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.

More good karma

The Big Unit, The Bigger Unit: 200 miles to go

We were in Maryland just for a minute, then we crossed over into Pennsylvania, where we will be for a long while. The next time we cross the Maryland state line, it'll be the Real Deal. The crew is hanging tough, the guys even tougher. This section of the course is very beautiful but very taxing, especially after you've already ridden 2,800 miles.
We have repeatedly documented here how the RAAM gods have been with us on this trip, and how good karma has served us well. Here's another bit: a crack was discovered in Richard's bike frame, but thankfully, he was not on it at the time. This is why the top of the Follow has spare bike frames on it. This could have been a disaster, but fortunately, it was discovered early enough to avert that. Last night, When Jim (one of the cycling enthusiasts on the crew) was racking Richard's bike, he was doing the routine quick inspection - tires, breaks, lights, etc. As he was going through that, his headlamp detected an unusual glistening. Here's what was causing it:


And then there is Charlie's power meter unit, which attaches to the top tube of his bike and measures perceived effort. Along with a heart monitor, it's how Charlie manages to stay so steady; Richard uses a heart monitor only. Charlie's bike was racked on top of the Follow vehicle and after the Follow went through some low-hanging branches, the power meter came loose and dropped off the bike. A little later, at the exchange point, someone noticed that the unit was missing from the bike. (Not the end of the world, but it's an $800 part.)

The piece was located on the top of the Follow, creeping its way to the end, ready to fall off. "We hadn't gone far enough for it to make it all the way, but it was close," Charlie said. "We were lucky."

Yes, we were.

Plus, remember Mark from the Buzzards Bay team, the nice guy who gave us an RV jump back in Arizona? We just saw them again in Pennsylvania – they are a four-man team – and saw that their Follow vehicle has been involved in a crash. The entire driver’s side front has sustained considerable damage. But they are still plugging along. We really have been blessed on this trip, and I am nothing if not profoundly grateful.

Charlie, who still manages to be considerably upbeat at this stage of the game, told me that story while we were waiting for Richard to arrive for an exchange. As we were driving along beautiful Pennsylvania countryside, Charlie mused about whatever came into his mind:

“We’ve got one more brutal climb coming up,” he said. “This course is really, really tough over here.”

“I really appreciate all you guys have done for us. You guys have done a great job.”

“About 200 miles to go. When you start this race, there’s 3,000 miles – three sections of 1,000. Then at some point, you can be happy when you get to under 1,000 miles to go. At this point of the race, we can count the number of pulls we have left each.”

“Thanks for your glasses, I don’t think I even asked, I just grabbed them. Sorry about that, but thanks.” (One night when Richard accidentally sat on Charlie’s glasses and broke them, I was furiously trying to repair them even though Charlie was getting on the bike. He looked into the RV, saw my glasses lying on the counter, grabbed them, put them on and then declared, “These will do.” After I got Charlie’s glasses snapped back into place, we did an exchange on the side of the road. Problem was, I gave Charlie’s back, but didn’t get mine back right away. I was, as they say, navigating blind that night.)

Charlie looks better in my glasses than I do

And finally, when we could see Richard coming into view, he said “Well, back on the bike. Think I’ll take another ride.”

I know I’ve said it many times before, but it bears repeating: I’m thrilled and honored to be along.

Home stretch, Baybee!!!

Hi all - Thanks so much for all the notes of encouragement for the guys. They really need it. Richard is in great pain in his knees, but like the champion he is, he hobbles back out to the bike every time it's his turn. We keep telling him, "Six more times on the bike, Bro. Five more times. Almost home." Charlie, even though he is bleary eyed and dead tired, remains Mr. Consistent. "Just keep taking bike rides," he says.

These guys are champions through and through.

I hopped a ride with the Chase last night and slept like the dead for six hours in a hotel in West Virginia. Essentially, that got me back to zero, and now I'm good to go. Lots to do in this last 200 or so miles. There's a lot of climbing, and the exchanges today will be critical. Everyone, especially the racers, is fatigued, and we just want to take extra care with our exchanges and not make any careless mistakes.

About 240 miles from the finish line, Team Reaching Heights is still riding penalty free. We are quite proud of that. Even with "just" 240 miles to go, it's a brutal 240 miles and will be slow-going. It is a highly inexact science, but we are projected to cross the finish line in Annapolis about 3 a.m.

Our strategy remains to break the 50-59 age group record, and that is very likely to happen. Barring unforeseen circumstances, we will not beat the Hubsters, but we have achieved a major feat there in even staying close and being competitive with them for 3,000 miles. Plus, we made some nice new friends from Slovenia. While we were waiting to make our exchange this morning, the Hubsters came by and we all got out of our vehicles to come to the side of the road and cheer them on.

"Zivijo! Zivijo!" we all yelled, because this is a Slovenian word for "hello" which, literally translated, means "To Life."

Fitting, that.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Crisis? What crisis?

Don't panic. We're fine.

Somebody is out on the roads of Ohio right this second wearing a Team Reaching Heights jersey. I'm not sure which one of our guys it is right now, but that doesn't matter. The point is, no matter what has happened in the last 90 minutes, our guys have not missed a turn of the wheel. We are on the way to Annapolis.

So, ok, here's what happened ...

(I just love telling you guys these stories. Makes me happy.)

This is Friday, we've been on RAAM for six full days. This was just another "normal" day - our guys are taking their shifts, the Chase is in Athens grabbing a few hours before tonight, and the RV was in charge of laundry. (You'll be proud to know that I successfully did five loads of laundry without losing a single sock or headband or glove and I didn't have to accost anybody on the street to do it. I took Lary along as protective support this time, just in case, and he's happy to report that "no further incidents were reported.")

Anyhow, we are heading toward the Follow with clean laundry so we can sub out particular riding shorts for Charlie. All routine so far. At some point along the ride, I began, as they say, "feeling my tired." I told the RV guys I absolutely must retire at this moment. I crawled up on the top bunk and set about relaxing. Actually, I'm kind of punchy, so I was laughing for no reason at stuff that was not even funny. (I suddenly thought "Pepsi" was the funniest word ever invented.)

Within five minutes, I could hear Jim, who was driving the RV, say to Lary, "Is the Follow supposed to be tilted like that? Does it look like that right rear tire might be flat?"

Hmm. Even in my delirium, my ears pricked up a bit. Probably not, I thought. It's cool. Closed my eyes.

Four minutes later - I didn't really look, I just made that part up - the RV was parked and Eileen Hardy from the Follow crew blew in our door. (Eileen is one of those women who always manages to look put together, even while crewing RAAM.) Anyway, she had a headset on and was talking to Charlie, who was on the bike. Richard left the flat-tired Follow and came into the RV.

About 15 seconds before he walked into the RV, it occurred to me that the racers' bed was not made because I had just done laundry. I jumped down from the loft and started putting sheets on the bed. Richard sat on the couch and waited patiently (really, these two guys are the most polite racers out here; we should win the Mr. Congeniality award.) I made the bed and grabbed Richard a drink. Eileen and Jim and Lary pow-wowed in the front of the RV about the section of route that was coming up - remember, Charlie was still out on the course, riding alone as he is allowed to do under daylight rules.

But lots of mistakes are beginning to happen to several teams due to fatigue this late in the race, and we want to be sure that we double-check all of our navigation, because we have not been immune to the errors, either and we don't want any more if we can help it. Charlie would have four or five quick turns coming up on the route, and he'd have to make them on his own. In an emergency, the RV could turn into a direct support vehicle, per RAAM rules, but the six crew members in these two vehicles had collectively decided to use the RV to take the flat to be fixed while the Follow used the donut tire to continue direct support to Charlie until we retuned to them with their repaired tire.

