Team Reaching Heights

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Epilogue: What Can I Say?

Somewhere along the way, not too far in, maybe Flagstaff or so, I began to realize that this Race Across America was not just about Charlie's dream, or Richard's. It was about mine, too, and my crewmates'. Somehow it had morphed from a thought in my mind that I was helping a friend realize a dream to a feeling in my heart that I wanted this dream, too, and badly.

I wanted to do everything possible to come out of this experience being able to say: I was a part of Team Reaching Heights, a team that did remarkable things, broke the record by 14 hours and did it right, riding a clean race and acting with the highest character and sportsmanship. This will last for the rest of my life, and I am damned proud of it.

This last week has been an interesting one. The team spent a couple of days together in Annapolis ... yes, living that rock star life, but also cleaning out the vans, trading photographs and saying our goodbyes. And now, back home in Cleveland, I've spent the last couple of days telling anyone who will listen that we won our age group, we set the record, we rode clean, we had a blast, man we're tired! (I'm pretty sure that some of them are tired, too - of hearing me talk about it, but I figure they can humor me for another minute or two.) I've traded e-mails and phone calls with my crewmates and had front-yard conversations with Richard.

I've laughed and cried and tried to sleep. I've awakened about every hour-and-a-half wondering why the RV isn't moving, who's on the bike, who's in the back and needs to get up and ready to ride. I am not especially bothered by this weird sleep pattern because now it seems so normal, and also, I'm pretty sure it won't last forever. But one thing will - this experience we've all shared is something no one can take away from us. It belongs to Richard and Charlie ... and Eileen and Jonathan and Don and Johanna and Ken and John and Jim and Lary and me.

And you.

I am heartened by the community we created here on the blog, and I say thank you to each one of you who participated by reading and/or commenting. I began to wonder and look forward to what Charlie's mom would say or Richard's sister or Jonathan's dad ... or any number of other people I haven't met but feel like I came to know a little bit along the way.

The blog also enabled me to bring my family and friends along on the adventure of a lifetime. For that, I will always be grateful to Richard for believing that I could do this and to Charlie for going along on faith. Thanks also to my crewmates who tolerated my attempts to stay even-keeled and good-humored, even when those were the last possible landing places for my psyche. Thanks for understanding that I didn't mean everything I said but that I was always sincere in my attempt to bleed every moment out of this shared experience that I could.

I think I succeeded there. I loved many, many moments of RAAM 2009, and I hated a couple, too, but I was present for them all. I had my low pretty early on (first night, in fact) but my highs far outweighed that and will remain in my heart forever.

Thank you to all of you - Team Reaching Heights, friends and family of us all, blog readers and armchair adventurers. We did it, and we did it together.

Here's to us.


Sunday, July 5, 2009

Words from Charlie


Richard and I did not even know about the 8-day, 23-minute record for two-man teams over 50 years of age until nearly two months after we began planning for RAAM. But once we found out about it we began to think that maybe, just maybe, we could beat that record. Although it seemed like it might be possible to break the record, we were also well aware that two-man teams in our age division often DNFd (Did Not Finish) before completing the first 1000 miles of the race.

We developed our own unique racing strategy, which entailed starting at a slower pace than most of the other teams (but focusing on consistency), while keeping our shift times on the bike relatively short. It was a bit of a gamble, as our strategy was contrary to the one used by most of the other two-man teams, but we felt that our unique strategy would offer us the best chance of success.

We may never know whether it was our unique racing strategy, the ability of our racers, the outstanding support from our crew, or just good fortune, but the ultimate results exceeded our expectations. Only 7 days, 10 hours and 36 minutes had passed when we crossed the finish line in Annapolis, which was nearly 14 hours faster than the old record. Will our new record stand for long? Maybe . . . or maybe not. But whatever the future brings, we will always know that Richard and I (along with our crew) were once RAAM record holders.

The Crew

Richard and I have attempted to tell each of our crew members how much we appreciate the sacrifices they have made and how great a part the crew played in making our race a success. However, I always feel that our words are insufficient to express our sincere gratitude for what they have done.

