Even the most hardcore of athletes have to tip their cap to those who ride solo in the Race Across America, perhaps the world's most brutal endurance event.
The race starts in Oceanside, California and finishes 3,000 miles away in Annapolis, Maryland. Competitors have 12 days to bike across the country, and the clock never stops. The winners typically finish in about 8 days (about 375 miles a day) and get about 8 hours of sleep in that timeframe.
Not familiar with the RAAM? A new book, Hell on Two Wheels, is an excellent inside look at the race, which starts on the Pacific coastline and finishes on the Atlantic coastline.
The book's author, Amy Snyder, left no stone unturned as she spent the 12 days traveling across country alongside the competitors of the 2009 Race Across America. She complemented the thrilling narrative of the race by interviewing the cyclists in the weeks before and months after, and researching physical and psychological ailments that plague ultradistance cyclists.
In short, she sought to answer the question of how—and why—these athletes attempt such a feat, often multiple times.
The book contains excellent storytelling, as the cyclists suffer through the California and Arizona deserts, climb the Rockies, encounter a heat wave in the Great Plains, scale the Appalachian Mountains and finally get to the finish line in Maryland where no more than 100 spectators are waiting.
Along the way, Snyder details injuries that most endurance athletes have never dreamed of, such as Shermer's Neck—where the neck muscles abruptly fail and cyclists can no longer hold their heads up. The condition affected several competitors in the book and forced one participant to quit the race before he could get through Kansas.
She also researches pain tolerance, severe sleep deprivation (which causes many of the cyclists to hallucinate while riding), team chemistry and competitive spirit, all central themes of the draining race.
Admittedly, the Race Across America is not a spectator-friendly sport. The start of the race in Oceanside is sparsely attended and more ceremonial than action-packed. A chunk of the crowd is curious Oceanside beach-goers seeing what's going on across the street at the amphitheater.
But Snyder captures what exactly is so amazing about this race in 224 easy-to-read pages. With the explosion of media, it's getting harder and harder to find an unseen snowflake in sports and share it with the world. But Hell on Two Wheels is an excellent introduction to the Race Across America. The event—and its competitors—certainly deserve it.