This series is going to take a while to go through… There has been so much to process in the time following Race Across America. The enormity of what Joan did, and the part I and the rest of the crew played in it, has not sunk in. And I suspect that it will take many months, or even years before we can truly appreciate the greatness and madness that is RAAM.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.” -Mark Twain (from Innocents Abroad)
When Joan asked me whether I would support her in her quest to finish Race Across America (RAAM) solo, I of course said yes. Her dreams are my dreams, and not just because I am married to her and want few things more than to see her happy.
When I first watched the ABC coverage of RAAM in the mid 1980s, I was inspired such that my sporting goals have always gotten me closer to the ultra-endurance end of sports. I always thought that it would be among the worthiest things to be involved in the race, whether racing or crewing.
What I was getting into was, of course, so much more than what I had anticipated going in. Of course it was lots of work, and there was certainly an emotional roller coaster to far surpass anything that Six Flags could envision putting into one of their parks! There were negative encounters with locals, and encounters which made me wonder if I hadn’t just dreamt what I had seen! There were majestic mountain vistas of such grandeur as to leave you gasping for breath. And there were towns placed seemingly in the middle of a feedlot that left you gasping for breath!
Taking twelve people, most of whom did not know each other before the race, and stuffing them into two minivans and a Sprinter van by all means seems like it should be a recipe for disaster. There were moments where I wondered if someone was going to end up being left on the side of the road.
From the beginning of the race in Oceanside, CA; I knew that everyone on the crew was there to support Joan 100%. We may not have always truly understood what Joan was going through, but everyone was doing their level best to get Joan to the goal of finishing in under 12 days and 21 hours.
Some of the worst moments for the crew turned on a dime to become some of the most cherished memories of the race. RAAM is like an entire lifetime condensed into 12 days: the emotional highs are memories that will be with me for life.
The most stressful part of the race was driving follow behind Joan from just outside of Jefferson City, Missouri to the Mississippi River. It wasn’t that the road was necessarily dangerous; but I got the distinct impression that the people of Missouri were in a greater hurry on that Wednesday afternoon than to get wherever they were going than they rightfully should have been. Somehow, the narrow twisting highways of rural Missouri were more chaotic than the Monday morning commute between Washington, DC and Baltimore, MD the following week.
Driving behind your wife who is riding your bike is stressful enough without drivers trying to dodge in and out of your lane. It’s stressful enough without a meaty middle finger from some corn-fed farm boy being angrily thrust out the window of a car passing on a double yellow line on a blind corner — as if his right to be free of impediment on the road extends to endangering the lives of all other users of the road!
RAAM is so much more than the negatives of course! At the first place where we could legally support Joan, we got to socialize with some of the other crews. It wasn’t just about people we knew. Of course it was good to see Bill and Kathryn (part of Janet Christiansen’s crew); but the part that sticks out most for me from that stop was stopping a guy from a Russian rider’s crew who was about to wander into a rather large patch of poison oak to “water the bushes”. I showed him what poison oak looks like and told him what it does to most people. Despite his broken English, he got the message and thanked me profusely. Hopefully he told the rest of the crew!
Everyone out there on RAAM is out there to get their rider (and all the others) safely across the country. It’s more than a race, it’s almost like a large family traveling across the country – with the craziest ones riding the bike and getting as little sleep as possible while staying awake.
Watching the sun rise on day two of the race was an eye opener of sorts. Knowing how many more of those we were going to see before Annapolis was a bit sobering. The beauty of that sunrise than Joan was riding into on the way towards Parker, Arizona was rather breathtaking.
Into the heat of the day she rode… It was into the mid 90s by the time she pulled in Parker at 8:06 AM local time! After Parker it got hotter and hotter and Joan began to have problems with the heat. Fortunately, Tracey and the other members of the “Crotch Brigade” were able to mitigate those problems enough to keep her in the race. The roads on this part of the course were among the least favorites last year during RAW… There were a lot of truckers in a hurry to get where they were going and not at all expecting to come across cyclists in the middle of the desert. It was again all we could do to keep Joan safe, following her where we could and keeping trucks from bearing down on her like last year when one had to slam on its brakes at the last moment just to avoid hitting her. There was pretty much a rules-be-damned mentality in place if we saw something unsafe coming down the road. How bad were things going to get if it was like this even while the rider was still fully alert?