Am I making sense?

The point is, Charlie would have to navigate several turns on his own without someone from the Follow telling him where to go. But we were aware that his mental faculties may have suffered a bit after riding round the clock for six days, so we didn't want to take chances. (It's not like he's slurring his words or anything, but wow, the man must be seriously fatigued.)Quickly, a plan was formulated - Charlie needed fluids and help navigating, so Lary and I each took a bottle of fluid to transfer to Charlie using that jogging beside the racer technique I told you about earlier. And we would do it on two different blocks, so that Lary could direct Charlie the right way on the first turn and then, around the corner, I would be there with another bottle and directions for another turn. Seemed foolproof.

And it was, but not without some adventure. The moment I saw bicycle wheels turning my corner, I turned my back to the rider (re: section 6010.11 of the Team Reaching Heights Crew Manual) and started jogging, holding the bottle by the top just like the manual says.

Then I heard a foreign-accented voice say, "Well, thanks, but I think you're mistaken. I'm a solo." It wasn't Charlie.

So ok, I didn't actually give his Gatorade away, but I tried, and I'm sorry about that, I really am. I'm deeply grateful that the guy didn't just take it and move on. (And I probably would have cheered, "Looking good, Charlie," or somesuch and looked like a real fool.)

So I still have the Gatorade bottle in my hand and I am jogging back to the corner where I will first identify the rider, then start jogging and holding out the bottle. On the way there, a giant dog came bolting out from behind a tree, flying at me, teeth bared. Suddenly, he jerked back violently, all four legs off the ground, thanks to the chain around his neck.

Poor Cujo.

Anyway, Charlie came by and I gave him the bottle and while jogging, told him to turn left, which he did. Later, he would tell, "you guys did that just like you were supposed to, good job. Thanks for helping me out there." (I mean, really, these guys might be the nicest guys on earth, especially in this position.)

The end of the story is this: The Follow crew put on the spare, put the bum tire in the RV and went off in search of Charlie, hoping he was still on-course. The RV crew went off to find a tire shop to get the tire repaired, after which we would deliver it to the Follow so that everything would be fine and dandy. As it turns out, there was a tire repair joint directly on the course and at 3:30 in the afternoon on a Friday, they had nothing better to do than repair our tire right away. By the time Charlie made it to that point of the course on his bike, the RV crew had Richard up and ready for the racer exchange. The guys patted each other on the back and Richard took off. By that time, the tire was repaired and the Follow drove right on in and the tire shop did all the work this time, putting the original tire back on.

Crew member Ken Runyan assists with freeing the spare tire from its hiding place

It's all good. The RAAM Gods are with us.

There is a lot of riding left, though, and our guys will do some serious riding in the next 24 hours. Charlie might be hearing " Bad to the Bone" (his favorite climbing song) more times than he wants to. But Team Reaching Heights will carry on, turning the wheels, mixing up the fluids, navigating the route and reading the blog to the guys on the bike at night. We have a mission and it's in Annapolis.

And even though I have not gotten that restorative REM cycle yet - coming soon, though, after I post this - I have come to see one thing very clearly. It does take a whole team, and a crew can make or break you in a venture like this. Richard and Charlie are riding the miles, but they can't do it without support and they have entrusted us to give it to them. What we're doing, especially in an emergency situation like this, requires flexibility and creative thinking, patience and a sense of humor. Mostly what it takes is the recognition of our common goal.

I'm proud to crew for these two guys. So are Lary, Don, Johanna, Eileen, Jonathan, Ken, John and Jim. We're going to make it to Annapolis, and I will probably cry like a baby when we get there, not just because I'm tired but because we will have accomplished what we set out to do.

And it will have been hard. But so worth it.

As I write, 604 miles to go.

Quick request

Hey Guys -- Thanks so much for supporting our guys so very well here at the blog. They really, really appreciate it. (In case you missed it, see "Special Message from Richard" below in which he speaks directly to you about this.)

We're looking at what is probably our last full overnight. My eyes are welling up at the thought that we are actually going to finish this thing. But the thing is, so many things can happen and there is a long night and day tomorrow of tough climbing in the Appalachian Mountains. It's going to take a lot from the Units, and the Units have given so much already.

I am asking you to make a concerted effort to send notes of encouragement to them because they will be reading and/or being read to tonight as they ride. I will print as many of your comments as possible to transfer to the Follow vehicle during their long pulls tonight.

You have no idea how important your love and support and encouragement are to them (or maybe you do.)

Let's pull them through this!

Home sweet motor home

Breakfast of champions, breakfast of crew

Actually, when it comes right down to it, RVs are not all that comfortable. To be fair to RV afficianados, I will say that my previous RV experience is rather limited and also that my current RV experience comes in an already challenging environment. The thing is, I'd rather just sit in a moving vehicle and ride to wherever I'm going. I guess I'm odd that way, but all this holding on for dear life is starting to get a little irritating. Last night, I opened the refrigerator and a can of Coke dropped on my toe. Doesn't sound like much of an injury, but that hurt. My body now has numerous dings and bruises that I'm not sure were here a week ago.

Please hear, however, that no one is complaining.

There are some circumstances that make this RV experience both unique and especially challenging. Our refrigerator is absolutely stocked with liquids in small bottles or cans - Ensure, Gatorade, bottled water, Coke - and that combined with the neccesity of all of our starts and stops for exchanges makes opening the door a unique opportunity for self-defense. When the vehicle is moving, the situation is, of course, exacerbated.

Our RAAM RV is pretty much divided into two sections - the racers' quarters in the back and the crew space in the front. Richard and Charlie have pretty much exclusive domain over the bedroom, bathroom and shower. Crew, of course, drives, navigates, cooks, cleans and sleeps on the forward couches/beds.

It's difficult enough for Richard, who is 6-8, to even stand up straight in the bedroom - in fact, he can't. When he comes in, he usually sits down on the bed to drink his Ensure or to eat. If he stands, he has to contort himself in odd ways just to drink from a bottle. I don't even want to know how he makes the RV shower work.

Richard's feet don't exactly fit the bed

Charlie, at his size, has no trouble at all fitting into the RV shower. But that doesn't mean he especially likes using it - particularly when the vehicle is moving. After a harrowing experience, he asked the RV staff to wait until he's taken his shower before moving the vechicle. That wouldn 't affect our race results after all, because when Charlie's in the shower, Richard's on the bike. So that's our new rule - the vehicle doesn't move until the racer is in and out of the shower and comfortably getting massage.

"I could just see it, a DNF (did not finish) by my name and the reason listed as being 'RV shower injury,'" Charlie said. "Seemed best to avoid that."

Good call, I say.

I have no inherent prejudice against RVs; I just don't think they're all they're cracked up to be. It's one thing to think of the concept of a rolling living room but it doesn't actually translate to reality all that well. Unless you have everything in the place bungee'd down, you will be picking up stuff off the floors, things that slid around or fell out of the cabinet, anything that wasn't nailed to another surface.

I'm not even going to get into that whole dump station/fill up thing. Let's just leave that alone, shall we?

From here on out, though, the one thing that I will always love about RVs is that they are an essential element in the RAAM process. That right there, in my estimation, is enough to make them very special machines.

So I guess I actually love RVs. Under certain circumstances.

Your questions

Q: What's on the guys' ipods?

