of the helmet to the back of the shorts to hold their head up.

  • Tired jaws? In RAAM, it's not uncommon to get tired of eating because you have to ingest so many calories. The physical output for RAAM is between 6,000 and 10,000 calories a day, which means that a cyclist will eat enough to feed the average person for more than seven weeks.

    Training

    And then there is the training. Without question the race is likely to be the hardest athletic experience youll ever endure and train for, but RAAM attracts many types, not just professional, long-mile junkies. In fact, the average RAAM racer is often your average person, out to test themselves in the ultra-marathon.

    The Race Across America has been done by professional and amateur, rich and poor alike. Both have succeeded and both have failed, the official Race Across America Web site (www.raceacrossamerica.org) states. Ultimately your performance in the race win, lose, finish or not depends on what you've got inside, and little else.

    Nevertheless, a RAAM contestant cant afford to be a recreational rider. Training can be a challenge, especially if youre not sequestered on a remote desert island with endless paved roads.

    For those who have a full-time job and family (or any social obligations, for that matter), finding time to put in high mileage can be daunting. (RAAM training plans vary, but a typical week involves up to 1,000 miles.)

    Following a carefully scripted schedule makes it possible to do RAAM and work a full-time job, says Pete Penseyres, a RAAM competitor who has been racing bicycles for more than 25 years while simultaneously working full-time as a nuclear engineer.

    As an engineer, I like to break problems down to mathematical terms, Penseyres said. To answer the question, he offered figures to see if it's theoretically possible to train 1,000 miles per week and hold down a full-time job:

    Total number of hours per week: 168
    Less time at work (8 hours/day, 1-hour lunch): 45
    Less sleep (6 hours/day): 42
    Less eating, dressing, showers, etc. (2 hours/day): 14
    Time left for training: 67

    At an average speed of 16.66 mph (six hours per century), Penseyres calculated, 60 hours of training time will be sufficient to cover 1,000 miles. That even leaves seven hours of 'free' time each week!

    Danny Chew, two-time RAAM winner and second overall this year, says training is like being a manic-depressive. In addition to putting in high mileage on the bike, Chew is also an avid stair climber.

    When I exercise, I feel fantastic/euphoric, Chew says, but when I don't, I'm miserable, depressed, and irritable.

    I really appreciate the time, effort, determination, and motivation it takes to keep in shape and stay fit. After all, fitness is one thing that money can't buy. It has to be acquired through exercise and sweat. I admit to being a cycling addict.

    Recovery

    Simple a long time. Two-time RAAM finisher Chris Kostman says six months.

    "Every kind of weather, every kind of terrain, every kind of logistical hassle, and every kind of body pain, makes this the toughest of them all," Kostman said.

    The pace is very intense for the leaders, plus the lack of sleep, the ticking clock, paranoia, and widely varying mood swings make this the ultimate cycling race. Still, I loved 90 percent of it, but twice was once too many!"

    You decide.

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