It's been two weeks since RAW 2019, and I am still sorting it all out in my head. After 16 days of ruminating experiences, the epic moments, disappointments, and lessons are being to organize themselves in my head. RAW (and I imagine one day the RAAM), is an adventure like no other. The race is colossally difficult and epic in proportions--full of extremes and beyond superlatives. It has left me full of complex and ambiguous feelings. I felt incredibly empowered, rolling across vast distances in the darkness, guided by the lights of my support vehicle and following the white line and flashing amber lights of other racers ahead. I rode through the night and had blissful descent down the moonlit Palo Verde Valley into Blythe CA. I ate the best ice cream cone ever sitting under a scrawny tree in Parker AZ. l felt totally defeated in the searing 115 degree desert heat like a withered houseplant someone forgot to water. Riding 341 miles across the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts, more or less non-stop, most of it in 100+ degree heat feels like a grand accomplishment and a disappointing defeat at the same time.
Experience was gained and lessons learned both about the challenge of RAW and about myself. I am impressed and humbled by the other athletes, those that finished, and those that did not. I am in awe of the dedicated crew members that followed their riders, watching over them, lighting their way, motivating them when they were down, and taking them home. I feel compelled to return to Oceanside in 2020.
Pre-Race in Oceanside
An ITT Start Like No Other
The start was a bit chaotic, between all the support vehicles filtering in, riders getting ready and milling about, and some uncertainty in the exact start times. There is barely space in Betty's lot for all the primary follow vehicles. When we were called up for the National Anthem, many riders were left to scramble with last minute preparations. After the live operatic rendition of the Anthem, we hung out in the beach side parking lot, chatting with other racers and waiting for our turn to ride down The Strand. I could tell when I would start was monitoring the slow approach of Cathy and Jack in FOLLOW--our primary support vehicle, to the front of the line.
What really seemed to set this year's RAW apart was the heat in the Coastal Range, before we even got to the desert. Excessive heat warnings were being issued the day before, and they seemed to be following us inland. Down on the Oceanside Pier at 12:30 when I started, it was a cool 68 degrees, but only 30 miles in at Valley Center before descending Hellhole Canyon, it was already 104 F! We were not even to the desert yet, that was still three hours away. The six mile/6% climb up out of Rincon towards Ranchita was well over 100 F despite the increase in altitude, and the gentle tailwind on the climb made it feel rather stifling. I was finishing the final miles into Ranchita thinking I had made it to the top without cramping when the first of the cramps set in. Cathy and Jack were just about the pass me in FOLLOW and set up for our final planned feed before the famous Glass Elevator descent. I reached them on the headset with the rather dire news and let them know I needed immediate support. I was not even sure I could make the last 30 yards to a safe pull out. A short break got me rolling again, past the the giant Rancheti, over the top, and down through the boulder field leading to the Glass Elevator.
Down the Elevator into the Furnace
By the time I reached Borrego, it was 112 F, which felt sort of cool compared to the tailwind climb into Ranchita. Paul and Adam were already there in SHADOW (our second support vehicle), parked on the giant rotary called Christmas Tree Circle just past Time Station 1. The Circle was a memorable scene, full of racer support vehicles parked all the way around the Circle. The local police were providing support and helping with traffic. Most of the top RAAM racers passed through without stopping. I quickly put on the cooling vest, with gel inserts not especially cold in from the cooler, and set out across the desert. We would have about 40 more minutes before 7 pm, and the required start of direct follow. We had to insure that at least one of our vehicles caught back up with me and was ready to fall in behind and follow me through the night.
One of the lessons from RAW 2019 would be the supplemental cooling strategy--the cooling vest was not especially effective. The inserts were not cold enough in just a salt-water cooler, and the front inserts hang off the front and don't make contact with your skin. Improvised approaches including ice in panty hose, compression style sports bras, mummy like body wrappings, and copious amounts of ice were the choice of most of the riders. As we would discover in Parker, we needed a better approach here.
Through the Night
When we left Brawley, Adam and Paul drove ahead in SHADOW to the Imperial Dunes Overlook and Adam took the spectacular pictures you see above. Adam is a world-class astrophotographer and he was testing exposures and techniques for what we hoped would be the midnight crossing of Monument Valley later in the race. Unfortunately we did not get that far, but the nighttime Imperial Dunes photographs are awesome. The time exposure streak is authentic--that's really me and FOLLOW making our way across the dunes.
Under the Shade of a Scrawny Tree
The crews at RAW and RAAM deserve the greatest thanks. They support us for days on end, feeding us, watering us, taking care of every need we can imagine. Without my crew chief Cathy, my son Jack, and my close friends Adam Block, Paul Rasmussen and Maria Crawford, none of this would have been possible. I'm also thankful to my sponsors, Edge Integrative Wellness, Ray Rede at US Cryotherapy Tucson, Light and Motion, Honey Stinger, and Voler. The support from Sol Dog Lodge and Arizona Greyhound Rescue is also deeply appreciated, and I hope I helped bring them more awareness of their great work rescuing greyhounds and placing service dogs with those who need them.
RAW 2019 was an experience beyond anything I expected. I thought it would be epically difficult... and I can honestly say I underestimated it. Superlatives from the thesaurus do not adequately describe the challenge. The distances are vast. The environmental conditions are intense. The emotions are extreme. To describe it in terms of days, miles, states and time zones crossed, feet of climbing, or high temperatures just leaves intangible metrics. What I do know is that for two days, we were so totally alive, challenging nature, discovering our limits, and learning how to push farther and do better next time. We were part of a rolling community of racers and crew embracing a common challenge with a shared passion for sport and for life. When I think back to what we did in June of 2019, there will be stories to tell and memories to cherish. It was awesome.
"Bike racing is art. Art is driven by passion, by emotions, by unknown thoughts," Chris Carmichael.
My interest in ultracycling dates back when I first started seriously riding a bike in college in the early 1980s. This is my RAAM story preparing to compete in the Race Across the West in 2020 and RAAM 2021.