A: I won't give you a complete list right this second because, one, I'm not in the Follow van, which is where the music is being broadcast to the guys, and two, that would take way more mental energy than I currently have. But generally speaking, I can tell you this: Richard says he digs listening to Tom Petty when he's on the bike, and I know he's got some Sting on there because Eileen was loading that up for him last time I was on the phone with her.

Among Charlie's faves are George Thorogood's "Bad to the Bone" when he's climbing a mountin, and the Allman Bros' "Whipping Post." His all-time favorite is Tina Turner's "We Don't Need Another Hero," mainly because he agrees with that sentiment and because, as they used to say on American Bandstand, "it's got a good beat." Charlie says the song reminds him not to try to be a "first-day hero" and that it's all about showing up for work every day and getting things done.

Q: What is a day's food list look like? Same every day or do you change it up? How many calories in a day's intake?

A: On the bikes, the racers take in liquid nutrition in the form of Perpetuem, a product of Hammer Nutrition, a RAAM sponsor. Along with Gatorade, there's always a bottle of Perpetuem on the bike. In between rides, the guys eat a variety of things, mostly things from the snack family - salty things like chips and pretzels, candy bars (Richard is a Payday fanatic), bananas, bagels, sometimes oatmeal, sometimes a simple turkey and cheese sandwich (no condiments, because, as Charlie says, this is about calories, not flavor.) Both like a cup of coffee after their "long" sleep.

Incidentally, for that purpose, they purchased the coolest machine: it's a Keurig coffeemaker, into which you insert a little pod-like thing of coffee, make sure there's water in the maker and close the machine. It's idiot-proof, it brews one cup at a time and then you just toss the little pod thing out. No grounds to deal with - it's the best!

Charlie needs about 8,000 or 9,000 calories a day; Richard can blow through 10-12,000. The guys monitor their weight and body fat index carefully and when one of them is down a pound or two, we take steps to get some solid food into them. Charlie tossed back a cheeseburger the other day, even though I don't think he really wanted it. He realized he was down a few pounds and did what was necessary.

Yesterday, he and Richard were both down a few pounds and Crew member Don Magie, a cyclist himself, talked the guys into some pasta. The RV crew used GPS to locate a Pizza Hut and scored some pasta with marinara (no vegetables - too hard to digest.) Both of the guys ate it, loved it and have requested more for tonight. Two family sized orders are already waiting for them in the RV after their night rides. We're delighted to see them eating it with such gusto - obviously they need the calories and long-chain carbs to keep up their strength.

Both guys also drink lots of Ensure. Immediately after he gets off the bike, Richard throws down a bottle of Ensure Plus - takes about 5 seconds, honestly!

Q: What would you have done if (suspected laundry thief) had tried to fight you for those clothes?

A: Are you kidding? Nobody's getting in the way of these guys getting to Annapolis. Besides, she was a scrawny little thing; she was toast.

Q: What does Chase and Follow mean?

A: The Chase and Follow are support vehicles for RAAM riders. Generally speaking, the RV is used to house the racers for their "long" sleeps during the night, for racer shower and bathroom needs and for storage of gear, all those bottles of liquids and food. The Follow is the van that accompanies the racer, riding 30 or so feet behind him. It is equipped with generally the same things as the RV, but in smaller quantities because of limited space. Three crew members are in the Follow - the driver, the navigator and the "third seat," who makes mandatory calls from the time stations to RAAM officials and takes care of the racer's needs. During the day, the racers exchange in and out of the Follow; at night they do it out of the RV. The Chase vehicle is used primarily to shuttle crew back and forth to motels along the route. Usually traveling about 200 miles or so ahead of the racer and other vehicles, the Chase crew gets motel rooms until a designated crew shift time, at which time the now-rested Chase crew becomes the Follow crew. The former Follow crew takes over the hotel rooms for a few hours and then meets back up with the racers later on, after some rest.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Can you hear me NOW?

Midnight in Oklahoma

It has been a very interesting experience, especially through the rural parts of the Midwest, dealing with communications issues. The temporary lapse in blogging isn't the half of it. There are nine crew members in three vehicles, and we are never all in the same place at the same time. So the main way we communicate is cell phone. If we get a signal, it's a roaming one and not very reliable. If we actually make voice contact, we have learned to speak really quickly because we know it will die any second now.

"Exchange, mile 27.4, 5 miles away," Eileen might say from the Follow, which means we'll make a racer exchange at mile 27.4 and that the racer is about five miles away from that spot. Then it's up to the navigator in the RV to help figure out how long it will take the rider to get to that spot based on miles per hour on the bike. MPH on the bike can be figured out by consulting the maps and elevations in the route book. One of our crew members, Don Magie, is particularly good at this, and I have learned so much from him in such a short time. More on him later.

Communications issues might force us to figure out a night's worth of exchanges all at once, which is extremely tricky, considering all the variables. If you're in the RV and you're trying to figure out when and where to meet for the exchange, the racer is not with you - he's with the Follow, so you have to call someone in the Follow to see how Charlie is doing and if he's on approximate schedule. But if you can't get a signal, you try texting. Often that doesn't work and the next day, in another state, you finally receive a text that Don sent last night.

It's a challenge and an adventure, like all the rest of this.

The good news is that we are well ahead of our projected goal of fastest average speed for 50-59ers; last time I checked, we were 12 hours ahead of that pace. We also beat the second mandatory cutoff by 29 hours, and we caught up to the Hubsters again, even though another navigational snafu cost us some time again today. But we're slowly sneaking back up, time station by time station.

Charlie mentioned yesterday that this year has been absolutely blessed where weather is concerned - the desert was unseasonably cool, no serious rain or hail so far in the Midwest. "One of these days, Mother Nature is going to show up," he said, and then reconsidered. "May we'll just get a blessed ride all the way through."
Lots of minor snags have popped up for us, but for RAAM, this is totally normal. And that's one of the things I love about this event - weather, road construction, animals crossing the street, detours, accidents - all of these things could happen at any moment to set behind any racer. And the course is the same but different for every racer - depending on what time you come through any given location, something different might be going on than what was happening a few hours ago when someone else went through. You just have to deal with it, whatever it is. There are usually great people in any town along the way who are interested in hearing about what you're doing and oh, by the way, can they help you with anything? Sometimes RAAM fans have already guessed what you might like: a brownie or some lemonade or to stick your feet in this cool dipping pool? (Really.)

For example, a few of our crew members met two such lovely folks, Bob and Ruth, who run the Bicycle Pedaler bike shop in Witchita, KS. We had to replace the taillight on Charlie's bike, so Johanna and Don and John Welch went off in search. When they found the Bicycle Pedaler, they got the taillight and some other supplies our guys needed. Ruth was delighted
that RAAM team members were in the store, so she hooked us up with some free water bottles and insulated bottles.

Great folks, these. Hi to Bob and Ruth. And thanks again.


All is Well

Many, many connectivity issues across the Heartland. We are fine. The guys are bike studs. The crew's a little cranky, but we're having fun and working for a common goal. We are all super busy because the guys' needs increase as we get further into the race and some physical breakdown strarts. Will post soon. All is well. We are Racing Across America.

It's a race!!
We beat the second mandatory cutoff by more than a full day.
Back soon .

The Hubsters

We have covered Missouri today and we are now heading into Illinois. I have been incredibly frustrated trying to upload video to the blog - it took five hours today and still didn't work! But when I find someplace to do it more quickly, I'll try to get it up because we really have some excellent video.