How many people can you think of who would give up nearly two weeks of their lives to help someone else achieve their dreams? Our crew worked in difficult conditions (e.g., tight quarters, very little sleep, long hours) without complaint and with no reward other than the knowledge that they were helping Richard and I achieve our dreams. I was continually amazed by their selflessness.

When we first arrived at the finish line, Richard and I were brought up on stage to receive our finishers' medallions. Now don't get me wrong, it felt really good to receive those medallions, but I just kind of felt like something was missing. And then it became clear, what was missing was our crew. It was the crew who gotten us safely across the country, and it was the crew that had earned a spot on the stage. Once the crew had joined us on the stage, everything seemed to make a bit more sense. We had made it across the country by bike ... we had set a new record ... and we had done it as a team . . . not a two-man team, but an eleven-person team. I will be forever grateful to each of the crew. In case the readers of this Blog do not already know who each of our crew members are, their names are as follows (in alphabetical order):

Johanna Bajc
Eileen Hardy
Jonathan Jahant
Jim Karlovec
Don Magie
Jeannie Roberts
Ken Runyan
Lary Stokes
John Welch


It is tempting to assume that Richard and I began our RAAM journey when we left the starting line in Oceanside on June 20. But in reality, we began our journey nearly a year earlier. Late last June, after crewing with Richard for Mark Pattinson (on his way to a spectacular second place finish) in 2008 solo RAAM, I sent Richard an e-mail. The main purpose of my e-mail was to tell Richard that I would be delighted to crew for him should he ever decide to enter the Race Across the West (the first 1044 miles of the RAAM course). However, I also included the following comment in that email:

If you have any interest in doing a two-man relay team for the entire RAAM, keep me in mind as a possible candidate. We might not make the fastest two-man team, but I think we could finish within the official time limits ... yes, it's an odd idea, but it is interesting to think about nonetheless.

At the time, the idea of doing two-man RAAM with Richard was little more than a pipe dream, but that dream quickly turned into reality when I received a follow-up e-mail from Richard the next morning which included the following comment:

I'd do 2-man RAAM with you anytime. I barely slept last night thinking about it. You are both humble and generous. While no, we probably wouldn't set any records, you are a very strong rider and I'd have to train hard again not to let you down.

That e-mail response was typical Richard. Richard is a strong, powerful, consistent rider and he is definitely the kind of guy you want backing you up. Other riders with his ability might boast about how strong they were, but not Richard. He is humble to a fault. Those two e-mail exchanges set Richard and I on the road to one of the best adventures of our lives.

Richard and I spent the next 11 months planning, organizing and preparing for the race. As time went on I became more and more impressed with Richard as a human being. He approached everything with a positive "can do" attitude, and the closer we got to the start date, the more I began to believe that we might actually be able to pull it off. The journey to the starting line was an adventure in itself, but the real journey was just about to begin.

I have heard more than a few horror stories about RAAM teammates yelling at each other and accusing each other of not pulling their weight. Knowing how strong Richard was, I began the race with more than a little apprehension about whether I would be able to hold up my end of the team. Thankfully, my concerns were unfounded, as Richard is one of the most gracious and complimentary riders I have ever met. At every racer exchange, Richard had a good word to say and he always made me feel confident. It may be a small thing, but when your teammate tells you that "you're looking strong," you start to believe it ... and you ride like you believe it.

I could tell you a hundred stories about Richard, all of them good, but this is probably not the forum for that. How can I sum it up? Richard is a loving husband to his wife Rachel, a loving dad to his daughter Lily, and a great human being. Oh, and did I mention . . . I can not imagine having a better teammate.

Most sincerely,

Friday, July 3, 2009

To Jeannie: from Richard

Hi Jeannie:

I realize that I could speak to and write to you privately, but because your work touched so many lives during our race, I'm hoping that you might not object to a personal message also being a public one.

We spoke openly about RAAM for the first time almost a year ago, remember? It somehow seems like only yesterday. You had said that if I ever raced in RAAM, you'd like to be on the crew. And so there we were in my backyard having a beer last July and I was asking you to accept a crew position. I sensed that you had some concerns about not knowing very much about bicycle maintenance, but I assured you that as long as we secured a couple of good mechanics, being a good crew member didn't have all that much to do with that. I said it had so much more to do with letting go of ego, working well with others who you may not know well at first, and while never getting enough sleep, selflessly doing whatever it takes to help the racers succeed. After I explained all that, thankfully, you still wanted to do it.