Being in the “errand van” became a quest for KFC “original” chicken, Arbys curly fries and strawberry shakes from Dairy Queen. It became a running joke to see how long after she saw a sign for one of those three that she would request something from them. Of course, it also became a quest to find decent “real food” for the crew! And coffee, of course! The biggest coffee fail of the trip turned out to be when Dawn and I went into Sedona, Arizona looking for decent coffee. Being a good coffee snob, I check the yelp.com listings for coffee shops and chose the one with the highest ratings. Since it was around 9:00AM on a Thursday, I was very surprised to find the place closed! So we went off to Starbucks and got our ho-hum coffee…
From northern Arizona, I ended up in the Sprinter van heading off into a hotel room in Bluff, Utah. After hours of hearing nothing, I began to try calling the follow and errand vans. Our primary phones weren’t working (apparently, something needed to be updated on the service from Verizon). I was finally able to get ahold of them by calling Isabelle on my own cellphone. Apparently, the follow van had been rear-ended on the Indian reservation a bit past Kayenta, Arizona. I tried to calm Isabelle down as best I could over the phone, and Willy assured me that everyone was okay and that there didn’t appear to be any real damage to anything (as it turned out, one of the wheels on one of the bikes on the rack was damaged beyond repair). But Joan had continued on with errand following her, and Willy and Isabelle stayed behind to deal with the police and getting the other driver’s information. Apparently, on Indian Reservations; the police will often take hours to show up for accidents when there are no injuries involved. As the story goes, this is to allow the driver(s) to “sober up”. It is what it is… I’m just glad that no one was injured and that Joan wasn’t off the bike for long at all (no more than ten minutes or so).
Somewhere along the way in northern Arizona, the assistant crew chief decided that she could not handle the pressure of being the assistant crew chief. The decision was made to make Tracey the assistant since she was proving to be the crewmember that Joan was getting along with the best during the race. Tracey had been brought in as the massage therapist (she also does accupuncture and bike fittings, and all of those skills turned out to be critical in getting Joan across the country!). As the massage therapist, her awake shifts were night and morning: this was to allow her to work on Joan while she was sleeping. When she was switched to assistant crew chief, her sleep schedule was changed to what D’s had been. This meant that she was to be sleeping at night… This of course conflicted with the necessity of having her working on Joan at night. This ended up coming back to bite us when Tracey had gone without sleep for nearly 48 hours.
Going for two days without sleep is never a good thing, especially when you are trying to support someone who is going for 12 days on minimal sleep. The cost of having crew members in a sleep deprived state far outweighs the cost of the rider herself being sleep deprived. It is absolutely critical for the crew members to be as rested as possible during the race. When the inevitable emotional breakdown came, I still had to practically force Tracey into the Sprinter for a good night’s sleep. We all needed to keep rested, but since Joan was demanding so much from Tracey, it became critical for the rest of us to help support her as well. At one point, I made the suggestion that Tracey should be treated as an “extra crew-person”, separate from the schedule that the rest of us were on.
I feel that at times, the attitude of the crew chief was that whatever would keep Joan going was what we were going to do. But I feel that that attitude was a bit shortsighted. If the crew could not get adequate rest, the whole journey would be needlessly put in jeopardy. No one on a crew in RAAM should be pushed to the edge of their sanity. No one should be yelling at other crew members or causing needless emotional stress. I often felt during RAAM that I was the sane one keeping the crew together. But how could I be the sane one? My wife was the one on the bike pushing herself to emotional, physical and spiritual places that the rest of us can never imagine. I watched her lose her mind slowly before it eventually got to be too much for me to witness from the follow van. But somehow I held it together almost to West Virginia.
So many moments stand out… One of the coolest moments came in Camdenton, MO, when we met a young RAAM fan named Lauryn. She lives close to the time station and came out to watch the racers come by. She seemed genuinely enthusiastic about supporting the racers, and Joan was able to encourage her to follow her dreams.
Of course, the interactions with other racers were often pretty special as well. The one that stands out the most is when Joan was staging a sit-down protest on the side of the road. Janet Christiansen happened to come by. Where other racers might have passed by and laughed at the good fortune of passing the competition, Janet stopped and chatted with Joan for a while. She got Joan back on the bike at a crucial juncture. And Joan did end up returning the favor the following day.
La Veta Pass stands out as a magical place from the journey across the country. It was the middle of the three major passes of the Colorado Rockies. The skies were threatening for much of the climb to the summit, but it wasn’t until a few miles before the top that the rain actually did fall. But it was never bad, just enough to wet the road and provide us with one of those moments where the world feels right and it feels like your guardian angels are watching over you.
That’s all for now. There’s so much more to think about before I start writing Part Deux!