Our friendly rivalry with the Slovenian E-Hub team has been fun and intense. Getting off course recently cost us a little bit of time, but we knew then that minor mistakes like that are routine and that the deficit would be only a temporary setback. Turns out we were right.

The race is far from over, and we still understand that there's a lot of racing to do. That's why we are sticking to the original plan - both of our racers use heart monitors and/or power meters to measure effort and monitor body systems. They have pre-set thresholds that they don't go beyond. So far, riding their own race has paid huge dividends.

We are still going strong.

The last thing either of our guys wants is to get into a back-and-forth trash talk sort of experience with anybody. Not their style at all. But there is a definite interest on the part of both these teams in competing to the best of their abilities, and having a challenging, if unexpected, opponent stokes those fires.

According to some cycling publications, E-Hub (or the Hubsters as I've taken to calling them) were favored to win the two-man division. Team Reaching Heights was in it to finish and hopefully set a new 50-59 age group record. E-Hub has experience, with one of their racers being a former solo RAAM racer. Team Reaching Heights has two rookie racers who last year were rookie crew members together.

No one saw this kind of battle shaping up. These two teams really are racing one another across America.

The intensity of the rivalry has grown in the past couple of days, and every time we pass the Hubsters, we honk and smile and they wave back. We started yesterday still behind the E-Hubbers, and by the end of his last 3.5-hour pull last night, Richard had passed the Slovenians and was leap-frogging back and forth with their rider. "I rode with him for a few minutes," Richard said, "and he said, 'Man, you're tough.'"

Yeah, ya think?

It's been fun to watch the high-spirited competition develop and grow. It's been even more fun to watch our guys energize themselves with the challenge. They understand that their RAAM goals are independent of beating the E-Hub team and they will not let anything get in the way of that. But it sure is fun to send Richard off on the bike hearing him say, "Man, I'm gonna catch that guy" and then after he does, welcoming him back after his shift with, "You are a freakin' stud on a bike!"

This is fun, really fun, and when Race Across America 2009 is over, no matter who wins this battle we have going on, I will be very proud of all the athletes involved in it. Among the athletes and the crews of these two teams, the spirit of sportsmanship has been genuine. Considering the state of sports these days, this is lovely to see.
Our friends Team E-Hub of Slovenia, "the Hubsters"

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Special message from Richard

When we went through Kansas earlier this week, Richard had a tough time with the severe heat. Really tough. The heat was brutal - it felt like it was about 800 degrees outside, and I was outside once every hour or so and then only long enough to put Richard on a bike and bring Charlie's bike in from the road. These guys were working hard in that heat. No wonder he got overheated. It was difficult to watch him suffering so, because I'm so fond of the big dude. But I was forced to see it because he needed acute attention and we had to give it to him.

He's fine now. We all know that the ups and downs are part of RAAM, and that no matter how you're doing at any given moment, you can always know that this, too, will pass. Richard's experience with the heat proved that to be true. After Richard's brief dance with overheating, he got back on the bike and rode very strong. He came back in and said, "Man, this morning I felt like a donkey, and now I feel like a king."

Then he asked for the video camera. "I have something I want to say," he said.

Thanks, Big Guy.

And thanks to all of you for being on our team, too. Keep those comments to the guys coming. It's very important to them and to the crew as well to know that friends and family are watching us.

Busy, intense night

From just past Pratt, KS ... Charlie just got off the bike after a 4.5-hour pull. He such a gentle-spirited, sweet-natured guy, but I'll tell you what, on a bike, the man's an animal. He's asleep now, hoping to grab a couple of hours. Richard is back out, we're back in daytime rules, and all seems somewhat routine for now. (Understand that things are never quite what we'd generally think of as routine, exactly.)

Last night was somewhat intense. A slight navigational snafu put us back a while, but it also showed us a great display of sportsmanship from our E-Hub friends. The route in Plains, KS is very tricky, there's a sneaky turn in there and in the dark, it eluded us for a second. The RV had successfully navigated it (albeit with some difficulty) and was waiting a few miles down the road to make an exchange with Charlie and the Follow vehicle. We passed the E-Hubbers' RV when we went past the time station, so we knew they were in the neighborhood, too.

We saw a racer and vehicle behind us take a wrong turn, but because it's impossible to make out clearly who is who in the middle of a dark night in Kansas, we weren't sure if it was our Follow. From our exchange point on the side of the road, I made phone contact with our Follow and was trying to establish if they and Charlie were off-course. During that phone conversation, the E-Hub racer and Follow approached us.

As they got closer, an E-Hub crew member rolled down the window of their van and yelled, "Are you 205? Are you 205?" (that's our team number), and they pulled off the road. (Remember that during nighttime hours, the racer cannot move ahead unaccompanied, so this required their racer to actually stop for this conversation.)

"You're off course!" she said, genuinely concerned. "Your Follow went the wrong way!" This confirmed my suspicions, and since I was on the phone with our Follow at the time, I was able to help relay the information that they were indeed off course and that they needed to backtrack, find the correct course and have Charlie start from there. When I hung up, I thanked the E-Hub crew. This is definitely something they did not have to do. They could have driven right on by, secretly delighting that we were off-course. But I think they are enjoying the great race that has shaped up between us as much as we are.

"Hvala lepa," I said, throwing out some of the little Slovenian I know. "Screcno pot." (Thank you very much. Good luck/safe trip.) She looked startled to hear her own language, but her "Oh!" and big smile showed she was clearly delighted. "Prosim," she said, smiling. (You're welcome.)

Their racer got back in the saddle and they drove away. As they did, we could hear her say over the loudspeaker to her racer: "They are really nice people, ne?"

This is what RAAM is all about. Everybody out here understands that, even though there are some intense rivalries happening, we really are all in this together. We are hoping that everyone out here makes it to Annapolis. Personally, I think the E-Hubbers are such great sportsmen (& women) that they want the rivalry to be as fair as possible. Both teams are enjoying the sport of this.

The end result of the night is that the RV crew put Richard and his bike into the RV and we drove back on the course to find Charlie and the Follow. We did, and we put Richard on the bike at the point of the course where Charlie left it, and our race resumed. The Follow crew re-reported our time station information and called race officials to report that we had left the course but had backtracked and re-resumed at that point.

Race officials reported, "all good," and we were back on our way.

This sort of thing (going off course) happens frequently during RAAM, and with the complexity of the course, it's truly a miracle that it doesn't happen more. The bottom line is, it's just a hiccup and we're done with it now. We're still riding our own race, we're still about eight hours ahead of the record we're trying to set, and this morning, just after Pratt, we crossed the halfway point in the race, knowing that despite our little snag, we are slowly gaining on the E-hubbers again.

This is awesome!!

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Miscellaneous Thoughts

1. No matter where you are at this moment, you should stand and salute Richard and Charlie (and for that matter, all the other racers out here.) To be out here with them, to actually see what they're doing on the bike and in between rides, is phenomenal. Like the old Nike ad says, they Just Do It, over and over and over and over. Amazing.

2. Pretty sure I could have taken out the potential laundry thief, if necessary. Glad it wasn't, though.

3. For the first time in the race, we saw daylight with fewer miles to go (1,403) than we have already covered (1614.) We're going to do this thing!

4. An indispensable crew aid - cargo shorts. Very functional at an event like this.

5. No matter how you personally feel about Wal-Mart, those suckers are everywhere. You've gotta give them that.

6. Race officials have informed us that the Kansas Highway Patrol has been out and around and is very active in handing out tickets for race vehicles not pulling far enough off the road during exchanges. We are forewarned, thus forearmed.