During RAAM, you had two big jobs. One was to take care of Charlie and me as we entered the RV for our nighttime sleep breaks. You were incredible at your work. As soon as I entered the RV, you immediately attended to my nutritional needs and your calm, confident manner always put me at ease. You gently woke me in the perfect amount of time to get ready for my next riding shift. I know that you were at times exhausted from lack of sleep, but not only did you never complain, you always kept a smile on your face. Your attitude was contagious. It became clear to me throughout the race that if you were willing to work so hard to help me accomplish my RAAM goals, I somehow owed it to you to go out each and every time and ride to the very best of my ability. From speaking to Charlie, I know he feels exactly the same.

As wonderful as you were at your RV work, your work on this blog leaves me nearly speechless. Several times during the race I heard murmurs from other crew members about how great the blog was. Toward the end of the race I found myself looking forward to getting home and sitting at a computer in a quiet room and reading it, along with all the comments. You touched many, many lives with your incredible talent. Charlie and I had so many family members and friends who were able to experience this race through your amazing efforts. Your work on this blog has been a wonderful gift to all who followed Team Reaching Heights and the blog itself will be something that Charlie and I will treasure for the rest of our lives. I simply don't know how to thank you enough.

No Jeannie, you don't know as much about bike maintenance as some, but you were the perfect RAAM crew member.

With the deepest appreciation and affection,


Monday, June 29, 2009

Rock Stars

Our Heroes

Sorry to be MIA for a whole day, but when you're hanging with rock stars, it's a hectic life.

Ever since we crossed the finish line, it's been crazy. Official RAAM photos and interviews. Hanging with the Hubsters. Sleeping. Team meetings. Sleeping. Cleaning out the vehicles. RAAM awards banquet. And a little sleep.

It was amazing to be at the finish line. The Hubsters, who crossed about an hour and a half before us, were waiting for us and the guys rode in to a rousing Slovenian welcome.

We're happy. Oh my. It's so nice to revel in the accomplishment. We set every single team goal.

We all got across safely.

We smashed the age group record by 14 hours.

We ran a completely penalty free race.

We were very competitive with the younger teams in our division, and we even crossed before some four-man teams.

It's nice to let all this sink in and settle over us. This really is a gigantic acconmplisment and it couldn't have happened to two nicer guys.

At the banquet last night, the guys were recognized for being first in their age group and for setting the age group record. Richard shared a nice moment with Tomaz Percic, one of the E-Hub racers. Using Johanna, who speaks Slovenian, as a translater, the guys had a great conversation and sealed their membership in the mutual admiration society. "I just really, really like that guy," Richard said. "Just a damned nice guy."

So nice, in fact, that when Tomaz suggested the guys switch jerseys, Richard took the shirt off his back and they did it right then and there. These two guys are probably not finished with each other.

And we're not finished with you. Hang in there with me and if you want to keep reading, I'll keep writing. There's so much more to say about this, and it's been a blast to share my thoughts with you for 3,000 miles.

Today, we finished cleaning out the vehicles. Richard and Jim will start the drive back to Cleveland with one of the vans. The crew will be flying out sporadically, and those of us sticking around will do a little sightseeing here in the Annapolis area. Tomorrow, Johanna and I will drive the RV to New York and then head back to Cleveland. It's been a wonderful trip.

And it's not over yet.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Home Sweet Annapolis

Thirty-nine miles from the official finish of the race, we have been declared penalty free. That in itself is an enormous accomplisment. We will set the record because we are 13 hours ahead of pace. Annapolis is just two bikes rides away.

Here's the deal with the finish ... I would like to say that I'd love nothing more than to come post a report and photo from the finish, but the truth is, I will love it more to revel in our accomplishment with our teammates. I can't wait to get sweaty hugs from everybody.

But I will do this: We'll Twitter remotely, so check our Twitter page (the link is over on the right) and let you know we have crossed. We will post photos and video if we have it tomorrow. Charlie's wife Julie will provide those.