7. Thanks for the questions and comments to the racers. At this point in the race, it is so important, and will be more every day until we finish. The guys are tired and the goal is definitely in sight - to know that you guys are cheering them on goes such a long way. Charlie has specifically asked that we print out the blog today - yes, we brought a portable printer for this purpose - so they can have it read to them during the long, hot, nighttime pulls tonight. Your good wishes will be so important and appreciated. Keep them coming!

8. Speaking of the blog, I ask in advance for your forgiveness for typos, etc., which will undoubtedly increase as my fatigue does. I'm not incoherent yet, but by the end of this thing, I could be slurring my words in print. Thanks for understanding.

Holy Smokes! Gigantic Disaster Averted!

Springer Laundry (Note the bars on the window next door)


This really happened ...

Every crew member lives in abject fear of doing something that will cost the team a time penalty (usually handed out in 15 minute increments.) After what nearly happened today, I am convinced that I have some seriously good karma loaded up with the cycling buddha.

Talk about the Mother of all Penalties. This would not be a penalty exactly, but first, before I tell you my tale, let me say again: this really happened.

I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.

The day started normally enough, with the RV crew staying behind in Springer, NM to do racer and crew laundry. I volunteered to do the laundry while Lary got some needed shut-eye in the motor home and Jim actually took advantage of the opportunity to take a little jog around the neighborhood. (Show off.)

Anyhow, I hauled two garbage bags of laundry from the RV across the street to the laundromat. I heaved the bags, which were crammed and literally bursting at the seams, onto the counter. Silly me, I starting looking around for a change machine and those tiny boxes of laundry soap in a vending machine. Apparently, Springer does not know about vending machines yet, so I walked right around the corner (a mere 30 steps away) to the supermarket to get soap and change.

Not even two minutes later, I returned to the laundromat. Minding my own business, just walking down the sidewalk, I noticed that a diminuitive woman was hauling two suspiciously familiar garbage bags herself ... heading OUT of the laundromat. Heading, in fact, straight to her car. The car door was already open - any court in the land would agree this was obviously premeditated.

A quick panicked glance through the front glass confirmed that aforementioned counter was now bare. I raced over to her, screaming, "Yo! Where you going with those clothes?"

She, now looking quite panicked herself, stammered in broken English, "I think are free. Clothes in bag. Free clothes. In bag."

Stupidly, all I could think of to say was, "That's my basket."

"Oh, I sorry. Sorry. I think free."

"NOT free," I said, quite close now to realizing what had almost happened. "SO NOT free."

She gave them back, or more accurately, I took them out of her arms and walked back into the laundromat. Once I got the loads going, I thought, "Oh my God, nobody will ever believe this happened."

My RV mates believed me, though, because, for quite a while, all I could do was mutter repeatedly: "I can't believe that woman tried to steal my clothes."

Charlie's clothes. Richard's clothes. The numerous jerseys and cycling shorts they go through every day. The Team Reaching Heights jersey that I vomited all over the other night.

"Man, that would've sucked a lot," our crew chief said.

Just another day at RAAM. Day Four.

If all goes well, only three-and-a-half to go.

I'm having the time of my life.

Tuesday morning in Taos

Big Unit, Bigger Unit

Charlie just came in off his longest ride of the trip so far, a three-hour pull into Taos, New Mexico. Richard is out now, cruising into Eagle Nest. The guys are, as they say in the cycling community, riding well.

Richard was fairly glassy eyed there for a minute yesterday, but while Charlie was on the bike tonight, Richard actually slept for a good hour and rested well for another. Heading out into his three-hour ride this morning, Richard was relaxed and reported feeling pretty good. “I feel like a guy who has ridden 500 miles on a bike,” he said. “But that’s a pretty good thing.” His aches and pains, he said, were not specific, also a good sign. “All in all, pretty good.”

“Pretty good” also works for Charlie. “Sometimes when I start to feel a little sluggish out there or something, the guys in the Follow crank up the music for me, and that helps a lot in those moments, gets me pumped up. Physically, I’m fine and mentally, I’m fine. We’re riding strong.”

So, let’s see. In summary, we’ve got two racers, both feeling fine, nine crew members who know what to do, 1,000 miles behind us and 2,000 miles in front of us. It’s all good.

It’s so good, in fact, that we beat the mandatory 72-hour cutoff time by 11.5 hours. This allows us to officially stay in the race. Racers who don’t make the mandatory cutoff times - there’s another one at the Mississippi River at approximately 2,000 miles, and then there’s Annapolis – can continue riding but will not be counted as official RAAM finishers.

And we’ve got a couple of guys here who want to wear that official RAAM finisher’s jersey. They don’t just give those things away, you can’t buy them, and only a select few ever earn them. Those suckers are like gold (or I suppose green, for those of you who prefer golf analogies.) Anyway, that’s a fashion show all of us would kill to see - Charlie and Richard wearing that jersey.

We’re on our way.

Approaching Taos, we crossed over Amanga Pass, which, at 10,250 is the highest point on the RAAM course. Our mountain strategy worked very efficiently for us there. In one-hour shifts, Richard began the climb, then Charlie, the better climber of the two, took over and rode to the summit, where we performed a racer exchange so that Richard, the more confident descender, could come down.

An interesting note here: Even though Richard handles himself confidently on 50-mph descents, he was held to 30 mph on this particular one because of the RAAM rules. A note in the official Route Book warns: “The road surface is generally good for the posted four mile 7% downgrade. Bikes faster than posted 30 MPH speed limits at night will force follow vehicles to violate RAAM rules.” (Ital theirs.) RAAM rules state that "racers must obey all traffic laws and ... violation of any traffic laws by racers or crew may result in a penalty."

Seems pretty cut-and-dried. We reminded Richard of that situation, we followed the rules, and we are still penalty free.

Of course we would follow the rules on our own, but we can’t help but be constantly reminded of them because of the RAAM official who is out and around, policing our section of the course. We keep seeing his parked on the side of the road, he inside watching, sometimes with official in tow. Usually, we just give him a friendly wave or a thumbs up and keep on cruising down the road. So far, we’re racing clean, that is, with no time penalties.

Also, if you’re following the race because you’re a cyclist or a RAAM fan (and not just reading this because someone on the crew is your mom or dad or old best friend from high school) you will have noticed that we’ve got an interesting sub-plot shaping up. We have been pretty consistently closing the gap on the E-Hub team, a young strong team from Slovenia. While our racers have been cognizant of riding their own race and chasing the age group record - which
are still comfortably ahead of at this point – the E-Hub team poses an interesting challenge.

Back at the start line three days ago, Richard mused a couple of times, “Wow, those guys are strong. Wouldn’t it be nice to hang with them?”

We’re hanging.

Nothing again the E-Hubbers, but they have dangled the carrot, so to speak, and still riding within themselves, Richard and Charlie have cut what was once a two-hour E-Hub lead to 50 minutes, then to less than half an hour. Might want to keep an eye on that. We’re also still out in front of several of the four-man teams, which logic would dictate should be in front of us now. We all started at the same time from the same place, and with four racers instead of two, they should be fresher, stronger and faster.

The guys are riding impressively. We’re not surprised. At 6-8 and 5-8, they might look like Mutt & Jeff, but these guys are monsters on a bike.

"The Big Unit and the Little Unit," Charlie quipped, when I commented on their size difference. Crew member Eileen challenged him, saying, "No, Charlie, you're a Big Unit," she said.

We collectively decided on "Big Unit and Bigger Unit."

That's appropriate because in that 5-8 body there beats a gigantic heart. Nothing little about Charlie Combs.

Oh and by the way … Richard passed E-Hub at 5:54 local time this morning. As we drove through Red River, he was about two minutes ahead. But after an E-Hub exchange, the stronger of the E-Hub racers caught and passed us again. "Couldn't hold that big guy off," Richard said.

Both of our racers are of the same mind - we don't want to get caught up in a back-and-forth passing game with anybody, because we'd rather not distract from our own strategy of staying steady and strong. But 1,000 miles into the race, passing a team you’d merely hoped to hang with is a huge thrill. Still a long way to go, but this is a great boost for us.

Also, just got word that Slovenian ultra athlete Jure Robic rolled into Time Station 36 this morning and is still on pace to set a new solo men’s record. Mark Pattinson, who finished second to Robic last year (which, in solo RAAM, is pretty much like winning) and for whom Charlie and Richard crewed, says Robic looks tired. I know absolutely nothing about being on my bike for more than say, 30 minutes or so, but I figure you ought to look tired after riding 2,155 miles in roughly six days. But Mark knows what he’s talking about, so we’re trusting him on that.

Best of luck to Robic, and all the solo men. For all Robic has given to the sport and to RAAM, he deserves a new record. Plus, he seems like a pretty good dude. We’re all wishing him the best.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Leaving your comments

Thanks so much for all the nice e-mails about the blog. Many of you out there are e-mailing me because you can't figure out how to post and would like to. (Don't worry, I am getting your e-mailed comments to the guys, but it's not always as efficient as just commenting right here if you wish.)

So here's a quick lesson:

Below each entry is a "posted by" followed by a comments link. (Go ahead, look, I'll wait - it looks like this: Posted by Jeannie Roberts at 11:08 AM 3 comments.) If you want to read or post comments, click on the comments link after the section of the blog you have a comment or question about, such as: "It's Monday in Utah" or "Racer Exchange 101."

After you click on comments, a new window will pop up (make sure your pop-up blocker is off or allows pop-ups from the blog site). The new window will show comments, if any, that have been made in this section. You can read those to see what other people think about that same entry. I find that, often, great minds think alike, so you might find yourself with a new friend. At the end of the existing comments, there is a text box where you can enter your own comment or question. After you've done that, you'll get a word verification box. You must enter the word that is shown on your screen into the box - this is a security measure. If you do not see a word (it usually appears in color) and a box that follows, you probably won't be able to post.

Apparently, here is where some of you are getting confused: You do NOT have to have a Google/Blogger account to leave your comment. If you have one, feel free to use it. (Although, if you have a Google/Blogger account, you have no need to be reading this post.) If you don't wish to sign in, you may select "anonymous" to publish your post but please make sure your list your name in the text box, otherwise we won't know who you are!

Or maybe you don't want us to know who you are. That's ok, too - the guys love the messages and I'd love it if you kept them coming. We're all in this together and there is only one goal - Annapolis, as quickly and safely as possible. Thanks for your help.

It's Monday in Utah

What a beautiful country we have here.

This has been an incredible experience already (and wow, we're not even a third of the way through yet.) I'm sure that I speak on behalf of the entire crew when I say to the guys: "Thank you so much for this opportunity. It's a real honor to help you achieve your dream. And we're having a blast doing it."

It was unfortunate that some of us went through Monument Valley at night when we couldn't see much (in order to be waiting ahead of the racer for an exchange), but it sure was a beautiful morning when light began breaking. The Follow crew got to go through with Charlie when it was already light. Eileen checked in with Charlie just before he entered Monument Valley.

Richard was struggling a bit before he got on the bike earlier this morning, but riding through this area appeared to be somewhat healing for him. I spoke to him just after he got off the bike and he was much more upbeat than when he got on it.

All in all, two-man RAAM is a productive and successful effort so far. Our guys have traveled approximately 813 miles, and they have about 2,204 to go. We are on pace to easily manage the mandatory three-day cutoff to officially stay in the race, so that's no problem. We are still ahead of record pace for our age group, and while that is a team goal as well, the guys are focusing on staying strong and steady, staying healthy and controlling the things they can control. If all that happens, the record will take care of itself.

Onward and upward. It's all good.

Racer exchange 101

The main function of the crew is to keep one rider on the road at all times, and ultimately, to get the racers across the country safely to Annapolis. We have to be very careful how we do it because the RAAM rules are very specific about who can do what, who can touch the racer's bike while he is also touching it, exactly where the racer needs to be in the Follow vehicle's headlights during nighttime xchanges, etc. It's all very intimidating for a rookie crew member, even with the comprehensive crew manual that Charlie provided for us. But once you've done it a few times, it becomes so routine that it looks simple. For example, in the short video below, you will see a typical rolling exchange in which the retiring racer crosses wheels with the beginning racer. During daylight hours, which is what applies here, the beginning racer (in this case Richard) can go on along without the Follow vehicle directly behind him. It will catch up to him shortly - during nighttime hours (8 p.m. - 6 a.m. local time) the racer cannot advance forward without the Follow directly accompanying him immediately.

Here's what a smooth, legal exchange looks like.

It looks simple, which is good. But there's a lot that goes into a seamless racer exchange: In a nighttime exchange, the sleeping racer is awakened about 10-15 minutes before the scheduled exchange will take place. He is given food and/or liquid and suits up ... jersey and jacket, shorts, socks, shoes, gloves, scullcap, helmet, headset. The RV driver, meanwhile, is looking for a suitable place to pull over and make the exchange (again, abiding by numerous RAAM rules, of course.) The navigator makes contact with the Follow, which is with the racing rider, to coordinate the time and place of the exchange. Follow crew relays this information to the racer via radio headset.

Another crew member is preparing water, Gatorade and Perpetuem for the beginning racer's bike, while yet another crew member is taking his bike off the rack on the back of the RV. The bike is prepared with the required headlights and taillights and checked for potential mechanical issues. The idea is that, by the time the retiring racer rides up, the beginning racer is ready to roll once they cross wheels to make it a legal exchange.

The retiring racer gives up his bike, which is stripped of empty fluid bottles, visually inspected for potential mechanical issues and racked on the vehicle. Once inside, he eats and/or drinks, changes out of his wet clothing and into dry, loose cotton clothes and gets down to resting. While he's doing that, the crew starts all over - preparing his fluid bottles, charging light and headset batteries, figuring out where the next exchange will take place, depending on how long this riding segment will last. Daytime exchanges are similar, except that the racer is resting in the Follow and that crew takes care of his needs. Once wheels are crossed, the beginning racer can ride ahead until the Follow catches up. It's a crowded house in the Follow, because the resting racer is laying on the floor, surrounded by food, drink, supplies and crew.

Charlie rests in the Follow

Sometimes a racer wants replacement fluids before his segment is finished. In that case, so that he doesn't have to get off his bike, crew members implement a handoff system in which the racer tosses off his empty bottles and accepts handoffs from crew members jogging alongside him. This sounds simple, but it's tricky. The crew member has to jog forward with his back to the racer and with his eyes in front of him, not on the racer, so that he doesn't fall. He holds the bottle of fluids by the top, and the racer rides alongside to grab it and stash it in the bike's bottle cage; this sytstem repeats with another crew member who is 50 or so yards ahead with another bottle waiting to be handed off.

Here, Jonathan watches for Richard's approach and gets ready to time his jogging for the handoff.

Of course, when the whole exchange is over the crew goes back to pick up the bottles the racer has tossed off.