After Charlie finishes the officially timed portion of the race, Richard will be allowed to join him to ride a four-mile parade zone to the ceremonial finish line. Crew is allowed to join them in two support vehicles behind. We came across the country that way and we will cross the finish line that way.

I promise to tell you all about it tomorrow. I'm sorry you guys can't all actually be here because you've been with us all the way, and we sincerely thank you for that.

Reiki miracle

Richard just came in from his last pull with a huge smile on his face and said to Charlie, "Wow, this really is fun, isn't it?" He came into the RV and said, "I don't know what happened. The last time I was laying here thinking that I was going to let Charlie down and let the team down, because my legs would just not go. There was nothing there; I was a goner. I was going to ask him for 30-minute pulls and see if he could take up the slack. Now I've got my energy back, and my legs back! I was flying and it felt so good!"

Before he went out on this last pull, I did a lengthy on-the-body Reiki session with Richard, concentrating on his ailing left knee. You don't really have to know anything about Reiki, but I am convinced it has had a lot to do with Richard's resurgence. Here's why: an indicator of how much Reiki energy someone draws is how warm or tingly the healer's hands get during a session. When I was working on Richard, sweat was literally rolling off my hands. So he took in a lot of Reiki.

When he came in this time, he said: "Wow! I'll have some pasta, then some ice, then some more Reiki. This is great!"

He knows we're close to the finish line; we all know it. I have replaced my T-shirt with my Team Reaching Heights jersey, and just putting it on makes me so proud. The guys have worked so hard, and I am so proud of them. My tears are forming already, and I won't give anybody the excuse that I'm tired. These tears are not about being tired; they are about being this intimately involved in watching someone reach a very large goal and achieve a dream. We are still 12 hours ahead of the age group record. In about four hours, it will be ours.

In fact, we're going to be so early at the finish line that, um, the team doesn't have hotel rooms reserved in Annapolis for tonight. Our reservations are for tomorrow. No problem. We'll make the extra effort of driving out of town a few miles to find rooms. What's driving a few extra miles when you've just ridden 3,000 of them on your bike? We'll find rooms. We're all exhausted but I'm not sure any of us will be able to relax enough to sleep.

We will enjoy the next couple of days in Annapolis. We'll rest, enjoy a team dinner and the official RAAM banquet. We have much to celebrate and much, much to be grateful for.

Earlier, we were given a warning by a race official because when the Follow gassed up, they turned the lights off but forgot to turn them back on when leaving the gas station. RAAM rules say the Follow vehicle lights have to be on at all times. Race officials are out and watching and we are more than happy to follow the rules. As it stands now, we will set a new age-group record with a completely clean race. That's an enormous accomplishment. I am so proud of us all.

67 miles and counting ... stay tuned.

Our Crew

So much to do, always more to be done. Much thinking on the fly and more thinking fatigued. A thrill a minute, lots of laughs, some tears. Short tempers, forgiveness a moment later and one common goal. Crewing is working your ass off for no money and not minding that at all. It’s feeling guilty that someone else’s money is paying your expenses because this is one of the best vacations you’ve ever had. It’s taking pride in making something work. Together.

It's nutrition science and bike mechanics. It's math (egads!) and psychology. It's comedy and drama.

I did not sign up for this kind of math!

My crewmates have tolerated my taking photos at inopportune moments. They’ve never complained about what I might say about them in the blog. (Although some of them might not have seen it yet.) We have worked together most of the time, and have managed to work through those times when we had differences of opinion. We’re all exhausted, but we’ve had a blast. I can’t wait to do it again, if ever asked.

Here’s our team:

Top row: Johanna Bajc (Cleveland, OH); Lary Stokes (San Diego, CA); Jim Karlovec (Shaker Hts., OH)

Middle row: Ken Runyan (Boise, ID); Jonathan Jahant (San Antonio, TX); John Welch (Poolesville, MD); Don Magie (Toronto, Canada); Jeannie Roberts (Cleveland Hts., OH)

Right: Eileen Hardy (Phoenix, AZ)

Thanks, guys. All of you. We couldn’t have done it without each other.