It's very cool stuff if it's done right - a successful exchange leaves the racer relaxed on his bike and the crew satisfied with another smooth exchange. A RAAM racer could lose time on a botched exchange, and RAAM officials are potentially always watching to make sure things are done correctly.

We're happy to report that Team Reaching Heights is running a perfectly clean race with no time penalties assessed against us. This is one of our team goals, and we're happy to be on target.

Richard's Father's Day

While we were waiting for Charlie to ride in for an early morning exchange, Richard told me how much he missed his daughter, Lily. While we chatted, Richard also spoke of his dad and we decided on the spot to allow Richard to use that few minutes wisely ... to speak directly to some very special people.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Climbing hard

Greetings from Flagstaff, AZ! The guys are riding very well today. Lots of climbing - Yarnell Grade climbs 1,800 feet in seven miles, followed pretty quickly by another 1,100 feet in six miles and then there's the 7,000-foot elevation between Prescott and Cottonwood- Mingus Mountain. Yikes. That's all before they go to 7,000 again just before Flagstaff, which based on averaging more than 128 feet of climbing per miile, is one of the toughest sections of RAAM west of the Mississippi.

You'd think these guys would like a nice rest after all that, huh? But someone's wheels will keep turning all night long, which, of course, is what makes RAAM RAAM. As the back of our T-shirts say, "This ain't no tour." Fortunately, now that we're out of the first night special rules, our racers will likely switch to a longer ride/sleep cycle tonight. Charlie is planning to sleep approximately three or four hours while Richard rides and then they will reverse positions. They hope to keep this 3-or-4-hour nighttime cycle for the remainder of the race.

Tonight, crew member Jonathan Jahant will be front and center doing his thing. He's a massage therapist from San Antonio, brought along not only for his wonderful hands but for all his cycling knowledge and cross-country experience - this is his eighth time across the country on some sort of cycling event. Jon will be part of the RV crew tonight, giving massages when the guys come off the bike. I'm sure the guys are looking forward to the relief of that and a real sleep break - each guy should get a good three hours of sleep, we hope.

Meanwhile, the crew wants to give a shout out to Mark from Team Save Buzzards Bay from Massachusetts for giving the RV a jump when it died - ok, when we let it die after we forgot to turn off the lights when sitting around for a while at Time Station 6. That's not as bone-headed as it sounds ... when the rules dictate that you must cross the country with your headlights on, it's sometimes easy to forget to turn them off.

So thanks, Mark, and best to your team.

RAAM is all about helping others achieve their goals too.

Plans B, C, D and E

Remember all those variables I've been reminding you about, those million of things that could happen on a 3,000 mile, two-racer, three-vehicle, nine-crew, 14-state odyssey? Oh my how they're happening.

Our first 24 hours saw logistical problems, mechanical problems, very little cell phone reception, computer connectivity problems and some seriously wicked motion sickness. And that's just the crew. Woo hoo, we're having some fun now!

Luckily, our racers, Richard and Charlie (the reason we're all out here in the first place) have been able to rise above all that, stay relatively calm and keep getting on and off the bike, over and over. Miraculously, thanks to Crew Chief Jim Karlovec and the experienced crew members among us, we have managed to have a vehicle and a bike there every time the guys needed an exchange. And the rookies among us are gaining valuable experience every minute, so as the guys get more exhausted, hopefully, we'll know more how to take care of them.

Jim Karlovec

The racers were delighted with a favorable tailwind on their first day of riding, and another miracle, the desert heat was about 30-degrees cooler than it was when the solo men came through a couple of days ago. (So instead of riding, say, straight through hell, it was more like getting blown out of the barrel of a giant blow dryer.)

The guys are averaging 18.94 mph through five time stations, which is faster than anticipated and, even though it's still very early, ahead of record pace. They are riding steady and strong, despite all the crew worked through during the first full day.

Our adventures started when we discovered almost right away that our RV had limited electricity. The outlets, for which we have innumerable needs, (just a few of those needs - really, this is just a few - are shown here ...)

did not work. No amount of fiddling with the fuses or GFI helped. In turn, our RV water is on that same system, so that did not work either. No showers for the guys last night. (Seriously, you have no idea how important water and electricity are in an RV, even if you think you do.) The computer wasn't able to connect. Cell phones were rendered useless by the incredibly spotty coverage - can you hear me NOW? - and coordinating nighttime racer exchanges were difficult at best. Before the nighttime exchanges even got rolling good, Jim had to make a major crew change decision when a variety of factors conspired to strike me down with a truly wicked case of motion sickness. (Being a fair and objective scribe, I feel I must reveal all.)

This particular event last night, precipitated by riding sideways in a moving vehicle while reading, was bad for a number of reasons:

1. We could not stop, as our earlier mechanical issues had already put us behind schedule to meeet the racers and we had to make it there before nighttime hours took effect.
2. These back roads in the middle of Nowhere, CA are surely the long and winding kind, and gaining elevation while in a hurry in a motor home on that sort of road just doesn't make for good soup.
3. It's difficult to throw up repeatedly in a garbage can when holding said garbage can while sliding around on the floor of a motor home while ... well, see #2.

Anyway, the point is, as crew chief, Jim had to figure out what to do, pronto. The problem is that I was nowhere near his first priority, because he had to make it to the exchange in time for the guys to keep riding, we had to get there safely but quickly, and the racer's night needs had to be met by someone other than me, because I was clearly unable to even wipe my own face. (I have to say, though, that I'm proud to have taken one for the team by not only trying to hit a moving target while throwing up, but also while gamely managing to clean up vomit from a motor home with no running water (I will forevermore have a horrible association with Clorox Disinfecting Wipes) all while still sliding around the floor dry heaving, holding my trash can and grabbing anything available with my free hand while Jim roared around those curves.

Somewhere in the middle of all that, I think I remembered that I was, um, on vacation.

To make an already too long story somewhat shorter, I'll move on. Jim orchestrated a crew change so that I could clean up a tad in a motel room while he and Lary Stokes (my RV crewmates) worked with Ken Runyan, who moved from the Follow vehicle to take my place. The guys originally in the Chase vehicle (and who thought they might be getting some sleep) got in the Follow instead while the Follow crew and I took the motel beds for a couple of hours before the former Chase crew (now the Follow) came back for some shut-eye. If it all sounds complicated and horribly hard to follow, that's because I've simplified it for you here. It's not simple at all, even when all goes right, as I guess it almost never does at RAAM. That's why people do it - you really never have an idea what might happen on your way across.

Speaking of taking one for the team, Lary hasn't slept in 32 hours and counting at this point. The rest of us have either had a few hours' motel time or at least a short nap in the RV. But Lary, what a dude. He's getting a motel tonight.

That is ... if all goes as planned.

Lary Stokes ... what a guy

Start at Oceanside

Yes, you might have noticed we've had some issues getting to the blog during our first 24 hours here on the course. Sorry. But our connectivity issues seem to be solved for now.

(Remember, marathon, not sprint.)

While I am sitting in the parking lot of a Walmart in Prescott, AZ - this is Time Station 6 - I wanted to share the excitement of the guys' start in Oceanside, CA yesterday. The video shows the ceremonial "parade route" start, which, after 13 miles or so, gives way to the real, timed start. You can see the guys coming around from the staging area, although they were not riding exactly next to each other at this point. Got them both in here, though.

After the police escort, check out the four-man hand cycle team that is attempting to become the first hand-cycle group to successfully complete RAAM. Give them some serious love and respect - the athletes here did. This team got the longest, loudest standing ovation at the RAAM Teams Meeting. Says our Crew Chief Jim Karlovec of this team: "Those guys are definitely studs. And yes, you can quote me on that."

After the hand cyclists, Richard and Charlie come soon, Richard first, then Charlie a second or so behind. They were allowed to ride together on the parade route before one of them - in our case, Richard - started the race.

So they're officially off ... watch this and pretend you were there.

Saturday, June 20, 2009


Our team strategy is sound and reasonable. Rather than start out quickly at a pace that the racers cannot sustain, necessitating a significant decrease in pace later, Charlie and Richard will look to ride at a consistent pace that they believe they can sustain over the course of seven or eight days. So don't be alarmed if you find us (even significantly) behind other two-man teams coming out of Arizona. Our racers are merely conserving energy for the significant climbing involved in Day 2.

Don't forget: RAAM is truly a marathon, not a sprint!

If all goes as planned, the guys will ride approximately 400 miles a day and if that happens, they will set a new age-group record. While setting a new record would be excellent gravy, getting across the country safely is the goal.

That's one of the reasons it's important that friends and family share thoughts and encouragement along the way. One of our guys will be on the bike 24 hours a day until we finish, so you can imagine the physical and mental toll that will begin to take. Crew members will be reading blog comments to the racers as we go. Keep in mind that your inspiring message could go a long way for a racer while climbing a mountain at 3 in the morning. Feel free to ask questions for the racers or the crew if you like; we will be communicating with the racers via two-way radio, so we can ask, they can answer and we'll get it up on the blog.

As another reminder, here's where you can keep up with us, all the way across the country.

RAAM Web site

Team Reaching Heights Web site

Team Reaching Heights Blog

Team Reaching Heights Twitter Site

We're happy to have you along. Our team has come from all over the U.S.and Canada, so it's great to know our supporters are everywhere out there as well.

Patron St. of Travelers

A good luck visit from Charlie's neighbors, the Ebrights - Michelle, Brad, Brandon, Dillon (no word on Lauren's whereabouts) - brought a very nice traveler's wish.

"We brought St. Christopher medals for you guys," Dillon said. Added Brandon, "One for Charlie and one for Richard."

The medals say, "Protect us on our travels, wherever we may roam; keep us safe and guide us, always safely home."

The guys were very touched to be blessed by the Patron St. of Travelers. "I'm going to keep it in my jersey pocket all the way," Charlie said.

Team meeting, Race eve

Our guys - Richard and Charlie

Our first full-team meeting took place in Charlie’s living room in San Diego. On the eve of Race Day, Richard spoke first:

“Tomorrow, 20 years ago to the day, my father and I were standing on top of Mt. McKinley together,” he said. “I remember when we were at base camp and looking up at the summit, it was more massive than anything we’d ever done. We told each other, ‘Just getting this far is huge, a big deal, but now, we have business to take care of.’”

And they did, successfully and safely summitting Denali together.

Richard continued: “And now, I just want to say to all of you, thank you for coming from all over the country, for giving up your vacations to support Charlie and I in this dream of ours. The same thing is true here … just getting here, just qualifying to race RAAM, is huge. But now, it’s business. We didn’t come here just to start. We came here to finish.”

Richard spelled out some simple rules for the crew to keep top of mind.

* Safety first. Always. Our number one goal is to get 11 people across the country safely in under nine days. Period. No heroes. Don’t drive when you’re too tired. Find someone fresher.

* Know where everything is in the vehicles. If a racer asks for blue gloves, he doesn’t want yellow ones. Know where the blue ones are.

* There’s no such thing as a bad question. If you don’t know something, ask.

* Remember, there will be highs and lows. “One day you will be thinking, ‘Wow, this is the coolest thing I’ve ever done,’ and the next you’ll think, ‘Oh my god, what was I thinking?’” he said. “Remember that it will all pass, and it when it's all done, it will be the experience of a lifetime.”

Richard gave way to Charlie by saying, “Two years ago, RAAM was an impossible dream for me. And tomorrow, we’re going to do it. Thank you all.”

Before going over specific rules that we all need to remember, Charlie reminded us again that we are 11 adults living in tight quarters under difficult circumstances for about 8 days. “Apologies ahead of time,” he said. “We might all say and do things that we don’t mean. We will all be tired. But we're here to do something.”

Communication is key, Charlie emphasized - between crew members, between crew and racers, between the team and race headquarters. Always keep an eye on the racer, he added. A bike wheel will always be rolling, round the clock, no matter what.

Finally, he said, “Don’t give up on us, no matter how bad we look. I’ve felt really, really bad on a bike before, puked on the side of the road, and then in a few hours, felt better. We might look terrible, but we might be able to keep going. So don’t give up on us. We think we can do this, but the truth is, we don’t know what will happen. There are so many things that can happen.”

At the end of this meeting, after which we immediately piled into three vehicles to drive to an official RAAM meeting, no one was giving up on anything. We know that in a 3,000-mile race, the variables are innumerable. The possibilities are endless, and we are open to all of them.
It’s Race Day. T-minus five hours.

Well-oiled machine

Our vehicles have passed inspection; our registration books have been approved. Per the official RAAM rules, we have delivered coffee cups from Cleveland and San Diego to RAAM race officials, and we have been approved to race. We’re ready.

It’s absolutely mind-boggling to watch all that goes into the planning and preparation for Race Day. In a brilliant feat of engineering and forethought, Charlie has built and installed a shelving unit for the Follow vehicle – the minivan that will drive directly behind the racer. The van has been stripped of most of the seating and now holds the shelving unit with plastic drawers clearly labeled “Richard’s shorts,” “Charlie’s jerseys,” "Electronics," "Richard's skullcaps," "Medicine," etc.

On the other side of the van, specially built shelving holds water, Ensure, water bottles, salty Pringles and other foods. The shelves fit perfectly, leaving just enough seating room for the the three-person Follow crew and a narrow passageway on the floor where the retiring racer will rest in hour intervals while he is off the bike. One of our crew members, Eileen Hardy, cut a foam mattress into the specific shape to fit the floor of the van and then sewed a specially shaped mattress cover for it.

The RV team took stock of how the specifics of RV travel works. We had to learn about proper dump station procedures, how to make coffee for the awakening racer and how to check for back up generator power. Above all in the RV is conserving water so that it never happens that there isn’t enough available water for racer showers. Crew members can live dirty; racers need the shower. The plan is for RV crew to get into a motel once in a 36-hour period - we'll get our showers then (if we make it into the motel - everything is subject to change.)

A master shopping list was made and Jonathan Jahant, John Welch and Ken Runyan went shopping to ensure that we have everything we might possibly need – Velcro, foam padding, garbage bags, bungee cords, plastic tubing, pop tarts, bagels, fruit, protein bars, gallons and gallons and gallons of water.

The Gatorade and Perpetuem powder (liquid nutrition that the racers drink) was loaded onto the RV. Essential instructions and phone numbers were taped to the dashboards of all three vehicles. Pens, pencils and highlighters were velcroed to the dash as well. A Ziploc bag of quarters is placed in the glove compartments for those areas of the country in which we won’t get cell phone reception and have to call Race HQ at every time station.

Charlie, who is a master of detail and an organizational wizard, has thought of everything. It’s been an incredible experience just watching this team put his master plan into action – every person is adding his or her expertise to the project, but Charlie is given credit for being the mastermind organizer. We are definitely prepared for every contingency; still, there are so many things that can happen. There’s no way to foresee every single possibility. If there was, Charlie would have done it. As it is, he’s come as close as humanly possible.